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New Semester’s Resolutions: Fall 2020

I’ve written before about how I like to make resolutions at the new semester, rather than the new year. So let’s do this!

I admit this semester I haven’t given that much thought to what I want to do better. Like most of us, I’ve been in crisis mode over the summer, waiting to see what kind of pandemic plan my university makes and trying to hedge my bets on how much curriculum to develop before it gets scuttled by the next development. I had just finished writing up a detailed mask/social distancing policy when I was informed that my request to teach online was approved. That sort of one step forward, one step back paralysis.

But I do have a few themes for this semester based on what worked really well during the pivot in the spring. What worked well was flexibility, respect, and curricular austerity.

Am I being lazy and reusing images a lot? You bet.

Flexibility

Last semester, I wrote about how I was looking into more flexible ways to do deadlines; deadlines that gave students agency over their own schedules, treating them like the professionals they should be. I had students signing up for deadlines, until the Great Pivot made me abandon any sense of hard deadlines entirely.

This semester I’m trying a slightly different approach to student agency in deadlines: I’m making all deadlines (except the end of the semester, for administrative reasons) soft deadlines. My late policy currently reads as follows:

Deadline are only suggestions! What does this mean, “deadlines are only suggestions”? It means that if you adhere to the deadlines, your work will be fairly evenly spread out over the semester. However, if you miss a deadline, there is no late penalty. Just get it in as soon as you can to get back on track so you don’t get overwhelmed with the work over time. But it really is ok if something doesn’t get done on time. Sometimes life happens, or a project takes a bit more time than you expected. Pace yourself and do what you can. And of course you can always work ahead!

Won’t this result in students just putting it all off until the end? Some might! That’s ok. But experience from the Great Pivot, where this was basically my policy, tells me that undergraduate students see a deadline and take it seriously, even if it has no teeth, and I took a strange pleasure in writing all the “It’s ok to turn it in late! Take the time you need!” emails: I much prefer being the granter of grace over being the enforcer of rigor.

The more likely result, which I will report on later, is that there will be a bell curve centering around the suggested deadline. Most students will turn it in right before or right after the deadline, with a trailing off number of students on either side. This will help stagger grading a bit, which was the goal with the due week concept in the first place, but it also gives students agency over their schedules and the ability to respond to crises that may occur over the semester, which is extra likely during a poorly managed pandemic, but would be useful in so-called normal times as well.

You’ve probably seen this one before too.

Respect

I’m approaching writing my syllabus as a Q&A rather than as a set of formal policies. This is in part to make a more invitational tone in my course, and also to make them easier to access (I’m using a hyperlinked index so students can access things as needed quickly). The goal here is to treat my students first and foremost as adults with a life outside my class.

Too often, especially in first-year-level undergraduate classes, we talk about our students as children, as subjects, as them. I’m trying to push against that this semester; I’m supporting them in the pursuit of their goals, not the other way around.

This shows up in my policies in a couple of ways. The first I’ve already discussed, which is the flexibility. Another way it shows up is in avoiding punitive language. Even in discussing plagiarism (after all, we’re required to have statements addressing academic integrity), notice the way I’m explaining, not threatening:

Academic integrity is very important; much of research and rhetoric relies on trust between author and audience, and underpinning that trust is the assumption that you are representing your work honestly and fairly. Plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty are a violation of that trust by representing someone else’s words, ideas, or work as your own. We will discuss what academic honesty means in the course materials in detail. If you ever have a question if an action is ethical, you should ask the instructor before you act…

Respect also shows up in letting them choose their own topics (I think I’m going to take my procedural rhetoric approach again this year, in which students carefully examine policies in communities that they participate in).

But, perhaps most important when most of us have at least some major online components of our courses, respect manifests in my no-pants policy. I’ve seen too many policies being shared by teachers, parents, and students alike as schools start that assume mistrust of students and compensate by enforcing dress codes and camera and microphone use for surveillance.

My resolution for this semester is that I will never require students to turn a mic or a camera on themselves without their consent. It’s always a choice; I will always offer an alternative. I’ve been emphasizing that even in Zoom, you can use a text chat if you don’t want to use a video or voice option. I’m comfortable in all three environments (I’ve been using video chat as a primary means to connect with my family for a decade or more, and I’ve been using text chat for about two decades) so it’s nothing to me to give the students a choice. But it may be very important to a student, who may be caring for a minor whose image online they may want to protect, may be in the middle of a move and be embarrassed by the mess, may be working out of their car in a parking lot so they have wifi, or any other circumstances that might dictate what kind of interaction is best or safest for them.

The corollary of this is that I have no need for dress codes. Why should students have to wear professional clothing (which itself is a problematic concept) if they don’t have to show their bodies on screen at any point? The result of that corollary is that students have the right to represent themselves how they choose in my class, and that means that they have autonomy. It also means that I have to accept them as they represent themselves, which is a basic way of expressing respect.

I don’t think I used this one last Thursday, did I?

Curricular Austerity

I didn’t really know what to call this. Most of the time I call it “Stripping the curriculum down to the basics.” If it’s not in the course description or strictly necessary to meet the stated goals as written in the course catalog, get rid of it. Yes, I know you love that ice-breaker that you’ve figured out a clever way to do online; get rid of it.

This requires radical thinking in the most literal sense: going to the roots and at every turn asking yourself “Why this?”

For my part, I originally drafted my class with a couple reading quizzes, two small in-class style writing assignments (a reflective journal and an application exercise), and a piece of a major writing assignment every week. But when I stepped back, I saw that this was simply too much. My class isn’t my students’ only class, and they have other things to do (see respect above). So I’m combining the journal and the exercise into one weekly journal that can alternate between the two, giving them at least one of each per unit. That should be sufficient; they need to reflect on their work, yes, but not all the time. They need to find and apply concepts to material outside class, yes, but not all the time.

There’s really two goals in this curricular austerity: to make it manageable for yourself and to make it manageable for your students.

Do you ever feel overwhelmed with emails, with tiny tasks? Of course you do. So why make more for yourself?

And then remember that your students do, too. Why make more for them?

Pretty sure I’ve overused this one.

