classrooms · emotional labour · grading · pedagogy · teaching · Uncategorized · writing

Feedback

I was complaining to myself about how slow my grading was going and how I was a slacker for not getting it done faster. Then I added up some numbers. Then I tweeted this, that is to say, complaining to others, and it got a LOT of traction relative to my usual Twitter complaints:

 

So that’s what I’m going to expand on today: grading is writing, and it’s work, and we do way more of it, probably than we think we do.

Here’s how I grade. Students hand in their assignments (a lot of short writing assignments, usually between 400-1200 words) and I mark them up with pen as I go–I put tiny underlines under simple errors; I write marginalia that queries a point, or offers a readerly reaction like “ha!” or “aha!” or “hm” or “!” or “are you sure?”; I write sentence fragments in response to the main idea. When I’ve finished reading and marking-up the paper copy, I write up more formal notes, summative and formative, in Word. This weekend I was grading Evidence-Based Arguments for my first years, so I have one Word doc called “Evidence-Based Argument” and I just concatenate everyone’s feedback in that one doc, separated by page breaks. So there’s a running word count for the whole thing.

For 24 Evidence-Based Arguments I graded this week, I wrote 2735 words. That’s a lot of writing, it struck me. I opened the other files for that course. The Internet Literacy Narrative? 2898 words. The Fact-Check Report? 2763 words. You can see that’s about 100 words per assignment, for a total in the course so far of about 8500 words. That’s a longish academic article worth of words.

Now I’m curious. For my grad class this term, 15 students, I’ve graded essay proposals and annotated bibliographies, and two 400 word response papers per student. [Goes away and calculates] Just over 6000 words of feedback.

That makes 14,500 words of formal written feedback since September. Not counting marginalia or emails or verbal feedback in office visits.

Last semester my courses were bigger–a fourth year seminar of 25 students and a first year course of 40. [More calculation ensues] 22,000 words for the first years and 16,000 for the fourth years, so that’s 38,000 formal grading words in the winter term.

In my assigned teaching in 2017, I’m at 52,500 words of direct feedback to students typed into Word docs. I’m not done yet: my first years and my grads have final papers yet to hand in for me to give them feedback on.

I have also read and given extensive feedback on …. lessee …. four complete dissertation, and about 8 dissertation chapters this year? I don’t know how much I wrote for those, but it was a lot.

I don’t begrudge this work. But I would like it to be more visible than it is. A writing intensive course for students is a feedback intensive course for professors. I often will note in my annual reports that my first years write: a response paper, then revise it, then produce a paper with a stepped structure of proposal, bibliography, intro paragraph, draft, and final paper. But I do not note what *I* am writing in response to this.

Linda Carson on Twitter suggested that in academic life as in most other domains, what counts is what gets counted. She encouraged me to think about writing out these numbers on my report. I might. But even personally, I think I generally tend to dis-count this writing as writing, because not only do I not literally count up how much of it I do, I don’t think it “counts” as real writing.

But it does, in its way: crafting feedback on student work is a balancing act of formative and summative goals, a kind of specificity of address that lets the student know you really heard them, but a level-appropriateness that encourages reach without overwhelming. No wonder we get tired doing it.

Anyhow. I’m at about, as I say, 52,000 words of feedback I can directly count up in my Word docs from my 2017 teaching. That’s not all of it, but it’s most of it. If it feels supportive, I encourage you to look back, if it’s easy enough to do, and see how much you’ve got done this year, too.

This is real work, real writing, creative and laborious. It counts.

teaching · Uncategorized

The Two Greatest Ed-Tech Tools of All Time

Educational technology can be frustrating and tricky. I was complaining a couple of weeks ago about weirdly placed projectors and white boards with no markers and projectors that don’t work no matter how hard you try. Our learning management system is full of gargoyles and error messages and snake pits I keep stepping in.

But there are two educational technologies that have never let me down; two educational technologies that have brought nothing but sunshine, student engagement, hilarity, good work, and authentic learning to my classroom; two technologies that make my life easier at the same time as they push students forward. Cheap, robust, accessible, always working–no down time, no tech support, no upgrades.

Those two technologies? My iPhone timer, and the random number generator feature on Google.

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Seriously. Try it.

Let me explain.

iPhone Timer: A lot of my courses are writing focused. All of my courses ask students to participate in class discussion. All of my courses feature group work and in-class collaboration. With my iPhone timer, I structure timed writing sessions, with every class, every meeting. In a writing class, it’s really hard to teach by lecturing: students should learn how to write by writing. So we write. I often open class like this: “Take two minutes, and write absolutely as much as you can about possible research directions for your paper–what you need to learn, what you already know, keywords for library searches, names of authors you know on this topic, names of websites likely to have information, everything. I’ll set my timer for two minutes, and I’m watching to make sure your pens don’t stop moving, or your fingers don’t stop typing … GO!” Maybe later in my grad seminar, I’ll say, “We just finished a unit on social justice selfies. I’m going to set the timer for five minutes and I want you to brainstorm all the ideas we’ve been exposed to. Then we’ll do another five minutes where you can use that material as a prompt to write a paragraph summarizing the unit.”

I use the timer every day, in every class. Students expect to have to write, and they quickly get used to it. Timed writing is purposeful–I will always say before we start what we’re going to do with the writing after: think / pair / share; or, class discussion; or, personal process writing for an upcoming assignment. Timed writing is great to move students forward on a project. Timed writing is great for making sure that everyone has something to contribute to class discussion–I tell the shy students that if they are called on, they can just read verbatim what they’ve written down, and they like that a lot. Timed writing is great for modelling what I teach: we are maybe learning to write (my undergrad course is called ‘Intro to Academic Writing’ but strong students are also always writing to learn.

