In My Classes: Stopping and Starting

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYIt has been a somewhat chaotic time in my classes since I last posted—not in the classes themselves, really, which have gone on much as usual, when they have actually met. But there have been a couple of unanticipated disruptions to the term, as a result of which it feels as if we are struggling to build up any momentum.

First, Queen Elizabeth died. I did not expect this to affect my class schedule at all, but when the day of her funeral was declared a provincial holiday, Dalhousie decided to follow suit, so all classes were cancelled that day. I was not in favor of this plan: it’s embarrassing enough that we still have a hereditary monarchy in the first place, and the university doesn’t close for every non-statutory holiday (we are business as usual on Easter Monday, for example). A lot of other folks still had to work that day, too. However, once the public schools were closing there were certainly pragmatic arguments for making parents’ lives easier, and although it was a pain having to revise course plans with so little notice, once I’d done that I decided just to embrace the extra day off.

fionaWhen I announced the schedule changes for the “day of mourning,” I commented “Let’s just hope we don’t also have a hurricane!” Well, what do you know: Hurricane Fiona headed straight for us this past weekend, and classes are cancelled again today, as crews clean up the debris and work on restoring power. The storm was not as severe in Halifax as in other parts of the region, where it did really catastrophic damage. Other parts of the city also fared worse than we did in our particular corner, where there were lots of limbs and branches blown off and some trees sheared in two, but no huge trees or poles down. We lost power for about 38 hours; we got it back last night and then lost it again for a short time this afternoon, meaning we are definitely not taking it for granted! Our freezer packs did a decent job keeping the food in the fridge chilled, and luckily the freezer itself wasn’t packed and what was in it stayed pretty much frozen solid. We have a small camp stove we use to boil water and do a bit of cooking as needed. Increasingly, folks around us have generators, and more than one neighbor kindly offered us whatever help we needed; if the outage had gone on much longer, we would have taken them up on it gratefully.

Assuming we are back on Wednesday, that will actually be our only day of classes this week, as Friday is another day off, although this time deliberately so, in recognition of National Truth & Reconciliation Day.

agedIn between these disruptions, we have actually met a few times and I think it has gone basically fine. The energy seems a bit low to me in 19th-Century Fiction, although I blame it partly on our dreary windowless room, and it’s also possible that it seems that way to me because I can’t see students’ faces. I’ve been encouraging them to nod at me the way Wemmick nods at the Aged:

“Here’s Mr. Pip, aged parent,” said Wemmick, “and I wish you could hear his name. Nod away at him, Mr. Pip; that’s what he likes. Nod away at him, if you please, like winking!”

“This is a fine place of my son’s, sir,” cried the old man, while I nodded as hard as I possibly could. “This is a pretty pleasure-ground, sir. This spot and these beautiful works upon it ought to be kept together by the Nation, after my son’s time, for the people’s enjoyment.”

“You’re as proud of it as Punch; ain’t you, Aged?” said Wemmick, contemplating the old man, with his hard face really softened; “there’s a nod for you;” giving him a tremendous one; “there’s another for you;” giving him a still more tremendous one; “you like that, don’t you? If you’re not tired, Mr. Pip—though I know it’s tiring to strangers—will you tip him one more? You can’t think how it pleases him.”

I tipped him several more, and he was in great spirits.

I have wondered if stretching out our time on each book (which I did because of the advice we keep getting to ease up on students because of, well, everything) might be backfiring, because we’ve been talking about the same book for so long now. On the other hand, my competing fear is that a lot of them are quite behind in the reading, which could suggest I’m not allowing enough time. Well, we’ll be done with Great Expectations this week, one way or another, and next week we start Lady Audley’s Secret, which (if previous years are any indication) will perk them up, with its lurid and fast-moving plot and utter lack of subtlety (albeit it plenty of ambiguity, some of it, IMHO, evidence of authorial ineptness, not artistic complexity). (I do enjoy the novel a lot, and wrote an appreciation of it years ago for Open Letters Monthly.)

the-secret-of-the-old-clockWe’ve finished with Agatha Christie already in Mystery & Detective Fiction. I used to allot two class hours to Miss Marple stories, but for all Christie’s significance to the genre, I honestly don’t find there’s all that much to say about them, so I don’t regret having trimmed away one of those hours this year. We had a good student presentation on her, which gave us a productive second round of discussion. On Friday we had our first hour on Nancy Drew; we’re losing an hour on her to Fiona but will get another chance on Wednesday, with another student presentation. I always enjoy these so much: the students are so smart and creative and engaged, and they come up with such good ideas for class activities. Overall the energy in this seminar started off pretty good and seems to be getting better: spirits were high on Friday, partly because Nancy always proves very provocative. She’s just so good, and so good at everything: it’s annoying, I agree!

Personally, I continue to feel somewhat disoriented and unfocused, and I’m struggling to find my rhythm and pace in the classroom, especially (to my surprise, as it has long been my favorite lecture course) in 19th-Century Fiction. I don’t think (I certainly hope!) that this wavering isn’t evident to my students—that as far as they can tell, I’ve got my head in the game. I did mention to my seminar, in the context of one confusion I fell into, that (without going into details) I wasn’t as on top of things this term as I usually expect to be and that they should just ask or set me straight if they notice me getting something wrong. These recent cancellations and the last-minute changes they have required to my carefully laid plans are not helping: I don’t enjoy uncertainty at the best of times, which these definitely are not. Here’s hoping that once Fiona is well behind us, we don’t get any more unpleasant surprises for a while.