Takeaway

I don’t have very clear New Semester’s Resolutions this semester. Honestly, like most of us, I’m just trying to keep my head above water. So really that’s what I’m working toward: how do I make sure my students float with me?

You Don’t Need To Watch Your Students

A lot of us are teaching online for the fall. Not as many of us as should be teaching online in the fall, of course, but a lot of us (and as I’ve mentioned before, if you’re not, plan to teach online anyway, because it’s a definite possibility). And I know I’ve said it before as well, but I want to remind you to be kind to your students. Trust them. Do not spy on them. Do not treat them like they are definitely doing something wrong.

Course planning in 2020
(image via StockSnap)

Many instructors are still trying to figure out how to simulate the classroom experience with online instruction; this is a bit quixotic, because the simple answer is “you really can’t.” We will do better when we remember that online and face-to-face are inherently different experiences, and we spend our energy better simply trying to make them the best of what they are, rather than trying to make one into the other. But there’s another shade of this discussion that’s more troubling: how will we watch our students, to make sure they’re paying attention and that they’re not cheating?

Again, the simple answer is: you don’t. The somewhat more complex answer is: good assignment and curriculum design.

The wrong answer is requiring students to keep their cameras on at all time and grading them on the same. The other wrong answer is to invest in test proctoring software and other surveillance solutions. Testing as we’ve been doing it in standardized scenarios, with high stakes, scantrons, and surveillance by authority figures, is counterproductive to the enterprise of education, and this is a great opportunity to quit it cold turkey, if we’re willing to take that opportunity.

I’m not saying we should do away with testing entirely. Assessment matters, and testing is a tool that we have available for that. Tests can be a learning environment as well as an assessment tool, if they are designed well. When we quiz ourselves, we help cement our learning as usable, recall-able material. I use quizzes, especially in my online courses, as a tool to reinforce readings and other forms of content.

But there’s a difference between a productive quiz and a punitive test. A productive quiz is low-stakes and allows students to quickly identify what they missed, why they missed it, and how to correct it. My reading quizzes have at least three attempts allowed, and are open-book. They’re there to highlight what I want students to take away from the reading, not to punish them for not doing it. A punitive test is one with high stakes and little opportunity for redemption, one that starts with the assumption that students will cheat and therefore must be watched like prisoners.

In addition to testing, we also have to adjust our assumptions about what “paying attention” means. There are a lot of ways to pay attention. As a student, I was the one drawing fanciful things in the margins. I was paying attention. But I was keeping my hands busy and redirecting the side chatter in my brain with those sketches, as well as using the sketches as a way to index my notes for later recollection, since the sketches were often easier to quickly find in my notebook than specific words.

Likewise, a student may find having all their classmates’ faces in front of them distracting in a Zoom session. They may prefer to just listen to the teacher’s voice while looking down at their notes. Or, a student may find that staring at a screen at prescribed hours is difficult; we process screen information differently than in-person or print information, often in a less linear way. Recorded sessions allow this student to pause, take a break to stretch and refocus, and return to the content.

Welcome to the new classroom
Image via StockSnap

So what makes for good online course design?

  1. Break up content into small, clear steps. Order these steps in a logical way, so students can move from one to another. Sometimes in a classroom, as a tool, we withhold the end result for a big, memorable reveal. That doesn’t work so well online; students should know why they’re doing what they’re doing and what order they should do it in. Likewise, it’s much better to watch five or six 10-minute videos than it is to watch one big hour-long video. It makes it easier to return to content if necessary, and it makes focus easier, too.
  2. Design assessments that are reinforcement rather than testing or sorting. This means embracing open-book assessment, which can be a very effective learning space. This means ditching the time limits (or using very generous time limits) and the surveillance. Instead of multiple choice quizzes (although, as I’ve mentioned, those are sometimes very useful if done low-stakes), consider a short reflective paragraph.
  3. Streamline the course. We all have our pet lesson plans, of course. We all have that example we’ve used since 2010 (or earlier). But this is a good time to get radical and return to the course goals and ask yourself, about every item you include as you upload it, “What is this thing’s purpose? Do I really need it? How will the student actually interact with this thing?” If you are teaching a relatively standardized course, strip it down to just what’s needed according to the standard requirements: if it says 4-5 assignments, do four, not five.
  4. Do not require students to show their faces or record their voices online! It is absolutely not necessary for a student to have their camera on while you are lecturing. It is absolutely not necessary for you to see into a student’s home while you are teaching, and certainly not while they’re taking a test. Students may have any number of reasons (tech, psychology, family situations, culture, whatever) that they are uncomfortable on camera or recording themselves. For instance, if you assign a video, be sure to emphasize that there are other options besides being in front of a camera: students can remix other videos, make slide show videos, etc.
  5. Use the technology you already understand. It’s tempting to use a lot of new tools right now. Limit yourself to maybe one new toy. If you know your school’s LMS well, use it well; this is not the time to try something entirely new. If you know Google’s collaboration tools well, use those. Limit the number of tools you’re using and lean mostly on the mainstream ones where you can, because students are having to learn a lot of new tools too, and you want them to focus on the content of your course more than mastering new tools.
  6. Trust students. I can’t stress this enough. Trust students. They’ll rise to the level you show you expect of them. If you write policies that imply you expect them to cheat and are just playing a game of cat and mouse with them, well, you’ll be having to play a lot of cat and mouse, because you just made that the expectation. If you write policies that show you trust them, then you’ll find they trust you back.

There’s a lot of useful information about online teaching out there. A lot of resources. Go find them. And go forth trusting your students and streamlining your curriculum and you’ll be fine.

Content, Process, Skill: Heuristics for Evaluating Educational Foundations

One of the biggest misconceptions underlying problems in education is that education is, at its core, simply the accumulation of content: memorizing facts and formulae somehow makes an education. Blame standardized testing if you like, since it’s much more cost-effective to test for content than for processes or skills. For the present argument, where the blame should fall isn’t important. What’s important today is the distinctions between content, processes, and skills.

