Ready for NaNoWriMo?

It’s that time of year again! Time to hang up the skeletons and put out the tombstones, but also time to brush off the Word documents and start a new novel. It’s time for National Novel Writing Month!

Banner reading National Novel Writing Month Writer 2021 with a stack of books between a diverse group of people seated on pencils.
2021 NaNoWriMo writer’s banner, via nanowrimo.org

If you’ve been around here for a while, you may know that I’ve done and won NaNoWriMo every year since 2005. I can’t count, so you can figure out how many 50k+ drafts that is for yourself. (Please don’t ask me why they’re not published yet, unless, that is, you’re offering to help publish them)

As you may know, National Novel Writing Month is a now-global challenge in which writers attempt to write 50,000 words of a work of fiction in 30 days during November. That comes out to an average of 1667 words per day. It’s not easy, but it’s quite doable.

While I love participating in NaNoWriMo every year for a lot of reasons, I am nevertheless constantly accompanied by a sense of doubt. Although participants in NaNoWriMo often speak in basically evangelistic terms, and participation does seem to be increasing over time, I’m not sure it’s working well for everyone who tries it, and I’m worried that for some people it may even be a harmful challenge.

I teach writing for a living; not fiction writing, but writing. I have a PhD in rhetoric and composition, a field entirely devoted to understanding writing processes and other phenomena associated with those processes. The research is very clear: there is on one-size-fits-all writing process.

NaNoWriMo culture (and it definitely has its own culture) does offer a number of paths for participants. There’s specialized vocabulary in that culture for talking about how a writer approaches invention (planners, pantsers, and plantsers), for instance. And I think there’s a lot to be done with researching that culture; it’s grown organically, although there is a central organization that runs the website. Obviously the way the NaNoWriMo community works is good for a lot of people.

But at the same time, a lot of people just drop out. I’ve been in this community long enough to know the rhythm of November: there’s a lot of excitement in the first week. Everything settles down a bit in week 2. And then people start disappearing.

What happens to the people who disappear? Do they go on to find a way to write that works for them? Do they just conclude that they just aren’t good writers and abandon the craft entirely? Obviously there’s a lot of stories there. But we don’t hear those stories very often. And I think, as someone who professionally has to do a lot of work helping students remediate their relationship with writing because of negative past experiences, that we ought to be concerned about these experiences.

NaNoWriMo is fun for me, but is it harmful for some people?
Image via StockSnap

I don’t have answers for it. Some people have written about why they abandoned the challenge, and I’m thankful for their stories. But there’s not enough data yet.

The problem is that I don’t know how to get that data. I’ve scrapped a number of studies at this point because I couldn’t get the data. I’m not trying right now because it would be a conflict of interest (I’m currently in a leadership role for my NaNoWriMo region), but as I’m prepping for my own novel this year, I’m also wondering, as I do every year, how to get that data once and for all.

At any rate, if you are doing NaNoWriMo this year, please come along with me! I’ll be doing sprints on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings from 8-10am (EST) on Twitch. My favorite part about both my job and my volunteer positions is encouraging writers; I want to support you!

And if you’re not doing NaNoWriMo, that’s ok! I won’t try to convince you. If you’ve tried it before and dropped out, I want to assure you: your story matters.

Hinges and Stitches: Thinking About Transitions in Writing

I was winging it in the classroom the other day, analyzing some paragraphs in a response to a very important landmark physics paper and how they transition, and I hit on an image that I think is going to be useful for a long time: hinges and stitches.

My class uses Graff and Birkenstein’s excellent They Say I Say textbook, which has some very memorable diagrams of hands reaching out and pointing to illustrate how transitions can work in writing. I like this image, and we used some of that vocabulary of course.

But in discussing how an argument can change direction in a transition moment, I found myself using the verb “hinge”: this hinges between what was talked about before, and what is being talked about after.

In the example we were looking at, this is a hinge transition:

Most contemporary physicists are concerned with technical, big-picture questions: Why do neutrinos have mass when the Standard Model says that they shouldn’t? Why are quantum field theory and general relativity irreconcilable even though both are empirically valid? Can nuclear fusion be used as an efficient power source? And so on. These questions are important but they aren’t really in line with the sort of everyday, practical problems that occupy the minds of the general public. For example, are cats liquids or solids?

From “Are Cats Liquid” by Panda the Red

The hinge here is between focusing on what physicists are concerned with and focusing on, instead, what the general public is concerned with. It’s a small hinge, but a hinge.

