Changes to English 459, so far

Saturday, January 4th, 2014

I think I’ve gotten my Spring 2014 teaching materials under control. My syllabus is done, and the big thing for me this time is that I did not have to revise any syllabus policies. None! In fact, the only revision I did was some tweaking in the ways a revision is submitted. That is it! And I think that says really great things about my students from last semester.

What took the most time was revising assignments, of course. Since it was the first time I taught the class, I had no idea how I was going to respond to the assignments, as a teacher, and I had not seen students reactions to the assignments as the primary teacher. To give some background, I’ve written all those assignments as a student and I’ve served as a teaching assistant for the course, so I’ve seen a lot of this in action previously, but never had the class on my own until last semester.

And so, in brief, here are the changes I made:

  • The twitter assignment is gone. Some students really took to it and did well, but some didn’t, and so I need to rethink it. I do see some weaknesses in it, and honestly I didn’t push the assignment as well as I could have. I also should have introduced it in Unit 2. But I need some more time to think about this before I bring it back, if I choose to do that.
  • The proposal for unit 2 has been turned into a letter of intent. This made for quite a bit of revision on the assignment sheet and a little revision in the course schedule. This, like the budget workshop listed below, was done to reflect my own experiences in grant writing.
  • I’ve added some potential contacts to the interview assignment. This assignment has been probably the toughest one, since it creates the most anxiety in students as many have to do “cold calls,” and so I understand that anxiety. I thought maybe having some contacts from local nonprofits in the area to start off with may be helpful because it shows the students that I have previously contacted those entities and so they are aware of the assignment. Hopefully this will release a little anxiety for the students and lead to less last minute interviews and written assignments. I had probably 8 or 9 of those this past semester, which isn’t bad, but it was kind of a bummer for me as a teacher because I felt maybe I didn’t prepare them well enough for how much anxiety they may have been feeling.
  • I added information about sites like indiegogo and how they can help nonprofits. Because of other things occupying my time, I was not able to contact local nonprofits to ask if they would take students on for a project, but this is something I will work on this summer if I teach the course in the fall.
  • I totally redid the budget workshop to reflect my own experiences. It is easier for me to teach it this way. The first time I did it with a couple example cases went fine, but I suck in math and so need to be deeply familiar to pull that off well.
  • I added a whole lesson where I discuss what a grant writer does, besides write grants, in a very direct, explicit manner. While this exists in previous material, I don’t feel it is as bluntly stated as it could be, and I made sure this was done early in unit 1. And then, by reminding students of these needs in unit 2 before the interview assignment, it makes it clearer to the student why they are interviewing a grant writer and then hopefully releasing more anxiety. This could also help students develop stronger goals as to why they are interviewing a grant writer for the interview assignment as well.

Here are three things I am thinking about, but haven’t done yet:

  • Changing the order of assignments in Unit 2 where I introduce the interview assignment first. I am still thinking this through, but last semester it was something I was thinking of, but it might be one of those “this is the easy answer” deals and so I haven’t done anything yet.
  • Contacting local nonprofits about campaigns they are working on. I could do this later in the semester if a group of students is interested in it. It sounds last minute-like, but i think it could be pulled off. A local nonprofit I work for kind of did something similar, and so it could be done, I am thinking.
  • Having groups of students team up with a local nonprofit (this could be done with above bullet point) and interview someone from their for their interview assignment. There are some hiccups with this that I see, but I’m currently turning it around in my head.

What I am trying to show here, or one of the many things, is that teaching is an act of revision. I cannot think of a class I didn’t revise in some way for the next semester. It is constant re-thinking and re-organizing, and sometimes this also happens while everything is taking place. And I kind of like the constant problem solving and changes, if you will. As my mom would say, it keeps me out of trouble.


Adventures in Egg Bake

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

I received a crock pot for Christmas. To be honest, I’m always a bit confused when I get kitchen appliances for gifts since I’m not bestowed with any grace in the kitchen. In fact, I may lack grace in most areas of life, aside from being able to remember a lot of random facts about my many interests (Tudor England, New Media, Horror films, certain TV shows). But, as a single person and as someone in her 30s, I can see why people would get me such gifts, and I do appreciate these gifts and utilize them, though I perhaps may not always do that well.

