Specifications Grading: Lessons Learned

My previous post ended on a high note: a list of the benefits I believe came from my decision to try specifications grading. Most of these things are hard to be absolutely sure about, but that’s true of most questions about pedagogy, especially when your only sample is a single iteration of a course. Still, I have taught first-year writing classes almost every year since 1995, so I give some weight to my own impression that on balance, this change in strategy had some good results for them and for me. It wasn’t all good, though, and especially as I do intend to try specifications grading again, I am already thinking a lot about what needs to change in the second version of the course policies and requirements.

The first problem I need to fix is one that I tried very hard to prepare for and fend off, but (perhaps inevitably) without complete success: unfamiliarity. As far as I could tell, specifications grading was a brand new concept to everyone in the class, and though some students seemed to grasp its procedures and implications very quickly, others clearly struggled–some of them right to the very end of the term. There were clear indications that some students just did not understand the mechanics of it: they did not realize (or not until it was almost too late) that their final grade was going to depend, not on doing well on an individual essay or exam, but on how consistently they did or did not do satisfactory work across the entire term.

I am confident that my explanations were clear and explicit and abundant–but the very care with which I laid out the assessment model probably backfired in some cases, as it meant there was a lot of information to take in. I tried (so hard!) to clarify and simplify, including having ‘quick reference’ tables that summed up exactly what each bundle required and what the standards were for a satisfactory assessment. I reiterated essential points in announcements and assignment instructions and in the FAQ discussion board … but I think the difference between what we were doing and what they were used to or assumed about grades and grading was just too much for some students to process. Specifications grading was an unknown unknown for them: for whatever combination of reasons (other challenges related to online learning or with information management, or the same kind of indifference or inattention to the syllabus that we always see some of, no matter what the mode of course delivery) some students not only didn’t realize it was not business as usual but they didn’t even think to check or ask. They were a minority of the class, and it was equally obvious that some students very swiftly grasped the system and made their plans and did their work accordingly. Still, next time I will be more aware of how hard the conceptual leap can be and work even harder to leave nobody behind.

On a related note, by the end of the term it was clear to me that the specific set of requirements and bundles I had devised was much harder for many students to makes sense of and (even more important, perhaps) to keep track of than I’d expected. Again, I took a lot of measures to make it all legible and easy to follow, including my handy reference tables. I am still actually quite puzzled about why so many students completed such a random array of components, such that their final tallies were not consistent with any particular bundle. As the end of term approached I did an audit of what everyone had done to that point and there were a surprising number of cases in which, if I had not changed the bundle requirements, the students would not have been able to earn even a passing grade, because they had completed a high number of one kind of components but completely dropped the ball on others.

I did revise the requirements, mostly to reduce them, although I had some misgivings about doing so. The process of revision also helped me think about ways of totting things up that might actually work better: requiring an overall number of journal entries for the term rather than a consistent number per week, for example (although, without getting too much into the weeds of my plans and planning, one goal I had and don’t want to give up on is ensuring steady effort, not a crush of last-minute contributions). Perhaps my bundles just had too many moving parts: again, a significant number of students didn’t seem to have any problems, but confusion was widespread enough that one of my key take-aways is that I need to simplify things.

(As an aside, though, one thing I did like about the bundles system with its many moving parts, however, is that it was possible to sort out particular cases where a student was far short of passing the course or just short of a better bundle by counting up the components the student was missing and devising a make-up plan. This felt much more constructive than any options we usually have for a student who has done poorly on a midterm or otherwise compromised their standing under a regular assessment scheme.)

Finally, and I’m not sure if this is a problem or it just feels like one, far more students than is typical ended up with A or A+ grades in the course. Clearly, knowing that they could earn an A if they just put in the work was highly motivating for a lot of students–and also stress-inducing, in some cases, because having set their sights on that goal, students could not let go of it, even if they were finding the work more difficult or time-consuming than they’d expected. Heading into the semester, I expected a lot of students to decide (eventually, if not immediately) against the MOST bundle, on the grounds that all they wanted was their writing requirement credit and their other courses were higher priorities. Over the years I have encountered that attitude a lot in first-year classes, often quite explicitly. Now I wonder if some of that hasn’t been the side-effect of students (especially those in STEM programs who do not think of themselves as “good” at English) simply writing off the course, especially if they get below an A on their first paper: resigning themselves to it or telling a story about it that makes it matter less. This time, told they could end up with an A if they just did X, Y, and Z, students who might not have bothered before decided to go for it…which is great! As I said in my last post, they did the work and that paid off.

And yet I can’t shake a lingering concern that the number of A+ grades I filed tells me my standards were not high enough: my requirements, or the specifications, or (more likely) the enforcement of the specifications, was lax. It’s true we were not as fussy as we originally intended to be. This was partly about grading fatigue (we had to process a lot of discussion posts!) and also about the pressure we were constantly under (arguably rightly) to give students a break during a term that was already difficult for them. I did end up filing grades across the whole range of possibilities from F to A+: there were just significantly more As and A+s than I’m used to seeing. Should I–could I–have made A and A+ grades harder to get? My guess is that increasing the requirements for the largest bundle would not have deterred most of those who went for it on the terms I set, and why would I want to deter them anyway? I think my lingering unease comes from the same doubts my colleagues expressed about quantity vs. quality and what exactly we think letter grades are supposed to mean or signal. Specifications grading is designed to sideline judgments about “excellence,” but the habit of thinking in those subjective qualitative terms is deeply ingrained in most academics, even though we know perfectly well that grades, publications, grants, awards, and tenure-track jobs depend more on other factors (including luck and privilege) than on intrinsic and objective kinds of excellence.

Summing up my own “lessons learned” from my first attempt at specifications grading, then:

  • you can’t explain too clearly or too often how the system works, and even then some students will not grasp the difference it needs to make to their work habits, so I need to anticipate problems and prepare interventions;
  • relatedly, I need to make my bundles simpler and more flexible: they should (probably) have fewer moving parts overall, and I should have more flexible ways of adding them up;
  • and I need come to terms with the potential for what will look like grade inflation–whether this means raising (or being stricter about) standards, putting the very top grade a bit further out of reach, or accepting (maybe even encouraging!) a larger than usual number of As and A+s.

If you’ve used specifications (or contract) grading, I’d love to know if these are concerns you too have had, and if so, how you have handled them. It’s especially hard to know how big a part the transition to online teaching and learning played in the successes and failures of specifications grading for me (and for my students) last term. It might have been exactly the wrong time to try it! I’m teaching the same course again next fall, and right now we don’t know if it will be in person or online. Whichever way it goes, I have lots of time between now and then to rethink, revise, and regroup.

Specifications Grading: My First Attempt

1015StartHere-cropAs if converting my courses to online versions wasn’t challenging enough, I also used specifications grading for the first time this fall, for my first-year class “Literature: How It Works.” This is an experiment I had been thinking a lot about before the pandemic struck: in fact, on March 13, the last day we were all on campus, I actually had a meeting with our Associate Dean to discuss how to make sure doing so wouldn’t conflict with any of the university’s or faculty’s policies. Though I did have some second thoughts after the “pivot” to online teaching, it seemed to me that many features of specifications grading were well suited to Brightspace-based delivery, so I decided to persist with the plan, and I spent a great deal of time and thought over the summer figuring out my version of it.