The timer is great because it seems objective and science-y to everyone. No one fights the timer. Everyone works. The best? When the timer goes off and everyone is shoots their eyes up in shock: already?

Random Number Generator: I just started using this last year, in a first year digital culture / writing focused class taken by reluctant Math majors. I would do timed writing before a class discussion, and so I knew everyone had at least the stub of something to contribute, and then I would ask the question, and no. one. would. raise. their. hand. Crickets chirped. A whole lot of nothing-burger. No one. I would cajole, and I would eventually point at someone and make them talk. Yuck.

What I do now is have students number off before the timed writing. And then I say, “We will discuss this question as a group, and the random number generator is going to decide who talks!”

This is a great system, remarkably effective, and fair, and fun. It’s like video slots, only no one wants to win. Instead of trying to guess the odds that I will point at them and make them talk, the human element is taken completely out of it. The random number generator cares not if you are making eye contact, or if you are studiously scribbling. It just picks a number. Students also stop blaming me for putting them on the spot. It’s not a test of wills between me and them. They know this is a teaching strategy I use to make sure that everyone uses their timed writing wisely, and saves them from having to take the risk of volunteering to talk, or the potential dread of being called on by me. I use it nearly every day in my undergrad classes, and it has really improved discussion, attitudes, and students’ effort levels. And we laugh a lot, too.

I use the RNG for group work, too. I used to have groups work on things independently and then sequentially report back to the class. That took forever. Now I have all the groups working in shared public Google docs, so everyone can read what they’ve produced whenever they want, and the RNG picks two groups and they report. Everyone works really hard, because they’re producing class notes, and no one knows when they’re going to have to present to the class, so everyone has to prepare for that.

It is a truism that students put effort where grades are involved. I understand that their time and attention is diverted and fragmented and limited and scarce. I want to make sure that if they’re going to come to class, it’s going to be worth their time–they’re going to get something measurable and meaningful done. The iPhone Timer and the RNG add a tiny bit of accountability and stakes to in-class work–it’s not like grades are involved, but there’s a non-trivial chance that any given student or group is going to have to say something out loud, or present an idea, or fill in a shared worksheet. The iPhone Timer and the RNG make the time/attention calculus easy: it’s just easier to participate fully than it is to try to game it. And the result is a win for all of us: they do better work, they learn more, I talk / lecture a lot less, we build shared resources, we laugh at the idiosyncrasies and unintended hilarities of the RNG.

Do you have a favourite or unexpected ed-tech? I’m always looking for more classroom hacks.

 

classrooms · inconvenience · teaching · Uncategorized

Classroom design and architectural determinism

You can learn a lot about an institution from its classrooms. The politics, values, and pinch-points inadvertently reveal themselves in infrastructure, I find.

In general, the classrooms I teach in attempt to squeeze too many students into a space designed for fewer of them. That’s problem number 1. One of our alumni, who took his degree in the 1970s when our building was new, remembers all of his classes having between 8 and 15 students (some of them smoking!) in classrooms that now have tables and chairs for 18-25. If someone at the back needs to get up, pretty much everyone else has to stand up and move out of the way.

Problem number 2 is that when these rooms are “redesigned” or “refurbished” the after condition is often worse than the before. The brown brick classrooms in my building, with chalkboards and pull-down screens and projectors bolted into the ceiling have now all been repainted retinal-burn white, have whiteboards that are actually wall paint and can only bear one brand of marker and be wiped only with a special rag (most classrooms have neither rag nor markers available) and instead of a screen there’s a giant wall mounted TV the people keep hitting their heads on. The instructor console is bolted to the wall now, so you have to turn your back on the class and stand up and lean in to use it. I hit people with my butt a lot this way.

The upward pressure on class sizes is visible here, as is the trend to one-size-fits all, vendor-led classroom design. There was a time when we taught classes of 12 students, and this time haunts us in the rooms we’re left with: too small for what we’re trying to do now, the awkwardness and discomfort of the new arrangements physically felt by everyone.

The bureacratization, managerialism, and business-ing of higher education is manifest in classroom redesigns that very, very clearly took no input at all from either students or teachers: I imagine it was all vendors, IT people, plant operations, and budget staff who did this. The rooms are literally unusable. So in one room I have to hit students with my butt to show some powerpoints and half of them have to move seats in order to see it. In the other room I’m teaching in right now, where there’s never any markers and no cloth, the classroom clock is hung in the middle of the painted-white-board wall that is most often obscured by the pull down screen. The students are seated stadium style (there are only 25 of them) and the rows are too close together, or too close to the wall, for me to walk past them without touching some part of my torso against the backs of their heads. No.

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Yeah. I “erased” this as hard as I could.

It’s depressing.

In my ideal classroom the seating is flexible, so we can move it if we have to. I need the seating spaced enough that I can easily walk around the room. At the very least I should be able to walk to some vantage point where I can see their laptop screens. Crowded classrooms with inflexible media arrangements enforce a separation of the front of the room from the rest of it, a separation I feel keenly when I can’t even manoeuvre my way to my students to answer a group-work question, or hand back a marked paper. I can’t walk around during writing time to see what people’s screens are showing. This classroom turns it into me and them, not us. I hate that.

In my ideal classroom the technology serves teaching and learning, rather than serving as the kind of sun around which we must all orbit. Most of the projectors, for example, cover the whiteboard area, and can’t be ‘muted’–which means if the projector is on, it stays on and you can’t use the board. If you turn it off, it goes through its whole routine, and then again if you want to turn it back on. Flexible, it ain’t.

