Evidence of a failed assignment

April 20, 2011 § 12 Comments

A couple of weeks ago, I had my annual review. And I subsequently blogged about it. Twice.

Yesterday, I completed my students’ blog grades for the semester and had Excel do all the math for me. I utilized my Average and Sum formulas, and these are the results.

Spring 2010: I think I have a different concept of "failure"....

Clearly my students failed to remember their blogs, three days a week (including Sunday nights).

Obviously they failed to complete the assignment in a satisfactory manner.

I had a horrible idea that wasted not only my students’ time but mine as well.


And, in case you were curious, these are the results from the previous semesters.

Summer 2010: the pilot class

Fall 2010: section 1

Fall 2010: section 2

From the Other Side of the Desk: help me help you

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.

Respectfully yours,
Mrs. H.

Blogs and Writing Pedagogy: what I should have said

April 7, 2011 § 22 Comments

“I just don’t see the blogs accomplishing your pedagogy like you think they do.”

I sit there, blinking. Crap. My jaw clenches. Don’t you cry, Amanda. Not now. Not in your annual review. I am so miserable in my job, and I’m positive he can tell. Despite my best efforts to prepare a portfolio that might suggest otherwise, I’m sure he can tell that I have been miserable for quite some time. But I’m afraid. If I tell him the truth, what consequences could I stand to risk? Might I be strung up? Would this follow me my entire life? If a potential employer asks him about my teaching experience, will I be ruined? Buck up. Seriously. Stop. Just don’t say anything. If you talk, you’ll definitely cry. Just don’t say anything.

“According to your students, they had trouble remembering to do the blogs. And it looks like they’re not worth much, only 10% of the overall grade, so doing them doesn’t really affect their overall grade.”

“Actually,” I cut in, my voice breaking. “They’re part of the 10% daily grade, which also includes quizzes.”

“Right, I saw that on your policy statement. That’s redundant. Daily quizzes and three blogs a week.”

“They’re not daily quizzes,” I try to explain. The tears are starting to rise up. Can he tell? “I give the quizzes randomly, but on average there are ten quizzes in a semester.”

“Okay, so my point is that the blogs don’t count for much, and if they’re sharing that 10% of the daily grade with a few quizzes, then they count for even less. Do you see how that gives the students little incentive to want to even do them in the first place?”

It takes a conscious effort to nod. Don’t say anything or else you’ll start crying. Shit, why are you such a baby? You’ve never been like this before in an annual review! Can’t you take criticism at all??

“Why did you come up with the blog assignment at all?”

The question surprises me. Catches me off-guard. It shouldn’t because I’ve been asked it before. Except…this is different. I think when I’ve been asked this question, it’s usually been phrased with the word how. This feels immediately judgmental. He has already made up his mind. He’s looking for a reason to change his mind. I won’t give it to him. I can’t give it to him. Not without crying.

“I-I guess I just…” I swallow. “To me, they’re like critical reading responses except the students have the opportunity to read each other’s responses and then respond to them as well. I wanted to keep the conversation going, I guess. I just….”

“Okay, but I’m not sure that it does that for you. The students remarked about how they often forgot to even do the blogs in the first place. I would recommend either eliminating the blogs entirely, reducing the number of blogs they should do in a week, or eliminate quizzes. Actually, I think I would recommend reducing the number of blogs in a week and eliminate the quizzes.”

I’m back to blinking. I really like the blogs. My students had seemed to really like the blogs. My mind is reeling. They forgot to do the blogs? But…according to my grade book, most of my students did most, if not all, of the blogs…. I have more students with perfect blog grades than students with failing blog grades. I don’t understand why they would claim that they didn’t remember to do them…. That’s not true….

The rest of the review continues in a similar vein. He pulls out the already-written assessment report, crosses out the word “eliminate” and replaces it with “reconsider” so that the final sentence now reads, “reconsider the blog assignments.” I sign the form, representing my agreement to his report. He was going to tell me to eliminate the blogs entirely…. My first out-of-the-box assignment failed. I walk out of his office and quickly get into mine, closing the door, and collecting myself. Don’t cry, not now. One more meeting. Don’t cry. I pull it together after ten minutes, and I am late to my next meeting. But I’m not in tears.