I had originally planned to try contract grading, but one concern I saw raised about that is it can be hard for students to know enough at the outset to make a good choice about which contract to commit to, a problem likely to be especially vexing for first-year students. The same could be said about specifications grading in a way (and both systems can be configured to allow for adjustments, too, of course), but I liked the idea of students accumulating work and learning along the way how much time and effort the course was worth to them. I pored over the materials I found about people’s plans for and experiences with specifications grading, especially this essay and some other materials by Linda B. Nilson and posts by Jason Mittell at his blog Just TV. I also had to take into account the rules that govern all of Dal’s writing requirement courses, and then to think about my own usual approach to teaching first-year English classes that combine introductory material about literary interpretation with explicit attention to writing. I wanted my plan to support, not replace, the overall pedagogical approach I am used to and believe in.

conciseBILI won’t go into every detail of the plan I finally came up with (though if anyone is really keen to see the extensive documentation, I’d be happy to share it by email). Basically, I made a list of the kinds of work I wanted students to do in service of the course’s multiple objectives: reading journals, discussion posts and replies, writing worksheets, quizzes, and essays. Then I worked out what seemed to me reasonable quantities of each component for bundles I called PASS, CORE, MORE, and MOST. These bundles corresponded to D, C, B, and A grades at the end of term; students’ grades on the final exam determined if they got a + or – added to their letter grade. I also (and in many ways this is the most important part of the whole system!) drew up the specifications for what would count as satisfactory work of each kind: completing a bundle didn’t mean just turning in enough components but turning in enough that met the specifications. Following the lead of others who have used this kind of system, I tried to make the specifications equivalent to something more like a typical B than a bare pass.

All teachers know that it is a mistake to draw firm conclusions based on a single iteration of any course or any assignment sequence, because every class is different – not just its population of students (who somehow take on a collective personality that can be quite different from the character of any individual member) but the whole dynamic. Add in the stress and chaos of everyone’s first semester of online teaching (which for most of the students in this class was also their first semester of university altogether) and I have a lot of reasons not to declare the experiment either an absolute success or a complete failure. All I can do at this point is reflect on what seemed to go well and what I will do differently when I try it again. I definitely will try it again, though, which in itself I suppose is a kind of conclusion: though there were some significant hiccups as the term and the plan unfolded, on the whole I think the benefits–not so much logistical as psychological and pedagogical–made it well worth the attempt and hopefully it will go more smoothly the second time.

Grade A Plus result vector icon. School red mark handwriting A plus in circleTo start with, then, what seemed to go well? First, especially when it came time to assess the students’ longer essays, I really appreciated being freed from assigning them letter grades. Almost every single essay submitted (so, nearly 180 assignments over the term) clearly met the specifications for the assignment, so our focus could be on giving feedback, not (consciously or unconsciously) trying to justify minute gradations in our assessments. I hadn’t realized just how much it weighed on me needing to make artificially precise distinctions between, say, B- and C+ papers, or trying to decide if an unsuccessful attempt at a more ambitious or original argument should really get the same grade as an immaculately polished version of one that mostly reiterated my lectures. Once I’d read through a submission to see if it met the specifications, I could go back and reread with an eye to engaging with it honestly and constructively. This is what I thought I did already, but if you haven’t ever tried grading essays without actually grading them, you too may be surprised at how liberating it feels to let go of that awareness that when you’re done, you have to put a particular pin in it.

One reason for trying the whole experiment in the first place was that this kind of change–in which individual assignments are not only not marked but also do not carry much weight in their course grade over all–would (I hoped) relieve students’ anxiety and also (relatedly) discourage plagiarism. I think it did both. I had fewer academic integrity cases this year than in the other first-year courses I’ve taught most recently, at any rate, and though some students were definitely still anxious, I was able to tell them not to worry so much about every detail because it was clear already that they were going to turn in satisfactory work. It was nice to be able to say “relax a little!” and know it didn’t sound hollow: I could encourage them just to do their best to explain what they thought and why they thought it, and we would see how it turned out. In retrospect I think my meta-messaging about this benefit could have been more conspicuous–but that said, worriers gonna worry, and it’s not a bad thing for students to want their work to be as good as it can be!

1200px-Gnome-computer.svgOn a related note, something else that I think was good (though it was a bit hard for me to tell without having a chance to talk it over with the class in person) was that the system gave students a fair amount of control over their final grade for the course. Instead of trying to meet some standard that–no matter how carefully you explain and model it–often seems obscure to students, especially in first-year (“what do you want?” is an ordinarily all-too-frequent question about their essay assignments) they could keep a tally of their satisfactory course components and know exactly what else they needed to do to complete a particular bundle and thus earn a particular grade. That didn’t mean it was an automatic process; again, to be rated satisfactory, the work had to meet the specifications I set. I tried to make the specifications concrete, though: they didn’t include any abstract qualitative standards (like “excellence” or “thoughtful”). The core standards were things like “on time,” “on topic,” “within the word limit,” and, most important, to my mind, “shows a good faith effort” to do the task at hand. I suppose that last one is open to interpretation, but I think it sends the right message to students trying to learn how to do something unfamiliar: if they actually try to do it, that counts. When my TA and I debated the occasional submission that had arguably missed the mark in some other way, we used “good faith effort” as the deciding factor for whether they earned the credit: we used it generously, rather than punitively.

letter_paper_and_pen_vector_275746One other way I consider the experiment a success was that it seemed to me that the students’ quantity of work–their consistent effort over time–did ultimately lead to improvements in the quality of their work. The skepticism I faced from some colleagues when I mentioned this plan tended to focus on concerns about rewarding quantity over quality, or about not sufficiently recognizing and rewarding exceptional quality. Over the term I did sometimes worry about this myself: much as I liked being freed from grading individual assignments, I didn’t always like giving the same assessment of ‘satisfactory’ to assignments that ranged from perfunctory or barely passable at one end of the scale to impressively articulate and insightful at the other. You can signal the difference through your feedback, though, and that’s the big shift specifications grading requires. The other key point is that most people really do get better at writing if they practice (and get feedback, and engage with lots of examples of other people’s writing) and so making it a requirement for a good grade that you had to write a lot had the side-effect (or, met the course objective!) of helping a lot of students improve as writers. Between reading journals and discussion posts and replies, there was no way to get an A in this version of the course without writing a few hundred words every week, which is a lot more than students necessarily have to do in my face-to-face versions of intro classes. Especially in their final batch of essays, I think that practice showed.

To sum up the positives, then:

  • using specifications grading let me focus on feedback instead of hierarchical evaluations for student writing;
  • this in turn reduced some of the anxiety students feel around writing assignments;
  • it also reduced the incentives for them to cheat;
  • it gave them more control over the outcome of their efforts, rather than leaving them subject to what they often feel (rightly or wrongly) are arbitrary professorial judgments;
  • and it meant that all students and especially students who aspired to do well in the course got regular practice at applying their analytical skills (and the specialized vocabulary they learned) to a wide array of literary texts and then explaining their ideas and observations in their own words.