There are always tradeoffs in any situation, I understand. But as I watch all the rooms around me get retrofitted to be somehow uglier, more crowded, and even less usable than before, I fear we show a different set of values as an institution, a kind of carelessness or committee-think that has forgotten that classrooms are for students, and they are for teachers, to work together, to build something magic. All the phone calls because the TV is not working, or not being able to use the paintboard because someone else used the wrong marker, or shouting across the room at people because you just can’t get to where they are? That’s not it.

What does your ideal classroom look like?

best laid plans · new year new plan · teaching · twitter

Draining & Sustaining: My Relationship With Social Media

I like to think of myself as a pretty dependable correspondent. Email, text, social media: I’m on it. And if I’m not responding then I am there, listening. I know the conversations, the key talking points, the hot takes and the thorough think-pieces. I can point you to a dozen “important” conversations in my field (which is, cough cough, Canadian literature…)  At the very least, regardless of the length of my to-do list, I get the emails sent on time. I tweet back. I message. I respond. I engage. I try and listen. But today when I signed in to schedule my post and found two dozen emails, a few direct messages on Twitter, eighteen notifications on Facebook, and read Aimée’s piece on Lindy West’s departure from Twitter for the first time (she published it four days ago) I finally had to admit what other people have known for a while: I’m dropping some balls.

Or rather, I am tired. Existentially. Politically. Poetically, even, if you count the gorgeous one-liners I think up in the liminal space between waking and sleeping. What has tired me out, I think, is not social media per se, but rather what my friend Sue Goyette identified the other day as the slippage between impact and intent. Let me break it down: I love Facebook for the news. It keeps me in contact with people I would otherwise have long lost touch with. Sure, we don’t write to one another daily, but seeing photos and thoughts and comments from far-flung friends and acquaintances has broadened my access to other people’s lives and perspectives. It isn’t a stretch to say I feel enriched by the connections of many people I know and “know” on Facebook. I like Twitter too. I like the speed of conversation, the way that information and ideas and writing and news travels. It feeds the impatient part of me (a big part of me…)

But for about two years now social media has felt at least equal parts draining and sustaining. I have been trying to mark a moment when that shift started happening, and I think there are, for me, two. The first was when Chief Theresa Spence was on her hunger strike in Ottawa, and the second was was when Emma Healey published her brave, necessary, and gutting “Stories Like Passwords” on The Hairpin. There have been many many more moments since these two, but for me those events mark moments in my digital life when it was made clear to me that hate–in the form of racism and misogyny and rape culture–was so clearly fed and fanned by the conditions of social media.

I’m fortunate: I’ve not been cyber-bullied. I’ve only had a handful of rape threats on Twitter. I am not a lightening rod for charged conversation. I have friends, mentors, and acquaintances who are, and while I am so grateful to them and in awe of their energy, I worry for them. I can see the toll it takes, being constantly accessible. Feeling, I suspect, constantly responsible.

And so, as we head into this new year with its uncertainties and ruptures I find myself wanting not resolutions but reorientations. I aim to reorient my relationship with speedy responses. Yes, I’ll respond to students and colleagues on time. But perhaps I won’t keep Facebook on my phone. Maybe I will schedule time for social media and when that time is up it is up. Maybe I won’t do any of this and bring it to my students as a case study for letting ourselves fail and learning from our failures. Who knows. What I do know is this: I’m working to be more generous in my engagements with others–online, in the classroom, in my home, and with myself. And sometimes being generous means taking a moment and a step back.

So here’s to a new term, dear readers. Here’s to another Monday, another opportunity to take a tiny moment for ourselves to reorient how we’re moving through the worlds and with and alongside others. And here’s to writing and reading feminist work. We need it, we’re going to need it.

adjuncts · inequality · pedagogy · student engagement · teaching

Students Respond to the Adjunct Crisis

Adjunct professors have been described as part of the “working poor”: the highest educated and lowest paid workers in the United States. They are group of contingent labourers who work at poverty-level rates, shuttle between multiple campuses, have little to no job security, and struggle to climb themselves out once they enter the sessional circuit. Critiques of the increasing “adjunctification” of universities usually focus on the plight of the adjuncts themselves, collecting stories of overwork, despair, and uncertainty. But the undergraduate students for whose education these adjuncts are responsible are often left completely ignorant of the hierarchical system, assuming all professors are paid relatively the same amount, a sustainable and permanent salary. Why keep them out of the loop when the crisis has such an indelible affect on them, their education, and their futures? 
My two current Composition II classes read and discussed this Atlantic article about the issue, and most were shocked. Here are some of the tweets that emerged from that discussion (remember, my class tweets). 
(Siiiiighhhhh to that last one…)

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsIn addition to tweeting, some students compiled this collective statement including a few personal anecdotes: 