After several days of consideration, I realize now what I should have said. And now that I am beginning to apply for jobs, I realize what I did by not defending myself–if he serves as a reference, then he will deliver the same report he gave during my annual review. If I mention the blog assignment in my application materials (in spite of everything, I am still proud of it), then I now face the risk of the hiring manager asking him, “She mentioned something about blogs. What do you know about that assignment?” And what will he say? I surely can’t know, but I have a good guess.

I should have defended myself. I should have given him something else to say.

The blogs work.

1. Overall quiz grades from semesters without blogs to semesters with blogs have marked improvement. The reason? Students are reading. They have to do the readings in order to write the blogs. And if they did the readings, then they will do well on quizzes. Although I do change questions from time to time on my quizzes, the type of information I’m searching for is pretty consistent from semester to semester. My students’ daily grade average has improved.

2. They are a low-stakes assignment purposefully designed to be low-stakes. If a student forgets to write a blog once or twice, his or her daily average is not ruined. But, completing all blog assignments on time and receiving a perfect score on the blogging assignment by the end of the semester is equal to receiving perfect scores on four quizzes. It is a “gimme” assignment, but it’s supposed to be. Students are not graded on quality or content of the blog, except according to some basic standards (it should be about a specific text assigned that day and it should be analytical). They are not graded on how well they analyze (unlike their papers), but instead they are given an opportunity to practice analysis in a way that will not hurt their overall grade.

3. Class discussions are much more focused on critically analyzing the texts rather than “walking through” the plots. Students will chime in and say, “Yeah! I wrote about that on my blog!” And others will respond to that student in class. The classroom rapport is typically supportive, congenial, and encouraging. Because a student was able to sort of “try out” his or her idea on a personal blog, the idea was given space to develop so that it would be fully-formed by the time s/he brings it up in class. Even when students disagree with one another’s points, the comments are polite, respectful, and explanatory. They learn not only how to make their own points but also how to properly counter-argue against someone else’s points respectfully.

4. Papers and essay questions on exams are generally more analytical than summative. My students have physical evidence that their peers have previous knowledge of the text, so there is little reason to summarize major plot points. Because they’ve had the chance to practice analysis without fear of failure, they are often more confident in the presentation of their arguments. Because of this, I’ve been able to ask more from my students. And, for the most part, they deliver.

5. The blogs reinforce to my students the idea that one cannot be a good reader without writing, and one cannot be a good writer without reading. Although my students may have more writing assignments in a literature course than others may have, my students not only get the point but have it demonstrated to them that reading and writing are inextricable.

6. I use the blogs myself as a guide for class discussions. I usually try to peruse the blogs the day of class (since blogs are due by midnight the day before), and through that perusal I’ll see what they are confused about, what was interesting to them, what they really gravitated toward. And I will tailor class discussion based on their needs–do we need to unpack that theme more? explore that concept? Judging by exams, my students do get more out of these discussions from the blog posts.

I realize now that I should have defended myself and my blogs.

They work.

If I were to teach again, I would absolutely keep the blogs with no changes whatsoever. They would still be worth very little on the overall grade because low-stakes grades work. There would still be three blogs due every week. They would still have the same number of required words due per post.

My writing pedagogy is that through practice (constant, consistent practice), students develop basic communication skills as well as sophisticated analytical skills. Ideas develop best through writing. Texts are explored best through writing. Learning to write properly will inevitably lead to the ability to articulate an intelligent thought eloquently (either in speech or the written word). If my students are to believe that the literature was not composed within a vacuum, then I should demonstrate to them precisely how one composes devoid of a vacuum. And, thanks to the power of the Internet and new social media, blogs are a perfect method to free writing from a vacuum-like experience.

That’s what I should have said.

From the Other Side of the Desk: student evaluations and annual reviews

April 6, 2011 § 14 Comments

I have really hesitated to write this post because I fully intend to criticize that most sacred of qualitative measure: the student evaluations.