Here’s a diagram of how the hinge works:

A crudely drawn diagram showing how an argument changes direction when connected with a hinge transition.
Hinges change direction abruptly

Another example of a hinge is where Panda the Red writes:

Enough joking around.
While Fardin’s paper was obviously intended to be humorous, it does at least play at taking the question seriously and discusses the question using the language of modern rheology, the branch of mechanics that studies the motion of materials that have both fluid and solid characteristics. 

Panda the Red, “Are Cats Liquid”

“Enough joking around” is a stock phrase that, as far as I know, always functions as a hinge. It says to the reader “It’s ok if you were laughing before now, but please believe I actually have a real point here, and I’m about to get to it” or maybe “What came before was meant to be fun, but now I want to be (at least a little) serious.” And as if that weren’t clear enough, Panda the Red elaborates further with a hinge-like phrase (part of the same hinge, really) that amplifies “enough joking around” by saying “While Fardin’s paper was obviously intended to be humors, it does at least play at taking the question seriously.” That is, in essence, the same as saying “enough joking around” but specific to the topic.

Likewise, just before that, Panda the Red uses a section heading to change direction in the argument from literature review to definitions. Section headings are another kind of overt hinge.

But not all transitions represent a change in direction the way that this sentence (which is a hinge) does. Some simply flow together, like blending paint on a canvas, rather than turning. And as I illustrated a diagram similar to Graff and Birkenstein’s reaching arms, I noticed something: it was stitching.

Stitching pulls from both sides of a transition moment, pointing back and forward simultaneously, the way that stitches cross the boundary of both pieces of fabric and move back and forth, pulling disparate pieces together into one joined object. (in fact, repeating the word “stitching” between the previous paragraph and this paragraph is a kind of stitching)

Stitches require more than one moment of transition; they blend material together and blur the lines between the two portions of the argument, in the way that actual stitches can be used to blend two areas of embroidery together or to make two pieces of fabric interact with and conform to each other.

That is, stitching looks like this:

Here’s an example of stitching in Panda the Red’s post:

For example, are cats liquids or solids?
The earliest (c. 2014) researcher to have seriously investigated this question seems to be a person named Tom who submitted his findings to the Funny Animals section of the journal Bored Panda in an article entitled “15 Proofs That Cats are Liquids.”

Panda the Red, “Are Cats Liquid?”

Just as some stitches run back and some run forth, we have a question pointing the reader forward into the next paragraph, and then a relative article—”this question”—that points back, reminding the reader of the previous topic and attaching the new topic.

Stitches are accomplished with questions and answers, repeated phrases or concepts, relative pronouns, and other strategies that point back and forth over a boundary in a text. Basically anything that asks the reader to look backward or forward can be considered a stitch here.

The key difference is that stitches do not represent a major shift in direction in an argument, while hinges do. Hinges noticeably turn an argument. Stitches keep it going in a similar, but slightly different, direction, adding more material and gently shaping it the way seams in a garment might do.

Both hinges and stitches can add material, of course. A hinge adds a door to a frame. A stitch adds fabric to fabric, or perhaps it strengthens fabric where there are holes or merely embellishes it. While hinges are more noticeable and easier to highlight, stitches are a little more versatile.

Most writers, however, are using both fluidly and constantly. Words flow. Stitches and hinges are just a model for how ideas connect to each other through that flow of words.

So how can you use this in your own writing or teaching? (notice that this is a hinge)

Transitions are often a focus in revision. Visualizing and identifying transitions, and applying some kind of systematic vocabulary, can help writers figure out areas for extra attention when revising. It can also help writers map out their arguments (or in narrative writing, the flow of a scene).

There already exist, of course, plenty of metaphors for transition moments. But as I like to say, this is just another tool in your toolbox.

Report On Self-Assessment Grading

If you’ll recall, this semester for my New Semester’s Resolution, I was trying a more collaborative approach to grading that requires students to set goals by modifying my provided rubric and then evaluate their own work according to that rubric, so that they self-grade their assignments. At this point, students have submitted their first self-evaluation and I can give a preliminary report on how that’s going.

Long story short, it’s going great!

Oh, hey, the apples are back!

The slightly longer, more nuanced version of the story is still overwhelmingly positive, but acknowledges that there has been some confusion and, as expected, a somewhat increased workload.

First, students were confused by the goal-setting stage of the assignment. Students are so used to external authority evaluating them that the very idea of the goal-setting stage seemed strange and suspicious. As I had not used this method before, I didn’t have a good student example of the goal-setting assignment with its rubric, and as a result the initial documents were all over hte place, and many students failed to make clear rubric requirements for themselves. This resulted in confusion later when they had to use the rubric to grade themselves, since having an unclear rubric makes generating a grade harder. However, I think the later assignments will go much smoother having had this struggle once already.