As undergraduate students, we are very concerned with how the increasing reliance on temporary workers, who are paid per course and granted no financial security, is affecting our education, especially since we pay an exorbitant amount in tuition dollars.
Professors and adjuncts are the backbone of secondary education, but full-time professors should not be treated better than adjuncts. University students pay an incredible amount to attend private schools such as Fordham and adjuncts should be earning more out of that tuition. 
Adrianna Kezar, head of the University of Southern California’s Delphi Project, stated that “institutions that have large numbers of adjuncts or students that take lots of classes with adjuncts have lower graduation rates.” This is a one way that the adjunct crisis is affecting us as students, and how it could potentially affect our futures. What could be the possible reason for this? 
In addition, as a student paying a considerable amount for my education, it pains me to see that the school I chose and attend treats its employees with such unfairness. How can some faculty make a six-figure income, while some adjuncts are earning a salary of $20,000? Ultimately, I’m supporting an institution that is capable of fixing this crisis, yet chooses not to.
“One of my favorite professors this semester revealed to us that he is an adjunct.  He always goes out of his way to keep class interesting and even planned a class trip to the New York Philharmonic.  When describing being an adjunct, it was evident that he was discouraged with his current situation, for he has an Ivy League education and it seems that he is/was hoping for more permanency in his occupation.”
“I was recently talking to one of my friends about the adjunct crisis. As a chemistry major, she told me she was interested in doing research with her chemistry professor this year. However, when she asked her professor if there were any opportunities available, he told her since he is an adjunct professor, he does not have a lab to work in and therefore cannot allow students to conduct research under him. This situation shows that hiring professors as adjuncts ultimately leaves students at a disadvantage, as students are deprived of opportunities to learn and research due to the lack of resources given to adjuncts.” 
According to BBC, Uber drivers in the United Kingdom are entitled to holiday pay, rest breaks, and the National Living Wage. Uber drivers are entitled to benefits, but the professors and educators teaching the next generation are not? 
As students at a University it can often seem like the adjunct crisis is out of our control. The grand structure and distribution of jobs and wealth come from the control of a higher power. But these are our professors, and this is our education. As a student body we should stand in solidarity with adjuncts and work together to make our voices heard.

—–

Let’s keep talking with our students, listening to our students, and as they themselves have said, building broader solidarity with each other and with staff and faculty at all levels of higher education–across Canada and the US alike. 

classrooms · community · compassion · pedagogy · social media · student engagement · teaching

Tweeting the Classroom

Students have more to say than we realize. And we do them a disservice when we don’t give them an opportunity to contribute their wit, critiques, and independent inquiries to the course.

That’s what using Twitter as a teaching tool does for me. Of course, classroom time allows for critical and creative discussion, and I design many exercises that encourage the voicing of student opinions and perspectives. But invariably, some voices become heard over others, and some quieter students relax under the comfortable knowledge that other, more confident, and louder students will speak up if they don’t. For the two sections of Composition & Rhetoric that I’m teaching this term, each student must tweet four times per week. I state on my syllabus that “tweets may be creative, inquisitive, analogical, humorous, playful, critical, and/or informative,” offering suggestions for questions that could be asked or YouTube links that could be given (you can view my full syllabus on academia.edu. I must confess my indebtedness to Megan Cook of Colby College for her generosity in sharing her syllabi, upon which some of my Twitter guidelines are based). Tweeting makes extra-sense for this class because we spend our first month discussing the communicative advantages of social media, so in a very real way we’re performing what we’re theorizing. In case some of you are wondering how on earth I keep track of everyone’s individual tweets, I don’t–I require that they keep a personal log of their required 4/week, which they will submit at the end of the term. It’s pass-fail.

Even though I don’t monitor and record every tweet, I do follow along using columns on Tweetdeck, “liking” posts, responding to particularly thoughtful or provocative points, and often integrating the content and material of the tweets into classroom discussions. It’s a perfect enactment of the decentered classroom that I describe in my Teaching Philosophy Statement: students learn to exercise their own voices and actively contribute to the evolving dialogue of the course as it unfolds.

Last week, for example, I had assigned the second of three episodes in Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast dealing with higher education, on the relationship between dining facilities and financial aid for low-income students at Vassar and Bowdoin Colleges (both elite liberal arts schools on the East Coast). Leading up to the class, I could identify a few problems with his narrative but in general found it convincingly and effectively told, offering some important commentary on the amenities war currently inflating university budgets at the expense of better funding for students’ education and faculty salaries. The night before, one of my students posted an article in Inside Higher Ed that essentially blows apart the logic of Gladwell’s approach, showing that the correlation between enhanced dining services and low-income students is not as direct as Gladwell indicates, and outlining the lopsided nature of his investigations. In class, then, we were able to establish the admirable qualities of the podcast and then I pulled out the article the student had tweeted as a contrasting critique. This made for an effective classroom discussion of the pros and cons of Gladwell’s storytelling approach, and it was almost entirely student-driven. Twitter thereby serves both to keep students engaged outside of class, and can also repopulate classroom discussion.

I am of course not the only one who has used Twitter in (but more properly outside of) the classroom. Others within my field of medieval literature set the social media platform to various creative uses. Reading through these posts, I realize I am still very much a Twitter novice. Just as a sample: Kisha Tracy (@kosho22) has created a great video account of her experience, complete with student feedback; Sjoerd Levelt (@Slevelt) had students write out tweets as different characters of The Iliad, and Laura Varnam (@lauravarnam) did something similar for Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. A number of scholars have translated medieval texts into tweets, beginning with Elaine Treharne’s translation of Beowulf.  Twitter offers ample opportunities to reveal the continued relevance of centuries-old texts in the present, help students feel more confident articulating their own perspectives, and counter the condescension that, in my opinion, is rampant toward undergraduates amongst professors and instructors (the sense that they can’t comprehend complex issues, that quietness is a reflection of ignorance, that the teacher naturally has a better grasp of course material).

Students, as Tracy’s video shows, are inspired and further motivated when reading their peers’ tweets, producing an enhanced and more cohesive learning community. In my class, inside jokes have formed, such as a photo of ice cream my student posted with the tag #relatable, which makes an ironic play on our in-class discussion about “relatability” as a distinctively modern and generally narcissistic phenomenon that encourages passive thinking. Twitter also aids memory retention and helps students become more active thinkers and readers; even something as simple as posting a line from an article that resonates with you involves critical processes of selection and amplification.