Because this post has gotten pretty long already, I’ll stop here and take up the question of what didn’t work so well, or what I’ll do different next time, in another post. I hope that this overview of the benefits shows, though, why my first attempt at specifications grading won’t be my last.

The Last Few Weeks In My (Online) Classes

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The second half of term, and especially the couple of weeks right after our November reading week (which falls uncomfortably late in the term, as I’ve often complained), always go by in a mad rush. This term has been no different in that respect, except that the mad rush has just been more of the exact same things I’ve been doing since September: staring at the screen, typing, clicking, staring some more, typing, clicking. Because we have the same routines on Saturdays and Sundays as on every other days of the week, too, it really all just blurs into one long sameness, one continuous stretch of staring and typing and clicking, with just our daily walks, our meals, and our evening television as interruptions and diversions.

2040 SYLLABUSIt hasn’t been all bad, though. I said back in October that given the choice, I’d never teach all online again, and that remains true. But would I never teach online again at all, ever, if it were up to me? I can actually imagine, now, that there might be circumstances in which I would appreciate some features of online teaching, especially if the rest of my life were restored. I don’t miss early morning starts, and once wintry weather arrives I will be glad not to be forced out into it. If I had to – or chose to – be somewhere else for a while, I wouldn’t be so constrained by the implacability of the academic calendar. And it’s not all new to me any more: though I don’t love Brightspace, I know my way around it a lot better than I did in May, for one thing, and when I recorded my concluding lectures for my courses I felt much more comfortable and confident in front of the camera than I did when I made my first videos in August.

Over the last week or so, in the lull between the incessant weekly tasks of this term’s classes and the arrival of their final essays and exams, I have been finalizing the syllabi and working on the course sites for next term’s classes, and while I certainly don’t think I have got this whole thing figured out, I do feel as if I’ve learned a lot by doing it once that will help me do it better. Right now it seems about 50/50 that we’ll be going back to in-person teaching in Fall 2021: with the roll-out of vaccines beginning even as I write this, it isn’t impossible that by then enough of us will be protected that some semblance of normalcy will have returned, though we are still in such uncharted territory that it would be foolish to assume anything about the future. I would still rather teach online than be back in a classroom hamstrung by necessary safety measures and shadowed by anxiety. Maybe even once classroom teaching is securely the default once again, there will still be times when I will be glad to have acquired this experience and to know that I can do it again if I have to or want to.

panopto-logoSo what have I learned? In addition to the technical stuff – Brightspace and Panopto and Collaborate, oh my! – I have learned, as a lot of other people have too, that the best advice and methods for online teaching may not be the best advice and methods for online teaching in these circumstances. “Formative” assessments, scaffolded assignments, regular low-stakes engagement exercises: they may all be (and in fact I believe they are) pedagogically effective, but when we all start doing them all at once with students many of whom are used to more episodic kinds of engagement (essay assignments, midterms, final projects, etc.), the overall effect is overwhelming. I spent a lot of time puzzling over exactly the issue addressed in that linked essay: in my mind, as I planned my courses, if anything I was requiring much less work than usual, as I’d cut back the reading assignments and instead of three class meetings a week students had “just” a couple of short videos to watch and some informal writing to do, plus the usual papers and tests.

What I think I had miscalculated, however, is how little specific accountability there really was in most of those classroom hours: students could do all the reading and come prepared to discuss it, and some certainly did, but others didn’t, or didn’t always, and they could count on that time as useful but passive, a chance to listen in on what the rest of us had to say without having to generate material of their own. The new expectation that they “show up” in writing seemed like a great opportunity to make sure the talkative portion of the class wasn’t the only part that I heard from, and that was a good aspect of it. Even for the students who typically did the readings and did want to talk about them, though, the written alternatives felt harder, I think, and created more pressure, no matter how hard I tried to explain that they were meant to be low key, not high stakes. Plus, again, if every class is asking for a constant stream of input, the logistics alone probably get bewildering.

1200px-Gnome-computer.svgThat said, I’m still going to ask for online discussions in my winter term courses! Expressing your ideas about what you’ve read in words is the fundamental task and method of literary studies, after all. I lessened the requirements in one of my classes this term, once we started to hear reports of students being overwhelmed, and for next term I have (I think!) made the requirements more streamlined, and also explained better what the terms and expectations are. In retrospect I should perhaps have scaled things back in my first-year course, where I was (still am!) doing my first experiment with specifications grading – but I honestly didn’t expect that so many of them would fix on and stay fixed on fulfilling the most demanding bundle. I expected a much larger number to decide that level of effort was a bit much just to cross off their writing requirement: instead, knowing it was achievable with enough persistence seems to have motivated a significant portion of the class to do a lot of regular writing. They will have worked very hard on a whole range of tasks, so I certainly don’t begrudge them their As, though this is something I will think more about when (if) I do specifications grading again – which will have to be the subject of its own post when the term is really and truly over and I have a more complete sense of whether or how the experiment succeeded or failed.

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Once again I seem to be focused in this teaching post primarily on logistics and methods rather than on the content of my courses: this has been my lament all term, really, because compared with just showing up to class with my book and my notes, offering an online lesson or module is just a whole lot more complicated. Reviewing my recorded lectures as I made up review handouts and final exams, though, I was pleased to see that they are pretty substantial. Within the relatively simple options I chose to deliver them (basically, just narrated PowerPoints, pretty much all under 15 minutes each) they are as interesting and creative as I could manage; thinking of ways to present ideas in this format, especially ideas derived from or modeling close reading, was conceptually challenging. That was my favorite part of each week’s class prep, and I’m actually kind of looking forward to doing more of it next term, especially because I’ll be working with readings that I know really well, which makes the jump from “what’s next?” to “what do I want to say about it?” much easier.

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This term isn’t over yet, though: starting tomorrow I’ll be deep in exams and essays, which is at least par for the course, for this point in the year. Despite the monotonous way one day has blurred into the next, and the difficulty of keeping my spirits up in this surreal, isolated, scary time, I’ve been grateful that my work has continued and has kept me so busy that I can marvel that it’s “already” December. I expect that next term will be much the same – and maybe by the time I look up from my screen and marvel that it’s “already” April the tentative optimism sparked by today’s good news will have turned into genuine hope for the future.

This Week On My Computer

1015StartHere-cropIf you’d asked me on March 13 of this year (the last “regular” day before we were all locked down!) whether I ordinarily spent a lot of time working at my computer, I would have said “Yes!” without hesitation. It turns out, however, that I used to greatly underestimate the amount of time I spent away from my computer–at least, relative to the balance (or, rather, imbalance) between these two options in my pandemic life. While preparing for class always involved at least some time typing up notes and preparing handouts, worksheets, slides, and other materials, for example, going to class meant gathering up actual books and papers and markers–and sometimes toys!–and moving to a different space, sometimes even going outside to get there! Teaching meant being in a classroom looking at and talking to and listening to other people. Office hours meant sitting in my office talking to other people face to face. Meetings meant sitting in yet another room, talking to yet more other people in person. Lunch time meant going to get food somewhere else and then eating it at my desk … wait, that at least is still exactly the same! Now that all of these activities mean staring at my screen and typing, I find that it is hard to motivate myself to do other things, like blogging or personal correspondence, that also involve screen time: when I finally call it quits on my actual work, I need to get away from the computer, both for physical relief (my eyes and especially my shoulder are not at all happy these days) and to restore some sense of boundaries, of difference, to my days.