I haven’t graded all of the self-assessments yet, but generally I’m finding that students are doing honest assessments. Some reported that they don’t love the grade they gave themselves, but that they felt it was the fair grade for the work they did. This kind of honest self-evaluation is partly facilitated by my assurance that the grade they give themselves isn’t necessarily their final grade on the project, but that I use it as guidance to assign that final grade. In most cases, I’m either using their suggested grade or bumping it up a little where I feel they’ve been too harsh on themselves.

That second layer of review seems to be important to building the trust necessary for this self-grading to work. I’m not saying I dn’t trust their assessments; I’m saying that I’m checking their work and advocating for them.

Likewise, the fact that they have to explain the grades they give themselves matters a lot. Although the depth of reflection of course varies, I have not seen a case where a student was unable to provide persuasive reasons for the grades they assigned themseslves. While most of the grades are B or A level grades, that’s not unusual for this course and workload, so I don’t think it’s producing any artificial inflation. Instead, it is making me more confident that the grade I assign will seem fair to the student, rather than arbitrary or punitive, since we have effectively negotiated it in advance. Indeed, I haven’t seen a single student assign a 100% grade to themselves yet.

This process has made grading collaborative. That’s a lot better for everyone involved, I think.

I’ve been able to keep the grading queue managable this semester, despite having far too many students this semester, and I think this strategy for grading is contributing to that success. A large part of the problem I’ve had with grading was a mental burden, a conditioned response that clicking a grade might produce outrage in a student because they don’t understand the grade the same way I do, no matter how much I explain and contextualize in comments or in class. But here I’m mostly rubber-stamping what the students have already said about their work and gently redirecting as needed.

In short, this has made the process of evaluating student work much less painful. If I continue to use this method in future semesters, there will be a lot of changes in how I scaffold it and present the tasks to the students, but overall the process is working. So what is the process?

  1. Students assess where they’re at in the course assignment sequence and add custom criteria to the rubric I provide that includes the basic criteria for the assignment
  2. I give some feedback on that document, recommending revisions to the rubric if necessary
  3. Students complete the project
  4. I give discursive feedback on the project, but do not grade it
  5. Students evaluate their own project by engaging with my feedback and then using the rubric to assign themselves a grade. They write a brief reflection justifying that grade
  6. I read their reflection and assign the whole project sequence a grade based on the grade they give themselves and my understanding of the rubric.

That last step is still a little vague to me and the whole thing is rather messy. I would love some revisions and suggestions to make it clearer, especially from a student perspective.

Still, despite the mess, it seems to be working, so I’m pretty pleased.

Perceiving Academic Journals

I started college in 2005, just at the cusp of learning management systems; things like Blackboard were in use, but most courses still had physical syllabi passed out on day one, and most assignments were still printed out on paper and handed in physically.

In the same way, online journals were increasingly popular at the time, and most of my research library training did involve learning systems like JSTOR and Project Muse and the MLA International Bibliography, but at the same time, it was very, very common that I would still need to pick up a physical journal volume from the library shelves to complete a project. At the material level, this taught me to notice journals as serial publications, to count through the volume numbers until I found what I was looking for, and to respect volume and issue numbers as a reliable indexing system.

Material experiences with reading in physical containers, ironically represented in a digital image (via StockSnap)

In contrast, for my students who have been on learning management systems for basically the entirety of their academic lives, including even primary school, if it isn’t online, it doesn’t exist. If an assignment doesn’t have a due date on Canvas, it doesn’t exist, even if it’s on the syllabus (which is also on Canvas, of course). Likewise, while they are familiar with books as educational technology, almost everything shorter than a book (and many things longer than a book) is available to them digitally via remote access.

In the same way, they experience other serial publications in a fundamentally different and digital way. News articles may exist on newspaper websites, but they are primarily interacted with as individual objects that are shared discretely with direct links, apart from any physical reminders that they are contained inside something else.

My students’ material experiences with the library and its resources looks more like this (also via StockSnap)

This results in a fundamentally different experience of the notion of the academic journal and academic journal articles, and I think it’s definitely worth exploring what that means, because it affects how students engage in the academic discourse that it’s my job to guide them into.

Consistently, my students tend to refer to an individual article as “this journal” or “this scholarly journal” rather than “this article.” They also frequently forget to notice or mark down the volume or issue number of a journal when they do cite it.

