August 21, 2012 § 1 Comment
For the past three semesters, I have been fortunate enough to teach Composition II online. If you are wondering how that works, join the club–I’m the president and founder. Over a year ago, I shook my head at the idea–how in the world can anyone teach someone to write college-level essays online?
Well, I have learned and adapted, and I am proud to say that some of my students have actually learned something.
And some of them haven’t.
Teaching online presents itself with some unique issues…but really, they aren’t that unusual.
Issue #1: student expectations versus reality
Many, but not all, of my online students seem to expect that if they take a composition course online, then the class will be easier than if it were in the classroom. I guess they reason, “well, how exactly are you supposed to learn how to write an essay over the computer?” In one of my final assignments of the semester, I ask students to write a self-evaluation of their experience in the course. And inevitably I read astonishment in those assignments: “I had no idea it would be this hard,” “I’m from another major university and thought I would take this class at this college online because it would be easier…and I was wrong,” “I really had to change my priorities and focus on this class.”
Issue #2: methods of communication
As with most major colleges and universities these days, e-mail is the official form of communication. This is particularly true for online classes. How else are we expected to reach one another? This past summer, I had a student who, for several weeks, claimed he had never received a response to his e-mails…it turned out that he had forgotten how to log in to the e-mail system. I am not sure how he managed to send the e-mails (perhaps through a different system?), but at any rate, he never did read my responses. Until he e-mailed me two weeks before the drop deadline from a different e-mail address. To his shock, he was failing the class. He was shocked because he had not received any of his graded papers from me. He was failing because he never incorporated my comments or took my advice to improve upon his argument…and he never did those things because he never saw them. I now have a handout on my course website that explains what to do in the event that a student can’t access his or her school e-mail account.
Issue #3: methods of educating
Handouts. And PowerPoint presentations. But mostly handouts. I write handouts for everything. And when I figure some images will be useful, I play with Photoshop and insert images into my handouts. (For instance, I am trying a new-to-me method of uploading essays through a plagiarism-scanning software. I took screen shots of the process for my students so that they cannot tell me that they do not know how to do it.) In addition to handouts and PowerPoint presentations, I e-mail my students once a week with lengthy announcements. They have writing assignments due every single week (either so-called Checkpoint activities or research essays); this is my way of taking attendance as well as keeping track of their development as a writer. The weekly assignments are not random–they are specifically designed either to help them reflect on their reading homework for the week, or to prepare them for the next research paper that is due. In many cases, the Checkpoint actually serves as either a brainstorming exercise or even as a drafting exercise. Finally, when I read their research papers, I write comments throughout. This is the only way I can reach out to a specific student and address his or her specific issues–unless that student seeks me out and e-mails me, of course. I can only hope that my students read my comments and apply them to the next assignment.
Issue #4: teacher expectations versus reality
The ideal online student would log-in to the course webpage on the first day of class and print off every document that is loaded there. That student would read every word, e-mail me frequently, and pay special attention to my comments. The ideal student would be so motivated that s/he would be able to complete assignments without any trouble at all, realizing that my course is not going to be “easy” simply by virtue of it taking place in an online format. The reality often demonstrates the dichotomous pair to my idealized student. In reality, I have students who don’t even see the link to my handouts that I have worked so diligently to create, in spite of my instructions for them to refer to those handouts. In reality, I have students who don’t really care that this class has the exact same standards as the on-campus class (by state requirement). In reality, I have students who couldn’t be bothered even to write a full e-mail to me when they need to reach me (it is shockingly common for students to compose e-mails without subject lines, without a greeting, and without a signature–like a text message).
But I press on anyway because teaching is teaching is teaching. And my responsibility is to provide the information in order for them to attempt to learn it, just like in the classroom.
When I first started my online teaching experience, I was grateful for the opportunity to teach for my college while also staying at home with my newborn. Now, I am grateful for the experience because it has led me to understand one truism: no teacher can control how much or how little a student learns. It is a waste of my time worrying day and night over a student who doesn’t seem to pay attention in class, or who willfully ignores my lessons. I didn’t use to believe this–I used to think I could educate anyone. I have learned through my online courses that the only thing I can really control is the material I present to them. It is up to my students to read it and to ask questions when they are confused.