My adventures with the crock pot, thus far, have told me that I was meant to use a slow cooker. My main problem in the kitchen is that I overcook or burn everything, mostly because I’ll find myself peering curiously into a pot, skillet, or my oven wondering, IS IT DONE YET?! and overestimating that it needs just five more minutes. During these five more minutes, I sit down at my computer to research one of my interests above and COMPLETELY LOSE TRACK OF TIME. So five minutes can turn out to be a lot more. Hence the burned food. Hence the overcooked meal.

I know. I should invest in a timer. The problem with that is that when the timer went off, I would be in the midst of this REALLY INTERESTING FACTOID about Tudor England or composing in new media and I would just shut it off and keep reading thinking a minute or two won’t hurt.


But my crock pot has also caused me to explore new recipes, and some of them are not something you would want to cook in a crock pot. One of these recipes was an egg bake, which I chose because I had extra stove top and this recipe called for stove top dressing. Great! I thought. And it looked easy, too. Fantastic! I thought. I’ll make that for supper RIGHT NOW.

So I make it and ate it. It seemed to better this morning than it was last night (maybe things just needed to settle, or something? or maybe i was just hungry? I don’t know) but here is what I have learned about egg bake:

  1. Egg bake is deceptive in its appearing simplicity. It actually takes time. It takes experimentation. I did OK, but I really overshot the simplicity=immediate goodness factor.
  2. Sausage, ham, or bacon might be helpful.
  3. I think layering would be a good idea for next time. Mixing all those ingredients together, as the recipe called for, was meh. At least for me.
  4. Cheese is absolutely necessary.
  5. When a recipe calls for two cups of Stove Top, make sure you only put it two cups and just don’t put in the whole box and say to yourself, THAT LOOKS LIKE TWO CUPS.

My egg bake with stove top wasn’t a total failure. I mean sometimes I can taste the eggs, and it is called egg bake, after all. But the stove top is a tad overpowering. But, because I’m stubborn about this egg bake thing now, I am going to try it again until I find something that works.

To be continued.

Finals week, or how I learned to stop worrying and love the end of the semester

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

Finals week. I think I dislike it more than my students do. My students are mostly just stressed out during it. In fact, I had one student come to my office today who looked scared to death, though why I am not sure. I am certainly not intimidating and he did pretty well in my course, but maybe he just had a really rough week and was expecting more bad news, but he did not receive bad news, at least not from me.

But I do think I hate finals week more than my students do and I mainly hate it because of emails. Emails that don’t stop. The ping like sound my email makes when I get a new message scares the crap out of me during finals week. I always think, oh I hope that is an assignment. I hope that is just an assignment. 95% of the time it is just an assignment. 4% of the time it is something the university sent me that I don’t care about, minus that health insurance email with the $1212 dollar premium that we have to pay IN FULL by JAN 20TH if we want to sign up, which is ridiculous. (Where is your Christmas spirit, oh University I attend? It certainly isn’t located in that insurance premium and so I am getting insurance elsewhere, f*ck you very much.) But it is those 1% of times where it is a question that goes something like this–

Dear Ms J, (my students usually call me by my first name because I ask them to, but they get formal at this point, which tells me I have taught them something)

I noticed in the Blackboard gradebook that my grade is two points away from an A in your course. Would it be possible for me to revise something now, or perhaps turn in extra credit? I really want an A. (Honestly, they say it all much nicer than this sounds, usually. They are impressively cordial in their rhetoric with this request. Most requests sound professional in tone.)



I usually respond with a not as snarky as I could be reply saying all my grades are final, thanks for the email, good job in the math, and we all really want something, but all final grades are final. Like I want to be able to afford a nicer apartment, but since I live mainly off a graduate student stipend, no. It doesn’t happen for me, at least not right now.

I have to admit that I do commend the students for trying. My closest friends will tell you that I can be a pro at trying to find ways and means to get out of things, so I understand working every angle, especially when it involves GPAs, graduate school applications, and being able to get into your major program. I also understand that grades don’t say poo about anyone’s intellectual capacities. Grades just tell you the quality of your performance during that semester and they are completely subjective since another human being, a teacher, evaluates your work. Sometimes I tell students this, just as a pick me up, just as a reality check. It usually helps.