At some level, I have found this frustrating. I’m frequently explaining that the journal is a bigger thing and the article is just a smaller part of it. I point to MLA 9th edition’s focus on objects appearing in “containers.” I explain the publication model for academic peer-reviewed journals and discuss the different genres that appear in them. And all of this does help, to some degree.

But ultimately, their understanding of academic articles as discrete objects that have their own life but are weirdly accessed through a specialized search engine (that is, the database interfaces) makes sense, because there’s no physical experience of finding a smaller thing contained in a larger physical thing on a shelf. Why should they pay attention to the journal, or the volume and issue number, when the thing they need is right in front of them, just one click away?

Recently, there was an article going around about how students have to be taught about file folder structures in computers. I share the experience of having to teach students about these structures, and to some degree this is exacerbated by the interfaces that current devices design that hide file folder structures. And the problem of journals vs articles shares some features: the terminology simply doesn’t reflect my students’ lived experiences of the material dimensions of the genres involved. It’s something like how the floppy disk has become frozen as a “save” symbol but most users’ experience is now entirely detached from the origins of that symbol.

Therefore, I’m not really surprised that students call the article a journal. They have no conception of the container. To them, it’s purely a thing that exists in the databases, to be summoned at will through the “full text” button in the database. The database, then, is the container, and that’s often what I see in their citations (yes, it is a container, but there’s another container too).

It’s the same way that they’ll cite images as coming from Google; that’s how they found it, so that’s the container. Since Google doesn’t force them to click through to view the image, they make no association with any other container.

Do I have a solution other than explaining the publication models that control peer-reviewed articles? Nope. All I have is the observation that it makes perfect sense that to them, the article is the journal, because that’s what their experience physically represents. And there really isn’t much reason for undergraduate students at the 100-level to pay much attention to journal reputations, editorial boards, etc., so there isn’t much reason for them to think of journals as containers and articles as existing inside those journals. They aren’t trying to keep up with the latest information in their fields yet; they’re just trying to catch up with the foundational concepts for now.

And that’s ok. I’ll keep explaining and gently correcting until our citation and publication practices catch up with our material practices.

Flexible Deadlines Are Awesome

Since I started experimenting with penalty-free flexible deadlines, which was shortly before the pandemic (good timing on that one!), the regular question I’ve gotten was how to avoid the work piling up when students inevitably turn in lots of late work. The answer is actually that the flexible deadlines prevent grading from piling up rather than the other way around.

With traditional deadlines, I open the Canvas app right after a deadline and find the dreaded 99+ on my “to-do” icon. It’s overwhelming. I dread it.

To-do lists that are too long are overwhelming

But with flexible deadlines, I get a trickle of submissions. So far this semester, I’ve been able to end most days with an actual number, usually between 20 and 70, on my to-do notifications on Canvas. That’s despite teaching an overload this semester, so that I have up to 125 students (slightly less per usual attrition rates at the start of the semester).

I’m still working on getting it right. Those of you who have been around this blog space for a while will recognize my semesterly battle with deadline policies, incorporating inclusive pedagogies, and managing the grading pile to a point that it doesn’t overwhelm me.

I think this semester I’ve done something right, although it’s still too early to call.

This semester, I’m letting Canvas enforce my deadlines for me, but in class I’m reminding students regularly that there’s no late penalty, but there is a natural consequence of getting feedback later when you submit later. This results in most students submitting in a bell curve around the deadline.

Apart from letting the work trickle in, I’ve also built in lab time in every class section. That lab time gives students a chance to work on their projects immediately after discussing some concept that might help them with the work and in an environment where they can ask me or a classmate. It’s a great pedagogical device, offering “just in time” delivery of content and in vivo practice for writing with on-demand assistance. However, while there are some days when I’m running around from student to student like a baseball player hitting bases, most of the time I get a decent chunk of time to also be working alongside them. That means that while they’re working on something, I’m commenting on something. It’s a constant churn of writing and feedback between us.

Just like having the dedicated writing time helps them with task management, having the dedicated time is helping me with task management. We’re managing together.

I don’t like working on the big projects while in the classroom for privacy, efficiency, and workspace reasons. But I can clear the little daily tidbits in that time and spend my focused time in the office or at home working on the big stuff.

By having students work in class, I get to intervene directly in their composing process as needed, but I also get a break to communicate in other ways.