This realization is both liberating and terrifying. Who wants to admit that she has no control over the outcome of her career’s goals?
But I suppose that’s the beauty in goals. They are just the elements we aim for. Goals are not promises.
September 28, 2011 § 7 Comments
After a few months off from teaching, it is time to re-open “From the Other Side of the Desk.” So far, this semester has been fairly routine and uneventful, which isn’t saying much considering school only started a month ago.
Until Monday morning.
I made my glorious return to this classroom after a week of wallowing in strep-throated misery. Despite my lingering cough and painful throat after speaking for longer than three minute stretches, I determined that it was my turn to teach my own class. Robert needed relief after substituting for me.
Having no expectations upon my return, I entered the classroom just generally happy to see that my students were chattering away. Of course, they were disappointed to see me. (You get used to that sort of response when you’re a teacher. Students are always hoping to find that class has been canceled forever. The presence of a teacher is cause for disillusioned depression. Apparently.) I smiled anyway, ignoring their groans and whines, making a point to lay it on thick just how much better I felt, thanks so much for asking.
Halfway through an admittedly boring lecture where we revisited the Writing Process, I noticed two students in the back stage right corner were sleeping away. I asked their classmates directly in front of them to poke them. One of them raised his head with a start and announced a little too loudly, “I wasn’t sleeping!” I smiled and said, “That may be, but I want to see your pretty face.” He proceeded to scowl his way through the remaining thirty minutes of class. All the way through the Effect/Affect lesson, through the grammar quiz, and finally through the assignment of their second essay (due one week from today–I’m not a fan of our deadlines, but it’s the way it works here). It wasn’t until the end of the grammar quiz that this specific sour-puss student affected my mood (and would, actually, have an effect on my mood for the following 48 hours). When it was near time for the quiz to wrap up, I announced, “Go ahead and take a couple more minutes to finish where you are.” Most of my students were staring at me in utter boredom, willing me to end class early because they had finished their quizzes early. I smiled and ignored them.
A few minutes later, I called time and told the students to make sure their names were on the top, and to pass the quizzes forward. Standard procedure. This is not our first quiz. This is not our first in-class assignment. This is fairly normal. I walked to the corner of the room where Pupil Scowlington was still writing feverishly. I told him to put his pen down and turn in the quiz.
“I didn’t know it was timed!” he protested.
I smiled in that way my mom used to smile when I would claim that my hand hit my sister, not me. It was a humorless smile. Meant to humiliate, mock, and ridicule. I’ve gotten pretty good at it. “Student,” I said, “of course the quiz was timed. We have a finite amount of time to be here. And we have more ground to cover before the end of class. Hand it forward now.”
He begrudgingly complied.
As I walked away to collect the rest of the essays, he huffed after me, “Next time, you need to tell us if a quiz is going to be timed.”
With my back to him and my humorless smile plastered on my face, I replied, “I appreciate your attitude. However, it is entirely inappropriate.” And that was that.
Except, my heart rate and blood pressure didn’t believe “that was that.” For the remainder of the class (the last ten or so minutes), as I assigned the second essay, I could feel myself shaking. I hid my hands behind my podium. As I recited what was already printed off on the handout, thousands of retorts that I wished I could have said galloped through my mind. Some of them were less kind and less patient than the one I said aloud.
I awoke this morning, two days later, angry, frustrated, and dreading this class. We’ll be discussing the subject of plagiarism in an hour, and I frankly have no interest in speaking to these people today. (Oh, just because I’m zeroing in on one student, do not believe that the rest of my class is innocent–he may have been the spokesman, but the rest of them agreed and made sounds to that point. They had also already said plenty in regards to when they should expect their first paper grades.) A part of me hopes this outspoken student has the gall to say something else to me today. I would love to dress him down and make sure he understands the inappropriateness of the way he expressed his opinions. I’m practically itching to be able to say the words, “Student, you will stay after class today so that we can have a little chat.”
Here’s the issue, friends.