This semester I did something different to curb these emails about extra credit, more points, and grade alterations, and so far it has worked, though perhaps now that I say this I’ll get an email. I put a policy in my syllabus basically saying that all final grades are just that–they are final grades. I don’t give extra credit. I don’t boost final grades up by one point because if I do that for one person, might as well do it for everyone. And revisions are always due by the final exam time. That is it. Done. El Fin. Enjoy winter break. Wear a warm coat.

Because not everyone reads an 8 page syllabus (and also, I can kind of understand that as well, though I would say that most of my students, at some point, do look through the syllabus), I repeated the all final grades are final in end of semester email announcements and Blackboard announcements. I just said, this policy is in the syllabus, please be aware of it. Thank you. Don’t forget the warm coat.

So far, it has worked. I haven’t received emails aside from wonky news about insurance, student assignments that have already been graded, and some really nice student thank you messages. So far, everything has been cool.

My students also did really well this semester, too, so maybe I didn’t need that new policy at all. Maybe it would have worked out OK. I don’t know. All I know is that I do think I hate finals week far more than my students do because it is the time when people ask for things they should have asked for weeks ago and is the time when you have to deliver either really good news or really bad news as the train speeds out of the station. It is like trying to save animals from a burning building. It is awful sometimes doing this kind of work because you don’t want to leave anyone at the station or leave anyone in that burning building, but sometimes it cannot be helped because you have to be fair and equitable to everyone. At least I believe that in the end, as long as the work gets done, the time and effort does pay off.

What I learned from teaching Grant Writing (so far)

Monday, December 16th, 2013

All final projects from both of my sections of Researching and Writing Grants and Proposals have been read, responded to, graded, and sent back to the student. I can say that most of my students rocked these final projects. Not all, but most. And I’ve learned some important things along the way, but by no means is this a comprehensive list:

  • I’m definitely turning the proposal assignment for unit two into a letter of intent. How many LOIs do I write as a grant writer? Probably more than I write grants, or that is how it sometimes feels. Because of my (limited) experiences, I think this is a pretty important genre.
  • I won’t leave the final project as open as I did this time. I feel pretty comfortable doing this because of my past work with similar open-ended projects and teaching remix projects, and I know the professor who I TA’ed and took the grant writing class with did the same, but I don’t think I’ll keep it as open as I did this semester. I’ll still give them ample opportunities, but there will be a few more rules this time around. Even so, I did get fantastic final projects, so it wasn’t a failure. I just want to narrow things down a bit more for the future.
  • I would love to throw in something like indiegogo or gofundme or similar sites, but so far I haven’t seen time to do this and I won’t be able to really connect with local nonprofits before next semester, but it is on my list if I teach this in the Fall or sometime next academic year.
  • More realistic funding idea for spring: What I would like to maybe do is see if any nonprofit needs help with a funding campaign and students can help write letters, fundraise, and talk to people about that particular project. I think this is a better goal for spring semester and does similar work to an indiegogo type of campaign.

Overall, I had a good semester teaching grants. So much of what I have done so far feels like it has been a “baptism by fire” sort of thing, and it probably has in one degree or another. But I am pretty lucky in that I have been able to write real, actual grants and participate in other forms of grant writing and research while teaching this class. That is something I feel pretty lucky about being able to do.

Quiet Rebellion

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

For one reason or another, I’ve spent the last couple days mulling over why I don’t listen to people very well. To be real with you, I’ve kind of been like this for as long as I have been conscious. Here are a couple examples:

  • As a young child, I was basically told by a teacher that I would never get anywhere in life, much less graduate from high school. (Long story–I later learned she told my parents the same thing). I didn’t listen to her. I remember thinking something along the lines that I don’t have to believe what this person is telling me, and rightly so. Perhaps this isn’t the best example, but I think as a young person being told something like that can become pretty damn debilitating to someone, if you let it. And maybe i am being a uncaring hardass by putting it that way, because I do know a child is very vulnerable to suggestions, but I am just very stubborn. I just chose not to believe her.
  • If someone says that I cannot do [insert activity here], I often do it anyway. For example, if someone says I cannot have one more drink I’ll be like puhleeze, and order one more drink. And then drink it quickly. Right in front of them. For effect. And because I can.