But I think regarding the deadlines, I’ve finally struck the balance I was looking for. This is, in part, because I had a deep discussion with my classes about the philosophy and function of deadlines and how they play a role in the classroom and outside the classroom. I explained to them why my deadlines are flexible when other deadlines might not be. We talked about how deadlines help us manage our time, but they also help us collaborate with other people, and how I’m a collaborator with them. I explained that I simply cannot read over a hundred on-time writing assignments in a day, so why should they all need to be submitted at the same time?

This is reinforced by students asking for “extensions” when things come up for which they might reasonably need a bit more time: illness, family matters, extra-curricular involvement, work schedules, etc. In those times, I can simply remind them that it’s no inconvenience to me, that they are in charge of their own schedules and priorities, and that my syllabus is flexible in this matter, so they are free to prioritize things that are not flexible.

I don’t need to train my students to be punctual or respect deadlines. They already came to me with that skill. My task is to train them to be compassionate with themselves, show initiative in planning projects, and to take agency in their own schedules. And my task is to manage my workload so it doesn’t overwhelm or paralyze me. So far, flexible deadlines are helping with those goals.

Rethinking How We Teach Paraphrasing

When you teach a course on writing research, of course you do a lot of work with source handling.

I suspect that most of us were taught summary, paraphrase, and quotation as a set, and many of us were given exercises that drilled us to do each of these things with a source on command. That’s practical in that it focuses on the specific act of doing each of these things, but it doesn’t really contextualize when to summarize, paraphrase, or quote. It also doesn’t really conceptualize what we’re doing with the material when we summarize, paraphrase, or quote.

Oh, hey, the apples are back!

Summary and quotation are pretty simple to understand when to do which. Quote when you have a small section; summarize when you have a large one. Quote when you need exact words; summarize when you need whole ideas.

The problem child is the paraphrase. It’s in a weird space that exists somewhere between summary and quotation. It’s hard to conceptualize for students, who are often focused on the distinction between “your own words” and “someone else’s words” because they’re taught to fear plagiarism without really knowing what plagiarism is.

As with so many things about writing instruction, what’s needed here is more focus on purpose and rhetorical situation. But moreover we need a shift in how we conceptualize paraphrase.

Most of us have been given the definition that paraphrase is putting someone else’s idea into our own words. But so is summary. So what makes paraphrase distinct?

Aside from scale, which dictates that paraphrase is more on the small side like a quotation while summary is whole sections or whole texts, paraphrase is fundamentally an act of translation. It’s literally the transition phrase “In other words,…” put into action.

But, students would ask if they were actually inclined to ask questions in class, why would I need to translate something that’s in the same language I’m writing in?

And that’s where a deep understanding of how rhetorical situation and genre shape language comes in.

When we shift audience, we might need to translate what was tailored to the other audience. When we shift genre, we might need to translate the material into the conventions and expectations of the new genre. When we shift any other aspect of the rhetorical situation, we might need to translate the material into the new situation.

And it’s not like these three actions are exclusive things. When we do these drills, we treat the three actions as separate, but paraphrase often accompanies quotation like a little sibling traipsing along behind: “‘Quote.’ In other words, paraphrase,” we write when we need to explain how a quotation fits into our argument. That is, we provide the original and the translation side by side. Indeed, that template is one we often encourage students to do to properly ground their arguments in evidence and avoid dreaded “dropped quotes.”

So, what do we get when we conceptualize quotation, paraphrase, and summary in this way, where paraphrase is translation? We get a really cool matrix:

QuotationParaphraseSummary
DefinitionUsing exact passagesTranslating passages into the target styleCondensing large amounts of material into brief forms
ScaleSmall (sentence level)Small to medium (sentence to paragraph level)Large (section to global level)
Purpose/UseRepresenting exact or precise materialInterpreting material for a new audienceReducing long material into a smaller unit
Matrix for teaching quotation, paraphrase, and summary

This matrix can be expanded as necessary. There’s nothing really novel here except understanding paraphrase as an act of translation, and even that’s probably not that novel. But it may help learners think about how they’re using source material to serve their audience rather than simply to support their points or to meet a quotation quota.

Feel free to use this and modify it as you see fit!

Analysis of a Classroom

This semester, a very generous classroom coordinator scheduled me (intentionally) to teach all my morning classes in one room and all my afternoon classes in another. So I have five classes this semester, but only two classrooms, and no hurry to get between them. I’m quite thankful for it. But it also gives me a fair bit of down time in each room to analyze the room itself between classes.

Architecture and design, of course, encodes cultural assumptions about use, value, and power relationships. Classrooms are no exceptions. And that’s why I enjoy analyzing the rooms I teach in. And this isn’t an idle experiment. Analyzing classrooms helps us understand how the spaces we work in affect our pedagogies and our relationships with our students.