NorthandSouthOUPBut here I am now, ready once again to take stock of how things are going in my classes. And the disconcerting truth is that a third of the way through this strange term, I still don’t really know, because I have no base line for comparison, no past experience to check this one against. I’m working pretty incessantly on one teaching task or another, but I get very little feedback compared to the ongoing opportunity, in face-to-face teaching, to “read the room”–which could, of course, be discouraging if you could tell they weren’t with you, but at least there was some immediacy to that input and enough flexibility to the whole operation to let you change things up, on the fly or more deliberately. One of the most disorienting things about online teaching so far, in fact, is the time lapse: because a lot of materials need to be ready ahead of time, I’m usually working on next week’s lectures and handouts while the students are working on this week’s. (Yes, that gets very confusing sometimes!) If I sense that something isn’t clicking this week, it can be pretty hard to figure out where or how to adapt.

CaptureCertainly some parts of this feel easier now than they did at first. The start of term is always chaotic, and this year it was worse than ever before because communicating by writing is just less efficient than talking to people or showing them things directly. (That said, at least when everything is written down there is less chance of details just getting lost or forgotten: the documents are always there for reference! The sheer quantity of written materials becomes its own kind of burden, but there’s still something to be said for having what amounts to a detailed instruction manual for the entire course.) By and large my classes seem to have settled into a rhythm now, though, and as a result the stress has gone down on both sides and the quality of actual work has gone up. It’s clear that the online model is harder for some students who would almost certainly be better off with more external structure and tangible support–but there are also students who find the move away from in-person pressures congenial. At this point I personally feel that, given the option, I would never teach online again: I have not had the transformative experience I’ve heard about from other instructors who ended up wholly converted to this mode of instruction. But it’s early yet, I suppose, and of course right now I don’t have a choice–and in spite of everything, I’m glad about that, as it’s not as if being in the classroom under current circumstances would be a return to the kind of work I loved. I’m also very grateful to have the job security I do, and that, along with my real desire to do the best I can for my students, keeps me pretty motivated and determined to keep trying to do this as well as I can.

conciseBILThe best thing I can say about my courses right now is that I do finally feel as if I am paying more attention to content than to logistics–which means that when I post about them, I might start talking  more about what we’re actually studying in them, like I used to! A trial run: In my intro class (“Literature: How It Works” – a dull title but a pragmatic focus that actually suits my usual approach to first-year classes) we are wrapping up our work on poetry.  This week students get to choose a ‘cluster’ of related poems to discuss, hopefully showing off what they have learned about literary devices and poetic form and interpretation so far; then next week we will turn our attention to short stories. I expect a lot of them will like that change of focus; I just hope I can coach them to keep paying attention to details and form and not relax into plot summary.

oupIn 19th-Century Fiction we start Middlemarch this week! I, at least, am very excited about this! (Honestly, though: isn’t the cover of the new OWC edition dreadful? They could hardly have made the novel look less fun and inviting. Dorothea is supposed to be blooming, not gloomy!) Rereading the novel and working on my slide presentations to launch our discussions of it has been pretty fun, and also very intellectually challenging, because I have had to make a lot of decisions about how to package the concepts and examples and approaches I would usually lay out over the first few class meetings. While I would certainly do some lecturing in a face-to-face course, I always prefer to draw students towards ideas about how the novel works and what it means through discussion, using a lot of open-ended questions and brainstorming on the white board (where I draw lots of what one of my students [hi, Bea!] recently described as “demented stick figures” 😊). This is hard to reproduce asynchronously!

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My basic approach this term has been to use my recorded presentations as starting points: I lay out any important contexts then try to set up questions and frameworks that will help them consider specific examples on their own. I think this is actually working pretty well–though, again, I miss being able to read the room, and being able to follow up on their suggestions and questions in a way that involves everyone at once, instead of there being a wide range of contributions diffused across different threads. I’ve been brooding a lot about how to convert this breadth into more depth–but, interestingly (to me, anyway!) when I polled the class about subdividing them into smaller groups so they could engaged with a narrower set of responses, most of them preferred the variety they get from seeing everyone’s posts and choosing where to follow up. (There are 30-something students; the discussion boards are set up with three different headings for each week, and they can contribute wherever they want.) This week’s discussions of North and South have really been very good, so I guess if it ain’t broke, I shouldn’t try to fix it!

Middlemarch 5I do expect a bit of stuttering as we get going on Middlemarch: my experience of teaching it in the classroom, where I can play ‘cheerleader-in-chief,’ has been that even with me absolutely radiating enthusiasm for it, it can be a hard sell at first, and though I am trying to be as enthusiastic as I can this time too, I have to communicate so much more indirectly that I can’t be sure it will come across, much less be contagious! The stumbling block is usually the amount of exposition, which requires a different kind of attention and patience and can muffle, on a first reading, the sharpness and comedy of the dialogue as well as of the narrator herself. I’m also often surprised by how little students like Dorothea: is idealism so out of fashion these days? But there are always some students who love the book, at first or eventually, and of course my job is not to make them like our readings but to help them learn about them.

I really hope that by the end of this term I am not so bewildered about what’s working and what’s not. Some of that should be evident from the results, by which I mean the students’ work as well as their feelings about that work and the course experience. One thing I think I am doing right is what the learning-and-teaching folks who provided so much training over the summer called “teacher presence”: I am as there for them as I know how to be. My biggest regret in this respect is that I haven’t figured out how to have fun the way we do in the classroom, where on a good day we laugh a lot. (I did sneak a crack about Mr. Casaubon’s “low wick” into this week’s Middlemarch lectures.) I suppose under the circumstances, though, if we aren’t crying, that’s good enough.

The Past Two Weeks In My (Online) Classes

Hardy-FAQ-cropIt has been two weeks since my last post. That sounds almost confessional: forgive me, gentle readers; it has been fourteen days since my last attempt to articulate what it is like to do something you usually love in a completely different way than you ever have before, under circumstances that remain (however awkwardly accustomed to them we have become) unprecedented. It’s not a sin, but it certainly is a sign of what those two weeks have been like.