If you are unfamiliar with student evaluations, allow me to educate you. A student evaluation is a form typically consisting of two parts. The first portion is commonly a Scantron sheet where students will rate elements of the classroom experience: the professor’s knowledge base, the clarity of the professor’s voice, the level of preparation required for this course. The second portion is ofttimes optional and can come in the form of a short-answer questionnaire where the students will “honestly” respond to questions specifically directed to that course. (For instance, there is a questionnaire for the composition classes as well as for the literature classes.) Students complete these forms on the last day of class meeting, and they typically take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes to complete. While the students evaluate their professor and overall classroom experience, the professor is proctoring someone else’s evaluations–no professor remains in his or her own classroom during this time. It is less intimidating to the students this way and encourages them to be more honest in their responses.

The evaluations are sent off to a school somewhere else in the country (ours are sent somewhere to the West…I think) where the Scantrons are scored and averages on a scale of 0-5 are mathematically figured. The reports return to the home university and are submitted to the appropriate professors typically around mid-semester of the following term. Sure, it’s too late now to really implement any changes or recommendations stated within the evaluations, but at least the students’ responses are kept anonymous, grades for that class have already been reported, and the professor likely won’t remember a specific student’s handwriting any more.

Although many professors wish this is where the evaluations might end, on their own desks to be used at their own discretion, this is typically not the evaluations’ final resting place. In many instances, particularly when it comes to junior colleagues and graduate students, student evaluations are normally requested to appear in a teaching portfolio for an annual review. (I believe this is also true for many jobs on the academic market. Potential employers would like to see the evaluations from previous students in order to glean an idea of the caliber teacher they might hire.) And this, my friends, is where I struggle with the usefulness of student evaluations.

Take calendar year 2010, for instance. I had three back-to-back-to-back tricky semesters. I had students who were highly combative, accusatory, and presumptive. I often felt nervous, panicked, and unconfident. I spent office hours dreading the footsteps echoing down the hallway, silently willing those footsteps not to be for me. This came to a head last semester when my office hours were after dark and a couple of my more combative students had spent the majority of the course shooting daggers at me. What had I done? Well, given them a quiz on a day they hadn’t read, of course. Or returned a paper with a lower grade than the student believed s/he deserved. Certainly worthy of a threatening glare. Because it’s entirely my fault a student did not achieve to his or her ability. Absolutely. Bad Mrs. H.

Because 2010 was so terrible, I refused to read my evaluations. Normally, I read my evaluations once the following semester has ended. Because we receive our evaluations in the middle of a semester, I never find it appropriate to read horrible comments and destroy my otherwise unwitting confidence. Normally, I read evaluations from Spring after Summer semester had ended. This way, I don’t waste my time midway through a semester with languishing energy and enthusiasm. 2010 was so truly awful that there has been little reason for me to read the evaluations from that year. And last Monday, during my annual review, my assumptions were confirmed. My students claimed that I was enthusiastic (a comment I always receive on evaluations), but they were unhappy with the blogs and quizzes. They believed the blogs were a waste of time and did not actually help their grade in the first place. So, students had little incentive to complete the blogs. This was a large portion of my annual review–and I just sat there, frozen into stunned silence, unable or unwilling to defend myself. I realize now what I should have said, but what’s the point?

Student evaluations have been infused with this sort of ethos that implies immediate expertise. Because Student A took Mrs. H’s World Lit. II class, Student A is an expert and is capable of evaluating his teacher.

It seems to me that in other professions where evaluations are considered during annual reviews, those evaluations are conducted by other professional peers/colleagues or (even better yet) by administrators. To be evaluated by someone who has absolutely no training in this field and little consideration for the relevance of the course, is laughable. Absurd. Of course my students didn’t want to do extra work. They would prefer to do no work. They would prefer to watch movies based on the books we’re reading. They would prefer not to have to read these books. They would prefer not to come to class at all. (I realize I’m generalizing–there are a few literature students out there who see the value in these courses, but rest assured that those students are few and far between. And their voices do not get heard nearly as well as the others’.) Judging from the recommendations of my annual review (and, mind, I still have not read the evaluations–why would I? my semester is going really well so far), I would guess that my students had absolutely no understanding for the concept of teaching and writing pedagogies as they apply to a literature classroom. When I discuss my methods with others, entirely devoid of student evaluations, I am met with encouragement and often words of support. When I discussed my methods with my reviewer, I was met with phrases like “I’m not sure this accomplishes your pedagogy as well as you think it does.” Really? Did my students who wrote the evaluations read every single student’s paper like I did? How could they properly assess just how well these methods have worked in my classroom? From my perspective, they were a stroke of genius (one likely never to be repeated–I have a feeling we’re all given one stroke of genius in our lifetimes…well, the normal people…the geniuses of course are granted more). But what do my untrained, 20-year-old students know about my methods? Those who care to ask me know a great deal more than those who do not care.