Like many people, I’m in a classroom for the first time since March 2020. It feels a bit weird. So of course I’m noticing things.

The classrooms I teach in the building that houses my department haven’t changed. They’re still poorly ventilated, overcrowded spaces with actual chalkboards. That’s pretty normal for English departments. One of the reasons I’m a flexible teacher is because I’m used to having to design lessons for classrooms with nothing more than a chalkboard ranging to classrooms with all the smart tech.

But my other classes are in the business school’s building, and analyzing business school building rooms is always a treat. And they’ve made some changes since 2020.

This is the teacher’s station.

The teacher’s station in a classroom in a business building

Something my students and I have been discussing is the amusing design choice to have every room in this building have an accent wall, but that wall is a different color in each room. Seriously, the room next to this is teal; the one down the hall is dark blue. Red? Well, ok, that goes with the school colors, which would seem to explain the design choice, but the other rooms make it clear that it’s just for this room, so it’s not a school spirit thing.

I suspect the color choice has something to do with the fact that each accent wall also carries the logo of a local business. It’s a business school building, so the advertising makes some sense. We would expect to see capitalism encroaching into the classroom. I have to wonder how much such advertising costs.

Like most classrooms, the desks are in rows that face a front space for the teacher. The usual assumption that learning happens when students are in a submissive sitting position, quietly listening to an instructor placed in a stage space to perform and declaim is present here.

What fascinates me about this room, though, is the teacher’s station off to the side at the front. This is present in the other classroom, the one with the chalkboard, as well, but not as pronounced because the room is narrower. In this case, the white board and the projection screen are several feet away from the teacher’s station, making it impossible to operate the teacher’s station in any way while also interacting with the boards/projections without the aid of some remote device, such as a laser pointer.

The result is I do a lot of hurrying back and forth, honestly. But this is also not really the way that the classroom suggests it wants to be used.

Notice the plexiglass shield. This is clearly intended as a hygienic improvement in response to Covid-19. But it’s functionally useless for my teaching style, which is very mobile. I am constantly floating through the room, moving around the front when working with the boards, and so forth. I will not stay behind that shield.

But let’s look at what all the design of that station is suggesting the role of the instructor actually is in the classroom. It’s not surprising in a business school that it assumes instructors are presenting slides. But this one is pushing the instructor into an even more marginalized and removed space, and I’m not talking about the plexiglass shield (which is just one element suggesting this intended use).

It’s important to note that the desk in the image does not have any way to adjust the height. Aside from the accessibility issues of not being able to adjust the height (so that, say, an instructor in a powered wheelchair might struggle to use the station), this means that the station is intended to be used while sitting. That is, the instructor is encouraged to be immobile in the classroom.

It’s evident that this teaching station expects the instructor to sit at the desk and operate the media tools. This puts the instructor in a corner, while the student desks are oriented to the screen in the center. The instructor becomes a mere presenter or a perhaps a projectionist. That is the only way the plexiglass shield makes sense, and the rest of the space encourages it.

This renders the instructor a little like the Wizard of Oz, tucked away while students are intended to look at the spectacle they create apart from themselves.

Which leads me to another question: If we see the role of instructors as mere presenters of digital content, able to be physically remote from the content while teaching with it, why are we even pushing for in-person classes? If I am not floating among my students, using the physical space to embody my lessons, why am I in the classroom at all? If I can sit in a corner and control a computer to accomplish my teaching (which is certainly possible!), wouldn’t I be better off on Zoom anyway?

Building Deadlines for Grading

As you probably know if you’ve been here a while, the bane of my existence is getting behind on grading. It’s perennially a black mark. Student feedback in evaluations usually goes something like “Dr. Cox is friendly and really cares and I loved her class but she’s very slow at getting back grades.”

Like some kind of cartoon villain on Saturday morning, every semester I hatch a new harebrained scheme to make grading faster, easier, lighter, whatever I can think of to solve the problem.

Snidely Whiplash from the Dudley Do-Right cartoons (source: villains.fandom.com)
Actual image of me plotting new ways to make grading more bearable

And, like that cartoon villain, my plan never works. Something always comes up and foils even the best of laid schemes.

Naturally, I expect this semester to be no different, but I’ve got a new scheme we’re gonna try anyway: deadlines!

Of course there were always deadlines. Grades have to be turned in at certain points in a semester and there really isn’t any way to bend those deadlines. And with exactly one exception, I have always gotten grades in on time for THOSE deadlines.