The First Week

3032-Start-Here-cropMy classes have been meeting for a week now, and I said I was going to try to get back in the habit of reflecting on them, so here I am, although to be honest I find myself at something of a loss about what to say. Should I just focus on the classroom time, on what we’re reading and talking about, as if it’s just another year? Or should I try to explain how surreal it feels to be in the classroom, talking about our readings as if it’s just another year, and then, when the time is up, to be back in the strange disordered world of grief?

I’ll start with the basics, the way I did in the early days of this series.

In 19th-Century British Fiction From Dickens to Hardy I have done my usual contextual introductions and now we are working our way through Great Expectations. I have mentioned here before, I’m sure, that sometimes I get a bit tired of Great Expectations, which I assign a lot. The last time I taught it was in the British Literature survey course in Winter 2020, right before we all got sent home. In my online courses since then we did Hard Times and Bleak House, and I think stepping away from Great Expectations for a couple of years has been good for me—I’m really appreciating it this time. It has an intensity and also (at least in some parts) a restraint that shows Dickens’s control and maturity as an artist. Today we talked about the novel as a version of a Bildungsroman except that, so far, Pip is developing in all the wrong ways. We talked about Miss Havisham and Estella as (bad) influences, and we looked especially at Chapter XIV as an illustration of the way Pip’s retrospective narration not only makes sure that we see how he’s going wrong but shows us that, eventually, he sees that too. “It was not because I was faithful,” he reports,greatexpectations

but because Joe was faithful, that I never ran away and went for a soldier or a sailor. It was not because I had a strong sense of the virtue of industry, but because Joe had a strong sense of the virtue of industry, that I worked with tolerable zeal against the grain. It is not possible to know how far the influence of any amiable honest-hearted duty-doing man flies out into the world; but it is very possible to know how it has touched one’s self in going by, and I know right well that any good that intermixed itself with my apprenticeship came of plain contented Joe, and not of restlessly aspiring discontented me.

It isn’t young Pip who knows to call himself “ungracious,” as he does twice in this chapter; it’s an older, wiser Pip. But (and essentially, for this eventual moral growth) even young Pip knows enough to break into tears when he leaves Joe behind:

I whistled and made nothing of going. But the village was very peaceful and quiet, and the light mists were solemnly rising, as if to show me the world, and I had been so innocent and little there, and all beyond was so unknown and great, that in a moment with a strong heave and sob I broke into tears. It was by the finger-post at the end of the village, and I laid my hand upon it, and said, “Good-bye, O my dear, dear friend!”

Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried than before,—more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle. If I had cried before, I should have had Joe with me then.

4205 start hereIn Women and Detective Fiction I also began with some broad overviews, of detective fiction as a genre and of some of the questions that organize the course and will frame our readings. For last class we read a handful of “classic” stories to serve as touchstones for the resisting or subversive versions to come: “The Purloined Letter,” “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and, as a sample of hard-boiled detection, Hammett’s “Death & Company,” which is one of his ‘Continental Op’ stories. These give us a good sense of the masculine milieu of so much classic detective fiction, of the habits and practices of their detectives, and of the reductive roles assigned to women, or assumed of the women, in them. Today, as a contrast, we discussed Baroness Orczy’s “The Woman in the Big Hat,” which is one of her stories about Lady Molly of Scotland Yard. It has a delightful “reveal”:

“The big hat,” replied my dear lady with a smile. “Had the mysterious woman at Mathis’ been tall, the waitresses would not, one and all, have been struck by the abnormal size of the hat. The wearer must have been petite, hence the reason that under a wide brim only the chin would be visible. I at once sought for a small woman. Our fellows did not think of that, because they are men.”

You see how simple it all was!

Baroness_Emma_Orczy_by_BassanoWe had already talked about Sherlock Holmes’s condescending remark, “You see, but you do not observe!” and now we could revisit it with observations about how gender affects what you see, or what you understand about what you see, and about kinds of expertise that are typically devalued because they are women’s and therefore considered trivial. This issue was also key to our other reading for today, Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers,” a wonderful story that highlights the way the law fails women, making justice something that can only be achieved by subverting it. We talked about the way Glaspell’s story, instead of offering up a big reveal at the end by the superior figure of the detective, instead allows the story to unfold gradually, the women’s dawning awareness drawing us along with them as our sympathies shift from the murdered man to the woman whose happiness he destroyed. Their solidarity grows partly in reaction to the men, who are lumbering around doing more typical (but, we easily see, entirely misguided) kinds of investigating. Every time they come in and make their jovially condescending remarks about “the ladies,”  we too close ranks against them:

“Oh well,” said Mrs. Hale’s husband, with good-natured superiority, “women are used to worrying over trifles.”

The two women moved a little closer together. Neither of them spoke. The county attorney seemed suddenly to remember his manners—and think of his future.

“And yet,” said he, with the gallantry of a young politician, “for all their worries, what would we do without the ladies?”

 In both classes, it feels as if we are still warming up, but all things considered I think participation has been good. We are all masked, and that’s a bit hot and uncomfortable and makes some things a bit harder—since I can’t see people’s whole faces, for instance, it is taking me longer to match them with names, and also I can’t really see people’s reactions, to get a sense of how things are going. It’s worth it, though, obviously, for the risk reduction. Considering how sheltered I’ve been for the last two and a half years, I’ve actually been more relaxed than I expected about suddenly being surrounded by so many more people, and I think the mandatory masking (even it if isn’t everywhere) has really helped with that. 

