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.

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.