And, from my perspective at least, the number of students who do not care far outweigh the students who do. Yet both categories are encouraged to evaluate and assess me. I find it stunning that their assessments are taken seriously in the first place.

My conclusion is this: student evaluations should be kept to the absolute most basic of functions, and that should be to evaluate the course curriculum. Let the teaching professionals evaluate their junior colleagues. Leave the real evaluations and assessments to the professionals.

I celebrate myself and sing myself

February 7, 2011 § 10 Comments

Tomorrow, we will be covering the first 25 sections of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” As I reread those sections tonight to lesson plan, I remembered a line that has never failed to evoke a tear from my eye, a prickle in my nose.

from Section 13

“My tread scares the wood-drake and wood-duck on my distant and day-long ramble,
They rise together, they slowly circle around.

I believe in those wing’d purposes,
And acknowledge red, yellow, white, playing within me,
And consider green and violet and the tufted crown intentional,
And do not call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something else,
And the jay in the woods never studied the gamut, yet trills pretty well to me,
And the look of the bay mare shames silliness out of me.”

The poet (the poet who is himself and herself and all of us all together) describes traipsing through the country, disturbing the country and the animals within it. He (I’m choosing a pronoun here) imagines those disturbed animals flying away, passing judgment on him (the bay mare in particular), but he does not (cannot?) pass judgment on them.

I love the line I emphasized here. This is the line that has always grabbed my heart and given a good tug. Here, the poet promises (and admonishes those who do not follow this advice) not to pass judgment on the tortoise when she is not a bird and full of fluttering colors. He goes so far as to say that he will not call her “unworthy.” “Unworthy” is such a loaded word, full of the most painful implications. “Unworthy” of what? Consideration? Life? A line in a poem? Being seen? Being appreciated? Being loved?

I am that (un)worthy tortoise. I see myself as that tortoise. I spend too much time telling myself that I am not worthy because I am not something else. (Better, thinner, stronger, prettier, kinder, smarter, funnier, more loving.) But what we are asked to do here is two-fold. First and most obviously, we should not pass judgment on something because it is not something else. (“Damn you, chair, I hate you because you are not a horse!” Ridiculous, yes?) The second is that we should not pass judgment on ourselves or each other because we are not something else. If we are tortoises, we will never be hares. If we are hares, we will never be dragons. If we are dragons, we will never be the sky. At the end of it all, we had better love and let love (or live, depending on your mood, of course), because otherwise we sure have wasted a precious lot of time.

So, here’s a promise, to Amanda from Amanda: I will not call you unworthy because you are not something else.

Whitman also reminds us in Section 20:

“I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content.”

Isn’t it enough to just exist? It shines all new meaning on Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I am”), doesn’t it? Let us all alone to think and exist, and let us all alone to be content in that existence.

Also, before I go, I found an audio recording of Lucille Clifton reading Section 3 online, and I plan to share it with my students tomorrow morning. For those of you who might be intrigued by the prospect of this reading (and believe me, you really ought to be), then please follow the link, press play, and read along (Section 3 is reproduced on the website): http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20277.

From the Other Side of the Desk: Obtaining textbooks

January 29, 2011 § 3 Comments

“Mrs. H!” a student hollered over the general din as students packed up after dismissal. “What about our Pushkin reading for Tuesday?”

“What about it?” I responded, my voice not quite as loud as hers because it carried greater authority and made students quiet down.

“Well,” she said, embarrassed by the sudden quiet, “I can’t find the book. Do you think you’ll upload it to Blackboard for us?”

I sighed, annoyed. Yes, I allowed my students to see that I was annoyed, but it was clear that I was not annoyed at her…just the simple situation. I ultimately decided that, yes, I would upload the Tuesday Pushkin poems.