It’s Thursday so I guess I’m using this photo again (I like it)
Photo by Michal Jarmoluk

This distinction becomes even more important right now as educators are trying to assess what can be done remotely, asynchronously, etc and what must be done face to face, synchronously, etc. At a macro level, we’re having to reassess what the function of the educational institution itself is in education: what makes a school? Why is a school important? At a micro level, we’re having to assess what our classes are at their most fundamental in order to assess what level of risk is acceptable for them to carry out their purpose. And one tool we can use in these fundamental assessments of our own curricula, programs, and institutions is the distinction between content, process, and skill.

Content, then, is discrete facts and knowledge. It’s knowing the dates of the American Civil War. It’s being able to define key terms, like rhetoric or metonymy. Content does matter; content helps frame understanding and allows us to talk about ideas and meaning. Without content like vocabulary, formulae, etc to build on as a foundation, much of education grinds to a halt. But content also can be stored easily, even entirely apart from students and teachers. Content can exist on a shelf, to be accessed as needed.

In my composition courses, for instance, students need a certain level of content: they need to know terms to identify parts of rhetorical situations, they need to know terms to describe writing processes, etc.

Content waiting to be learned.
(Image via Stocksnap, as usual)

Processes are series of predictable steps that we learn to go through on command. Learning a process is learning, for instance, the scientific method in a lab class, or an order of operations in a math class. In a lab class where the goal is specifically to learn a process, it’s not terribly important whether the lab itself is mixing a chemical with a reagent, or if it’s testing the navigation of a fruit fly. What matters is that the students practice and demonstrate the process of conducting an experiment and properly documenting it. Likewise, it’s not important what numbers are in an equation, only that students demonstrate the process of solving it (hence, “show your work.”)

In my composition courses, there are certain processes that students need to learn. They need to learn how to receive feedback (I tell them, for instance, to read backwards: read the summary note at the end first and then look for the detailed line edits and comments). They need to learn how to use a database, which is a process. It doesn’t matter what topics they’re searching for on the database, only that they’re learning how to expand and limit results with the tools available through a fairly predictable series of steps.

Skills are much more flexible things altogether. Skills are the ability to problem-solve in real time for certain kinds of problems. They’re the ability to adapt processes by understanding not only how to do them but what they mean. Skills involve, for instance, combining equations together in novel ways to calculate the amount of materials needed for a new construction, or to use the scientific process to solve a problem, rather than simply repeat an experiment. Most skills have some kind of analytical and critical thinking component. Consider even the “workplace skills” that seem mundane and are often treated as binary know/don’t know: coding in C++, for instance, is not just content or processes, but combines content and processes into the ability to analyze and solve problems as the occur.

In my composition classes, students are acquiring digital literacy skills: the ability to encounter new material on the internet in their daily lives and analyze it according to critical thinking processes, and even reproduce or generate new digital media. They are learning writing skills: the ability to consider their own strengths and use those to solve new problems in new rhetorical situations. (I should note when I say “new” I mean “new to the learner” generally, not necessarily “never seen before”)

It’s worth noting that these three things build on each other in a cyclical manner: you need content to learn processes, and processes to learn skills, and you need skills to create new processes or revise old ones, and you need processes to create or revise new content.

This works pretty well, especially for conveying content, but also for many processes and skills.
Image via Stocksnap

If, as many people believe, education is just a content delivery system, then online-only is just fine for everything. In fact, it’s likely the superior system. For content, online courses probably offer deeper learning environments, not shallower. In an online course, students can review material more readily, skip over the content they’ve already mastered more quickly, spend more time on the content they struggle with, etc.

Online-only is also adequate for a lot of processes and skills, but here the matter gets muddier, so here the argument for the necessity of face-to-face instruction gets a little stronger. For my classes, online-only is fine. Writing is something that can be done remotely, and feedback on writing is often delivered remotely anyway (and has been for a very, very long time), so remote instruction is more than adequate. All content, processes, and skills can be modeled, practiced, executed, and evaluated remotely very easily. In fact, it’s very much a replication of real-world writing environments.

However, there are other things that can’t be taught remotely. For instance, consider the fencing classes I took as an undergraduate. We had a textbook (a very well-written textbook written by our professor!), and it had all the content we needed. We had reading assignments out of it and even quizzes on the content. But that was our homework, because there was no point in spending much class time on the content, when the course mostly focused on processes and skills. Processes included lunges, ripostes, and parries. We practiced these in isolation on command, as one often does with processes. These had to be adjusted in face-to-face instruction, where our instructor could, if needed, correct our very posture physically, so we could build the right muscle memory. However, we could practice these processes on our own just fine too; they didn’t require an opponent or an observer to practice. Skills, on the other hand, required face-to-face instruction. In order to solve the sorts of problems that fencing skills solve (that is, how to use physical and mental processes unique to fencing to best an opponent doing the same processes), it was necessary to practice against opponents: sometimes classmates (usually for practice), sometimes the instructor (usually for evaluation).

Some things, mostly skills and some processes, require face-to-face instruction.
Photo by Chuttersnap from StockSnap

I don’t mind if a journalist never interviews an informant face-to-face in their journalism classes; they can do their work just fine without, even though face-to-face interviews are certainly a resource that many journalists rely on. A programmer or a designer can certainly master their skills in online environments with no detriment to their professional capacities. But I think we can all agree that some things should be face-to-face; we don’t want nurses who learn how to take blood pressure strictly as content rather than as practiced skills, and to practice those skills requires actual patients (whether their classmates or patients in a teaching hospital). We want our field scientists trained in the field; a chemist needs access to a lab, a geologist needs access to samples, a musician needs access to ensembles, etc in order to learn the skills that we expect of them.

There is no one-size-fits-all-disciplines answer to how to safely conduct education right now. There will, however, be a reckoning in all disciplines that requires returning to fundamentals and thinking about the purpose of each class, each lesson plan, in order to justify whatever risks and methods are used to teach it. In that evaluation of what we teach, why we teach, and how we teach, we’re going to have to ask what parts of our curriculum teach content, processes, and skills. And then we’re going to have to evaluate the processes and skills in particular to determine if those are things that can be taught remotely or that truly do require a specific setting for learning.

