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better late than never

A bit behind schedule on the Monday post this week — apologies.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this ProfHacker post about teaching evening classes when you are not yourself a night person.  My classes don’t go as late at the author of that post (almost to the start of The Daily Show?! are you kidding me?!) and I’m blessed with a very short walking commute home from work, but I still find evening classes difficult.  I am, after all, keen to get into my pyjamas shortly after dinner (or occasionally before).  This semester coming up, I’m additionally concerned about how to structure my time because I’ll be teaching classes from 8 am Monday and Wednesday, and then switching gears to a night class on Thursday and back to a noon-3 slot on Friday.  It’s going to make for a strange schedule in terms of getting my own work done, so I’ve been reading up on strategies for managing the time.

One thing I intend to do a better job of this year is thinking about the placement of course material within the class time.  My night class is a children’s literature course, so saving some of the more animated topics for the end of class could be a useful strategy.  I’m thinking something along the lines of lecture/content delivery for the first hour, small group activities for the second, and full class discuss for the last.

Those of you who teach night classes on the regular, what advice do you have?  (Especially if you’re a morning person at heart!)

get yer game on: the pros and cons of gamification

I’m thinking a lot about the good and bad things about gamification.  I’m planning to gamify my first-year classes in the fall, and I know I tend to be a bit starry-eyed about the possibilities the concept offers.

Gamification in education is the idea of building classwork around the similar kinds of rewards as in games — levels and badges and so on.  In my case, I’m planning to use it to make the course webspace more appealing; there are only so many grades I can attach to participation in the online space given the other writing assignments and exams, but I want to provide some “bonus” incentive to engaging with blog posting and participating in lecture prep*.

I realized how well gamification works for me by using the Kobo Reading Life app for my iPad.  I like the badges immensely.  I always liked the completionist aspect of video games — I wanted all the coins, and similarly, even when engaged with an activity I already enjoy immensely (reading), I want to get all the badges.  I get a charge out of discovering new ones.

I wonder about the extent to which this is generational.

Because I am so charged up by this idea, it’s crucial that I think a lot about the negatives and how to resolve them. I have two in mind.

The first is that some students will prefer not to engage in the gamified class elements.  I’ve read a few blogs where students have felt disconnected, especially when the gamification is linked to grades.  My major workaround for that is that the badges etc. will all be a completely optional bonus.  Not tied to grades, just intended to add a little fun and levity to online discussions.

The other concern is a deeper one.  Do things like gamification strip away a student’s inherent interest in learning by making external a motivation that should be internal?  That’s a deeper philosophical question, and one I don’t really have an answer for just yet.

Do you gamify your classes?  Does it work?

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*Side note: My key idea for the fall is to have a wiki space set up for students to help develop the lectures collaboratively, providing questions they would like answered in class or commenting on areas they would like to explore in more detail.  Perhaps more info on this in another blog post, if’n you’re interested.

on group work

I’m teaching a half-online class this semester — it follows a typical hybrid learning model, with half the class conversation happening in person, two hours a week, and the other half happening in an online space (Blackboard, in our case).  I’ve assigned a group project this semester where students need to engage in some kind of public online space.  This project has me nervous for a few reasons: poorly organized group project caused me such great stress as a student and I don’t want to inflict that; I’m terrified of being unfair in the evaluation; I worry that students won’t engage with it.  I do think, however, that the public aspect of this learning is going to be really interesting; like last semester’s Wikipedia project, I think higher-level learning can and often does take place when the stakes are higher as in a public space.

But the group proposals have come in and I’m so excited to see what students are coming up with.  Elaborate blogs in character voices, an entire social media life for a character (complete with PlentyOfFish online dating profile!), youtube performances, podcasts, and even musical/lyrical compositions!  The students have really hit the ground running with this project and I’m really kind of stunned by the variety of the submissions. Students will also have to submit an analytical paper explaining what they’ve learned and how they made the choices they did, so I’ll still get to see them doing that important, meaty, critical thinking.

In other words, I need to stop stressing.  They’re engaging and the assignment is soundly designed.

And yet.

More updates on this as the semester progresses.

it’s that time of year

With the drop date approaching, it’s time to have a series of difficult conversations with students, ranging from “you need to pick things up a little if you want to do well” to “you can’t possibly pass.”  I always find this hard, because as a student I was basically always mortified to discover that my professors knew I existed.  But I’ve gotten good feedback from these conversations, too — and the percentage of floundering students who have no earthly idea that they aren’t doing well, let alone failing, is astounding to me.  How much hand-holding is too much, of course, is the age old question — and if I advise them too well, and all the failing students drop, will that make my grades look artificially high?

Nothing is without questions at this stage in my career, I am learning.