After I did the job, my fourth uploaded reading assignment at this point, by the way, I made a decision. Strange as it might be, considering they are still struggling to obtain the required book and will need it for Thursday as well, I decided that the upload for Tuesday’s reading will be the last one I do. I sent my students an e-mail letting them know it was available…and that it was the last one they can expect from me. I reminded them that it is their responsibility to obtain all of their textbooks on their own. If the bookstore does not have it in stock, then they must themselves make arrangements–borrow the text from a classmate, order it through the bookstore, order it online, check the library’s holdings. It dawned on me that what was originally a gesture of good will had so quickly devolved into coddling.

I’m not a coddler when it comes to my students. I want them to take responsibility for themselves; I want them to struggle to find sources, and then feel triumphant when they finally do. I want them to fret over delivery deadlines versus homework deadlines. These are part of growing up. My book list has been available to view from the university bookstore website since November. The snow did not incapacitate the southeast (and, incidentally, our main delivery hub) until January. My students had plenty of time to acquire the books on their own without my assistance.

This is why I was so hesitant in the beginning to upload the first reading. I worried that I would succumb to their pouty little faces and their needs…and be drawn to upload absolutely everything. But our delivery hub has thawed out, and the snow has melted. I am no longer interested in helping them figure this one out.

So, what do you all think? Am I being too hard on them? How would you handle (or have you handled) a similar situation?

If you could feel a question mark, this would be it: good teaching days

January 27, 2011 § 5 Comments

Today I had an incredible day. Class was amazing. My students were engaged, alert, talkative. I went in and explained my agenda (as I always do), and then said to them, “So, I was reading your blogs and I noticed a common theme…so I wanted to turn today’s class over to you.” And boy did they deliver.

Days like today leave me feeling like a confused Sim. Instead of a giant green diamond hovering dangerously over my fragile cranium, I’m shaded by a massive gray blunt question mark. Although the sharp diamond, if dislodged, would crack my skull and finish me in mere seconds, the edgeless question mark would cause severe trauma if it came crashing down. At the least, I would suffer a concussion. At the worst, I would be left to live with the recollection that I was beaten down by my own confusion…and that it still exists.

Here’s the trouble, friends: I don’t want to be a college professor. I know this to be true. I don’t like writing, I don’t like the idea of publishing or perishing, I don’t like the political nonsense that is guaranteed in any department. Although I’m competitive, my competitiveness seems to begin and end with myself–I mean, I compete only against my own accomplishments. If I made a low grade on the first paper, I would compete with myself to improve upon my grade for the second paper. I couldn’t care any less about the grades of my classmates. Class standings meant nothing to me in high school–I can’t even remember what my class rank was when I graduated. I know it was high enough to allow me to graduate with honors, but I only cared about that because in a class of over 600, it gave me the opportunity to graduate before the average students with last names that started with an A. I was a W. This was significant mostly for my family’s sake–nothing’s worse than alphabetized graduation when you’re waiting on a W to graduate. In college, I didn’t compete with my peers, not really. I didn’t care how they did on an exam. If someone performed better than I did on an exam, I buddied up with them to help me study for the following exam. I wasn’t trying to reduce their score. In graduate school, I cared even less about my fellow classmates’ grades. (Well, and to be fair, in English graduate programs, grades mean very little. As long as you are performing above a C, then you’re fine.) The only time I showed any flare of competitiveness to a classmate was when she attempted to poach my topic for a seminar paper. She actually invited me to reconsider the topic and graciously offered me “to tell [her] if [I] didn’t think [I] could do the topic justice.” Bah. That paper was one of my favorites I’ve ever written, and it also ended up going to a conference presentation.

Other than that, though, I am not motivated by competition among my peers. I can see this as a potential drawback in the academic world. Oh sure, your college professors probably (for the most part) exhibit a standard of professional collegiality at the undergraduate level that would leave you with the impression that the department is one big happy, respectful family. That’s their job. Of course, when you get to graduate school…that’s when the claws come out. As a graduate student, I did not expect this sort of shift in the rosy presentation of academic life. There were really no warnings to speak of. Sure, everyone sort of dissed on this one creepy journalism teacher, but he was a creepy journalism teacher. (No, I’m serious. I didn’t like going to his office alone and would often ask one of my male friends to accompany me and wait out in the hall if I had to go to a meeting with him.) He was a creepo. But I just figured that the other professors generally disliked him because he was just a creepo. Maybe there was more below the surface. When there was a shift in the department head position at my undergrad, it didn’t feel like the coup d’etat that it felt like when my department in graduate school did.