About That “Teachers Writing Their Wills” Thing…

Lately I’ve seen a bevy of observations that teachers are writing their wills as part of their preparation for the fall semester because they are scared of dying in the inevitable spike in Covid-19 cases that in-person classes could cause. I don’t want to make light of the fear; it’s a very real fear, and we should take it very seriously. However, something seems off about the way that the headlines and tweets assume that writing a will is something only someone expecting death in the near future ought to be doing, and I want to talk about that assumption.

An example of one of these posts equating will-writing with fear
Another tweet equating making a will with fear of an impending doom

American culture is death-avoidant. We don’t like talking about death. We don’t like facing our own mortality. This is evident all over the place, and not just in my brother-in-law shutting down the conversation any time I start to talk about death and mourning culture (which is something of a hobby interest for me and always has been; in his words, I’m “morbid”).

We shut away those who are near to death in hospitals and nursing homes, where we don’t have to face their suffering except for scheduled, contained visits on the terms of the well person, not the terms of the sick or dying. When people die, they’re carried out of those sanitized spaces in carefully disguised gurneys and whisked away to a funeral home where they aren’t typically seen again until they’ve been embalmed, dressed up, and given makeup to make them appear more “natural,” as if being dead were somehow unnatural. Then they’re viewed, again in scheduled, contained visits, and either cremated or buried. We no longer use outward signs of mourning: no black armbands, no mourning jewelry to tell people around us “Hey, I’m grieving, please be gentle with me” as we move through the “normal” world. Cemeteries are often empty of visitors, despite all the effort we put into making them into nice places. Our workplaces give us a day or two off and expect us to be back to regular productivity as soon as the earth covers the body. And heaven forbid we involve anyone else in our grief; that stuff’s private.

Part of the cemetery you’re not supposed to look at: a concrete vault that the casket is put into during burial. Just another example of how we hide so much of our death culture away from mainstream eyes.
(Photo by the author)

This “death denial” in American culture is well documented (I recommend starting with Caitlyn Doughty’s books; they’re very accessible). The result, however, is that if someone decides to make their will, or wants to discuss what they want done for them in the event that they’re incapacitated (a “living will”) or that they die, it’s assumed that they must have some dread diagnosis or be terribly sick. And that’s a problem.

We need to normalize making wills and discussing our death plans with our loved ones. We need to have these conversations when we aren’t dealing with the dread of an impending threat as well as when we are. Of course, it can be comforting to have these conversations when we expect some threat; it’s something we can control in the face of the awful, inevitable, uncontrollable future. But we also need to sit with the discomfort of knowing that death can come unexpectedly as well, and so we ought to be prepared for it even when we’re healthy, young, and otherwise expected not to die.

This willingness to sit with the uncomfortable feelings that addressing our own mortality can bring can be framed as part of a growing movement called death positivity. Death positivity doesn’t mean we look forward to death, or that we want to die. It also doesn’t mean we erase the awfulness of death. It means that we talk about it, that we consider our options when we’re not actively dying or afraid of death, and that we hold open space for death and mourning for the dead as a normal, dignified part of human life.

Cemeteries are beautiful places. Talking about death is beautiful too, even if it’s hard.
(photo by the author)

In this frame, making out a will isn’t some dramatic action that normal people in normal times should never have to do. It’s a responsible thing to do that should be done regularly if you have any preference for how your body is treated and how your assets are distributed.

I don’t say this to dismiss the fears of the teachers who are making out their wills. Indeed, the pandemic has prompted my husband and me to have some difficult conversations about our death plans and whether or not we need a will (we’ve decided it isn’t strictly necessary at the moment as we don’t have much to protect, we’ve had a lot of these discussions regularly with family, and the legal defaults are fine by us for now). If you don’t have a will right now, and you have anything you want to protect (such as children) or any specific ideas about what you want done with your body or your possessions, then, yes, you should be making out a will. There is no better time than now.

But I don’t want you to think of it as an act of desperation. It’s an act of control and maturity, in facing your own mortality and recognizing that, while you can’t control when and how you die, you can control at least most of what happens when you do.

If you want to start a conversation about death, here are some resources gathered by The Order of the Good Death for talking about death in the time of Coronavirus.

Student Agency Matters (Especially Right Now)

A student asked me over the summer (via an online session, of course) what I thought of the university’s plan to do face-to-face classes. I had a pretty ready answer; I’d already formulated my answer for a survey of non-tenure faculty that one of my excellent colleagues was conducting to make our voices heard. I answered that I understand that university administrators are having to make hard decisions, and I certainly don’t envy them that, but I really wish that students were consulted in more meaningful ways throughout the decision-making processes.

One of the biggest hurdles in course prep is that we often haven’t met our students yet, so it’s very hard to prepare a course that fits their needs and interests and meets them where they are. Imagine if you were in charge of planning a wedding for a couple you had never met, but only had prior experience with other couples to go on. You could make some educated guesses, but it won’t be tailored to the couple and you might make some major blunders in the process. Like weddings, education works best when it’s carefully tailored to the backgrounds and needs of the people at the center: here, the students.

Students who feel no agency over their education tend to do poorly. I’m sure we all can think of that one class we just completely checked out (or even an entire year or more) because we felt like the teacher didn’t care about them or the material wasn’t relevant or useful to us. As teachers, it’s partly our job to give students meaningful choices in their education, so that they have agency. That is, instead of seeing students as subjects over which we rule, we need to see them as partners who themselves understand parts of the situation that we don’t and can help us fill in those gaps.

This matters even more right now, when not only is the utility of our courses in our students’ overall programs at stake (as it always is), but also the very health and safety of our students.

To that end, I’m advocating that students get a lot of choice in their educations right now. Of course, they have some agency at a very final level: they can choose to leave the school entirely if they don’t feel safe with the school’s plan. But many students don’t really perceive that agency on their own behalf, or, in many cases, they don’t see that as an option for other reasons: they don’t want to lose their scholarships, they have family reasons why it has to be that school right now, they don’t want to lose their visas, or whatever other reasons they may have that hold them in place in their programs, sink or swim. And as instructors, we don’t always see those reasons, so we can’t even fully anticipate them.