1. My classroom is run as a benevolent dictatorship, not as a democracy.
Know who gets to determine how things are run? Me. Know who determines how long quizzes will take? Me. Know who decides whether or not to turn in papers by a particular deadline? That’s right. ME. I take into consideration very little about what my students think a composition class should look like. They have no idea what a college-level composition class is; I have been teaching this class since 2004. I’d say I’m an expert compared to them. If I left it up to them, we’d stare at each other for 75 minutes. Composition would see nary a word scribbled onto a scrap of paper. And how do I know this for certain? From experience. In my first couple of years teaching, I tried to run my class like a democracy, weighing their opinions equally with mine. It was a disaster and left me even less respected than I am now.
2. Students are entitled to nothing more than a desk and chair in my classroom.
Because colleges and universities are businesses first and institutions of learning second, students take it upon themselves to wear the mantle of Customer. They believe they are paying for a service, like paying the city for weekly waste pick-up. If my garbage collectors fail to take my garbage one week, I am entitled to some anger and indignation, not to mention some sort of restitution (preferably in the form of sending the truck back out). However, I am not in the service industry. I am not a waitress. Or a sales associate. Or a trash collector. I am a professional. In lieu of a teaching certificate, I have two degrees and will soon have a third. In any other profession, this alone should demand some respect. It seems, to my experience anyway, that the number of degrees, the number of years of expertise, have very little to do with how a student will respect or disrespect a teacher. Respect for the average student hinges almost entirely on evaluation, which brings me to the next point.
3. Grades are not to be the determining factor when respecting a teacher.
So much is tied to those ridiculous evaluative techniques that are drilled into us through years of teacher training. I personally despise the process of grading because of the visceral response I have while doing it. I have had so many aggressive confrontations in the past seven years that the very thought of grading causes my stomach to clench up, my blood pressure to rise. Despite the number of times I remind my students that grades are not up for negotiation, they still feel entitled to try to argue for that A. Because they paid for it. (See point 2.) I am not exaggerating. Each semester, I have no fewer than two students who will make the point that they have paid an exorbitant tuition (I agree with them on this point) and therefore should get an A. The students who rightfully earn A’s tend to be much more respectful toward me, while those who earn grades they don’t like are disrespectful and moody.
I don’t know what the cause of this resolute disrespect and entitlement is–college professors are fond of blaming our secondary-education peers who are fond of blaming parents and arbitrary standards set by ridiculous laws. But I have spoken to a number of high school teachers and parents, and I do not get the clear impression that either sect is responsible. I have heard from both sides that they do not tolerate disrespect, that they take an active role in the education of their students, that their students are taught to accept the grade they earned (because grades are never given, my friends). Because I have trouble locating the source of my students’ disrespect, I am left examining the common denominator in every confrontation.
What have I done as an educator to indicate that I should not be taken seriously?
What is wrong with my teaching methods that my students would not accept their grades willingly?
What is wrong with my classroom management that my students believe they have a say in how things are run?
Where did I go wrong?
I’ll tell you, friends, that I do not have the answer to a single one of those questions.
April 13, 2011 § 16 Comments
Probably the single best part about the actual instruction involved with teaching is the motivation, the encouragement. I love it. I thrive on it. It happens all too infrequently.
Yesterday was a great teaching day. Class clicked along swimmingly (although discussion was a bit one-sided for my tastes), I had a few opportunities to demonstrate my generous benevolence, and I met with a few students in my office a full gasp! nine days before the paper is due! (That’s not meant to be read as sarcasm…I am truly astonished and thrilled.)
This paper that my students are writing is an experiment. All semester, I have asked them to consider the theme of “Identity” throughout these World Literature II texts. Generally speaking, I believe we’ve done a stand-up job. This final paper condenses a semester’s worth of lectures and thoughts into a single moment, a single exploration of the Self. I have assigned my students the weighty and nigh-on impossible task of crafting their own identities. They will interact with the literature, though, analyzing the authors’ approach to identity-making and mimicking as best they can the approaches that work best for them. I expect some creativity. I want some sparkle. This could be the last paper I read for quite some time (and at least until August–since I won’t teach this summer), so why not go out on an experimental high note? So far, I believe they are enjoying the journey. Many of them are relieved to find out that I’m fairly loosey-goosey on this particular assignment…unlike the first one which was very rules-y. (We must all learn to write in specific landscapes, yes?)