In my previous post I said it was hard to reflect on the online experiment because I had no idea how it was going. Disconcertingly, I still have no real idea, though I have some feelings – not conclusions, yet – about individual aspects. Probably what I am most aware of right now is the gap between ‘best practices’ in theory and what they actually demand of all of us when we attempt to follow all that well-intentioned advice. In particular, I’m thinking about the oft-stressed recommendations about the value of frequent low-stakes (but graded, or else they won’t do them!) assignments, and about ‘overseeing’ but not actively engaging with online discussions. The former creates what feels like an endless barrage of busywork, because for some reason receiving, recording and returning so many bits and pieces electronically feels enormously more burdensome than collecting (as I routinely did) stacks of paper at every class meeting and returning them, marked, the next time we met. And the latter is both more disappointing than I anticipated (I want to participate, especially in the discussions for my 19th-century fiction class) and more difficult: I had planned, for example, to write ‘highlight’ posts after each round of discussions, to draw out the really good stuff and, if necessary, counteract confusions, and so far I have not managed to do that, as the submissions are both so copious and so diffuse. (Note for next time: less is more!)

GE-Help-Icon-cropI think my overwhelming impression at this point (and it may get better as we all get more and more used to doing things this way) is that I am spending a lot more time managing logistics and a lot less time engaging robustly with my classes about our readings. I can understand how online structures of the sort we were encouraged to develop would work pretty well for more mechanical subjects, and I think, too, that there is some good cross-talk going on between the students that does accomplish some of the goals of classroom time. That I feel a bit left out does not mean it isn’t valuable: this is what the experts mean, I guess, when they tell us online teaching “decenters” the teacher. But I don’t think I have so far found the strategy that makes an asynchronous course feel like what a face to face class (at its best) feels like. I don’t see where the energy comes from this way: even if I admit that the best classroom discussion doesn’t actually generate that energy for everyone, it still does it for some of us, and I just really miss that.

northandsouthI expressed cautious optimism when the term began and I do still feel some of that, even if at times over the past couple of weeks it has been challenged by fatigue and frustration and sadness. The students are there and most of them are really trying; in my turn, I am doing my level best to demonstrate “instructor presence” and make them feel that I care and am paying attention, not just tracking submissions. I’ve already made a few adjustments to the requirements, too, to reflect what we are all learning about how long all of this takes. Also, although preparing recorded segments is not my favorite thing to do, I find devising topics and shaping them into what seem (to me at least) like engaging little packages intellectually stimulating and even fun sometimes. 

MOTHThe readings, too, are as good as they always are, and when I have time to linger over them, that really boosts my morale. I reread the first half of North and South this week (a bit hastily, but still all through) and got excited about the many ways it provokes comparisons with Hard Times, which we are just wrapping up. And in my intro class we are doing Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” which was also a tonic to revisit. It’s so beautiful and so sad and so oddly uplifting, in its contemplation of

the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings … Also, when there was nobody to care or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely.

Woolf’s vision of that “pure bead” of life and its inevitable failure against “so mean an antagonist” is, indeed, moving, and it also feels timely, as we all spend so much time staring out of our own windows, confronted by the limits of our own power against oncoming doom but still fighting to retain what we value. It’s life that feels transcendent in her essay, not death, however strong it is,  and that’s where the importance of this whole exercise ultimately remains–in the words and what they offer us, and also in the reminder that art itself is one of our best ways to outwit our inexorable enemy. 

This Week In My Classes: Online

1015StartHere-cropIt is hard to know how to begin the 2020-21 iteration of this ongoing series without cliches about how everything about it is unprecedented. In recent years I had started to worry that continuing to post about my teaching might be boring–a bit, perhaps, to me but more so to the people who still come by and read this blog–because in so many ways, things had been going on more or less the same for so long. I kept tweaking things, including both my teaching methods and my course design and reading lists, but the academic year has a predictable routine and one way or another I have kept teaching more or less the same material. And now none of that seems boring to me at all. I would so much rather be writing again about how annoying our long add-drop period is than about what’s actually going on. But here we all are, in general, without the option to go back to the way things used to be, and here I am, in particular, one week into the unprecedented experience of an all-online semester.

1200px-Gnome-computer.svgSo how is it going? One of the oddest things about it, to be honest, is that I really have no idea. The whole past week felt like a massive anti-climax: after months of work, trying to re-train myself and take on board an overwhelming amount of information about “best practices” for online course design and student engagement and teacher presence, after taking a 9-week online course myself to learn about how to do this, after countless hours revising my course outlines and schedules and learning new tools and building my actual Brightspace course sites … all with September 8 as the looming deadline for when the students would “arrive” and the whole experiment would really begin … After all of this, there was no one moment when we were back in class, no online equivalent to that exhilarating and terrifying first face to face session. Instead, because this is how asynchronous online teaching works, students just gradually and on their own timeline started checking in and making their first contributions, while I watched and waited and wondered and tried not to pounce too fast whenever a new notification appeared.

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It was strange–it is strange–but in many ways the lack of drama is obviously exactly what I should want: it means that, so far anyway, nothing has imploded. Students seem to be doing fine learning their way around Brightspace; I haven’t had a wave of messages (I haven’t had really any, in fact) asking for clarification of policies or procedures; I haven’t heard, so far, of anything at all going wrong, from acquiring the course books to viewing the uploaded video lectures. I’m sure that eventually there will be problems, at their end or mine, but I am relieved that we seem to have had an uneventful roll-out in both courses.

hello badgeI’m also genuinely pleased about the contributions that have come in, especially, in both courses, the introductions students have been posting on our “getting to know each other” discussion boards. As I said to them, our first crucial task is to begin building the class into a community, and it has been lovely to see them embrace that goal by telling us a little bit about themselves and then (best of all) responding with great friendliness to each other. I don’t usually solicit individual introductions in all of my F2F classes, only in the smaller seminars, so actually I know more about these groups than I think I ever have this early in the term. While a lot of what I read and practiced this summer was about how to make myself present to my students as a real, if virtual, person, this exercise has been great for making them present to me, not just “students” in the abstract but two really varied and interesting groups of people who bring different perspectives, interests, and needs to our collective enterprise.

Latour reading womanStill, I find the spread of the experience out over all hours of the day and all the days of the week disorienting, destabilizing, uncomfortable. Usually my weekly schedule involves regular build-ups to each class meeting: preparing notes and materials and ideas and plans, doing the reading, summoning the energy. Then there’s the live session, which in the moment absorbs all my concentration. When it’s over, I’m drained, even if (especially if!) there has been a really good, lively discussion: being in the moment for that kind of exchange is unlike anything else I do in terms of how focused but also flexible, how attentive to others but also on-task I need to be. I love it, and I really miss it already. I know we can have engaged and intellectually serious exchanges in our online format, but they won’t have the same rhythm, or perhaps any rhythm at all, who knows. Not having to be up and dressed and out the door early in the morning (or ever!) is some compensation, and I expect I will find more of a routine as we settle into the term, but (and I expect I’m going to be saying things like this a lot this term, so sorry for the repetition) it’s a strange new way of being a professor.

hardtimesAs for specifics, well, we’re discussing Seamus Heaney’s “Digging” and Adrienne Rich’s “Aunt Jennifer’s Tiger” in my intro class this coming week, and in 19th-Century Fiction it’s time for Hard Times (which I assigned this term because we ended up cutting it last term when we ‘pivoted’ to online). These are all texts I like a lot, though in my experience Hard Times is often a hard sell, even to students who otherwise like Dickens (which is never all of them, of course). Will I be able to communicate my enthusiasm and generate the kinds of discussions I aspire to in the classroom without being in the classroom? I guess I’ll find out. I’m trying to create recorded lectures that open up into writing prompts, rather than drawing conclusions, much as I would move in the classroom through laying out some ideas, contexts, or questions and then opening things up to their input. I am actually having some fun with this, though yet one more unknown is how effective my first attempts will be. I have the next two weeks of material nearly completed, so that buys me a bit of time: as I see what works and what doesn’t, and which approach to the lectures they prefer, I can adapt the next round accordingly.

