Keeping it Human

I am writing this with contradictory midterm evaluation feedback floating around in my mind. “More small groups please!” “I hate small groups!” The one thing that came back as a consistent piece of positive feedback, however, was about one-on-one meetings. They like them. This semester I only have fifteen students, and while I only have one semester of co-teaching 34 students to compare anything to, one of the most rewarding things has been being able to have more one-on-one contact time with all of them. After feeling last semester like I only really got to know my students by the end of the semester, one of my main goals for this time around was to reach that stage quicker. I started the class with required office hours in the first two weeks in which I gave them feedback on their diagnostic in person and talked about their feelings about writing. While I remember little about the writing part of the discussions, there were so many other benefits. 1) I think they appreciated voicing their concerns. 2) They learned where office hours were held, and I got to put in a plug for coming back to see me. 3) I got a better sense of their lives, what they’re into, who likes nature documentaries, who has never seen a documentary, who is a potential Olympian (whaaat), who had tried to take an R1B twice before but dropped out each time, and who might be a film major. And 4) It honestly also just made getting up in front of all of them less intimidating.

I scheduled two more required one-on-one meetings across the semester (replacing our Wednesday back to back class and screening with three hours of meeting marathon). They correspond one per each major assignment, and the second one just happened. I read all their drafts quickly and marked major points to talk about with keywords to myself at the top of the page. This was much more pleasant to me than writing written comments and far more productive because they could get instant clarification on what they couldn’t understand. It also allowed the feedback session to double as a brainstorming session for those who needed to make major changes. And allowed me to reassure the ones who came in expressing doubts but had actually promising drafts. And to gently suggest that a lot more work (and office hours follow up) was needed for those who were struggling. In short, it was more human. 

I’ve been thinking of “keeping things human,” as cheesy as it is, as a sort of guide star for my semester. On the spur of the moment I had them do a quick free write on Monday describing a scene they would film if they were making a documentary about the power outage. The variety of approaches was great, they had to think about formal choices and style, and everyone was amused. Perhaps it was just because it was top of mind, but a number of them asked for more in class free writing on their mid-term evaluation. And, of course, one of them said they thought it was pointless. 

Notes from September Meeting

Notes from Koshland Art of Teaching Writing Seminar Monthly Meeting on 9/19/19:

-Getting googled? Same username for class WordPress website as for this site – fear of students seeing our seminar posts on teaching
-Possible solution: use a different name when posting on this site

-How many people use the wordpress site? Students might not be checking in the website very much. Analytics give some clue but not much. Sometimes you have to post on bCourses AND the website (the former for readings, so you’re not publicly sharing copyrighted stuff). recommends exposing your students to the website in class (projecting homework, assignments, etc).

-Afraid students aren’t reading comments on their paper – suggests handing out comments five minutes before class and writing an exit ticket on what advice is most available to them before leaving class.

-Diagnostic essays problem:
the majority of the diagnostic essays are summary! Even though has taken care to make sure that they know that they’re not supposed to summarize. Someone suggests giving one-on-one feedback. Or, break down assignments into summary and argument components so that they don’t just get stuck on the summary. Talk about the distinction between “form” and “content” – some students get this faster than others. Breaking the argument into the “how” and “what” and “why” (the form, what’s going on in the text, and why it’s happening) is a good way for them to think beyond pure summary. Also, reading sample student essays.

Related problem:
to grade or not to grade diagnostic essays? Don’t want to stress out students, but also want them to realize that there are issues in their paper. mentions that diagnostic essays in the English department are not graded. suggests asking them to write a reflection on the diagnostic essay and comments and make goals for the semester, and retroactively reflect at the end of the semester about their progress.

Common Pitfalls in student essays:
argument in the last paragraph, generalizations, “since the dawn of time,” diction, syntax, juxtapositions, binary oppositions—they don’t talk about effect on meaning. Helpful phrase: “identification does not an argument make”—tough to figure out –is this close reading?

Possible solutions to Common Pitfalls problem:
: “Is this close reading?” handout with examples has made up—label things e.g. identification of examples, definitions.
Another option from : devious decoy deadline—have them say the paper is due on a certain day, go over common pitfalls, have them go over them and then turn in on next day. Use examples of close readings vs over-generalizations and not close-readings.