But the question I have been asking myself is why. Why do I not listen to people sometimes? Sure, I do listen to people more often than not, I think, or at least I think I do. As a graduate student, I have to follow directions. As a teacher, I have to follow university and department protocols. As a grant writer, I have to carefully follow funder’s requests. I do these things. I have deadlines. I meet them. But all the same, there is this strong part of me that says IDGAF all in bold, harsh language.

I know that sounds angry in tone, and sometimes it is. But mostly I am testing the response, or I want to find out mistakes for myself. I don’t always trust (in) your expertise because you are different and handle things differently than I do and goddamn, I will do it my own way whether you like it or not. And maybe, I do it because I know you won’t like it and that just might make you a little mad. Just a little. Just enough to get your attention.  Along with this, I am also stubborn. I am stubborn to a point it isn’t even helpful for me to be stubborn sometimes. My stubbornness, actually, is something that I think might be genetic since it seems to run in my family, like my stature and my eventual hearing loss that has already started to crop up in my early 30s. I think stubbornness is built into the brains of everyone in my family. (Of course, this isn’t true. It is a total learned behavior.)

I also started to consider that idea that maybe I just think that I am above the law, in one way or another, but decided that no, that wasn’t true. The rules, as much as I sometimes despise them, still apply to me. It makes no sense that they wouldn’t apply to me. And when it comes to where I am in life (whatever that means), I think I am barely just keeping up with everyone else, because as a Millennial, I have been taught that not even good is good enough. Why have the medium size fries when you can have the large? Why not get the combo meal?  Honestly, society has taught millennials that they/we aren’t good enough and need to do more and while at it, why not take this unpaid internship and do some good work for us and prove that you are not lazy slouches.

I think there is just a deep part of me that thrives on rebellion, in whatever form it is in. Even if it is a quiet rebellion where I subtly moved the chess piece when you weren’t looking and when it wasn’t my turn. When you finally notice, you just see me there, polite and smiling, and asking you about your day. It sounds a little passive-aggressive, but I am midwestern, so I’ll take that charge. But so far, this thriving on rebellion is the best reason I have come up with, considering all the other possibilities I have so far considered. And quiet rebellion is, honestly, what helps me get through the day.

To crowdsource or not to crowdsource

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

I think I might be being attacked by grading, but I am not sure. Not only am I wigged out about a rewrite of an essay (and I am majorly wigged out, but in classic jessica style so far playing it cool), but I am also wigged out by all this grading. Though the grading, admittedly, is the easy part.

Most of the projects I have been seeing are quite good. I have one student who wants to apply for a position at the Smithsonian. I have another student who is working on a technology grant for a local nonprofit. I had one group of students write an assessment on a local nonprofit to find out there is a strong opportunity for a future grant. The class has seen quite a few successes, but there are things I plan to change for the upcoming semester. I’m thinking of teaching crowdsourcing using indiegogo or similar sites. I’m also working on implementing other changes to the class, such as requiring a letter of intent for the crowdsourcing assignment. The only hang ups I have about the crowdsourcing assignment is the following:

  • Timing. Unit 1 is a long slog and is highly dependent upon the type of class you get. For example, i had one class this semester that wrapped things up about a week quicker than the other class just because they were a bit more of a high-functioning group. Would there be enough time to write that letter of intent AND finish the crowdsourcing site? I need to do further research into this and think about it more and yes, I might be overthinking this a bit. (No surprises with me and overthinking)
  • The crowdsourcing would require nothing but group projects the whole way through. In no way is this unrealistic for working in the nonprofit sector, or as a grant writer, but wow, I can see some students strongly retaliating and dropping the class because of that and, quite honestly, I would not blame them. I know how I was as a student myself and I would have dropped the class because of the group work like it was on fire.

Considering those questions, AKA hang-ups, above I am thinking I may have to hold off until a future semester unless, by some miracle, I am able to figure it out for next semester during the winter break. But I really don’t know. I think crowdsourcing is important, and I’d like to find a way to fit it in, but i don’t know how feasible it would be.

I know I could also overlap assignments, and I’ve done that before for my English 320 class and it went all right. But do I want to overlap assignments in a class like Researching and Writing Grants and Proposals? I am not sure. My gut actually says no and my gut is usually right.