But as instructors, as we always have been able to do, we can build meaningful choices into our curricula and cede as much power as possible to the students while still being able to steer the class toward its goals. This requires, for many of us, a shift in how we think about the relationship between teachers and students.

For college instructors, we need to remember that, with a few exceptions, our students are adults. They have legal, moral, and social authority over themselves, and thus absolutely have the right to decide if they are willing to take the risks that our university plans may subject them to. Likewise, they must in our classes be treated as adults, with full agency over themselves. We are not somehow better or more intelligent than they are because we have advanced degrees; we’re simply more education and in a position of authority. We must not forget that.

For instructors at K-12 levels, we need to remember that our students, while minors, are still intelligent and autonomous human beings, appropriate to their age. Children are able to understand consequences and make meaningful decisions by the ages that we put them in schools. They need to be treated as such. The rules are different right now than they have been for most of every student’s life. This is confusing and frustrating and can make children, as with adults, feel helpless. I can’t think of a better way to get a child to lose interest in school than to make them feel helpless, unheard, and powerless. So we need to make consequences and choices clear, and give them meaningful decisions in their educations: let them choose their projects, let them choose their masks, let them choose their classroom layouts, whatever it takes.

But I’m going to mostly address how to do this with adults because that’s what I know best, as I teach adults for a living. There’s a lot of options in a college classroom for providing meaningful choices, and thus agency, to students. Even more so as our universities flail for models that accommodate both a pandemic and their unyielding traditions. Of course, many people will advocate for contract grading here, and if that’s something you want to try, please do! And I always advocate for letting students choose their own topics wherever possible (if only because it makes reading their work so much more interesting).

But it may be possible to do even more right now. If you’re doing “Hyflex,” where you meet with students in smaller groups in person and do most of the course work online, you should consider letting students choose which groups they want to be in and why; perhaps theme the groups? If you’re doing online, consider being asynchronous, and offer multiple ways to present content: provide a video and a written instruction sheet, for instance.

The meaningful choices that you can make available depend wholly on the goals of the course. As you prepare for the most uncertain semester probably you’ve ever had, consider relinquishing some control in structured ways. Our temptation right now is going to be to try to exert control in some way, whatever way we possibly can, to try to plan for every eventuality and always hold onto whatever certainty we can.

I advise doing the opposite. Let the students fill in some of the spaces; you don’t need to micromanage. Structure and scaffold, yes, but not micromanage. Let go of some of that control and authority and give it to students where you can. It will give them the agency they need to make the most of this coming semester.

Book Review: The Daevabad Trilogy by S.A. Chakraborty (no spoilers)

I recently finished reading the final installment in S. A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad Trilogy, The Empire of Gold, which came out on June 30th in my region. It’s the first book I’d pre-ordered in a very long time, and I was not disappointed. If you’re looking for a recent fantasy trilogy, I’d highly recommend it for pretty much anyone. It starts with The City of Brass and The Kingdom of Copper is the second book.

Cover of The City of Brass
Cover of The City of Brass

First, a disclaimer: I listened to the entire trilogy in audiobook form, with narration by Soneela Nankani, so my review is absolutely colored by that. I borrowed the first two through my library via Hoopla, but my husband preordered the last one for me on Audible because we were both enjoying the series and I don’t get excited by much these days, and I was excited. I’m hard of hearing, so I have to be very very picky about my audiobooks: I can’t understand exaggerated voice acting or when different narrators read for different characters in the same section, and I generally do better with readers with lower voices. Nankani’s voicing for Chakraborty’s books worked pretty well for me after a brief adjustment (it helps me to get used to someone’s voice, too): she has a clear voice while still distinguishing between characters sufficiently that dialogue tags aren’t strictly necessary. There were a couple of odd sound edits in the trilogy, but they were forgivable (I suspect just artifacts from splicing multiple recording sessions). I don’t love the way she voices some of the male characters, but I recognize that’s a particular challenge (just as it can be for male actors voicing female characters in the same scenario). I do love the way she voices the main character Nahri; to me, Nankani’s voice is Nahri’s voice.

Cover of Kingdom of Copper
Cover of Kingdom of Copper

Regarding the writing, I want to start by saying that Chakraborty is a master of plot twists, and I’m in awe of her ability to hold so many different characters’ winding plot lines, backstories, and motivations in hand at the same time. The story is very much character-driven, but Chakraborty doesn’t waste any words moving the story forward either. It’s a long trilogy, but it’s stuffed to the brim, and even then it feels like a lot of world building and detail might have gotten left on the cutting room floor, as they say, making it a pretty tightly crafted narrative.

Cover of The Empire of Gold
Cover of The Empire of Gold

The story is set part in the human world and in Daevabad, the realm of Djinn and Daevas and other magical beings. Chakraborty paints them both as complex spaces, painted in detail with myriad intersections of cultures and overlapping conquests. At its core, it’s a story about the lingering effects of cycles of trauma and revenge, so that these intersections are not merely incidental set dressing, but are woven intrinsically into the fabric of the plot.

I was particularly struck by how it very much is a feminist tale in a lot of ways. So much of the story hinges on the relationships between women, positive, toxic, and everything in between. The story does involve a couple love triangles of sorts, and the fan discourse of course is happy to ship every which way (and the story allows for a healthy, vibrant fan space in so many ways!), but it’s not a romance plot; it’s an intrigue plot. This is an important point for me; I don’t care much about romantic plots (although I found myself caring about these a bit!) but sibling, parent, and friend stories hold my interest much more reliably. The romances in this trilogy are never made more important than these other kinds of relationships, and I loved that. It’s a story about connections, trust, and the betrayal thereof. Romantic partners, siblings, parents, friends, mentors, and all other kinds of connections all carry deep importance in Chakraborty’s world.

I won’t do any spoiling here, but I will assure you that the trilogy truly does have a satisfying and complete ending. There’s room to explore the world of Daevabad further—I’d read another of Chakraborty’s Daevabad books if she wants to do that!—but there isn’t really any need to. For those of us with sequel fatigue, wary of “trilogies” that turn out to be seven books long, it’s comforting to know that there will be a real ending waiting for us. It’s also a hopeful ending after an intense climax (I wound up sitting on the couch doing nothing for a while just to listen to it), which feels good right now, when so much fantasy has been grim and dark, but the world itself is too grim and dark to bear much of that.