I guess I would characterize my current feeling about this term as “cautiously optimistic.” Besides, it doesn’t really matter how I feel: this is what we all have to do. Doing it as well as possible under the circumstances remains the only plan I have.

Brainstorming and Binge-Reading

PDJShelf

Well, my idea to keep up some blogging momentum by going back to the model of a commonplace book for a while worked … for a while! But even that kind of posting requires a different kind of reading than I’ve been doing, it turns out, at least if there’s going to be any variety in the experience. And as you can see from this photo, my recent reading has been vast but also, in many respects narrow — certainly narrower than I expected when I proposed a project that required rereading all of the Dalgliesh novels. (The realization that James’s oeuvre is, paradoxically, both remarkably capacious and extremely limited is one of the things the essay will be about, most likely.)

Dunnett-New-CoverGood as she is, James turns out to be a poor choice for binge-reading, and yet a plan is a plan and a deadline is a deadline, so I have been persisting. The endeavor is not without its rewards: again, she’s good– very good, even! It’s just that she’s  always good in exactly the same way, sometimes even in the exact same words. I was trying to think of other authors who have stood up better to this kind of determined march through their works. I remember really enjoying myself when I read all of Trollope’s Palliser novels straight through many years ago, and I have always loved rereading the Lymond Chronicles start to finish–but stories accumulate in a different way in those than in most detective series. While we are interested in and generally grow attached to the investigators in a long-running series, if the novels become more about them than about detecting, we’ve probably shifted genres–though having said that, counter-examples immediately occur to me, including Elizabeth George and Tana French, and of course there’s Gaudy Night, which perfectly balances case and character. In James’s novels, in any case, the personal arcs of her recurring cast are always peripheral to the main action, and while that strikes me as a principled decision, formally, it also has constricting effects. By the end of The Lighthouse I was far more interested in Dalgliesh’s relationship with Emma Lavenham than in whodunit–and that too is something my essay will most likely take up.

A-Time-of-Giftshave been trying to read other things when I’ve had the energy, which hasn’t been often. I gave up on A Time of Gifts, though, which shames me somewhat to admit but there it is. There was a lot of fine writing but I couldn’t catch any momentum from it, and it turns out not to be as diverting as I’d hoped to read about someone else’s travels while unable to go anywhere myself. I’ve read a handful of romance novels–Christina Lauren’s The Unhoneymooners, Talia Hibbert’s Take a Hint, Dani Brown, and (most of) Jasmine Guillory’s Party of Two–just meh, all of them. I’m a hundred pages or so into Isabella Hammad’s The Parisian and it seems promising; once I finish The Private Patient, I want to settle in and really give it a chance. I’ve also just read Sarah Moss’s forthcoming Summerwater — but I have to save up what I think about that for the review I’ll be writing for the Dublin Review of Books.

conciseBILOtherwise, I’ve continued puttering away at ideas for my fall classes. I was feeling overwhelmed by attempting to shape my traditional MWF schedule for 19th-Century Fiction into modules (though it was a boost to remind myself, by doing that work, that the end result will eventually be talking about 19th-century novels again, which I miss!). So for the last few days I’ve gone back to working through ideas for a new grading scheme for my first-year class. I’ve moved away from ‘contract grading’ towards ‘specifications grading,’ and I’ve been trying to map out bundles of activities that would work well with the options we’ll have in the online environment. (If you are wondering what specifications grading is, here’s a general overview and here’s someone talking about how he has used it in his class.) As I do this I have also been trying to imagine modules for the first-year class, which is not driven by specific texts the way the 19th-century fiction class is. I usually organize it by genre and then use specific examples within each genre to highlight specific topics like point of view, figurative language, irony, etc. For the online version I think I’m going to start from those topics and pick the readings from different genres–but I really don’t know yet.

hardtimesOne thing that has started weighing on my  mind is that all this planning isn’t the same as actually creating content for the fall. I don’t have much more time, really, before I have to commit to a basic outline of elements for both classes and begin to script presentations, videos, writing prompts, and so forth. The whole specifications grading thing is going to require very careful explanations and instructions. But I remind myself: I’m not starting from scratch, even though the apparatus and presentation will be different. I have oodles of notes and materials, including slides, that can be adapted–and I don’t have to have everything ready to go at once. In some ways I can see that would be desirable, but on the other hand, it seems key, especially when this is all so new to me, that I be ready and able to change things up based on how things go with the first few modules. I hope students will recognize that for me too, this term will involve some trial and error!

And that’s where I am now, almost four months into this strange new locked down world–at least in the parts of my life that I write about here. I continue to take comfort and courage from the virtual communities that mean more to me now than ever, as we support and distract and teach and challenge and console each other as best we can.

This Week Module In My Classes

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Working from home.

I am starting to draft some concrete plans for my fall courses that combine what I’ve been learning about best practices in online teaching with the goals and priorities that have always motivated my pedagogy. One of the hardest parts of this for me turns out to be rethinking the rhythm of my courses now that they will be almost entirely asynchronous.

The key shift seems to be moving away from thinking in terms of days per week, with each class meeting a discrete opportunity to introduce new content, focus on a new (part of a) reading, raise a different set of questions, or practice a specific skill. Instead, we are supposed to think in terms of modules. These may also be weekly–and in fact I do expect each larger unit in my classes to be parceled out across weekly modules to create and sustain a pattern that sets expectations, provides some structure, and keeps us all moving through the term, if not in sync, then in concert. But the modules will not be (should not be, if I understand the guidance correctly) understood as virtual versions of the thrice-weekly meetings but rather as bundles of activities that help students work towards the same goals in a more self-directed way.

I think (though I’m still figuring this out) that this means sorting my typical course activities so that instead of going through them, as I usually do, once each class meeting, we move through them once each module. A typical class meeting in 19thC-Fiction, for example, would be a bit of logistical stuff to start (reminders, announcements, clarifications); then a lecture segment in which I first briefly review what we’ve talked about so far and then introduce some new contexts or questions (historical, theoretical, formal, interpretive); then discussion in which we take that new material and the new section of the novel we’ve read for the day into account. This discussion might just be me doing my best to engage the whole class in talking about the day’s key topics, or it might involve break-out groups looking at specific passages or taking up particular questions and then reporting back to the group and moving on from there. Occasionally (often on the first day of a new novel, for instance) the lecture part is longer and a bit more formal; sometimes, especially towards the end of our work on a novel, we might move almost immediately into class discussion.

Office
I miss my office!