Another big concern would be the overemphasis on group projects. As an alternative, I could simply offer up the opportunity for the crowdsourcing, and allow them to do other things too, but only if it all can fit in nicely.

So I guess even at the end of this post, I am still not sure. Perhaps this was just a good way for me to think aloud and voice my concerns and see what thoughts others had. So ok. Do tell.

Letter to the Editor

Saturday, December 7th, 2013

I’m posting a letter to the editor I wrote this morning, which I sent to The Forum, The Advocate (MSUM student-run newspaper), and High Plains Reader, a local alternative newspaper. Note that I did not say anything about how the administration really f*cked up this time nor did I share any literary allusions, which I did think about doing. The simplest one was referring to the Kafkaesque, but I left it out. I’m sharing it just in case no one publishes it:

As a doctoral student in an English program, I understand the importance of story. Story carries weight in significance, meaning, and the people that inhabit that story. As readers of a story, we start to identify with characters and their burdens and, in a well-written story, we start to see ourselves in those characters, in where the story takes place. For me, my years as an undergraduate at Minnesota State University Moorhead are a story because it carries weight for me in meaning, people, and place.

While pursuing my education, I have attended a number of universities, but no other university has meant as much to me as MSUM. Reading the news about the budget problems and seeing professors who have taught me the importance of story suffer because of poor administrative management hits hard. I am no longer a student or employee at MSUM, but I still feel connected to the community at MSUM; I want everyone at MSUM to know that alums have not forgotten them.

What happened to many of the liberal arts programs, and what could still happen to many liberal arts professors and programs, is more than unfortunate. As a liberal arts university, MSUM has a mission to offer students strong liberal arts programs and effective teaching from professors. With the potential cuts to the liberal arts, that mission has been compromised. The recent cuts have caused MSUM to lose an essential part of its story, and while the university may continue to thrive, there is an irreparable sense of loss.

Please note that I am uncharacteristically not-snarky in this. I think that is an important thing you should take away from it.

I will try and shut up about Minnesota State University Moorhead for a while now, but also note I will not make any promises if I hear of something really stupid and outrageous that administration did to the people I care about. I think I may have already made it on some shit lists, but I am OK with that. I actually see that as a term of endearment.

Minnesota State University Moorhead as something like home

Friday, December 6th, 2013

One of my alma maters, Minnesota State University Moorhead, has seen a lot of news lately, and most of it not good. Words like retrenchment, layoffs, and re-rostering are making the rounds and out from this are faculty comments about how all this movement feels not like forward momentums, but instead like a death, like they are “demoralized and decimated” and the most I can do is tweet about it when I receive updates from a friend or read a news article.

Minnesota State University Moorhead really was my home away from home for a long time and even now, while my current university is not MSUM, it is still MSU Moorhead that feels like home. I suppose that is why these cuts, this poor rhetoric that is being used, and my friends’ reactions hit me so hard.

I do feel as if I am going through the stages of grief.

To understand, I probably have to explain a little bit about why I am so attached to the university. I didn’t start my undergraduate years there, but oddly enough I started my undergraduate career at the university I now attend for my doctorate. I hated my first university as an undergraduate because, as I said back then, “everyone [here] wears khakis.” What I meant by that is that a lot of my peers there seemed a lot more middle class than I was. Their parents sent them beer money. They wore nicer clothes. They drove semi-decent cars that didn’t break down constantly. They seemed different to me.

On top of this, the arts wasn’t highly valued, and still isn’t, at the university I attended the first time, and attend now, in my last years as a student. I wanted to go to a place where there were writers, people who valued the liberal arts, and so I transferred to Minnesota State University Moorhead, though I played around with other schools half-heartedly, like University of Montana at Missoula and Evergreen State College.  But everyone, including me, knew I would stick around, and so I left for MSUM.

I loved it. I absolutely loved it. And while there were many different reasons I loved it, such as the academics, the faculty, the friends I made, even the job at the library I had there, it did serve as a catalyst for a lot of changes in my life. It gave me time and place and introspection.