With that impression of the gritty underbelly of academia fresh in your minds, you must be asking yourselves, “Well, if that’s really what it’s like and you’re so committed against it, then where’s the confusion?”

Thanks for asking. It’s brought me back around to my point.

Today was an amazing class. We discussed cross-dressing, social standards, sex(uality) and identity, gender. These are among the buzz words used in my dissertation, so of course I was flying high. My whiteboard looked like a frenzied mess. Something akin to an English version of Russel Crowe’s windows in A Beautiful Mind. My insides were trembling with excitement. I was at my peak! Here I was, an expert in this specific field, making my expertise matter! For God’s sake, I was finally doing IT!

“So…what’s the confusion?”

Yeah. Well, I want to feel THAT all the time. But I know I won’t because that’s not real life. Today is the last day of our eighteenth century texts (and, really, socially speaking the eighteenth century shares so much in common with the seventeenth century). Next week, we move quickly on to the nineteenth century. And I will no longer be an expert. Sure, I may have another fully-engaged, attentive, alert, and excited class session. I expect to. But I won’t be The Expert that I’ve truly enjoyed being these past two weeks.

How is it that I can enjoy THAT so very very much and despise the other so very very much? I’ve said to many friends and colleagues over these past few months that my ideal job would be one in which I could teach the cool things I learn about cool books but in which I would not have to grade or evaluate my students’ performance, or compete against colleagues, or be forced to publish my research.

I fear that that job does not exist. And this leaves me confused.

Anyone hiring a seventeenth-century expert to come and talk about the cool things about that period? Anyone?

From the Other Side of the Desk: Extending the classroom

January 21, 2011 § 8 Comments

I’ve been asked a few times about an assignment that I’ve started to incorporate in my World Literature classes: blogging. The idea struck one day after Spring semester last year, sometime in May probably, late at night while Robert and I lay there drifting off. “Blogs,” I mumbled. “Huh?” Robert replied, not sure he heard me right or at all. “Blogs. My students should write blogs. Like movie reviews. They should write book reviews on blogs.” “Yeah,” he said, his voice soft and heavy. I fell asleep happy in my creative lesson-planning.

That sleepy conversation blossomed over the next few weeks while I researched blog hosting sites, FERPA requirements, and worked on developing an actual assignment sheet. Choosing WordPress.com because of its functionality (it’s super easy to create a private blogging network), I set up all my little blogs. I do recycle the blogs semester to semester because it’s easier than being the owner of fifty-thousand blogs. (I’m the owner for the simple fact that I want to recycle the blogs…and I also have access to tricky things like checking the word count box and the timestamp.) I’m a bit of a control freak, really.

WordPress.com allows you to add users of different administrative levels; at this point, I add a single student per blog as a fellow administrator (so they can change the appearance of the blog if they so choose). Also, if you choose to write a private blog, you are able to add up to 35 registered usernames (for free) as permitted readers to the blog. Fortunately for me, my classes are capped at 30 students, so that’s perfect. It takes some time to set up at the beginning of the semester–for thirty blogs, I have to add one new administrator as well as 30 permitted readers.

The assignment is fairly straightforward: my students have three blog posts due every week for a total of 900 words a week. They are due on a specific schedule:

Monday at midnight: an analytical blog post in response to the reading assigned for Tuesday’s class (250 words).
Wednesday at midnight: an analytical blog post in response to the reading assigned for Thursday’s class (250 words).
Sunday at midnight: a reflective blog post in response to a specific assignment I give in class on Thursday (400 words).