I’ve also been following Chakraborty on Twitter and, from what I’ve seen so far there and on her website, she herself is amazingly gracious to fans and understands the value of fan spaces. I utterly love that about her.

In sum, I thoroughly enjoyed Chakraborty’s Daevabad trilogy, and I definitely recommend it for other fantasy fans.

Plan Online First

In May, it really did seem realistic that, come fall semester, schools could safely be back together, perhaps with a mask protocol. Shutdown measures were working to flatten the curve in most places, and people seemed truly invested in preventing the pandemic.

May, of course, was about two decades ago, and that is not the world we live in now. It’s now blatantly obvious that, at least in the U.S. where I’m stuck (I have a passport, but what good is that right now?), the complete lack of leadership and sheer idiocy of a large part of the population has made any unified, effective response to the pandemic impossible. (Yeah, I’m a little angry)

At the same time, too many schools, my own included, are continuing to insist that they’re having face-to-face classes in the fall. Sure, we might have “hyflex” and other methods to minimize face-to-face time and keep things in small groups, but we teachers need to be prepared for the almost inevitable “pivot” to online again.

They can tell us otherwise, but I’m 85% sure this is what teaching and learning looks like for now.
(Image via StockSnap)

Which means we need to address another truth about the difference between online and in-person classes: online classes take more prep.

And that fact has a corollary: it’s easier to move an online class to face-to-face than to move a face-to-face class online.

Which leads me to the only conclusion that makes sense right now: Prepare for online first.

What does this mean? As you set your policies, lessons, assignments, etc, prepare first as if your class is entirely online. Then, start moving things into in-person work as appropriate and as your school’s policies dictate. Keep all that online prep, because when the fall spike hits (and I do believe it’s when, not if), you’ll be ready for the second “pivot.”

As I’ve discussed before, one of the most important things right now is to strip your curriculum down to its essentials. Articulate for yourself the goal of the class, what students should be able to do (skills) when they finish the class, etc. Do this also for each individual lesson plan. This is not the time for trying fancy bells and whistles. This is the time for fundamentals and bare essentials.

Then, build an online skeleton and flesh it out. The key to online stuff is in careful prep. Whatever tools you use, plan in detail. Make assignments clear and provide examples wherever possible. With an online class, you can’t rely on improvisation or listening skills to carry you over patches you didn’t plan as well. I’m used to letting my students’ energy and questions propel me in the classroom, but that doesn’t work as well online where students explore the space first and ask questions maybe if you’re lucky. Your assignments need to be specific and small enough to be achievable. Stack them, sure, but make sure everything is in clear, discrete pieces. Think of it like setting SMART goals.

You got this. It’s just gonna take a little extra prep.
(Image via StockSnap)

What preparing the online first, and thinking of it in terms of fundamentals and specificity, can do for you this semester is help you approach your planning with intention. You can be intentional about what you include in your curriculum and why. You can be clear about where the branching paths are in your class and what their criteria are. But, most importantly for our present moment, planning online first gives you flexibility to move online at a moment’s notice. Online teaching isn’t easy; it takes intentionality, planning, and specificity in a more demanding way than the F2F classroom. But if you plan for online teaching first and then move things to F2F models, you’ve got the hardest work done already.

Quarantine Honeymoon Ideas

I got married three weeks ago (hence the hiatus from blog posts). In the middle of a pandemic. I’m not alone, of course. We’ve all seen the stuff on social media: Zoom weddings, socially distanced weddings, etc. I’ll talk about what I did to keep my wedding safe and special another time. Today I want to talk about some of the ideas we bounced around for our honeymoon, in case you’re looking for something fun and romantic to do in quarantine.

Crafts can be romantic.
photo via Stocksnap again

First, I want to acknowledge that nothing we could do makes up for the mourning we did over our original honeymoon plans. We’d planned a dream vacation (within our means) and were both really excited for it. It had everything: trains, ships, historic cemeteries… But that original plan would have taken us through one hotspot of the virus to stay in another. It was completely irresponsible in the current situation, not to mention straight up impossible, as many of the accommodations we had booked and paid for were simply closed. We’ll take that vacation someday, but now is not the time.

But we had saved up, our previous payments on the vacation were refunded, and we were financially able to take the time off anyway, so we did.

As I’ve said, we aren’t alone in having to make these decisions, and of course we’ve been quite fortunate that we still got to have time off and that the pandemic hasn’t upended our lives all that much.

Still, if I’m entirely honest, most of what we *actually* did was sleep in and eat leftovers, because we were both utterly exhausted. It’s not easy to completely re-plan your wedding in about a month, and if you’re planning a honeymoon in a pandemic, you know what I am talking about. I’m also not going to go into detail about how it went because, well, that’s personal.

But I will share up some of the ideas we brainstormed, in case you find them helpful for a date night, quarantine honeymoon, or even a family day (most of them are easily adapted for a whole family):

  1. Blanket fort! This one we actually implemented. We set up our air bed (the one we keep for guests) in the living room, strung some yarn across the room, hung tablecloths and blankets from the yarn, and made ourselves a blanket fort. Great place to play video games, watch movies, etc.
  2. Build something! Pick a project that is practical and simple. Building an end table or refinishing a piece of furniture could work. If you don’t have the space or tools for woodworking, you could make a quilt, build something out of EVA craft foam (which can be easily shaped with an iron, heat gun, or even a hair dryer, and can be cut with scissors and glued with a range of craft glues), or do some other crafting. For example, if you have pets, you could build them something with cardboard boxes, such as a tank or a castle. Anything that, when you’re done, you can look at and say proudly “We made that. Together.”
  3. Fancy delivery meals. I set the table with nice tablecloths and a nice centerpiece. It’s not exactly a fancy restaurant, but you can order in food and you don’t have to worry about your conversation being interrupted by a server asking if you’re done with that. You can also cook the meals yourself, of course; we grilled a few times, because the weather was pleasant and that also allowed for s’mores.
  4. Start a videogame together. Even many 1-player games can be a 2-player experience if you discuss your decisions with each other. We recently played Erica together that way. Of course, there are games designed for couch play (the Luigi’s Mansion 3 on Switch is one we’ve been playing), and online games are still an option (we’ve been playing Minecraft a lot together).
  5. Do outdoor activities. Consider going for bike rides together (my town has a nice multi-use trail, as did the town I lived in before). Consider natural swimming spaces (if they aren’t too busy) or renting a canoe. These are things that are generally considered low risk by CDC guidelines, as the main vectors seem to be circulated indoor air and close proximity to other people. If you’re on a river or lake, or are using an outdoor trail space, you probably aren’t close to other people, and you have lots of fresh air circulation. Remember to wear your mask when other people are around (such as when actually doing the rental transactions for equipment).