Weeping Woman 1937 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973Other than the masks, nothing about teaching has changed, as far as I can tell, and in the moment I find I still enjoy the things I have always enjoyed about it: the material, the students, the dynamics and demands of discussion. I am relieved that (a few minor hiccups aside) I seem to staying on top of things in spite of being tired, distracted, and out of practice. When I’m not teaching, though, or busy with the other ever-proliferating work of the term, I feel more, not less, disoriented with the difference between the sameness of it all and my new changed reality. It’s a good thing, I know, that I am able to show up and be (more or less) my old self in the classroom, but at the same time I don’t know how to make sense of that or be at ease with it.

It has been a strange, confusing, and exhausting week, with some pretty good moments and some really bad ones. But at least it’s over now, after so much anticipation, and that’s one more “first” I never have to face again: my first week teaching again in person, after.

This Week: Classes

It’s 15 years now since I began posting regularly about “this week in my classes.” The series was hard to sustain during the past two years of teaching fully online, not because teaching wasn’t taking up a lot of my time and attention but because teaching ansynchronously made the concept of a “week” a lot less meaningful (among other challenges). Under different circumstances, I would be eagerly looking forward to tomorrow’s in-person class meetings. Ongoing concern about COVID (allayed only somewhat by Dalhousie’s decision to require masks in classrooms—but not in other shared spaces) would be reason enough for some ambivalence; add in that I am still grieving, and that campus is saturated with memories, and the result is a complex mixture of anticipation and anxiety, relief and sorrow. I have always loved teaching, so I do expect the demands, distractions, and rewards of being back in the classroom to be good for me, as it has been in the past. Those of you who have also experienced difficult losses will appreciate, though, that I have mixed feelings even about that.

Just as it hasn’t been possible for me to keep Owen’s death away from my reading or out of my writing, I expect it will come up as I reflect on my teaching experiences this term. In fact, because one of my ongoing challenges is finding ways to integrate his loss into my life, compartmentalizing—which has its uses for my day-to-day functioning—can also be counterproductive, not to mention painful and artificial, as an overall strategy. I don’t really know at this point what it’s going to be like for me this term, or, in a way, who I’m going to be. Maybe what I’ll discover is a healing continuity; maybe I’ll realize ways in which I have changed, or need to change. One of my worries is that, because of the strain I am under myself, I won’t have the emotional capacity to support my students as much as I usually aspire to—but perhaps exerting myself to meet their needs will be a useful counter-measure to the exhausting self-absorption of grief. In any case, I’m about to find out, and as I have always found posting about my teaching valuable for me pedagogically as well as personally, I’m going to try to return to it as a regular routine, so if you’re a regular reader, you’ll find out too.

So what exactly lies ahead? I am grateful that my department allowed me to change some course assignments around so that I have two upper-level classes this term, both of which are among my very favorite ones to teach. One is The 19th-Century British Novel from Dickens to Hardy; I have assigned Middlemarch as one of our readings, and allowed a relatively luxurious five weeks for it, because I can’t think of any better way to remind myself why my work matters to me (and, I hope, to my students). The other is Women and Detective Fiction, which has always prompted really high levels of student engagement. This week’s class meetings are primarily warm-ups: introductions to the courses on Wednesday, with an emphasis on broad framing themes and questions; and then on Friday in both classes, background lectures (on the ‘rise of the novel’ in 19thC Fiction and the history of detective fiction in the other), to make sure everyone has something like the same preparation for the readings and discussions to come.

I’ve been doing this for a pretty long time now (27 years, thanks for asking), so ordinarily I’d feel quite confident at this point. Practically and logistically, I’m well prepared—though it will be interesting to see how more than two years of working from home on a very flexible, if still often very intense, schedule, plus the psychological upheaval of the past 8 months, have affected my executive function. “To-do lists are your friends,” grief experts say, and I believe them. I have a new planner and good intentions; we’ll see how far they get me. This may be the term I feel most acutely the truth of this observation from Middlemarch‘s wise narrator, though:

Doubtless some ancient Greek has observed that behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control.

Behind my (hopefully adequate) Layfield KN-95 mask, there’s going to be a lot of emotional turmoil, more or less under control.

This Week In My Classes: The End of Term – and of Online Teaching?

3031 STARTI’m in the little lull between the end of routine class work and the arrival of final essays and exams. Pre-COVID, this was a time for two ritual activities: cleaning my office and going Christmas shopping. Since I’m still working almost entirely at home, the first of these is mostly, if not entirely, beside the point: my current workspace, set up in what was once my son’s bedroom (and still furnished for that purpose, including his 20-year-old mate’s bed), could use a bit of tidying, but because online teaching means there’s a lot less physical debris from the term’s work, it’s not particularly chaotic. I’ll take the teaching-related books and folders to campus for storage when my courses are well and truly wrapped up – and bring home more books related to my sabbatical projects – but there won’t be any major housekeeping to do here until I return to working full-time there.Office

As for Christmas shopping, I’ve done a very little bit in person, in quiet local shops, and some online, but I’m not comfortable going back to the mall yet. I’m actually sad about that: I know a lot of people abhor malls, but I enjoy their cheerfully hectic impersonality. In the before times, I often headed out to the Halifax Shopping Center, ostensibly to do an errand or two, but also to get a little break from the relative isolation of my typical weekends. Much as I cherish quiet ‘alone time,’ sometimes it is (was) also good to be surrounded by the buzz of other people – people who have no expectations of and are placing no demands on me. A leisurely browse in Coles, a bemused poke around in Sephora, feeling old while idly rifling through the racks at H&M: honestly, I miss it, but not enough to do it while masked (and so overheated) and anxious about distancing, especially not now with an outbreak making our case counts spike and omicron on the rampage across the globe.