Admittedly, my students’ tweets do not always contribute productively to classroom content. I had to give a gentle reminder in class the other day that posts like “I’m so excited for my presentation tomorrow!” or “off to the museum to complete my assignment!” don’t really count toward the required four, even as they might be fine posts on their own. There is a difference between normative social media use and classroom use, and we are learning to distinguish between these different rhetorical situations while also discussing the meaning of rhetorical situations in-class. I also need to find ways to encourage students to respond to each other more, as I’m not always sure they’re reviewing the course hashtag. Finally, it’s a little bit personally stifling to have my own Twitter account so exposed amongst my classes. But after a bad experience last year with a tweet gone awry, I decided that it’s better to embrace the openness of social media and accept the fact that students read what I post, though this inevitably means fewer angry political rants or off-handed comments about my own work-related exhaustion. Since I’m on the job market, though, maybe this increased self-censure is necessary.

Sometimes students’ off-handed banter does express a sophisticated understanding of issues we discuss in class, such as this tweet (reproduced with permission; thanks Vera!):

Vera refers to a NYT article we read, “The Busy Trap,” that argues against rampant busyness* in modern society, basically suggesting that we should all be hermits in the woods rather than privileging productivity and industry over relationships or creative downtime. While I love the core argument here that we need to set aside time and space for activities that don’t build into some productivist superstructure, we all agreed as a class that being overworked is not necessarily self-imposed, and there are unavoidable limitations to setting aside time for self-care. In other words, Kreider’s argument is essentially privileged, and students at a place like Fordham face very different challenges and pressures. This builds into my broader sense that we need to be compassionate toward and receptive to our students, and open to hearing their grievances and perspectives. I truly believe, and see all the time, that students at Fordham are beset with anxiety and a pervasive pressure to succeed, mostly because the cost of attending Fordham hovers around $65 000/year (uhh……you heard that right, Canada.). And so, yes, students (and their parents) want to make their tuition dollars “worth it” in the form of future gainful employment employment. In her tweet, Vera’s hashtags give further context for her case against Kreider, and voice her personal frustration with her heavy college workload while responding in an intelligent way to course content. In this sense, Twitter can also encourage students to engage with course material on a personal level, integrating the messages of readings into their everyday life.

I guess what I’m saying is–I still really like Twitter! It helps me get to know my students better and generally enhances our classroom experience by generating continuities and cohesions. I hope to expand its use in my future literature courses as well.

And what about you, readers? How has Twitter worked/not worked for you in your courses?
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affect · being undone · loneliness · teaching

On being lonely in university

A Huffington Post article made its way into my Facebook feed, last week, describing how “Almost 70% of University Students Admit to Feeling Lonely.” I clicked it because I remember the absolutely crippling loneliness of much of my undergraduate years. The post led to original news story on the topic at CBC, that details the study more closely, and outlines what staff at the University of Winnipeg are doing to support students. It links as well to a Washington Post article describing the terrible health effects of loneliness–“molecular level” physiological effects comparable to diabetes! smoking! obesity!

So go make some friends! suggests the article. In fact, there’s a different HuffPo story on “How to Cope with Loneliness at University“–spoiler alert, you cope with loneliness by making friends! The CBC story is a little more nuanced, giving space to several employees from a campus wellness program at the University of Winnipeg describing counselling and support interventions offered to students. Still, students have to seek these out.

If you’ve ever been really lonely–not solitary, not introverted, but lonely–you will know at least one thing: it’s such a terrible feeling that no one resides in it willingly, and if you knew how to be less lonely, you would do it. . People risk loneliness by coming to university, full of people, but people who are already established in campus networks, or everyone else uprooted from their home contexts and starting from nothing. If you don’t live in residence, or socialize easily while wearing multiple sets of beads and a ridiculous hat, while shouting university fight songs, it can be hard to make connections. Doubly hard if you commute from away, or if you have family obligations, or are an international student, an older student. If you are a graduate student, for whom not even these forced social encounters are organized.

I don’t know how fair it is to ask the lonely to just “make some friends!” or even necessarily to reach out for formal help.

What if we asked the non-lonely to do something instead? How might those among us blessed with social connections and a feeling of community help incorporate lonely undergrads, lonely graduate students, lonely professors?

What can we do in our classrooms, our department get-togethers and meetings, our course materials and assignments, to help ease this heavy burden of isolation?

One thing I’m still trying to do is to move beyond my own comfort zone–so hard won!–and interact with new people at events. I have been running formal and informal writing groups that make space for simple chat, and for being alone together in a common cause. In my classes, I will continue to find new ways to structure activities so that students have opportunities to meaningfully interact with one another–one of the simplest tricks being that each group has to nominate someone to introduce all the members to the class, or making space for students to have negative feelings, or having all the students send me an email introducing themselves and their interests, and I respond to it in kind.

Loneliness in higher education is real. I have at various times and stages suffered terribly from it myself, and felt completely powerless to change my situation. I think now that I’m more secure and supported, it’s time for me to be part of the solution. You? Have you suffered academic or other loneliness? How do you reach out to others?

fast feminism · generational mentorship · intolerant shrew · slow academy · teaching

The unbearable privilege of cynicism

Ron Srigley is doing it again. Last fall, he was in the LA Review of Books bemoaning the unrelenting vapidity of today’s university students, the soul-crushing inanity of teaching, the hollow commercialism of pedagogy, riven with “fads” like student-centred learning and the flipped classroom. And now again in the Walrus. Students are stupid and lazy. Teaching is meaningless. The university is hollow. “Pedagogy” is a farce. It’s a race to the bottom.

Only Srigley knows better, has standards, cares.

Much of the press has lapped it up. He is a truth teller, bravely thumbing his nose at power! He is leaping over the wall of the ivory tower to share its dirty secrets with parents! He says difficult things that need saying! Even if we don’t want to hear them! (Except everyone seems to want to hear them and say them, at least people who are not actually university professors, or university students, or pedagogy scholars). He’s the Donald Drumpf of higher ed.