For one, it got me out of the dump that I had found myself in at the first university where all I did was party and sometimes attend classes. I also didn’t have any strong friendships, even after two years, at my first university I attended as an undergraduate because I just couldn’t find a place I fit in, though I did try everything, even attending club meetings and getting involved in other on-campus activities. But on my first day at MSUM, I had already met people who would turn out to be friends for life, or friends that i still have even today. In fact, I met my best friend my first semester at MSUM.

I also loved the faculty. I remember the year I left for graduate school for my MA program, asking my advisor if I would ever feel so at home at another university. She said I might not. She said I might never find the connections there as I did here, at MSU Moorhead. It bummed me out, and I didn’t want to believe her, but I realize now she was right. While I like my present university, and I respect and trust my colleagues, I don’t feel that same sense of connection with most of them, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy knowing them and working with them and want to learn from them. For example, my advisor is someone who I would love to be someday, even just a little bit, even if I just come away with a lot of his attitude and a little bit of his smarts, I would be happy. The rest of my committee is fantastic and smart as well, and I am very lucky to have the opportunity to work with them. They are amazing people.

But they will never take the place of the people I met at MSU Moorhead.

I hope that doesn’t sound unfair in any way or that it doesn’t seem that I haven’t made connections with people while a PhD student. I have. And these connections get better and better all the time. But even after I am done with school for good, and walk away with what I hope to have, I don’t think where I am now will ever take the place of MSU Moorhead. I don’t know how they could.

the letter of intent

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

I have been told that the grant class I teach is one of the hardest, if not the hardest, class to teach in the upper division writing curriculum. I also hear this about technical writing, but I haven’t yet taught that, though I have been trained to teach that class as well. After teaching grants, I can see why this is the case because it requires a fair amount of writing, good research, and clear communication, not just in writing, but orally since students often do have to talk with people in the community and for an interview assignment. I think people say it is a difficult class because you have so many different projects and different skill levels all while trying to teach the rich field of grant writing and research. Yes, that certainly is challenging, though I would still argue that writing in the humanities and social sciences can be just as difficult. Despite the difficulty, I think the class is doing well and students seem to be responding positively to it and I also enjoy teaching it far more than I thought I would.

The recent assignment my students completed, the proposal for unit 2, has left me thinking. As a former student of this class, I remember this assignment well and remember trying to describe what I wanted to do, even though I had not quite done it nor perhaps had, or put in, adequate time to think about it. I’m seeing some similar reactions in my students proposals. I am seeing those similar mistakes, and frankly I don’t blame them for it. Mostly I fault time management and the genre choice as I have seen students write memos and proposals for this assignments. Hence there is a little confusion.

And this got me thinking more about grant writing as my job and how when I sometimes write letters of intent, my organization does not yet completely understand the project fully enough to share any of the long-range details of the project. For example, if we were to write a letter of intent to bring yoga classes to rural areas, we may not yet have a curriculum written up, though we could probably describe what that curriculum might look like. We may not also yet know the exact cost of the project, but we could probably compose a tentative budget, which sometimes letters of intent require.

In a sense, my students are facing a similar dilemma. They know what they will do. They can envision its whole, but cannot yet see the details of that whole. They cannot yet describe, with acuity, all the pieces. Frankly, I don’t expect them to explain each part with acuity, but because some students misread the assignment as a “proposal for a proposal,” I had students try to do this since a proposal would require as much.

This got me thinking that perhaps asking them to write a letter of intent in place of the memo for the project proposal will just make more sense. It might lead to less confusion and it would also give a perfect opportunity to teach more about the letter of intent.

A letter of intent (LOI) is just what it implies: it is a professional letter, sometimes actually just referred to as a cover letter, that describes a project and gives some details regarding the organization. It also names people working on the project and gives some specifics about that project. Sometimes the funders ask for a tentative budget. Mostly I have seen funding organizations post actual forms for you to fill out as LOIs. Sometimes, I write what I refer to as a “blind” LOI (I am sure they have a more technical name) where I just send out a letter to a funder who is not familiar with my organization. In these, I may not actually describe a project, but share information about my organization and talk about how that foundation can help my organization. And, usually, I try to describe a recent project or two as well, just to give some insight. Inserting brochures with the LOI doesn’t hurt, either, even though I sometimes feel I am being annoying, or like a salesperson, but really doing this is part of my job.