I’m finding that realistic expectations and perceptions are a real difficulty for my students.  Trying to explain that a B- is not in fact a bad mark, but instead demonstrates just above satisfactory competency in the material, is really difficult.  There are grade inflation problems everywhere, of course, that make it really difficult to keep C meaning satisfactory, B meaning good, and A meaning excellent.  And preparation is a problem.  Students who coasted through their high school English classes with creative projects and oral presentations are stunned to get to post-secondary school and discover that they have no idea of how to approach formal essay writing.  And it takes a lot out of a person to be the gatekeeper in the first-year literature class saying that yes, your ideas are good, but no, that’s not quite enough.

I internalize too much of their own anguish — that’s part of it.  When does that wear off?

the five stages of grading

Everyone is familiar with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and her stage model of coping with grief popularly known as the five stages of grief. What you may not know is that Kübler-Ross actually developed her theory as a graduate student, basing her conception of the process of loss on the experiences one goes through over a grading weekend.

In coping with grading, it’s important for graduate students and young professors to know that they are not alone and that this process takes time.  Not everyone goes through every stage or processes the reality of grading in this order, but everyone experiences some version of at least two of these steps.

Denial.  At this stage, the instructor is unwilling to acknowledge the size of the task ahead of him or her. An instructor in denial may be heard to say things like, “It’s not really that many essays, when you think about it.” An instructor in denial will grossly overestimate his or her potential assignment-per-hour output. Denial at the syllabus-creation stage of course development can lead to tears. Denial can also manifest itself as avoidance, where grading is put aside in favour of vastly more important activities like cleaning the fridge, baking, working out, or writing elaborate blog posts about the stages of grading.

Anger.  Usually anger begins once the instructor starts grading.  The first few papers are likely to excite the grader, but as a steady stream of errors trickles in, the instructor may become disillusioned. Commonly heard at this stage: “But we covered this in class!  A lot!” “Wait, what does this even mean?” “Redundant!  This is redundant!” Instructors at this stage of the process are likely to have unnecessarily large reactions to relatively small frustrations; for example, in one case an instructor screamed into a pillow upon discovering that every student in the class was still using “they” as a singular pronoun.

Bargaining. This stage usually begins as an earnest attempt to buckle down and grade.  The instructor might say, “If I grade five papers, I can watch one episode of House,” or, “For every page I grade, I get to eat a piece of candy.”  This process starts well, but as the instructor progresses the amount of work required to achieve the reward generally becomes smaller and smaller, until the instructor is checking Facebook after every sentence he or she grades.

Depression. At some point in a marking weekend, the instructor will come to realize that in spite of his or her best intentions, the papers won’t be marked in time for the next class. For the idealistic young instructor, this is also usually the moment he or she realizes that the assignments themselves are not particularly strong.  These realizations can lead to feelings of failure, spiralling into reality TV watchathons or video game blitzes instead of grading.  Ultimately, though, recognizing one’s limitations is a healthy part of the process that leads directly to the final stage.

Acceptance/Resignation. At some point, the instructor comes to term with the reality that the papers must be graded. This reality is usually acknowledged the afternoon before the instructor wishes to return the papers, leading to an all-night grading blitz. At some point and by some miracle, however, it all gets done, and the instructor is primed and ready to start to the process over again when the next major assignment comes in.

This blog post brought to you from somewhere under a pile of essays.

on the first week

Classes started on the Tuesday after Labour Day, and so now after a week I’ve met all my students. I’ve definitely already made a few rookie errors — I let too many additional students into my academic writing classes, for starters, so I’m hoping a few drop or I will be regretting that all semester! But the students, on the whole, seem motivated, energized, and excited. Three really good things to see over four classes!

There’s nothing quite so exhausting as a first week back, I have to say. I think there are a few causes for this. For starters, while I’ve always worked and had a lot going on in addition to school, teaching full-time is an entirely different beast. I’m used to having a fair amount of quiet alone time to work, given that the research half of this profession is so solitary, but teaching four courses means a heck of a lot more time being “on,” as does a week full of meeting new people. Over my four classes I met 120 new students this week, plus all sorts of faculty and staff members I hadn’t yet met! It’s obviously going to be an overwhelming experience, but I was not quite prepared for just how overwhelming it would be.

Someone once told me that they didn’t remember doing anything but sleeping and teaching for the first month of their first job out of the PhD. I believe that.

I think new faculty members should clear their plates before classes start more than I managed to. Because of the timing of our move, our things arrived the Friday before Labour Day, and we’ve got all sorts of details related to the out-of-province registration of owe car looming large. I’m not sure I could have cleared the decks any more than I did in my situation, but it’s definitely advice I would pass on to people with more flexible relocation schedules than my own. Move earlier, get settled, and rest up.

It’s good fun too, though. I’ve loved meeting my students this week, and because of the college setting they all have really interesting stories to tell about why they’re here — much less the default position for middle class kids that a four-year university has a tendency to be. I’m really jazzed by the diversity in my classrooms because I think it’s going to allow for some really interesting class discussions over the semester. I’m just so excited to see how my students will use their varied experiences in the classroom.

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