1015StartHere-cropSo what have I been doing instead of cleaning and shopping? Honestly, I’m not entirely sure where the “extra” time has gone. One factor, I think, is that online teaching actually doesn’t end neatly the way in-person classes do, or at least my classes haven’t: there has been a fair amount of tidying-up stuff to do, especially record-keeping and wrangling problems of one kind or another. One thing I suppose I didn’t have to do but considered worthwhile was an audit of students’ course bundles for English 1015 (where I am, again, using specifications grading). I would have had to do this eventually to determine their grades, but doing it now has given me a chance to identify a few students who, for whatever reason, were just one component short of a particular bundle, and then to see if there was a bonus exercise they hadn’t already completed that they could do to make it up, rather than ending up with a lower grade for lack of, say, a single discussion post. Of course the students themselves were supposed to be tracking their completed components, but I know that for some of them this was an unfamiliar and/or difficult expectation to meet: there were a lot of moving parts. One thing I like about specifications grading is that you can plug holes in this way, without creating different rules or requirements for different students (which I am always really reluctant to do). Overall, this process went much better this year than last year, when I ended up revising the bundles because so many students had (much to my mystification!) completed such a random assortment of components that an awful lot of them could not have passed the course at all if I hadn’t. I think my new slide presentation using a shopping metaphor to explain how specifications grading works really helped! Shopping Cart

I have also been preparing my final exams, including not just making up the questions but building them in Brightspace, a boringly complicated process with many opportunities to set a switch wrong and create problems, for them or for me. I have now ‘previewed’ and reviewed the settings for both exams multiple times! I also wrote up detailed announcements with information and instructions for the students about everything from the timing of the exam to where to get technical support while writing it. One of the most stressful things about online teaching turns out to be the pressure of putting absolutely everything in writing! Say the wrong thing, put the wrong date, explain something with inadequate clarity – or in too much detail – and there’s endless follow-up work to clean up the mess. There are definitely advantages, of course, over making announcements in person, exactly because the information is there, in writing, available 24/7. I think that weekly Brightspace announcements may be one of the elements of online teaching that I carry over into my in-person classes when I return to them next fall.

Latour reading womanNext fall! Yes, because much to my immense relief and gratitude I am on sabbatical this winter term. This means – although nothing seems absolutely certain about the future anymore – that this term may have been my last term of online teaching. Please let that be true! This is not to say that I’ve hated everything about it. There are some aspects of it I have grown to like, and others that I have learned the value of, whether I like them or not. I will probably never give an in-person quiz or exam again: the simplicity of arranging make-up tests is a gift, for one thing, and especially valuable as we are likely (I hope and expect) to be much more aware from now on of the importance of letting students stay home when they are sick. I also like online reading journals: I had used them in the past as a way of encouraging students to keep up with the reading and getting them to practice expressing ideas about it with low stakes, but then ‘upgrades’ to our LMS took away the journal function I had used and I gave it up. Now that I know how to set up one-on-one discussion boards in Brightspace, I can see keeping up some version of these, especially because Brightspace makes it pretty easy to keep the records.

2040 FAQWhat else has been good about online teaching? Well, while I still greatly prefer the energy, intellectual stimulation, and good cheer of class discussions, I have been impressed at the level of commentary on the discussion boards, especially, this term, in my 19th-century fiction class. I was frustrated all term at how much of it went on at the very end of each module, which meant only rarely was there substantial back-and-forth among the students, but that logistical griping tended to subside when I read through the posts that had come in. I am certain that I “heard” from more students this way than I would have in the classroom: I have pretty good participation rates, and I work hard to make space for students who are shy or just slower to know what they want to say (by, for instance, requiring everyone to put their hand up and wait to be called on), but even so it is typically a minority of students present who actually contribute. As was much discussed last year, when so many of us were new to online teaching, discussion boards proved to be fraught requirements, mostly because their demands felt really burdensome to students – particularly, perhaps, those who were used to coasting a bit by showing up to class and just listening, without (in some cases, not all, of course) doing the reading. The past 18 months of trial and error around online forums has given me a lot to think about in terms of how or whether I will build them into in-person classes. GE-Help-Icon-crop

I haven’t thought through yet how or whether I will incorporate recorded lectures into in-person courses. Happily, my sabbatical buys me time to brood about that! I am teaching English 1015 in person for the first time in Fall 2022; it is the first course I have designed from the start as an online offering, so it’s the one that will require the most reconsideration as with my other courses I can revert pretty easily to my old ways if I want to. For the upper-level courses I’ve created online versions of, my aim was to use the recorded lectures to replace my “front of room” work: some straight lecturing of the “here are the facts, here are the frameworks” kind, but then prompts for discussion, ideas to think through, and passages to focus on, with the work of talking these things through handled through the forums. They were never, that is, designed to give the whole story about our readings, which is also not a goal of mine in the classroom. If I’m (we’re) back in the classroom engaging in these conversations together, I am not sure there’s much point in laboring over slide shows even as supplements, and I would welcome the freedom to follow discussions where the students take them, too, rather than steering students down pre-ordained PowerPoint paths. That said, I have thought and learned a lot about accessibility since COVID struck – more than I ever had before, to my shame.