I know I haven’t really said anything particularly revolutionary here. I know that it’s hard right now, especially for people whose social lives were more vibrant than my own. But I hope this helps with summer activity ideas that are safe(r) right now but still can make the time a little more bearable.

Anyway that’s all I have today. Oh, and wear your mask, please!

Protect International Students. Fight the #StudentBan.

On top of every other stressor 2020 has thrown together into a massive anxiety salad, we now have to defend a yet another population that, in the United States, has literally no say in the policies that affect their life in the country that they live and study in. If you are an educator, which most of my Thursday readers are at the moment, this is urgent.

ICE has announced policies regarding F1 visas for international students concerning fall 2020 semester, policies that require students to be enrolled in face to face courses. This requirement isn’t unusual for F1 visas, but to enforce it during a pandemic is simply cruel and reckless. ICE is requiring that students either leave the country or transfer to another program if their program is going to be entirely online in the fall or if the institution has to go entirely online due to a spike in Coronavirus cases. Anyone who has ever tried to transfer schools—or even just to apply to a higher education institution—will understand that this isn’t a simple or quick process; now imagine trying to do it while managing shifting visa requirements.

This policy puts pressure on institutions to have face to face instruction, which as I’ve mentioned elsewhere is looking increasingly reckless and ill-advised. This policy will likely also have the effect of preventing institutions from going online in a timely manner should it become necessary, and in the case of containing contagious diseases, which can spread exponentially, even a day’s delay can have a severe human cost.

Many of these students can’t go home. They’ve poured their resources into being here, attending expensive U.S. institutions and navigating expensive U.S. international policy. Even if they and their families (which might likewise be adversely affected by the pandemic) have the means to bring them home under normal circumstances, and even if they have an permanent address to return to (many do not, especially among graduate students), many countries are likely to or already have closed their borders to the United States, a move which seems increasingly prudent given the rampant rises in cases of Covid-19 in the United States. If these borders are closed to all travelers, as they likely are, or severely restricted, how can these students leave the country?

I shouldn’t have to point out that higher education is one of the U.S.’s most important exports, and international students are a significant source of revenue for most institutions, as these students generally pay higher rates of tuition than other students. I shouldn’t have to point that out because that’s really not the most important reason why this policy is a Bad Idea. Economics are one thing; human lives are an altogether more important thing.

These students are important members of our university communities. They make our campuses richer culturally and help us to achieve our mission of expanding students’ horizons, both by acting as ambassadors for their own culture for other students and by themselves experiencing a culture that is not what they grew up in. They contribute excellent research; they lead on-campus organizations; they are valued students who participate in every facet of university life.

They are in a precarious position, though, and need advocates. While living and studying in American spaces, they have little or no legislative representation, since they can’t vote or otherwise participate in many of the civic engagement opportunities for citizens. We need to speak up for them, because we need to be able to support their continued education at our institutions. They paid to be here. They worked to be here. They enrich the programs we offer. They are members of our community, and we need to recognize that and support them.

I can’t recall if I’ve ever taught a section that didn’t have at least one international student in it. I certainly have never taught a semester without international students. And I wouldn’t have it any other way; they enrich my classrooms. They bring expertise that other students simply can’t offer, and as I’ve discussed before, I use student expertise as a resource in my curricula.

Moreover, what’s at stake here isn’t simply if these students can continue their education. What’s at stake, given how the pandemic has raised all the stakes, is quite simply the very lives of all students, faculty, and staff at universities.

This policy—which is made entirely independent of input from higher education institutions, and probably of any public health experts, because I can’t imagine any would sign off on it—will put pressure on institutions to hold on-campus face-to-face instruction. This will put pressure on students, faculty, and staff, whether international or citizen, to gather on campuses. This will put everyone in the community at increased and unnecessary risk for Covd-19, which is increasingly proving to be devastating even when it isn’t fatal. If this policy is allowed to stand and isn’t immediately struck down, it will result in deaths. International students may die. So may the faculty who teach them. So may the staff who run the campuses to support those mandated face-to-face classes. So may their US-citizen classmates. Any of these deaths is unacceptable because they’re so easily preventable, if our policy-makers had even a sliver of compassion or common sense.

Your task today: do something to fight the ICE policy. Suggestions below.

What can be done? Well, to start with, I want to note that Harvard and MIT have already filed suit against ICE on this policy, and they are absolutely right to do so. I encourage other institutions to take similar actions, and to do so immediately. But most of us are not in upper administrative decision-making roles in higher education institutions, so what do we do.

I already called my representatives in Congress. It’s not much but it’s something that any citizen can do. To do so, I relied heavily on the following Twitter threads by people much more intelligent than myself on public policy matters:

Whatever your role related to higher education, the ICE policy hurts you. Colleges are a closely interconnected community. If you hurt one (fairly large, actually) group, you hurt us all. This is especially true for students; we must protect our students, who have entrusted the very shaping of their minds and the safety of their bodies to universities for a time. We must honor that trust.

International students matter.

Support them.

Fight the #StudentBan.

Letting Students Lead: Race in the Classroom

Like my last post, this is addressed primarily to my white readers, this time the white teachers who read my Work Thursday posts.