Yesterday’s good teaching day allowed me a moment’s meditation (and only a moment) on the loveliness of helping. And, in light of that, I’d like to write a short open letter to students everywhere.
To all students present and future:
To borrow a line from Jerry Maguire, please help me help you. Give me the chance to demonstrate to you my knowledge. Allow me the opportunity to attempt to motivate you. Ask me questions. Open up. Be honest. Reveal your insecurities, your concerns, your fears. Be receptive to my advice, my recommendations, my suggestions. Take notes while I expound on my answers to your questions. Demonstrate to me that you are actively listening. When I see you take notes, feverishly writing to keep up with my fevered counsel, a fire burns in my heart and I become proud. I become confident. I realize that I have something of value to offer you. Give me that chance because the more often you do so, the better my advice will be.
Let me celebrate with you. Tell me about the times when you broke through your Writer’s Block. Share with me the harrowing tale of your 2 a.m. Dorito’s and Mountain Dew bender at the library and the genius that pored forth from your fingertips to the keyboard. Recount for me the time you showed your classmate a rough draft in an impromptu peer review, and how it helped you. Give me the gift of collegial joy. I’m a writer, too. I can revel in your successes, too. I can live vicariously through your victories, your triumphs, your battles hard-won, too.
Help me help you.
Offer me a moment to teach you, to feel a burst of confidence when you promise to get it, and to experience the utter, bone-deep pride when you actually do.
April 1, 2011 § 10 Comments
I have been vague for my own self-preservation in the past on this blog. And most recently, I made a vague reference to “my plans” and “Robert’s work ethic”. This afternoon, I officially made the announcement to both my department head and our departmental secretary. Here’s the clarification:
I have declined to accept my summer graduate teaching assistantship.
This means that I will not be teaching this summer. This means I will not earn any money this summer. This means I will not receive a tuition “waiver” (which is actually funded through the school from the assistantship).
Why oh why would I decline MONEY???
Because, folks, I have to get finished. And this is my best bet to finish in a timely fashion. I know that if I were to work, I would absolutely not finish the dissertation.
And here’s where Robert’s work ethic comes into play. Because he is teaching an overload this summer semester, he will be making enough for us to be financially secure on just one income. Now, it will be tight. Now, this is not to suggest some absurd level of luxury. Rather, this means that we will be living much like the way we are living now…except that I won’t have to work. I feel like the luckiest PhD candidate in the world!
I had lunch with my directing professor this afternoon, and we agreed that in order to finish in time for August graduation, I would need to have a full, complete dissertation no later than the first of July. So my summer will not be spent sitting around watching television and napping. I will be busier than I have ever been before. But I will also not be teaching. Which means no lesson planning. No grading. No office hours. No endless student e-mails. This class I am teaching right now will be the last class I teach for a while.
Believe me, friends, I am not delusional about the level of work I will have to commit to in order to accomplish my goal. I am fortunate enough to have a practical and realistic director on my team, and she has made it quite clear just how hard I will have to work. I’m going to do it, though. I’m going to work as absolutely hard as I can in order to get this work done.
I’m actually really excited about the prospect of not teaching for a little while. I think the time off will be helpful and illuminating.
Please be advised: this is not an April Fool’s joke. Not like Gmail Motion…which is stinkin’ hysterical, if you ask my opinion.
March 31, 2011 § 18 Comments
Yesterday, I was sad and disappointed. I cried. A lot. I felt unvalidated by my department. Like a total loser. As though through the absence of the fellowship, they were not only giving me the middle finger but also a nice boot to the rear while sneering, “This money is only for serious scholars. You suck, and there’s no way you meet our basic qualifications to fund you.” It took several hours, a couple of long phone calls, some incredible comments from my blogosphere pals (thank you, all!!), lots of hugs, and some pretty addictive Chinese food to finally help me overcome the emotional breakdown.