cow-cranfordThe single thing I have missed the most in my online classes has been laughter. You can do a lot of things asynchronously, and honestly I’m proud of the courses I offered. But asynchronicity is incompatible with spontaneity, which in turn is essential to the kind of fun we so often have in my classroom. The two best qualities I have as a teacher, according to generations of students, are that I am very organized and that I am very enthusiastic. The former has definitely helped me as an online professor: I feel confident that my students always knew exactly what was happening in every module; they knew exactly what was expected of them, and they could count on me to have prepared what they needed for it. I tried hard to convey my enthusiasm, through the tone of my announcements and lectures and through my own participation in the online discussions. I also tried to give some idea of my sense of humor in my slides, replacing what one student fondly (?) called my “demented stick figures” drawn on the whiteboard with the finest graphic design PowerPoint makes possible. smileyface

LYME

I know, because they have been generous enough to tell me, that some of my students over the past three terms have felt engaged and connected and motivated by my online teaching, and I’m proud of that! I am definitely eager, though, to be back working with students in person. I think none of us will ever take that experience for granted again.

This Week In My Classes: Persuasion and Perspective

1015StartHere-cropI am still finding it challenging to think in what were once my usual ways about what happens “in my classes” every week, because of the diffusion effect of asynchronicity. Another change from the Before Times is that it sometimes seems that teaching is now all about logistics, from setting up the Brightspace sites to … well, actually, the Brightspace sites are where it all begins and where it all ends!

It feels a bit less like that this year than it did in 2020-21, because one of my classes is a repeat, meaning a lot of the logistics were already in place and I just (just!) have to revise and update and improve it. Also, my other class, while a “new prep” as an online offering, leans heavily on the structures I developed for my most similar courses last year, so while it is definitely laborious putting them all in place again – adjusted to reflect the lessons I learned about reducing and simplifying expectations – the exercise is much less baffling and moderately less tedious.

The fun part of online teaching remains conceptualizing and preparing actual course content, and happily, the easing of pressure around logistics means I really am able to focus more of my energy there this term and to feel at least a bit more in the moment. Even responding to students’ discussion posts seems more like actually teaching and less like desperately trying to keep up!

conciseBILSo what have my classes actually been about this week, then? Well, in my introduction to literature class, we have moved on from Module 1 (What words?) to Module 2 (Whose words?). The course overall is designed to keep complicating students’ engagement with the readings, so we start with the most basic (diction, connotation, denotation, etc.) and then add layers, this week some issues about voice, point of view, irony, and unreliability. Our readings feature speakers whose positions are worth interrogating: Tom Wayman’s “Did I Miss Anything?”, Aga Shahid Ali’s “The Wolf’s Postscript to ‘Little Red Riding Hood,'” and Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” (Our reader is the concise edition of Broadview’s Introduction to Literature, so all of our readings are chosen from their admirably varied selections.) Next week we move on to “About What? Subject and Theme.”

I have always begun my introductory courses with poetry (unless they were specifically “prose and fiction” offerings). I do wonder about this approach sometimes, because students often don’t like poetry, or maybe more accurately, don’t trust themselves as readers of poetry, and this skepticism can come between them and the fun I always hope they’ll have as we warm up as close readers. Poetry is the most condensed literary form to work with, though, and also the form in which individual words tend to matter the most, so for lessons in the rewards of really paying attention to every detail, it nonetheless seems like the best place to start. Also, with fiction there is a strong tendency to resort to plot summary, so I like to put it off until they are a bit more used to being asked to stop and question what’s on the page and what it does.

oup-persuasionIn the 19th-century fiction class, which this term is the Austen to Dickens option, we are wrapping up our work on Persuasion, or we will be as more students get to the end of the module and submit their discussion posts. Anne Elliot can be a bit annoying in the first half of the novel, with her tendency to martyrdom and her inability to reach out and claim what she wants. I always find it interesting that so much of the novel’s resolution continues to be cautious, even reticent: this is not a novel celebrating impassioned outbursts, rebellion, or (to a point anyway) self-assertion. That will make Jane Eyre a dramatic contrast when we shift to Brontë’s novel next week, something I have been thinking about a lot because of course I can’t wait until Monday to start working on Jane Eyre but have to have my recorded lectures ready to go—which I do! I have discussed Jane Eyre with so many classes over the past 25 years that it hasn’t been hard to decide what the lectures should address, but it has been extremely hard to figure out how much they (I) should actually say. The model I have in mind is that they should include the equivalent of the opening comments I typically make in class, to set up the discussion to follow; explain any key critical or theoretical or historical contexts that I think are helpful to analyzing the novel well; and then prompt students to think about various elements of the novel in light of what I’ve said, rather than trying to cover what could be said about those elements. I pick some specific examples, but then I try to get out of the way, and then I show up in the online discussions to poke and provoke and steer as seems useful.

marybartonOh dear: I’m back to logistics again! I do miss the simplicity of in-person teaching. In 2019-20, I had actually been working deliberately on weaning myself from more detailed lecture notes (not from lecture plans, just notes) and, trusting to my long experience, letting the discussion in class be more free-flowing. It was going well. I remember especially clearly the last class meeting for the Austen to Dickens class on March 13, 2020. We knew classes were going to be cancelled the next week, but we had a robust discussion of Mary Barton nonetheless and wrapped up not realizing that we would not meet again in person. I know that I could be back in person right now if I’d made that choice, but it would not have been a real return to that kind of ease and energy. I think I chose right, for me, for now, but that doesn’t make everything about this easy. I do still get the same satisfaction from engaging with students’ ideas and especially from being able to be present for them, albeit virtually. And on that note I guess I should go check on what new submissions are waiting for me!