I’m white, from a super-privileged middle class background, one that has benefited a lot from systemic racism. Many of my students over the years, however, have been Black, from a variety of backgrounds. This is obviously not ideal for race discussions in the classroom.

If, like me, you were raised in these white middle class spaces (of which the college classroom is often an extension), discussions of race are uncomfortable, because you were taught as a child to “not see color” and other easy aphorisms. But, also, if you’re anything like me, you want to do better and have been trying to do better for a while now. You’ve been reading and watching Black voices, trying to understand what your role is in helping. Perhaps you’ve been thinking about how you can lead discussions about race in your classroom, but you’re coming up against “How can I, as a white person in a position of authority, teach race and anti-racism to my mixed room of students?”

My best answer, based on experience and what I’ve been seeing from experts who know better than I, is that you approach it primarily with humility.There have definitely been moments in the classroom when I’ve discussed systemic racism and acknowledged what it looks like when I, the teacher, am probably the most privileged person in the room, and that acknowledgement matters. But mostly, I suggest that you let your students be the experts.

Let your students bring their lived experiences and their knowledge of Black and other marginalized voices. What you bring to the table is systematic ways of processing these things, historical perspective, and the means to use platforms to communicate those experiences. That is, they have the content and the knowledge; you have the methods to contextualize and use that content and knowledge.

Good learning is collaborative; let your students take leadership roles
(Photo from StockSnap)

What does this look like in lived experience?

(obviously I’m going to be a little vague here to protect my students)

A couple semesters ago, my university had some rather awful racist stuff happen publicly. As my students were picking topics for their projects, I had a very talented young woman, who was Black, decide she wanted to use the projects in my class to speak out about these incidents. What was my role here? To say “yes, you can and should do that.” To give her resources to build her argument. To help her craft her argument in a way that would be effective for the various rhetorical situations she was looking at. The project, by the way, was wonderful, and I believe she did actually present it to real audiences. The credit, of course, as with all student projects, goes entirely to the student. I just gave feedback.

In a more recent project, where I had students start with an auto-ethnographic assignment to explore possible topics, I had a student start talking to me in office hours about what sexism and racism looks like for her, as a mixed-race woman. What was my proper role in this encounter? Mostly to listen, because I know my own experiences as a white woman don’t really translate or matter in that situation. But then to say “You aren’t alone, and there’s people who are researching this,” and I introduced her to the term intersectionalism, which opened up her research to the resources she wanted. Was she operating outside my expertise? Yes, and that’s good. Because she was operating in her expertise. She was learning, even if I wasn’t really doing that much obvious “teaching.”

Or, in a much earlier encounter, I had a student who had attended high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. In the topic discovery phase of the writing projects in that class, I chatted with her about her research ideas. She mentioned that she’d like to do something to address the fact that in her home town, there were efforts to essentially segregate schools by ending certain bus programs. When I learned that her home town was Little Rock, I was aghast—so I asked her what she knew about the history of her own town, her own school. She didn’t know. This wasn’t her fault; obviously the public school curriculum had been designed to whitewash a lot of the Civil Rights Movement. Again, it wasn’t really my place to teach her all of what was properly her history; my place was to say “Wow, yes, that’s very important, and you should read up on the Little Rock Nine as part of your initial research, because I suspect that what’s going on is bigger than you or I fully understand.” The final research paper, by the way, was excellent, and more importantly she was able to find resources that helped her understand and contextualized the importance of her lived experience.

So what’s the procedure here when you find yourself as a white teacher with Black students and an opportunity to talk about race?

Firstly, yours is not to preach, nor to traumatize. Don’t bring in videos of Black people being abused. When I bring in videos about racial issues (it’s a rhetoric class, I should be addressing race), I use, for instance, a speech by a Black leader in a Black Lives Matter protest, and discuss how the speaker skillfully presents his message in order to meet his audience.

The procedure is this: Listen first, then affirm, then open doors. It’s that simple.

Let your students lead with their experiences. Listen to them. Don’t contradict them. That’s their experience. It’s what they already know. Your job as a teacher is to build on existing knowledge.

Listen more than you speak
(photo from StockSnap)

Affirm what you hear. If it’s similar to what other students have said, say so. If it reminds you of an essay by a Black scholar, say so. Let them know they’re not alone, and it’s not just them. But don’t make it about you. You’re not there to affirm your experience, but theirs. They’ll be better able to act and learn when they feel comfortable, and making people comfortable is about being genuinely accepting and affirming, making the encounter about them and not you.

Then, offer resources. Sure, I’m not a race scholar, but my theory survey classes as a grad student included some basic primer materials that are enough to open up a door to race studies, and I can listen when new ones are recommended. Sure, I’m not a race scholar, but I have colleagues who are, and I can ask for their help or send my students to them for a quick question. I’ve got enough history and theory under me that I can find a few starter texts for a student who is asking questions, and teach them the research techniques to use those texts to find more things (chain searching, technical definitions, etc). This is literally what we’re trained for when we study to be teachers and scholars, right?

This works to support other marginalized groups. I had several students this past semester who wanted to investigate what the changing definitions and boundaries in the LGBTQIA+ communities are. Do I know these things? As a cishet woman, not intimately. But do I know how they can find these things out and help them do that? Yes. It’s the same process of listening, affirming, and opening.

This also works for when students who are not members of a marginalized group are curious about the experiences of marginalized groups, because the listening, affirming, and opening is really just a process of fostering curiosity and supporting the inevitable reactions to information. This past semester, I had a male student who noticed in the discovery stages of research that women were underrepresented in his program. I opened by believing him, affirmed what he observed, and pointed him to some gender studies starter texts. His research then followed the same pattern—he interviewed women in his program, listened genuinely to what they had to say, and wound up acting as an ally for them by the end of the project as he investigated ways that might help create space for more women in his program.

It can be hard to decentralize yourself when you’re the teacher in a classroom. After all, our students and we ourselves are all trained to see the teacher as the most important person in the room. But just like a driving instructor generally teaches best from the passenger seat, we should learn to step aside and let our students lead. We must listen, affirm, and then open up doors based on where we hear our students want to go.