The blogs factor into their daily grade and weigh the same as reading quizzes. By the end of the semester, they have had the opportunity to accumulate up to 590 blog points (this is the equivalent of 5.9 quiz grades–fairly significant, I’d say, especially considering that on average I only give 10 quizzes a semester). The way students get the 590 points is by meeting very simple criteria for completion:

1. Blogs must be on the correct topic. Book reports or plot summaries are not accepted.
2. Blogs must be turned in on time. They cannot be made up and late blogs are not accepted.
3. Blogs must meet the minimum word count. Short blogs are not accepted.
4. Students must comment on each other’s blogs according to a comment schedule. Comments not made on schedule are not counted.
5. Comments must be meaningful (they must continue the conversation). Lame comments like “I agree” or “Lol” are not counted.

I had a real mean student last semester who really shook me up–I remember one of his blog posts criticized my grading criteria. He made some sort of remark about how the word count is obviously the only indicator for quality. Obviously, his impression is entirely incorrect. The blogs are meant to be an easy way to earn completion points while simultaneously extending the analytical conversation beyond the classroom. I grade it on completion rather than content for a couple of reasons. The first is that they already have argumentative papers they have to write during the semester that are graded on content. The second is that I want my students to practice analyzing literature in a low-stakes environment. It’s extremely nerve-racking for an insecure student of writing to have only one or two high-stake chances to write an analytical response to a text in the form of a long-ish paper. (Remember: to the undergraduate college student, a 4-6 page paper is considered long.) If they only get two shots at analyzing a text in writing, then we (their teachers) are essentially setting them up to fail. I don’t like that. I prefer to set my students up to succeed and then leave it up to them whether or not they do succeed.

When I get into my rhythm in the semester (not quite there just yet because I only just finished setting up blogs for new students), my normal practice with the blogs is to quickly peruse them before class to get a sense of what the students found compelling, intriguing, confusing, or interesting so that I can steer class discussion in that direction. I like to continually mention specific student blogs (never referring to the writer him- or herself, of course, for the sake of anonymity–but instead I’ll say something like, “one of you said…”)–I do this so that they know that I’m reading the blogs. They’re not just throwing words out into the ether for nothing.

Generally speaking, I think students find the blogs interesting. They’re better than other forms of writing responses because their classmates get the opportunity to read their thoughts and remark on them. This facilitates the learning environment and fosters a trusting community of students of literature. I know that as the teacher, I really enjoy having them blog–I don’t feel quite as burdened by having to force interpretation and analysis from my students. By the time we meet in person, they’ve already started to think analytically.

The blogs are now instrumental in my literature classroom. It’s safe to say that I’m securely addicted to them.

The Would-Be Invalid: a farce of pharmaceutical proportions

January 19, 2011 § 3 Comments

Before I begin this post, I want to remind you that you were previously warned this would happen.

Right now, the only thing on my mind is Molière’s The Would-Be Invalid. This is the text we’re reading this week for World Lit. II, and I have never read it before; naturally, I’ve never taught it before either. If you’ve also never read The Would-Be Invalid, then you are, like I was, truly missing out! If a World Lit. II professor chooses to include Molière on the syllabus, the chosen text is normally Tartuffe. I’ve taught Tartuffe before, and it was pretty good…the students were able to grasp the themes pretty well. But I truly wanted this semester to challenge myself and my students–I wanted to teach works that are not popular in the anthologies, authors who haven’t been anthologized in a while or at all.

Molière, though, probably doesn’t have a single bad work in his entire collection. The Would-Be Invalid continues Molière’s brilliant mastery of the farce, choosing as his victims of mockery this time seventeenth-century physicians and pharmacists (or apothecaries, as they were once called). These people received little education compared to the rigorous training they can expect today. (Having a sister in a Doctor of Pharmacy program has certainly opened my eyes.) A seventeenth-century physician would educate himself in the theoretical practice of medicine (probably like an early-year pre-med, pre-pharm student these days)–most medical students in the 1600s would not have ever even encountered a human patient by the time they received their doctorate in medicine. As long as they could speak and read Latin, could quote the Ancients (particularly Hippocrates and Galen), and composed a thesis on humoral theory, then they were apparently equipped to diagnose patients. (And some, the barber-surgeons, would even operate–oh, the Sweeney Todd-like horror!)