Issues with preparation of classes and work flow when teaching solo and
Possible solutions:
-Student presentations, sheet of activities when you don’t know what to do eg. affect inquiry cards, splitting up readings in pages and —use the materials of others,
-interactive activity: low-labor cost for teacher but high-yield for students. Eg. affect inquiry cards—good for suggestive stories—one side of the index card they put the affect, and on the other side they put a question (they are anonymous)—if you got your own, pretend it’s not your own—and then pair and share—what did you hear, what did you notice, then open up to a group discussion—another version with a quote on one side and question on the other—
-other activity—each student writes down question, they use it as a discussion question, people answer, and then when they feel like it’s time to move on they call on someone else-
-another activity-divide room into 3-4 positions on a text, they choose, people explain their positions, and then they can decide whether to change positions after hearing other students and they discuss along the way, also exit tickets.
-Close-reading activity—3-4 groups, preassigned to small segment of pages in book and present about one aspect of the texts. For example: language and violence–, language and sthing else, also, small group discussions (a waste of time?)
–we shouldn’t be reinventing the wheel!—can add people to comp lit resources

Another issue: How to make small group discussions meaningful?:
Possible solutions:
-make them accountable in those small groups: Have them write something down, or work in shared google doc and you can look to see what they’re doing—make it related to a small task (there’s an end goal), have them create questions, have them be responsible for lines of a poem—helping shape what happens later in group discussions,
-give roles: written, oral, keeping time etc…,
-or jigsaw groups—each group gets passage they discuss, or by theme, literary device, and then form groups with one person from each group and then they report back, in large group discussion—when one group talks about something that another group finds interesting, they can jump in and begin after.
-or have them post about readings ahead of time, and then you can reference what they wrote in class—they feel complimented and you know they’ll have something to say.
–also, quickwrites are good—about a question, or about a definition of word: what is a medium?
—or pair writing—gave question, and between the two of the people, produce a paragraph—they are more careful about word choice, etc.., you can add a reflection afterward,–ask them “how what and why” in their own writing, in future paired groups can share with class, or post,

-Other issue: How to get people who don’t talk to talk?
—asking them to talk, or when you’re overhearing you can ask them to bring up good comments and tell them to mention
-Inclusivity in the classroom—a thread in the conversation—go around group and say one thing someone else said they are interested in sharing, or please share one thing someone said during the class—and it’s an organic summary of the class, and have them credit each other–

field trips are hard to plan!

  1. While the subject of my course, Asian American Lit in the Bay Area, does lend itself very well to field trips, I’d also surreptitiously hoped that all these field trips — Angel Island, Chinatown, the Third World Liberation Front Archives, the film archive, the Hearst Museum — would cut down on the time I had to lesson plan and prep. Far from it. It has involved an enormous amount of time coordinating over email with all the people involved, as well as devising in-class activities to coordinate with and “justify” the out-of-class activities we are doing (my guilt complex means that any time I feel like I’m slacking off e.g. going on field trips I have to work harder to compensate for it). I hand-selected all the documents I wanted them to work with at the TWLF archives, I asked a guest scholar to come in and discuss her article on Angel Island, I ran the budget a million times to make sure we weren’t going over, and I was so relieved when no one missed the last ferry or fell into the bay on our field trip to Angel Island that I took myself out for a gigantic seafood dinner on Pier 39 after the last squadron of students Ubered home (on my own dime, not Koshland’s). And all of them are freshmen, so I don’t think they entirely realize that most college classes don’t come with five class field trips. I feel not unlike Jeb Bush imploring an indifferent crowd to “please clap.”
  2. I’m really trying to “teach to the writing assignments,” meaning that I’m cutting down on in-class time reading say, a history of Chinese American immigration in the 1800s over reading sample argumentative essays (thanks to Max Stevenson for suggesting the NYT 1619 project!) and giving them time to workshop their writing in class. I’m torn because it’s antithetical to the kind of education I got in college, where all our seminar discussion were free-flowing and small group discussions didn’t exist (rather like our graduate level seminars here at Cal). I feel almost that I’m doing this — teaching to the writing assignments — as a way to stem otherwise inevitable complaints that I didn’t prepare them enough or scaffold the skills enough. At the same time, I worry that it dilutes the intellectual scope of the class.

To structure or not to structure?

From my grading-addled mind, I bring you a post about structure versus a more freeform approach to teaching reading and writing.