This Term In My Classes: Online Again

3031 STARTI fell out of the habit of writing teaching posts last year, partly because I was doing so much else on my computer that blogging about it felt like a bridge too far, but also, and more so, because of the flattening effect of teaching asynchronously, as I discussed in this post in January. As I head into my third fully online term, I am more used to the strange sense that I am teaching somehow both all the time and never. With at least some of last year’s materials re-usable, too (if in need of tweaking and updating), I hope I won’t be so constantly overwhelmed with preparations for the next text or topic that I find it hard to focus on the current discussions. Maybe, too, I’ve been thinking, blogging regularly again about my classes would actually help restore more sense of structure and occasion. We’ll see.

laptopLast year we were pretty much all online, in my department and across the university. This year, almost everybody else is back to teaching in person. Early in the planning process I had committed to doing my first-year course online. One reason was that it was such a big job planning and building it that I wanted to get more return on that investment. But it was also was the course that I least missed teaching in person. If our first-year classes were smaller, I might have felt differently, but teaching 120 students in a big auditorium, wearing a microphone, relying on PowerPoint, and knowing (and sometimes seeing) perfectly well that a lot of students in the room are only there because someone told them they had to be – that’s not a great experience, to be honest. I have always considered first-year teaching really important and I love engaging with the students who get excited about the material and the work – the ones who really show up for class (not just physically in class). It is especially gratifying when students taking intro primarily for their writing requirement discover a passion for analyzing literature and come back for more. Sometimes they even change their majors! But I don’t think lecture classes of 120 or more (however diligently you try to make them interactive, as of course I have always tried to do) are the right way to teach either literature or writing, and the crowd control aspects of it are always particularly disheartening. I also thought my online course went pretty well, all things considered. So why not do it that way again?

oup-persuasionThe harder question, as we headed into the summer, was what to do about 19th-Century Fiction. These courses are my absolute favorites to teach, and I did really miss the energy of in-class discussions last year, even though I thought the online version went quite well (again, all things considered). Offering this year’s version in-person seemed reasonable, even likely, back when our second dose dates got moved up and it looked like widespread vaccination was going to turn everything around. Then came Delta, and with it a lot of renewed confusion and uncertainty about what an in-person fall term would actually be like, along with slower than ideal vaccination uptake among the main student demographics. I remembered only too well how much work it was creating the materials for last year’s Dickens to Hardy course online and I knew I would not be able to do a good job on Austen to Dickens (there’s no overlap in the readings) if I put off the decision to the last minute, so I set August 1 as my deadline to make the call, and when things still looked too precarious for my liking, I committed to moving it online as well and got started right away on setting up the Brightspace site and creating materials.

dalhousieA couple of weeks later, Dalhousie did finally implement a vaccination requirement, along with mandatory masking for at least the month of September (neither of which was in place when I made up my mind to go online). I really hope that these measures and a generally high level of diligence help make it a safe and positive term for everyone now back on campus! For myself, though, while I do have regrets (anyone who has followed this blog knows how much I love being in the classroom), I appreciate the clarity of my situation and the continuity I can be sure of providing to my students. I don’t need to have multiple contingency plans – or to lecture masked or to dodge crowds in the hallways, or to work in my overheated office where at the moment I am not allowed to open the window. I do also feel that I am serving a need: there are students who themselves could not get back to Halifax, or who aren’t confident about returning to in-person classes, and I honestly think we should have tried harder to make sure they had more and less haphazard options given the predictable complications of this in-between phase, especially for international students.

computerClasses began here yesterday, and the discussion boards in my courses are now filling up with students introducing themselves and checking out how things are going to work. It’s not the same as meeting them face to face, but those of us who are online a lot one way or another know that you can communicate a lot about yourself through virtual interactions, and also that it is possible to create, sustain, and cherish real communities that way. I think the most important things I learned last year, which did involve a lot of trial and error, was that simpler is better and personal is best of all – not personal in the sense of over-sharing personal information, but personal meaning you bring yourself to the work, you show yourself in the work, and treat everybody involved as if they are people too. I’ve been trying to welcome each student individually to the class as they make their introductions: I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep this up as the pace of their contributions increases (there are 150 students all told across my two courses) but I want to make my presence felt from the beginning.

KellynchAs for course content, well, the first week of Literature: How It Works focuses on the idea and practice of close reading, with an emphasis on word choices. This is how I always begin my introductory courses, so the only difference is delivery. Across the next few modules we just keep adding things to pay attention to (“stocking our critical toolbox”!) – all the while trying out our ideas through low-stakes writing. I’m using specifications grading again, simplified and clarified (I hope) from last year’s version. In Austen to Dickens we warm up (again, as always) with a bit of background on the history of the novel: nothing fancy, just a rough sketch to give some context for our actual readings. Next week we start on Persuasion. My favorite part of class prep last year was devising slide presentations in which I tried to capture not just the main talking points of what would have been our classroom discussions, but the spirit of them. I actually found – find – this work quite creative! I don’t do anything fancy, but I do try to have a kind of unfolding narrative, illustrated by apt graphics (and sometimes silly graphics, because I miss drawing stupid stick figures on the whiteboard). This year I’m going to be more explicit about the limitations of the lecture components, which are never (in person or online) meant to “cover” everything or answer every question. Last year some students expressed frustration that I raised questions in my lectures but didn’t go on to answer them: realizing that they had this expectation surprised me a bit, because my in-person lectures also can’t possibly answer every question that comes up, but I think the recorded delivery seems like it should maybe be more definitive or complete.