About halfway through my breakdown, in the midst of one of Robert’s awesome hugs, I remembered the promise I had made myself to surprise and thank my students…when I got the fellowship. Weeks ago, when I had to sacrifice time spent on them (grading, coming up with kick-ass lesson plans) to work on chapters for the fellowship application, I decided that I would thank them with treats. I would bring in cookies and maybe a movie, if I could find one. We would have a celebratory party because together we did it! When it struck me that I would not be able to keep my promise to myself (and secretly to my students), I cried more. I really wanted to have a party with them. I really wanted to thank them for their patience with me this semester.
And that’s when I realized:
I could still choose the party!
“You know what?” I sniffled, reluctantly pulling away from Robert’s hug. “I really don’t have it in me to lesson plan right now. I want to rent Persepolis for class tomorrow, watch the first half, and bring cookies to my students.”
Regardless the outcome, my students were still patient with me and have been rooting for me since I told them I applied for the fellowship. Why shouldn’t they get a little recognition?
So, Robert and I got ourselves some dinner, we went to the store to rent Persepolis (we’re reading volume 1–her childhood story–in class right now), and then we bought two packages of fresh-baked cookies (one was sugar, the other chocolate chip). When I walked into my classroom at 8 a.m., my students practically lifted out of their seats, craning their necks in order to see if I did indeed have a DVD in my hand and…cookies??
I took roll. I put the DVD in the computer and the cookies on the table.
“Well, yesterday I got some bad news.” My students seemed to collectively hold their breath. “Do you remember the funding that I applied for this summer in order to finish my dissertation? Remember how I had to write those chapters instead of grade your papers?” They nodded. “Well, I didn’t get the fellowship.”
All together, in chorus, I heard sighing and whispers of “oh no….”
“It’s okay,” I said cheerily. “I had decided weeks ago that I would thank you guys by bringing in cookies and watching a movie if I got the fellowship. But you know what? We’re going to have the party anyway! Screw ’em! I’m still very grateful that you guys have been patient with me and didn’t give me a hard time about getting your grades to you late. You’ve been awesome, and I want to recognize that. So, even if they don’t think we should be happy, screw ’em! I have a great class. Let’s relax today!”
They dove into the cookies (I borrowed a joke from one of Cosby’s early routines about how cookies [his joke was about chocolate cake] were basically like breakfast…eggs, milk, bread…sugar…), I gave them a quick (and really easy) quiz, and then we settled down to watch Persepolis.
Look, here’s the thing.
Does it suck when you work your ass off for no recognition? Of course.
Does it hurt like hell when you feel so utterly rejected? Yup.
Does it cut to the quick to realize you have to go with Plan B? Yes, indeed.
But does it prevent you from still choosing the party regardless? Nope.
And, with that, this is the last post you’ll get about the fellowship. It’s over. I’m done with it. The committee made their decision; there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m kicking the dust off my heels and walking on.
Anyone wanna join me in the party?
March 29, 2011 § 4 Comments
My mom has this saying. “When your head is so far up your own ass, then all you can hear, see, smell, taste and breathe is shit.”
I’ll admit, it’s a little funny to hear my mom say words like “ass” and “shit.” “Shit” is her favorite curse word; at least, it’s her favorite one to say. She says it like it’s poisonous, like you can die from hearing it, like you can really curse someone by saying it.
It’s the “t” that does it. She pronounces that “t” with a spitting sound. It tastes bad in her mouth, and she wants it to sting your ear.
When Mom says, “shit,” she means it.
The first time I heard my mom say “shit” was when I was in ninth grade. I was a violinist in my high school orchestra. And not even the good orchestra. The average one. The one that you got into when you failed your audition in eighth grade to get into the elite orchestra in ninth grade. I was first-chair first violinist. I wasn’t even first-chair first in middle school, but I was in the honors orchestra in middle school. My director, a potential pedophile with a drinking problem (he always got just a little too touchy-feely, although he never touched my “bikini zone”…I just didn’t like my shoulders being rubbed by him when he passed by), told me on the first day of high school in this average orchestra, “Amanda, I want you to be first-chair first because you’re the most skilled one in here.” Why didn’t I get into the honors orchestra, then? I asked, utterly bewildered by my separation from my best friends who would have third period orchestra instead of first. “Because,” he softened, “I need you in here. In honors orchestra” (he said it like it was an insult, with a sneer) “you would have easily been in third chair first-violin or even second-chair second-violin. But in here? In here, you’re our leader.”