So I have a reason to believe that, for me, deadlines are powerful motivators. So let’s try to use them to clear out the grading piles.

The problem, you see, with traditional grading is that the student does the work, submits it, and then gets feedback that just exists. There’s nothing specific they’re supposed to do with it. So while best learning practices require that they receive feedback quickly to create the association between the feedback and the work in the student’s mind, there’s not any pragmatic reason it matters if they get that in three days or five days, which extends to seven, which becomes… well, you get the picture. Lesson plans need to be made, emails need to be answered, and the grading winds up at the bottom of the pile until it becomes a crisis.

Last week, I talked about how I’m enlisting my students in the grading process by putting most of the weight on their self-evaluations, which respond in part to the plans that they make. So far, students are on board but very confused by this scheme. But what they don’t know is that it’s part of my nefarious plan to build more accountability into the curriculum for myself.

In this scheme, students have to use the feedback I give them to complete the self-grading in the reflection assignments. That means that I have until shortly before that’s due to get it back to them.

Now there is a deadline with teeth. Now I’m not able to complete my lesson plans (which are urgent deadlines) unless I return the grades. Building these dependencies means that the course is more integrated, and that my labor is held to the same accountability as student labor.

I don’t know if it’s going to work. I have too many students this semester (more so even than in a typical semester). The assignments are complex.

But I’m willing to try. And so far, I’ve kept up with the daily assignments and returned them before the next class. Just barely, in some cases, by working on the grading while my students are working on their own assignments in class, but I’ve managed.

I’ll check in on how these deadlines work on making grading more efficient later in the semester, but for now I’m hopeful that this scheme will keep me from letting the grading build up to crisis levels by making a series of smaller, planned crisis points.

The take-away here is that these schemes are based on a self-knowledge. I know I prioritize deadlines with real consequences for my students. Therefore, I’m building structures that force me to keep myself accountable in the ways that I know matter to me?

Will this plan work for someone else? Maybe not. I’m not even sure it’ll work for me. But I know my priorities are aligned with many other people’s priorities, so if you find these ideas useful, I’m happy to help!

Life Update and New Semester’s Resolutions for Fall 2021

I recognize that I haven’t updated this space since April. I know I don’t have a lot of readers, but I value those I have, and I haven’t forgotten.

In April, I unexpectedly and suddenly lost one of my cats, Legend. I have spent most of my time and energy since then trying to find her and, in my grief, I have had nothing left for work or research except the bare minimum to meet the obligations I had already committed to. I feel ashamed that her loss broke me so thoroughly and completely, but she has been my research and grading companion for so long that I can barely imagine working long hours at the computer without her at my side.

But having done everything in my power to bring her home with no results, not even a confirmed sighting, I have to try to make a new normal. We adopted a wonderful kitten to help us with our grief, and the new semester has come upon us relentlessly. And it’s time to return to the blog.

New kitten Grimoire can be a little Friskies.

To that end, it’s time for my tradition of New Semester’s Resolutions.

Like so many people right now, I’m coming into this semester burned out, grieving, and scared. We shouldn’t brush that under the rug. We shouldn’t look away from those facts. Our pedagogy should recognize those facts.

This week was my first week back in the classroom in over a year. No longer sitting safely at home with a cat on my lap, but facing my students mask to mask. But while people are already talking about “post-pandemic” pedagogy, activities, etc., we are far from post pandemic. Numbers are rising, ICU beds are full in many places, new variants are causing breakthrough cases, and we teachers find ourselves pushed into classrooms where we don’t know if our students are vaccinated because leadership is failing to draw a hard line on what is, honestly, a pretty clear public health matter.

Of course I’m afraid.

I have 125 students this semester. My institution, like so many others, isn’t requiring vaccinations (merely “encouraging” them). We are requiring masks, thank goodness, but it’s a lot of labor policing all those exposed noses (why are we still having this problem? I would have thought we’d have figured out how masks work by now). I’ve done the math. Statistically speaking, if I were to become a vector in my classrooms, at least one person will die as a result. It could be me. Worse yet, it could be one of my students. I don’t know if I can live with that blood on my hands.

Of course I’m doing everything in my power to prevent that. But that math is there in my mind. Of course I’m afraid. Of course I’m uncertain.

So what am I doing this semester? What goals do I have? (Do I even have mental space to look forward enough to set a goal?)

Mostly I’m petting this kitten, I hope.

Obviously, my main goal this semester is for everyone to make it out alive and breathing without assistance. I’ve often joked about that in the past. This time it’s completely literal and honest.