So that’s where we are now: poised at the beginning of a term that, for my students, will be a hybrid one. One unknown factor is how they will feel about or treat what may well be their lone online courses. Will it seem less real or important to them in contrast to their campus work? I hope instead they will appreciate that they can tune into it on their own schedules – and know I will (more or less) always be there for them. 

Revisiting Mrs. Tulliver’s Teraphim

millonflossAs my ‘Victorian Woman Question’ seminar makes its way through The Mill on the Floss, I am very much missing the opportunity to engage in face to face discussion with everyone. It’s a novel that provokes delight, frustration, sorrow, and thought in so many ways–that raises so many complications for us, thematically and formally: it feels more difficult to choose topics and shape conversations for our online version of the class for The Mill on the Floss than it has felt for some of the other novels I have taught this way in the last few months, including (perhaps surprisingly) Middlemarch. But of course the novel itself is as wonderful as usual, and our readings for this past week included one of my favorite incidents: Mrs. Tulliver’s poignant attempt to hang on to her “chany.” It moved me even more this time: as the one-year anniversary of our COVID-inflicted isolation approaches, the things that connect us to each other and to our histories seem to me to be carrying more and more emotional weight. Here’s a post I wrote about Mrs. Tulliver’s “teraphim” almost a decade ago.


Durade GEOne of the many things that make reading George Eliot at once so challenging and so satisfying is her resistance to simplicity–especially moral simplicity. It’s difficult to sit in judgment on her characters. For one thing, she’s usually not just one but two or three steps ahead: she’s seen and analyzed their flaws with emphatic clarity, but she’s also put them in context, explaining their histories and causes and effects and pointing out to us that we aren’t really that different ourselves. Often the characters themselves are in conflict over their failings (think Bulstrode), and when they’re not, at least they can be shaken out of them temporarily, swept into the stream of the novel’s moral current (think Rosamond, or in a different way, Hetty). But these are the more grandiose examples, the ones we know we have to struggle to understand and embrace with our moral theories. Her novels also feature pettier and often more comically imperfect characters who are more ineffectual than damaging, or whose flaws turn out, under the right circumstances, to be strengths. In The Mill on the Floss, Mrs Glegg is a good example of someone who comes through in the end, the staunch family pride that makes her annoyingly funny early on ultimately putting her on the right side in the conflict that tears the novel apart.

Penguin MillThen there’s her sister Bessy, Mrs Tulliver, who is easy to dismiss as foolish and weak, but to whom I have become increasingly sympathetic over the years. Mrs Tulliver is foolish and weak, but in her own way she cleaves to the same values as the novel overall: family and memory, the “twining” of our affections “round those old inferior things.” In class tomorrow we are moving through Books III and IV, in which the Tulliver family fortunes collapse, along with Mr Tulliver himself, and the relatives gather to see what’s to be done. The way the prosperous sisters patronize poor Bessy is as devastatingly revealing about them as it is crushing to her hopes that they’ll pitch in to keep some of her household goods from being put up to auction:

“O dear, O dear,” said Mrs Tulliver, “to think o’ my chany being sold in that way — and I bought it when I was married, just as you did yours, Jane and Sophy. . . . You wouldn’t like your chany to go for an old song and be broke to pieces, though yours has got no colour in it, Jane–it’s all white and fluted, and didn’t cost so much as mine. . . . “

“Well, I’ve no objection to buy some of the best things,” said Mrs Deane, rather loftily; “we can do with extra things in our house.”

“Best things!” exclaimed Mrs Glegg with severity, which had gathered intensity from her long silence. “It drives me past patience to hear you all talking o’ best things, and buying in this, that, and the other, such as silver and chany. You must bring your mind to your circumstances, Bessy, and not be thinking of silver and chany; but whether you shall get so much as a flock bed to lie on, and a blanket to cover you, and a stool to sit on. You must remember, if you get ’em, it’ll be because your friends have bought ’em for you, for you’re dependent upon them for everything; for your husband lies there helpless, and hasn’t got a penny i’ the world to call his own. And it’s for your own good I say this…”

Unable to believe she will be parted from her things, poor Mrs Tulliver brings before them “a small tray, on which she had placed her silver teapot, a specimen teacup and saucer, the castors, and sugar-tongs.” “‘I should be so loath for ’em to buy [the teapot] at the Golden Lion,’” she says, “her heart swelling and the tears coming, ‘my teapot as I bought when I was married…’”

Eliot DrawingEarly in these scenes Maggie finds that her mother’s “reproaches against her father…neutralized all her pity for griefs about table-cloths and china”; the aunts and uncles are pitiless in their indifference to Bessy’s misplaced priorities. I used to find her pathetic clinging to these domestic trifles in the face of much graver difficulties just more evidence that she belonged to the “narrow, ugly, grovelling existence, which even calamity does not elevate”–the environment that surrounds Tom and Maggie, but especially Maggie, with “oppressive narrowness,” with eventually catastrophic results. She also seemed a specimen of the kind of shallow-minded, materialistic woman George Eliot’s heroines aspire not to be. But she’s not really materialistic and shallow. She doesn’t want the teapot because it’s silver: she wants it because it’s tangible evidence of her ties to her past, of the choices and commitments and loves and hopes that have made up her life and identity. She’s not really mourning the loss of her “chany” and table linens; she’s mourning her severance from her history.