It’s a simple pattern but, in my now fairly long experience, it works well. The opening remarks catch us all up on where we are in the course; the lecture material gives everyone some common ground for discussion; the discussion models the fundamental process of literary criticism, which is to try out your ideas on other attentive readers, see what they say, and refine, correct, or elaborate as needed. (Hello coduction, my old friend!) The three weekly meetings let me dole out the reading assignments so students aren’t overwhelmed (they “just” have to read X amount of, say, Bleak House by our next meeting), a process which also disciplines me and them into paying attention as we go along. Students who fall behind in the reading at least get regular updates on what’s going to matter when they do catch up. And everyone gets a constant dose of enthusiasm for the work–from me, reliably, and, most of the time, from other students.

In a way it is obvious how to manage a similar structure in a weekly module. Every one will open with some kind of greeting and set of announcements and reminders–maybe, if I can face it (pun intended!), by way of a short video. Then there would be one or two elements that do the job of the lecture portions–probably slide shows with voice-overs, probably keyed to reading installments as usual. But here one of my first puzzles arises: do I still break the reading up across the week the way I usually do? or do I just say that for the first Hard Times module, they have to read the whole first half of the novel? The net result would be the same, but the immediate “ask” seems like a lot more if you put it that way. Maybe I could compromise and give them a “suggested reading schedule.” One plan I have is for them to maintain online reading journals, something I’ve done before as part of face-to-face versions of 19thC Fiction: if I tied the requirements for journal entries to specific parts of the novels (the first entry must address an example from Book I, the second an example from Book II, etc.), that might be a useful way to create and sustain some momentum in their reading.

the_new_novelThen, instead of having three distinct conversations about the reading on three separate days (which, again, has always allowed me to pace us, and to model sorting out specific interpretive elements rather than facing everything that’s going on in the novel all at once), we’ll have discussion boards. Presumably, the topics will reflect the same questions I usually set in class, but I’m not sure if I should try to move us through these topics in some kind of sequence across the week, as I would in person, or think of the module as weighted towards reading at the beginning of the week and discussion at the end of the week. Probably the latter–though they might miss getting input and ideas from each other (and from me) earlier in their reading. I don’t want to be micromanaging participation on the discussion boards too much: I’m imagining how strange this all might feel to them, and ideally I’d like it to feel both easy and sort of natural to contribute. Super-rigid requirements (post once by Wednesday, reply once on Thursday, post again on Friday–whatever) really work against that and give me a lot to keep track of.

OUP MiddlemarchI think the next step for me is actually to back away from the overwhelming amount of information and advice I’ve been contemplating about online teaching and go back to my actual teaching notes. Looking at the topics I usually cover with a modular redesign in mind will probably help me realize ways in which these bundles would actually work and think in more concrete ways about just how different the online experience needs or doesn’t need to be. Precisely because I’ve been teaching 19th-century fiction in such a similar way for so long, it is the one that feels the strangest to mess with, but it’s also the one where I have the simplest overall goal–to have the best conversations we can about our readings–and the most faith in the books themselves to get us talking, one way or another. Even if I don’t get everything right on my first attempt to do all this online, at least we’ll still be working our way through Middlemarch!

I would love to hear from anyone with online teaching experience about this weeks-vs-modules question, especially if they have found good ways to make it work with the inevitably heavy reading load for a class on the Victorian novel. I have already cut one novel (we’ll be doing four instead of my usual five) on the expectation that everything is going to take us longer. If there are any students out there who have taken online classes that really worked (or, I guess, didn’t work), I’d also love to know if there was a rhythm to the course that played a part and what level of structure you think would help you stay engaged without making you feel micromanaged.

This Week In My (Fall 2020) Classes: Coming to Terms

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYWell, it’s official: Dalhousie’s Fall 2020 classes will be “predominantly online,” the only planned exceptions being specialized programs that rely on “experiential learning” — “medicine, dentistry, select health professions, agriculture.” In the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, we were told some time ago to begin planning for an online term: if some miracle occurred and suddenly it was safe to resume business as (formerly) usual, after all, it would have been easier to revert to face-to-face teaching than it would have been to have to pivot the other way. It is definitely helpful to have more certainty, though, especially for our students.

Because planning ahead suits me much better than waiting and wondering, I had already begun trying to come to grips with what it would (now, will) mean to teach my classes online. The first stage was wrestling with my emotions about this. I love teaching–it is my favourite part of my job, sometimes the only part of it that really makes sense to me and certainly the part of it that I am most motivated about. I have always accepted that there are people who do a good job of online teaching and that there are ways to make it a good experience. Still, I have always resisted doing it myself, because I enjoy being in the live classroom so much and because I spend a lot of time online for other reasons and didn’t want to lose one of my main sources of in-person human contact.

Dal_MarionMcCain_BuildingHaving the decision made for me by circumstances hasn’t changed everything about how I feel about teaching online, but it has made a lot of those feelings irrelevant. Also, countering my wistfulness about what we’ll be missing are other, stronger feelings about what we will, happily, be avoiding by staying behind our screens. Every description I’ve seen of ways to make face-to-face teaching more or less safe for everyone involved has involved a level of surveillance, anxiety, and uncertainty that I think would make it nearly impossible to teach or learn with confidence: a lot of what is good about meeting in person would be distorted by the necessary health and safety measures, and even without taking into account the accessibility issues for staff, students, and faculty who would be at higher risk, being in a constant state of vigilance would be exhausting for everyone. Frankly, I’m relieved and grateful that Dalhousie has finally made a clear call that (arguably) errs on the side of caution. Now we can get on with planning for it.

The Student (Dixon)As my regret about the shift to online has been replaced by determination to make the best of it, I’ve also noticed something I’ve seen experienced online teachers point out before, which is a tendency to idealize face-to-face teaching, as if just being there in person guarantees good pedagogy. It doesn’t, of course. In my own case, I know that what I’ll miss the most is lively in-class discussions. But if I’m being honest, I have to admit that even the liveliest discussion rarely involves everyone in the room. Of course I try hard to engage as many people as possible, using a range of different strategies depending on the class size and purpose and layout: break-out groups, think-pair-share exercises, free writing from discussion prompts, discussion questions circulated ahead of time, handouts with passages to annotate and share, or just the good old-fashioned technique “ask a provocative question and see where it gets us.” Even what feels to me like a very good result, though, might actually involve 10 people out of, say, 40 — or 90, or 120 — speaking up. Others are (hopefully!) engaged in different ways, and there are different ways, too, to ask for and measure participation than counting who speaks up in class. Still, I’d be fooling myself if I pretended that there wasn’t any room for improvement–and what I want to think about as I make plans for the fall is therefore not how to try to duplicate that in-class experience online (ugh, Zoom!), partly because we are supposed to focus on asynchronous methods but also because maybe I can use online tools to get a higher contribution rate, which in turn might make more students feel a part of our collective enterprise. And, not incidentally, if all contributions are written, they will also get more (low-stakes) writing practice, which is always a good thing, and they will be able to think first, and more slowly (if that suits them), and look things up in the text, before having to weigh in.

