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Overdue Update and End of Semester Reflection

I’m back!


I know it’s been literal months since I updated this blog. As glancingly indicated in my last post, the new year brought a lot of changes, and this blog is a little lower in priority than other things going on. Since then, I’ve resigned from my job, moved to the west coast, had unexpected major surgery, and a fair number of other things besides.

I want to emphasize that leaving my job was with goodwill on all sides, and was solely because of an opportunity that was too good to refuse for my family. Honestly, apart from the expense, even losing an organ has been a pretty good experience, as much as that can be. The thing is, though, I’m currently unemployed (well, a “homemaker” as has been graciously offered to me by others as a title until further notice).

I mean, this is home now. I can’t complain at all.

So where does that leave us, here in this space, where you’ve become accustomed to me reflecting on pedagogy and other such things? Sort of in limbo, just like my own career right now. I’ve got some reflections today on how last semester ended, to follow up on the discussion about alternative approaches to traditional grades, and I’m going to try to update the blog more regularly now that the dust has settled a bit, but what comes after… well, we’ll see.

Semester Reflections

I didn’t know last semester would be my last semester in that position when it started. It’s sort of surreal how quickly that decision was made. I didn’t even tell my students (ok, I told one). Last semester was, honestly, just very strange, but nothing to do with my pedagogy, with some of the darkest and brightest moments in my recent memory mingled together.

At midterms, I reported on the self-assessment strategy that I used last semester. And, as I reported then, I think it went very well, but now I have the benefit of final grades and hindsight on it, and there are definitely some considerations that bear mentioning if someone else were to implement it.

To recap, last semester’s resolution was to try out a grading system that I devised in the course of an inclusive pedagogy seminar I took over the summer for professional development. In this system, students are not graded on the quality of their final products for projects, but rather on their reflections and self-grading of those projects submitted after receiving ungraded feedback from the instructor as guidance. This was in addition to using flexible deadlines, which I’ve been experimenting with for some time and finding them very practical for me in addition to helpful for many students (a certain minority of students doesn’t do well with them, and that should be considered).

Overall, I found that students had a very solid sense of how good their products were. This may have been from reviewing the rubric in the process of working through the projects, but I think it might also be simply that by the time students get into college they have a pretty solid understanding of what grades mean and what kind of work is expected in a writing classroom. As I told my students repeatedly, they don’t get into that classroom by accident; they get there because of their hard work and proven ability to do work acceptable enough to get into college. They are not blank slates at that point; they’re trained experts in studenting, with 12+ years of experience.

Although students working through the rubric and justifying the grade was absolutely necessary to the structure, I found that I didn’t value the grade they argued for as much as the argument itself. That’s where the real learning was demonstrated.

I did find that grades were significantly inflated from what I would have expected if I were teaching with traditional grading schemes, so that in essence the course became a pass/fail course: students either wound up with an A or an F. There was very little in between. Those who had Fs were primarily failing on missing assignments or poor attendance (which usually went hand in hand, especially as attendance was measured by assignments that could be made up). A few students passed by herculean efforts, having fallen behind through the semester and somehow making up the work at the last minute, taking advantage of the loose deadline policy. And I don’t mind that those students passed at all; in fact, I was quite proud of them. After all, a passing grade, as far as I’m concerned, claims that the student has demonstrated the skills required of the course, and I wouldn’t have passed their work if it didn’t meet minimum proficiency, last minute as it was.

The grade inflation could be a bit concerning (if I liked traditional grades at all), and does actually have me a little worried because, honestly, the final essays were not the best that I’ve seen come out of a class. I think there were a number of concepts that, in my effort to provide as much in-class laboratory time for one-on-one instruction as possible, I may not have taught as well as I had in the past.

However, I stand by the grades the students earned because in nearly every case, the students were able to articulate what it would take to improve their own work, given more time and a reason to revise. While it is true that being able to say what needs improvement and actually executing those improvements are somewhat different skills, they are intrinsically related skills and one naturally tends to follow the other. I am confident that, with the inevitable practice they will have in their other courses, they’ll be caught up in writing skills with any of their peers, and perhaps exceed. Plus, you know, they’re still working through the trauma of a pandemic, which is not to be dismissed lightly as a variable in this setup.

As I have noted before, setting up the assignments was a bit of a challenge, and in some cases the loose attendance and late policies may have worked against me here, as in order to do this kind of self-evaluation, it was necessary that students work in a rhythm with my own work on the course. Indeed, the most common comment I got when I asked students how the course might be improved was about putting more teeth in the attendance policy. Students who attended regularly or sometimes tended to say that they found class sessions extremely helpful in understanding assignments and improving skills and staying on task, and speculated how other students might be encouraged to attend more frequently. Those who attended more seldom often said they struggled and knew they should attend but didn’t feel like it was urgent, as the policies were forgiving. Forgiving policies are important for many students, of course–I had some disabled students who desperately needed the flexible attendance policies for various reasons, for instance–but there is a sound argument to be made that these policies were in fact too forgiving and thus didn’t really encourage participation, which is a problem.

In sum, I would definitely do this self-evaluation approach again. It is a little like contract grading, in that it takes the pressure of performance in the project itself to some degree, but focuses more on the student’s self awareness of learning than on labor itself. Does it need some improvement? Of course. And I’d be happy to hear how to improve it. It definitely needs some better way of managing attendance policies in tandem with it, because it does depend on a certain schedule working to manage the working load for everyone involved.

Was it a great last semester at that institution? Well, it wasn’t a bad one. It wasn’t my best performance as a teacher, I think, but it was far from my worst, and I do think the students learned a lot, even if I wasn’t as impressed with their final products this time. And, as I told the students at the start of the semester, I’m more concerned that they learn than that they write well. The writing will follow.

What’s Next?

So what happens next? I don’t know.

I’m on the job market again, and I’m looking at both academic and non-academic opportunities actively. I’m a strong, efficient writer and I enjoy working on teams. I should be able to find something where my skills are useful. If nothing else, I could always go into cake decorating, of course 🙂

And exploring this beautiful place. I’ll be doing more of that!

In the meantime, the plan is to focus on my writing. I’m working on a text-based adventure game, and when that’s finished, it’s back to the novels. I really need to focus on submitting those for publication. To that end, I’m focusing on developing my streaming skills on Twitch. I’ll be hosting writing time there regularly, at least twice a week. As my brother pointed out, I’m still a teacher, even if I’m not in a classroom right now; I don’t see my writing streams as a teaching space, but it’s absolutely a space for mutual learning and support, where writers can get some accountability when they need it (and, oh, I need it).

Anyway, look for more posts around here about writing craft, community building, and games analysis as I won’t have a classroom to reflect on for a little while. The blog is evolving, but it’s still here.

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