Many reasonable people have produced thoughtful responses to the substance of what he’s written, some from a collegial perspective, others simply on formal logical grounds.

That’s not what I’m thinking about today. I’m thinking about how ready the world is to hear such things from Srigley, and why. Of course, conservative publications love him: he confirms their dim view of the university as a kooky liberal bastion of anything-goes hedonism. But why Srigley? I suspect it’s because he looks like many people expect a professor to: male, fluffy white hair, dark thick-rimmed glasses, a serious look. You go Google image search him. Then click on this: if you dare.

“Everybody is stupid, except me!”

What I’m saying, first is this: Srigley walks into the discussion with view that people are primed to want to hear. And he walks into the discussion with this tremendous amount of identity privilege. He is a living, breathing confirmation bias for everyone who only knows about university from watching movies.

How powerful is this privilege? Powerful. I’m going to say this advisedly and carefully: you will see Srigley described over and over as “professor of philosophy.” He is a career adjunct, touring North Bay and Sudbury, Ontario, and on annual contract at the University of Prince Edward Island. Powerful and conferring high status this career is not. His CV proudly lists a book published with the Edwin Mellen Press–you know, the one most famous for suing Dale Askey, for naming them as a vanity press of the first order. But no one links Srigley to adjunct employment conditions (dire) or the question of status among institutions (barbaric) or the notion of maintaining a research profile in an itinerant and no doubt heavy teaching career (an impossible bind). Nope. He’s just Professor. Expert. Authority. Because he says things that confirm people’s authoritarian biases and distaste for youth, and because he looks the way he does: white, male, cranky.

I am going to guess that hell would have to freeze over before Srigley self-identified as “adjunct” or even “teaching-track”. I’m going to guess he knows, implicitly and calculatingly, that he would lose status through this identification. And status is something he can fabricate out of thin air. Or out of privilege.

So Srigley becomes famous, basically, for complaining. And he’s a hero. For complaining. For calling his students and his colleagues stupid and shallow. For this he’s called brave.

Contemplate for a moment how far up the ladder of prestige and esteem such a strategy would get you, dear Hook & Eye readers, you marvellous and hard-working women teaching your hearts out as graduate students, as tenure-track faculty, as teaching track faculty, as Associates, as sessionals. Is the world ready to boost your voice when you decry classroom overcrowding? When you lament you have no office? When you suggest you are not sufficiently trained to do the main part of your job, and you want help? When structural constraints push you into Scantron multiple-choice exams when you would prefer essays? When you note that students don’t want Friday classes because they’re working at jobs for 20 hours a week to pay for tuition? And perhaps that’s why they’re not so perky in class? Probably not.

In fact, a key status-building activity for Srigley and his ilk lies precisely in the sort of move he makes in his op-eds: call everyone else stupid, and disavow, especially, teaching–the dirty work of the academy, the care work, the feminized labour.

The Srigley Manoeuvre(tm) is, thus, really only available to conservative white dudes, and the glory of it is you get plaudits for not doing a damn thing at all. (See also: I’m a liberal professor and my liberal students terrify me). Me (and you, I imagine), I hold a tiny bit of my soul in my hands every class I walk in to. If today’s group work didn’t work, then I’m going to redo next-day’s lesson plan to try it a different way. If the writing on the final paper is poor one year, I’m going to rejig the whole course so it’s writing-focused from day 1. If my students don’t know something I think they should know I try to teach it to them. And I sit in committees on curriculum. And I attend teaching workshops. And I engage my students every day as if they were human beings who mattered, who have stories.

Could this sound any more like care work? Could I feminize this description any more, make it sound less like what many expect to be “the life of the mind” and any more like exactly the sort of “handholding” Srigley stakes his whole career against? Probably not. It’s exhausting but it’s my job and I’m actually doing it and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t but it is my duty and my vocation to teach my discipline to the students who enrol in my courses and by God, I’m going to try.

So are you. Srigley is not: he’s climbed on his high horse and mistaken throwing insults for revolution, hot air for hard work, his rejection of 2016 for a principled stance for classical values.

And that he gets so much attention for it should remind us all how far you can go on pure privilege, and bashing those less powerful than you, how far you can go by slipping into the easy stream of gendering and deprecating care work and marking as manly and principled the act of saying “no” to anyone who needs your help.

advice · grading · protip · teaching

How to Grade Faster

Last week I covered how to get a lot of grading done in any given day, by managing the macro and meta elements: minimize distractions, take real breaks, fool yourself into working in chunks, etc.

But what about where the pen hits the paper, and the grade goes in the grade book? Many of us find this part hard as well. I have more tips. So this is a post about how to grade faster, which essentially means grading with more confidence, as it seems to me that we take sooooooo long sometimes because we’re not sure we’re doing it right. Alternately, we sometimes mistake grading harder for grading better. TL;DR: grade for some things but not everything, and trick yourself into thinking you know what you’re doing.

Basically, there are two parts to grading. First, marking the document, leaving comments, writing marginalia, crafting meaningful feedback. Second, assigning a grade. Let’s do both of these things faster.