Tower MugI think I understand her better than I used to, and feel more tolerant of her bewildered grief, because I have “teraphim,” or “household gods,” of my own, things that I would grieve the loss of quite out of proportion to their actual value. They are things that tie me, too, to my history, as well as to memories of people in my life.  I have a teapot, for instance, that was my grandmother’s; every time I use it, or the small array of cups and saucers and plates that remain from the same set (my grandmother was hard on her dishes!) I think of her and feel more like my old self. I have a pair of Denby mugs that were gifts from my parents many years ago, tributes to my childhood fascination with English history: one has Hampton Court on it, the other, the Tower–these, too, have become talismanic, having survived multiple moves. If I dropped one, I’d be devastated, and not just because as far as we’ve ever been able to find out, they would be impossible to replace. “Very commonplace, even ugly, that furniture of our early home might look if it were put up to auction,” remarks the narrator with typical prescience, shortly before financial calamity hits the Tullivers, but there’s no special merit in “striving after something better and better” at the expense of “the loves and sanctities of our life,” with their “deep immovable roots in memory.” Sometimes a teapot is not just a teapot.

Originally published on Novel Readings November 11, 2011.

This Week In My Classes: Asynchronicity

cassatI miss writing my regular updates about what we’re doing in my classes. Given that I am still teaching, and covering much the same material as usual, I have been puzzling over why it nonetheless feels nearly impossible to talk about it right now–not the process or the logistics of it, which I have written about several times now, but the substance of it. So much is the same, even though we’re online, after all: as I’ve pointed out more than once to my students, we always read the books outside of the classroom, and we always did at least some of our work on them in writing, including sometimes reading journals or discussion boards much like what I’ve asked them to do for the online versions. Why is it that without the actual classroom time, I can’t figure out what to say about the weekly experience of my classes?

It’s nearly a year now since the Big Disruption: this time last January, and in February, and in early March, I was puzzling, not over what to say here, but over how to fix a class that felt like it was really faltering (the British Literature survey). I was also enjoying the usual (ah, usual!) challenges of running discussions in the 19th-century fiction class, working especially on my resolution to wean myself from lecture notes and allow it to be more spontaneous (ah, spontaneity!). Looking back at those posts this morning, it clarified for me that what I’m missing now is the sense of teaching as an occasion, something that is a clear and necessary casualty of the asynchronous model I am using now. Whatever else we were doing, at least several times a week we did something together, and a lot of my thought and energy went into those specific common experiences–what to do in them, what we talked about in them, what went well (or didn’t) in them.

2040 FAQIn contrast, our online class discussions, even though we cover the same kinds of topics, are diffuse. Lots of good replies get posted to questions; lots of good comments get made on passages. But these things happen really sporadically, on the students’ own schedules. The earlier someone posts, the more likely another student will specifically reply and so the more conversation-like it feels, but (especially since this term I have relaxed my earlier attempts to micromanage this process) it’s haphazard and unpredictable, and you can never be sure if the original poster will look at the replies or that other students, writing in other threads, will check in to see what is unfolding elsewhere. As a result, there is no common ‘discussion’ for me to write about here: I can’t say “today we focused on X” or “after today’s discussion I realized that the thing I really need to bring up is Y.” Even for me–and of course I’m trying diligently to be as attentive as I can across every thread–it is hard to gather up the various pieces into a story about what, collectively, has gone on. One of my original plans for my own role in online discussions was exactly that: I was going to mostly hover, during the week, and then post something synthesizing the main lines and insights and gaps. It proved much harder than I thought it would, though, and in the spirit of giving myself a break too, I stopped trying.

OUPTenantThe other thing that muddles me up about reporting on ‘this week’ is that most weeks I am actually focused on next week in my classes, as I need to get the lectures composed and recorded, the discussion prompts up (when they are my job), the quizzes made up and created in the tedious quiz tool with its endless drop-down menus — everything needs to be ready to go ahead of time, so that when the module begins they actually can do it at their own pace, as the asynchronous model promises. Again, this is very different from a regular term, in which preparations for lectures, assessments, and activities are often done close to (sometimes too close to!) the specific hour in which I’m going to use them. This lets me shape them to our current discussions, and it keeps me mentally right in the moment. Today, though, as an example of what’s different, for Mystery and Detective Fiction I will be creating a lecture about “Chasing Meaning in The Maltese Falcon,” while my students work through materials on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – which I completed almost two weeks ago. (Notice I say “for” this class, not “in” this class, and that’s the key to the difference!) For The Victorian ‘Woman Question’ I just made my slides for next week, our last week on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and I already made my slides introducing The Mill on the Floss for the week after that. My mind is all over the place, not here, now, in this week.

4604 New Syllabuswill spend two hours this week with my students, if not in my classes: Thursday mornings I meet for an online but real-time discussion with the students who are taking The Victorian ‘Woman Question’ cross-listed as a graduate seminar, talking about the novel and also about some secondary readings. Then Thursday afternoon I’m having a drop-in office hour, which I’m pitching as a chance to ask questions about the courses or just to come and hang out for a while. I floated the idea of having some actual real-time class discussion, but scheduling presented a lot of obstacles and students’ reluctance to be recorded (so as not to disadvantage those who couldn’t attend) also proved, understandably, another disincentive. So we won’t dig into questions about our reading except, perhaps, incidentally, but at least we can see each other’s faces and infuse a little shared time into the otherwise radically dispersed experience of this online semester–hopefully, possibly, maybe our last one. Also, maybe, hopefully, possibly, we’ll get nice enough weather in April, before this term is over, that we can try holding that drop-in office hour somewhere outside, near enough to see each other’s faces if still distant enough not to put each other at risk.

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.