Bookworm's Table (Hirst)There are other ways in which (and we all know this to be true) face-to-face teaching isn’t perfect, and there are also teachers whose face-to-face teaching does not reflect best practices for that medium. Given these obvious truths, and especially since the shift to online teaching is driven by factors that themselves have nothing to do with pedagogical preferences, I have been getting pretty irritable about professors publicly lamenting these decisions, especially when it’s obvious that they haven’t made the slightest effort to learn anything about online teaching, or to reflect on the limitations of their own usual pedagogy. One prominent academic just published an op-ed in a national paper declaring that online teaching can only ever be a faint shadow of “the real thing”; others have been making snide remarks on Twitter about the obvious worthlessness of a term of “crap zoom lectures” (that’s verbatim) or questioning why students should pay tuition for the equivalent of podcasts. Besides the obvious PR downside of making these sweepingly negative and ill-informed statements when your institutions are turning themselves upside down to find sustainable ways forward, what kind of attitude does that model for our students? The situation is hard, I agree, and sad, and disappointing. But at the end of the day we are professionals and this, right now, is what our job requires. If we value that job–and I don’t mean that in the reductive “it’s what we get paid for” way (though for those of us with tenured positions, that professional obligation is important to acknowledge and live up to) but our commitment to teaching and training and nurturing our students–then, if we can*, I think we need to do our best to get on with it.

Arcimbolo LibrarianAnd happily, though most of us are not trained as online teachers, we do have a superpower that should help us out: we are trained researchers! We can look things up, consult experts, examine models, and figure out how to apply what we learn to our own situations, contexts, pedagogical goals, and values. At this point, that’s what I’m working on: learning about online learning. Yes, I had other projects I was interested in pursuing this summer. In fact, I still do, but I have scaled back my expectations for them, because I can’t think of anything that’s more important right now than doing everything I can to make my fall classes good experiences, for my students and also for me. I have the privilege of a full-time continuing position, after all, and my university is making experts and resources available to me–plus there are all kinds of people generously offering guidance and encouragement through Twitter and I have been following up their leads and bookmarking sites and articles and YouTube videos.

I still feel a lot of generalized anxiety about the pandemic–both its immediate risks and its broader implications–but I can’t influence those outcomes, except by following expert advice and “staying the blazes home” (to quote our premier!), doing my part to slow the spread of the virus by doing as little as possible. It’s hard! I am still really struggling with my own feelings of fear and helplessness and uncertainty. But that’s why it actually feels good to focus on this pedagogical work: there is so much about the wider situation that I can’t control, but this effort is up to me. It is genuinely challenging, and I also genuinely like learning how to do new things. Sometimes now I even feel excited about what my classes might be like. After all, I have years of experience forming important relationships and experiencing real community online, through blogs and Twitter and the collaborative work of editing Open Letters Monthly, for example. I believe it can be done! Now, if I can just convince more of my colleagues–and reassure my students–about that …


*I realize not everyone is equally able to do this–those in precarious positions, those with young children who are no longer in daycare or school and who may not have summer camps; those with limited access to technology and other resources. As many people have been discussing, this crisis is highlighting and exacerbating inequities of many kinds, both in and out of the academy. Institutions should be asked over and over what they are doing to address them, and then held to account. For instance, it has always been wrong to assign courses to contingent faculty at the last minute: now it would be simply impossible for them to prepare their materials in a matter of days or even weeks. It’s already clear to me that three months isn’t really enough time!

This Week In My (Virtual) Classes: Trailing Off

Woman Reading (Elinga)In spite of everything, our academic term here is wrapping up on schedule: we are now in the middle of our exam period, final grades are due May 1, and a week or two after that my department will hold a remote version of our annual “May Marks Meeting.” For me specifically, this means that I have now submitted final grades for one of my classes and that starting tomorrow I will be marking the take-home final exams for the other (for those who opted to write it) and then calculating and submitting those grades. And after that, I will be done with this teaching term, which feels like a genuine accomplishment, under the circumstances, but also like an enormous anticlimax. I never had a chance to say goodbye to my students–none of us really understood what was happening on what turned out to be our last day of face-to-face meetings, not just in the classroom but of any kind–and I also didn’t have a chance to deliver my traditional concluding perorations about the value and rewards of the work we had been doing.

English 3031 Exam Review (Winter 2020)

I did work some of these thoughts into the slide presentations I put together to cover the remaining course content and exam review, however. I wonder how many students actually went through those, after all the work I did on them! I guess one thing I’ll have to decide, as I work on my plans for approaching my fall teaching online, is whether I want to use more of the tracking features available in Brightspace–not so much because I think the students need surveillance but because it is (presumably) important to have some sense of what is or isn’t actually engaging the class. If the students aren’t looking at or completing the posted materials, that can’t be good.

At this point we don’t actually know for sure that the fall term will be all online, but we have been asked, quite rightly, to begin drawing up plans based on that strong possibility. In case any current or prospective students read this, I want you to know: your professors are going to dedicate themselves to making your fall term a good one, I promise. Most of us would absolutely rather see you in our classrooms as usual, but if we can’t, it won’t mean that we are any less committed to your education. We’re all inevitably going to fumble and struggle and screw up, at least those of us who are new to online teaching. But in my 25 years as a professor I have seen, so often and in so many ways, demonstrations of how deeply and personally–not just professionally–we all care about our students. There is bound to be a bit of grumbling from a lot of folks (including from me) about the mechanics of teaching online, and some lamentations (again including from me!) about how much we miss teaching you in person. But if this is how we have to carry on, well, okay then: we’ll do our best to rise to the occasion. It won’t be the same, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be any good.

three-guineasI guess that’s a sort of peroration, isn’t it? Apparently I’m working them in wherever I see an opportunity. Anyway, it’s odd and a bit sad to be wrapping up a term and feel so deflated about it. I think one reason it hits hard is that I spent so much time planning for this one, especially for the Brit Lit survey class–and I was so excited about Three Guineas and about moving from it to The Remains of the Day. Ordinarily at this point I would be throwing myself into choosing the readings for my first-year class in the fall, as instead of doing Pulp Fiction again I am taking on a section of “Literature: How It Works”; I’m finding that hard to focus on, though, both because there’s a lot I still don’t know about what kind or size of class it will be and because I have lost some enthusiasm for advance planning given how much I had to toss out this term. I did put in an order for the books for 19th-Century Fiction from Dickens to Hardy, but for whatever reason, for the first time I can remember it is not filling well (and it’s not, or not obviously, a coronavirus thing, as many of our other courses at that level seem to be filling up just fine) so that’s a bit deflating as well. But there’s time for all of this to get sorted.

In the meantime, I am getting a bit of my own reading done: I’m about 300 pages into The Mirror and the Light and loving it. There’s a gripping lucidity to Mantel’s prose that draws me right in. If I’m slow finishing the novel, that will be my fault, or the fault of my still floundering concentration, which has not been helped at all by the absolutely devastating events of this past weekend. When the last of my grades are filed, I think I’ll try to settle in and immerse myself in it, as a kind of mental vacation (if not a particularly sunny one!) before trying to come to grips with all the “what’s next” questions that would usually feel so energizing as we head into the spring and summer.