But my other goals this semester tie into this. I’ve often spoken about how my ideal classroom doesn’t have grades at all, and how I’m envious of teachers I know who don’t work for universities or school districts that require grades. We’re being encouraged to grade on participation, but also to be lenient on attendance so that students don’t feel pressured to attend class if they’re sick. So I’m working on that.

This semester I’m trying two things that innovate my pedagogy and move toward a gradeless space where students are accommodated in their unique situations and supported in deep, reflective learning.

  1. In lieu of attendance and traditional measurements of participation (such as raising hands and answering questions), I’m dedicating a portion of each class to independent or small group work time, and students are submitting a brief (1-3 sentence) report of how that time was used. Students can make this up if they’re absent by setting a timer and writing a report about that timed activity outside of class.
  2. Students will be graded not on my assessment of their work based on a rubric, but rather on their own self-assessment of their work based on my comments on their work and the rubric that they help create. (I’m still not sure how this is going to work but we’ll see!)

These two policy changes are in pursuit of making the class more focused on learning and less on grades. My art-teacher mother taught me at an early age that what matters is how the students improve and learn, not necessarily the products they create. That’s easy to say when you teach in programs and situations that do not produce a grade for a transcript, but nevertheless I hope that these policies will send the same message to my students by encouraging them to do a lot of self-reflection and self-direction.

So far students have expressed interest and pleasure in the idea of using reflection as a means of evaluation, but it’s only the first week and none of us have tested this system out. Still, I hope that it will work well.

And if nothing else, the independent work as class participation and attendance idea will translate well to online-only classes if and when someone gets sick.

I Might Have Gone Too Far

Previously, I argued that the key to successful asynchronous online instruction is a minimalist approach: identify the core parts of the course and strip everything else out to streamline student experience and minimize confusion. I maintain that keeping the course streamlined is important, but I have to admit an error: I went too far this semester.

One red apple on a book.
One apple was too few. (image via StockSnap)

This semester, I discarded entirely the video lectures that are so often associated with online teaching, under the reasoning that they are onerous to students and excessively time-consuming to produce. I stand by that decision; not making video lectures has been very pleasant, and I think my students appreciate not having to watch yet another video right now.

I stripped down what students had to turn in, to slightly less than 1 exercise per week and an additional writing assignment (the core assignments and their components) every other week. I relied more and more on the textbooks for lecture material.

All of these seem reasonable, but I’ve found an increase in students needing extra assistance or clarification. I went too far. So what would I add back?

Going over my notes, I find that I forgot to add something I had intended to put in the syllabus that would have made a massive improvement in the course: required conferences with students.

The design of my first year composition courses has increasingly moved away from small assignments independent of each other and toward a sequence of assignments that build on each other into one semester-long project. The advantage of separate assignments was that there was a certain amount of forgiveness built into that structure: if something didn’t work, the student could start over and try again with a fresh start. As a student, I generally preferred discrete assignments, because I find myself resistant to revision and I like to move on quickly from mistakes without having to dwell on them. However, as revision is an important skill to learn, and things like research are time-consuming processes, the long continuous project has significant advantages as well. It allows the structure of the course to focus on individual skills in the context of a larger process. It allows more opportunities to revise. It also reduces the overall burden of research and reading, because these things can be cumulative over the course of the term.

One of the necessities for extended project development is regular check-ins. While my course design this semester intends for these check-ins to be in the form of feedback on the smaller assignments, this comes with an inherent power imbalance, lack of engagement from the student, and troubling time delay. Immediate feedback matters, as does the ability to respond to feedback, and conferencing can concentrate these learning opportunities into a small but very effective dose. My notes say I meant to put a conference at the beginning, during topic generation, and a conference in between the research paper and the multimodal revision of that project, pivotal points where the student has to make generative decisions about their project.

Three red apples on a gray wooden surface.
Writing takes more than one thing at a time. Course design should reflect that. (image via stocksnap)

Some students have requested conferences or attended office hours more or less in those intervals. For those students, I’ve seen a distinct boost in their performance. I only wish I’d required that.

Mea culpa.

The problem with minimalist course design is that it’s a lot harder to add material than to subtract it as you inevitably adjust the course over a term. It simply isn’t fair to students to add a new requirement that wasn’t originally in the syllabus at the start of the semester, but it is fair to remove a requirement along the way and thereby reduce the course load overall.

Minimalist course design is good because it reduces confusion and helps students connect the pieces of the course together in meaningful ways. However, it does come with a warning label: you can go too far and wind up, as they say, throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

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