Using humoral theory, physicians would diagnose patients entirely on a system of guesswork for the body’s level of four fluids or humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. The bodily fluids were associated with the four elements (air, water, fire, and earth), the four seasons, and specific organs (liver, brain/lungs, gall bladder, spleen). Judging on your symptoms (feverish, chills, aches, coughing, etc.), the physician would then diagnose an imbalance in one of the bodily fluids. The common methods of treatment were bloodletting, enemas, purgatives, leeches, and herbal concoctions. (I suppose the herbal concoctions were the closest things to real medicine that we have today.) If a patient died by one of the treatments, oopsy-daisy! If a patient miraculously healed, then it became evidence that treatment worked properly.

Molière had tuberculosis, which eventually killed him with a lung hemorrhage. He actually played the lead character in The Would-Be Invalid–Argan, the would-be invalid himself. Unfortunately for the Parisian theatrical world, Molière succumbed to a coughing fit during the finale of the fourth performance and died in his home a few hours later. Molière was highly critical of the physicians and apothecaries of his time period, which becomes strongly evident in The Would-Be Invalid. Argan, the hypochondriac “invalid,” not only buys into the therapies and treatments recommended to him by real quacks, but he also seems to revel in them, delighting in the tallying of his bill for many enemas and purges. He looks forward to his stomach cramps brought on by the purgatives he is prescribed to ingest; he eagerly climbs on his bed and assumes the position when his apothecary arrives to perform the enema.

Argan’s family, however, voices Molière’s real opinions. In the third act, Argan gets into an argument with his brother Béralde over whether or not patients should trust their physicians in the first place. When Béralde tries to speak some sense into Argan, explaining that he really isn’t as ill as he seems to be and that his physician is really just a kook, Argan fires back:

Argan: That is to say that all the knowledge in the world is shut up in your head, and you think you know more than all the great medical men of our time.
Béralde: In speech and action, your great medical men are two different sorts of people. To hear them talk, they’re the most skillful people on earth; but in action, they’re the most ignorant men alive.

After a long-ish argument and a great deal of folly to prove Argan wrong, the play ends with Argan receiving his own doctorate in medicine by speaking fake Latin in front of a fake panel of doctors. It’s really quite the perfect deal. Argan is the worst kind of (modern) patient (always seeking unnecessary treatment, shorting his physician and apothecary on the bill), but if he can be his own doctor, then the problem is resolved. If all it takes for proper doctoring is the ability to speak gibberish (in this case Latin) and to possess a charismatic spirit, then Argan is destined to be an amazing doctor. He actually strikes me as the textbook example for why medical (and psychology and pharmacy) students should avoid the temptation to self-diagnose. When you know all the worst possible symptoms and the worst possible scenarios, it’s really easy to imagine that a simple tickle in the throat is actually the early stages of pneumonia.

Read the play–at the very least, you will appreciate the advancements made in modern medicine. I have to go now. My leeches are starting to fall off.

Could it be?

January 15, 2011 § 7 Comments

I’ve received several e-mails from my students in the past 36 hours, each one worried to death that they can’t locate our first two books listed on the syllabus. And why can’t they locate the first two books? Because the “Snowpocalypse of 2011” has created quite a backlog in air deliveries of textbooks to our local bookstores. (Oh, and by the way, I didn’t make up that term…this is a word I’ve heard from a few of my friends who actually saw snow during this so-called disaster. We only had a little bit of treetop ice.) At this point, I’m telling my worried students (who have had the book list since November and the syllabus since last Saturday) that they really don’t have much more of an option than to try checking it out at the library or to get in touch with a fellow classmate to see if they can buddy-up on a book.

But here’s what I suddenly find myself considering: maybe I should scan the required reading pages into our Blackboard program for my students. Is this a little bit of copyright infringement? Probably. Do I care? Eh.

I’m pretty sure that I’ll work on those scans tomorrow morning to help me wake up and get in gear for my day of writing.

But, really?

Could it be that Mrs. H has suddenly dropped her bitchy, I-don’t-care-about-your-problems attitude?

So weird.

Where did that attitude drop off to? When did I lose it?

Actually, I think it might have fallen off when I made a couple of decisions over break (I swear, more on that later…after next weekend, definitely), and I also think that completing my first set of writing goals (11 pages last week!) has put me in a slightly less gloomy mental atmosphere.

I wonder how my newfound good mood and generosity will affect my students this semester? How will it affect my marriage? My academic progress?

Where Am I?

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