Marking the document faster

My tip, basically, is this:

  • Know what you’re grading for.
Oh sure, easy to say, but what does it mean? Some people find rubrics really helpful: if you create a grid that lists the things that are being assessed, and use checkmarks in the grid to give feedback, you can be really focused. Rubrics are great for that. Rubrics also help students parse your feedback (and their grade) and that is also great. Rubrics can help everyone be more efficient: you look for the things in the assignment that match the rubric, and you assess. Me, personally, I hate using formal rubrics like that, because I find the format overwhelming and for me it makes me feel like it’s more work rather than less. But I can still get the same effect using other means.
I was lucky to attend a university Teaching Excellence Academy a bunch of years ago, where I was introduced to the idea of intended learning outcomes: for a given course, I identify several things I want the students to know, or be able to do, by the end of the semester. And then, miracle, I design the assessments around those outcomes. So for me, a key component of grading faster is to undertake more thoughtful assessment design.
For example, when I was starting out, I used to always assign big research papers in all my courses, because that’s what you do in English, right? So for a media history and methods course, I would get these 12 page final papers that I would helplessly pour over, looking for content mastery, and sophisticated and appropriate use of media theory or methodology, and good writing, and good research skills. It took ages. It was also, usually, just disappointing on all fronts, except for those 2 students who should just skip past the rest of the BA and MA and PhD and just get tenure right now. And half the time the students never even picked up their papers.
Now, sometimes I use exams to test content knowledge. I use group work to test interpretive creativity and flexibility.  I have small assignments where students apply a theory or method to a given text. I have assignments where they do research on a topic and make a bibliography. No one assessment is meant to be truly comprehensive; each assignment has one main point I’m trying to test and one main skill I’m trying to teach, so when I grade I’m just looking for a very small number of things. Annotated Bibliography? Are the citations in MLA format, did you find sources of different types, are the sources appropriate to your paper? I can grade that in five minutes–the first two points are purely mechanical, and so the last bit is where I spend four of the five minutes. 
My assignment sheets lay out, in bullet point, what I want, and I go over that very carefully with students ahead of time (which is a learning opportunity!), and then I have the assignment sheet in front of me when I grade, which functions like a rubric, sort of, but allows me to just give two or three sentences of holistic feedback.
Basically, to mark faster, you need to mark deliberately, and this comes from careful assessment design. Basically, I try to design assessments that give the maximum learning opportunity to students for the minimum amount of marking and grading. On my final exam, for instance, there’s a terms-and-definitions section. In advance of the exam, we take class time to brainstorm a giant possible list of terms from the whole semester, and work on crafting definitions. We’ll get something like 40 or 50. I tell them 15 will be on the exam, and they have to define 10. The learning is already happening in class in this exercise (and it’s no prep at all for me). And do you know how long it takes to grade 10 term definitions on an exam? It takes less than two minutes: you got it right, or you didn’t. On a topic and thesis statement assignment, I’m asking two questions: is the topic appropriate/to scale? and is your thesis arguable/to scale? 2 minutes to assess, 3 or 4 minutes to give feedback to aid in revisions.
So faster marking is a function of better assessment design, and really staying focused on one or two things that you’re really looking for.
And stop copyediting your students’ papers. It’s overwhelming for everyone, and it doesn’t help.

How to Assign a Grade Faster.

You can, again, use a rubric. They’re still awesome for all the reasons above. But I still find it really hard to use them. So I don’t. I have other tricks.
Teach a course several times, with the same assessments. Many of us have no choice at all in which courses we teach, but it is often the case that many courses we are assigned are repeats. Sheer familiarity with the assignments and experience of a range of possible student responses to those assignments will make it easier to assign a number to the very first paper you grab. You get used to it.
Ask colleagues or chairs what the average in the course tends to be. Sometimes you can pretty easily assess the merits of one paper relative to another (this one is better / worse than that one, and both of them are better / worse than this third one) but aren’t sure what number to assign. If you find out from your chair or ask colleagues who teach the same course what the average tends to be in that course, you have a kind of benchmark. You can also ask about the range of grades students tend to get. Maybe first year courses at your school tend to have an overall average final grade of 77. Or maybe it’s 87. Maybe student grades tend to run the breadth of 60-100. Or maybe they tend to clump between 76-90. Absolute grades are usually harder for newer teachers especially to determine, even if we know the relative rank of each paper against every other. Ask.
Do relative ranking in piles on the floor. As a first pass, if you’re having a really hard time assigning numbers, drop each paper on the floor after you have marked it up and written your feedback (that is, all that’s missing the number). First one goes in the middle. Next one is better (to the right), worse (to the left), or the same-ish (on top)–you’re making a right-left axis here. I tend to make piles in what I imagine are five percentage point increments, because otherwise the pile becomes a fan, and each paper gets harder and harder to place. I stagger papers on the pile, so a pile with six papers in it stretches further up, like a bar graph, than a pile with 2 papers in it (that is, this is the up-down axis). Once you’re done with all the papers, there will be a natural distribution visible. You can shuffle the piles to reassess outliers, but now you can say the big middle clump is going to be from 80-85, and then have a look at those six papers and slap a number on each, relative to the others in the pile. And then continue along the left-right axis until they’re all graded.
That’s it. Those are my tips. I’m brutally efficient at grading, and I almost never get any grade complaints: these mostly tend to be when I’ve entered the grade wrong in the spreadsheet, or lost someone’s assignment. It’s going to be okay: it’s important work, but no one is going to die if you give someone an 81 when they really should have got (perhaps) an 83. It is possible to grade a lot faster than you probably do, and if you do it right, student outcomes and student learning will be improved, not diminished.
As always, I’m happy to hear any of your tips in the comments!
advice · grading · teaching

How to Grade a Lot

This is my Month of Grading. I have 40 students in my first year Digital Lives class, and as this class counts as writing intensive, well, it’s also grading intensive. In practice, this means they have a 400 paper due week 4, which I give them extensive feedback on, leading into a revised version of this same paper due week 6. The back half of the term is about the research paper, and there’s a stepped assignment for that due every Tuesday from week 8 until week 12, when the final paper comes in.