We had this conversation in front of my classmates. They hated me. I hated him.
After our first recital of the semester, a Christmas medley sometime between Thanksgiving break and Christmas vacation, my mom was visibly shaking. I was in tears, utterly embarrassed. I found my dad and sister in the auditorium. Mom had already stormed the stage. I begged my dad to explain to me how could it have been that bad? It was Christmas music! I’ve played all those pieces before! Every year! He smiled at me and gave me a hug and squeezed my shoulder. (I didn’t mind when my dad squeezed my shoulder. It didn’t feel creepy.) Mom returned from the stage, took my violin and music from me, and marched her family to the car. We didn’t speak until we got home.
“That was horrible! I can’t believe he would let those kids play such shit!” It hurt my ear. It literally hurt my ear. I cringed. My mom was angry. Not at me. Not at my sister. Not at my father. She was angry at my music director. Because we played so terribly. “I didn’t even recognize half those songs! Did you?” It wasn’t a question. She kept going. “I even had to look at the program just to see what songs they were playing!”
They’re pieces, I murmured under my breath. She couldn’t hear me. I didn’t want her to. But they really are called “pieces” in orchestra. “Songs” have words and are sung. My second orchestra director, from seventh to eighth grade, drilled that tidbit into my head pretty well.
“I can’t believe he had the audacity to tell me that that shit wasn’t shit!” She had said it three times now. She was really mad.
We sat down in the living room, the four of us, and Mom explained why she was so angry and why she was choosing to vent her anger in the form of this vile word. “Amanda, I want you to understand that I am not angry with you. This is not your fault. This is the fault of a man who is very very little, who takes his own frustrations at being denied tenure at your high school out on his students. Your director embarrassed himself, you, and all of your classmates.” (I didn’t even know you could have been denied tenure in high school. There was something wrong with this man. We would come to find out later that the school board generally wanted him fired, but he was best friends with the superintendent and that wasn’t going to happen. He directed orchestras at my high school as well as at our rival high school. My second cousin attended my rival high school three years earlier, and she was in his orchestra. She loved him. They won competitions. She learned how to play well. He chose that school over ours. It was obvious, especially on Spirit Day–he wore their colors instead of ours.)
The next day in orchestra, we didn’t play. We sat around and talked. We sat around and talked a lot in that class. My director was hungover. I had never seen a hangover enacted in person before, but I knew what it was immediately. He wouldn’t let us talk too loudly, and he turned the lights down low. He said he had migraines. He invited questions and comments about the previous night’s recital. I raised my hand, bubbling over with the anger my mother had felt the night before. I don’t understand what happened last night. We are all really embarrassed. Recitals are supposed to be a chance for the kids to show their parents what they’ve learned! He cut me off at the beginning of my diatribe. “That’s not what recitals are for, Amanda. They’re just a requirement for the school calendar.” I didn’t understand. Of course recitals are to display the collective talents of the group after a semester of work. What on Earth else could they have been for?
That was the first time Mom said the word “shit” within my earshot. Since then, she whips it out only for special occasions. It’s much more powerful that way. I love my mom and her deliberate word choice.
“When your head is so far up your own ass, then all you can hear, see, smell, taste and breathe is shit.”
As you may have noticed, friends, my head is way up my own ass. Shit is all around me. My interactions with authority figures are tinged with negativity. Shit. My interactions with students are tinged with negativity. Shit. My interactions with that reflection in the mirror are tinged with negativity. Shit.
Shit, shit, shit.
The worst part is spewing this shit upon you all, my poor, unwitting friends. Except, utterly undeservedly, you guys have been the most amazing support for me. And I want you to know that even though my world is shit right now, I do notice the relief from that shit that you all offer me. And I deeply appreciate it.
In the meantime, I am going to try to surgically extract my head from my ass and focus my energies on seeing through the shit.
March 28, 2011 Enter your password to view comments.