So for next semester I think I’ll have my students write a letter of intent for their project proposals. My students will give me a 200-250 word description of the project, describe organizations and people working with the project, share resources they have for the project, and instead of a budget I may ask my students to write about some benefits for this project. I may include one or two other slots, but for now this is what I am thinking about. I may also set this up similar to the forms I see when I write those letter of intents in real life.

Writing a LOI for their unit 2 project will help students not only to focus on what they know already for this project, but give them some experience in how letters of intent work. While it isn’t a perfect assignment by any means, and will probably will have its own hiccups, I think it would be a useful activity for students, especially since I already have a fair amount of students who are interested in this work or already work with nonprofits. I also look forward to working on this course further and seeing how it all turns out.

A glimpse into students’ views of research universities and writing courses

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

My title may not be indicative of the opinions of all students, but it is indicative of some interesting conversations I had with students this week during conferences. I tend to develop good rapport with my students. Even the students who tend not to be my strongest, best students, and sometimes leave with Cs or Ds, I still tend to get along with, or at least I don’t feel they hold anything against me. I also know I am probably more generous in my grading than others, though all the same I have no problem giving a fair amount of feedback to improve that paper or that draft, and perhaps this helps the positive rapport, too. I can remember very few uncomfortable conference conversations or conversations in my office with students. I also joke now and then in class, which helps students not only get to know me in some way, but makes them comfortable. I also suppose my small stature and the fact I am female help in this as well and perhaps more than I realize or wish to admit. Despite not being motherly at all, I find my students will open up to me at least a little bit.

So this week was conferences and because some people met with groups, for group projects, there were some moments that could be termed layover moments where we were waiting for others to arrive. During these times, the students in the room and I were just chatting. Some of our talk was about tacos, which was painful for me since I had been in conferences since 3:30 that afternoon and it was now a little after 6 when this conversation occurred.

But some of our conversations were also about the class. I like to check in and see how things are going. One conversation with a group delved off into how they felt the grants class was more helpful to them for their future careers than the writing in the humanities and social sciences class some of their friends were taking. As someone who teaches writing in the humanities and social sciences as well, I had heard this conversation before and was pretty prepared for what they were about to tell me.

“It just isn’t useful,” said one student, “how is a paper on literature going to help you?”

I said, yeah, it can be a tough sell, but analysis is an important skill to develop as is building arguments and literature papers do that. But students, I have learned, tend to want documents as real as possible. They don’t want abstractions. They want white papers, cover letters, memos, proposals, activity reports, and other forms of business and professional documents. They want to learn how not only to perform in these genres, but know how they can be used and manipulated. This is part of the reason why when I teach writing in the humanities and social sciences, I have learned to incorporate social media and business writing, which I explained to these students, and they nodded in agreement. I also added I didn’t like seeing students having to take two upper division writing classes if they didn’t have to as I know tuition is high and debt a student graduates with will be higher. Because I am a teacher, I also said I would do whatever I could to acknowledge their concerns. Perhaps, I added, a pedagogical brown bag for teachers of writing in the humanities and social sciences would be beneficial in confronting the concerns of students.

Some other instructors may disagree with some of my perspectives above, but using some business writing in my writing in the humanities and social sciences has worked for me pedagogically. And yes, I still teach those more “abstract” assignments that those students were upset about.

We also ended up talking about university culture, which is often dangerous. Luckily, these were brief comments, of which I had heard before, but it had been a while. I had a couple students comment on my teaching and say that if they had known my university was a research university, they would have not have come here. Those students told me they wished they had teachers who felt teaching came first, and not research. Every time I hear this, I am always a little surprised because I didn’t know anything like this as an undergraduate. I knew I went to a liberal arts college, but I didn’t quite understand the culture and context of the liberal arts university and the differences it had with a university like the one I now attend. All I ever reply to this is that I understand those concerns and primarily, I add, I am a teacher, but sometimes we have to engage in conversations we do not deem as priority in order to get by. I also added that engaging in these conversations is easier said than done sometimes. With one student I asked why he didn’t just leave. He said, I’m here now.

How true.

While conferences went well, I always find these conversations about the courses and university culture engaging from the perspectives of my students. I’m always a little impressed they know as much as they know about the university and the different courses we offer. Students are more aware of the climates and cultures that surround them more than we may sometimes think.