So my grading issues are twofold. First, for the short papers, I have to give extensive formative feedback to guide their revisions, and then grade those new papers in light of the first round of feedback. Second, for the assignments building up to the essay (Topic and Thesis statement, then Annotated Bibliography, then Introductory Paragraph, then Draft Workshop, then Research Paper Final Version) I have to give formative feedback to guide the next steps, but I have to grade it really really fast: things get handed in on Tuesday, and I return them on Thursday, so that they can have the feedback in hand as they craft the next Tuesday’s assignment.

I’ve had a lot of years of trial and error to get this mostly functional for me. And I even get 8 hours of sleep, most nights. If you have to grade a lot, I have some tips. This week, I’ll cover the general useful tips, and next week, I’ll cover some specific tips on how I give individual feedback to 40 people without repeating myself too much or getting sarcastic or gouging my own eyes out.

Most general useful tips:

  1. put your phone in a different room
  2. if possible turn the internet off on your computer, if you need it to write feedback
  3. break the big pile into a series of smaller piles, and grade in units of Small Pile
  4. take breaks
  5. know thyself; plan assignments (and thus your grading) accordingly
Put your phone in a different room. I am very, very, very easily distracted. And grading is hard, and it’s a slog, and the mountain of stuff seems unclimbable, and so I really, really deserve to have a little break to check my Facebook, right? Except I noticed that when I keep my phone beside me, sometimes I take a little break in between reading a paper and giving feedback, and I lose my train of thought. Or I spend 10 minutes grading a bibliography, then spend 10 minutes on Buzzfeed. Or I start texting my sister. Or I decide now is a good time to start Googling landscaping companies. And when I put the phone down to get back to grading, I’ve lost my flow and my eyes are tired and I don’t really even feel like I’ve had a break. So now the phone is on the breakfast bar downstairs, and I am in my grading chair in my home office. Because I have no self-control: luckily, I’m lazier about getting out of my chair that I am curious about that penguin who thinks a human is his family.
Turn off the internet on your computer. If the phone beside you is like having a cupcake at your elbow and trying not to eat it, using your computer to grade while having the internet turned on (and your notifications running) is like putting the cupcake in your mouth and trying not to chew it. Impossible. Some online/grading is unavoidable. My course has online quizzes that only live on the intertubes. I grade those by first turning off my notifications, closing my main browser totally, shutting all my other programs and opening one lonely window that’s got nothing but quizzes in it. If my students submit longer pieces via a dropbox or otherwise electronically, I batch download them to my own computer, and then shut off the wifi. If I’m grading on paper, I put the computer in the room where the phone is, and pretend it’s 1990.
Break the big pile into a series of smaller piles. Today I’m going to grade 40 annotated bibliographies. Shit. That’s a lot. Picking them off the pile one at a time feels very unsatisfying and Sisyphean. No one paper reduces the pile by very much, or increases the Success! pile by very much. Grading one paper more or less doesn’t seem to matter, so it’s easy to just keep taking breaks, or having naps because none of it matters I’ll never finish anyways. So now I make piles. That pile of 40 will get sorted into five piles of 8. Now I only have five things to grade! I know that these assignments will take about 8-10 minutes to grade, so I’m looking at grading for about an hour, and being 20% done! Then I can take a break! Then grade for another hour or so, and I’ll be 40% done! I can’t quite explain how this effect works, but it does. Your piles might be bigger or smaller, depending on how much you can handle in one sitting. For exams, I grade 40 at a time, but one question only. For final essays, I plan the day so that the first pile has the most and the last pile has the least, because that’s really tiring work and as the day proceeds I need more breaks: 5 papers then a break, then 5 papers then a break, then 4 papers then a break, then 3 papers then a break, then 2 papers then a break, then one final paper. That’s 20 papers graded in one day, which, when I phrase it like that, seems impossible and awful, but in my piles system is entirely doable.
Take breaks. This is crucial. After I grade 8 bibliographies, I’m going to gather all the towels in the house, put them in a laundry basket, run them down to the basement, start the laundry, make a coffee, and run back upstairs. That is, I will move my body quickly for about 10 minutes, then get a treat. And then I will grade again. After that pile, I will put my shoes on and take the dog for a 15 minute walk. And then I will grade again. After that pile I will make a nice lunch and stare out the window for a while. It is essential that the break be the opposite of grading. Grading is sitting very still in my chair and thinking and writing words. So, Facebook is not a break, because I’m still in the chair writing words and thinking. My dog is the opposite of grading. Doing laundry is the opposite of grading. Making a potato pancake and watching the birds and squirrels in my backyard is the opposite of grading. You need to come back to the grading refreshed, to feel like you’ve really done something very different. And your break needs to feel like a real reward. Man, I really want to go outside with the dog today, but there’s 16 things to grade before I can do that.
Know thyself. I hate grading online, so I get my students to hand stuff in on paper. This has saved me endless procrastination and frustration. I always know everyone’s final paper grade somewhere on the first page of reading, so I’ve started making shorter paper assignments. Grading is really taxing for me, so I need to clump it into days at home where I can walk the dog or do my laundry and just really do nothing but grade and break for a whole day with no other obligations. So this is how I’ve organized my semester. Over the years, I’ve come to accept that the way I work is the way I work: I’ve tried to optimize my Best Way with what the students need, and I think I’ve been pretty successful. And my life is a lot easier now that I’m doing things the ways that best suit me.
All of these tips apply to all grading situations: quizzes, exams, papers, stepped assignments. These are the things I keep in mind or practice every time I grade, no matter what. Next week, I’ll write more about some specific situations: giving useful and individual feedback, how to make sure students use it, how to manage tone.
What are your tips? Margrit had some tips for us last year, some of which are different from mine! Discuss!