When I first started teaching R&C, I assumed I would work towards being one of those cool, off-the-cuff instructors, the ones who could just sort of toss their hair back and spin out a class discussion that leaves everyone feeling epiphany-ed. Although I’d never actually experienced one of those discussions as a student, I indulged in the fantasy that such an instructor existed. Yet upon reflecting over the course of my past few years of teaching, I’ve come to realize that, in my classes, many of the best student comments and engagements with texts have come out of pretty rigorously structured activities and prompts.

For example, here’s one I asked my students to do, for an at-home bcourses discussion post:

Pick one single sentence that really stands out to you in Carmen Maria Machado’s “Real Women Have Bodies,” and quote it, along with the page number. Then, write a short paragraph (~150-250 words) that analyzes both the content and the form of that sentence. What is being said, and how is it being said? What formal details do you notice, and what effects do they have? As you write, try to put forth at least two possibilities for interpreting the sentence. 

And reader, the results were quite magical! (I would include them here, but I didn’t get to ask my students for permission). What most impressed me was the way students engaged with the details of the—very ambiguous—text to unfold interpretations, rather than gunning straight for an argument. I’ve done similar types of activities in class, with similar results.

I’ve been reflecting a bit that maybe asking students to work within structures allows them to take the freedom and even risks where I think it’s most valuable: in working through their own complex interpretations. There seems to be a paradox in which constraints actually open up space for student writers. I would compare it to—erm—a sonnet, but that seems too pretentious. At times, though, I worry that although this approach can help writers make strides and show off their critical thinking capabilities, it may still feel limiting to some of them, which is why I try not to do this type of thing at every class meeting. And while I’m airing my anxieties, I wonder if this type of planning is a way to avoid some of things that most worry me in classroom settings: feeling unprepared! bored students! general chaos and confusion!

I’d like to close with some questions: what are your experiences in using structured activities and prompts versus going with a more freeform discussion? Does this change depending where you’re at in the semester? Are there activities or prompts you’ve found particularly productive or unproductive? Have you tried the same activity with two different groups and been met with drastically different outcomes? Would this be different if it were an upper-division course? Is there something about reading and composition that lends itself particularly well to structured- or unstructured-ness?

On talking about apples

In my course on Music and Media, students are required to lead one in-class discussion during the semester. I decided to assign this for a couple of reasons. One, of course, is that I get tired of listening to the sound of my own voice; but I also believe that leading and contributing to discussions is a skill, one that can be improved through practice. During these discussions, my class sits in a circle. The discussion leader (or leaders) sit in two desks at the front of the room, while I try to choose a desk near the back of the room. I do my best to stay out of the discussion, since the whole point of the exercise is to get the students talking to each other, not to me. Since I’ve always been the student who can’t stand awkward silences and has to jump in with the answers (think Hermione in Harry Potter, complete with the frizzy hair) this is excellent practice for me, too, in letting others speak. 

I was nervous when the time came for the first of these in-class discussions. The two women who signed up to lead discussion had participated in earlier discussions, but (at least in these initial class meetings) seemed somewhat shy and quiet. I hoped that this assignment wouldn’t prove too burdensome for them, and told them they could have anywhere from half an hour to the full hour and a half for discussion of their assigned text—we could just see how the conversation went. I was also a bit nervous about the text I had assigned, Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message,” which can be opaque even to someone who’s well acquainted with literature on media and technology. I worried that undergraduates, who had probably never encountered any work of McLuhan’s before, would find the text overly demanding, and that their peers would find it intimidating to join in the discussion. 

My concerns turned out to be completely unjustified. Our classroom leaders came armed with questions, just as I had asked—and not only questions, but insightful and pointed comments that drew out the discussion far longer than the half hour I had assigned. One of the class leader’s comments struck me as an utterly brilliant extension of McLuhan’s arguments; she said, “If I have an apple, and I tell you I have an apple, then it’s like you and I have agreed on the set of characteristics that the word “apple” means.” I haven’t been able to forget this comment since—because, as she went on to explain, it reinforces the concept that language is a medium at the same time as it draws attention to the way social forces define our interactions, both with and through media. Her comment sparked an intense discussion about “what we mean when we say things,” which touched on contemporary politics, social media, and how we come to understand the difference between right and wrong. We did eventually come back to McLuhan, but this turn in the conversation had changed everything, because all of a sudden we were talking about something with real-life significance—how a medium, whether it’s television, or radio, or language, shapes the way we understand and interact with each other.