Archive for the ‘teaching’ Category

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.


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.

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.

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.

A little advice for noob teachers

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

I’ve had a pretty good couple of weeks. I’ve finished my comps reading. I’ve been enjoying teaching my grant and proposal writing class. A colleague was even kind enough to share with me a compliment a former student made about my teaching.

Since a lot of my work has revolved around not only comps, but teaching a new class with new preps, I’ve been reflecting on teaching quite a bit. This is my seventh year of teaching. Recently I found old files from my first year of teaching, when I taught composition, and felt that mixture of shock, slight embarrassment, and hilarity while I read through those documents. I remembered getting student evals while a beginning teacher and one of the better ones I remember was “Someday Jessica will be a good teacher.”

That evaluation from a student you can probably read in a number of ways. One way is that I wasn’t a strong teacher at that point. Another one, and the one reading I have held on to is that the student saw something in me that maybe I didn’t see at the time and something that told me that I was in the right profession. It was an affirmation.

Now, seven years later, I think I can say that I am a fairly competent teacher. Sure, I still get students who don’t like my class, but so far their feedback has told me it is mostly for the content–it is a writing class and it is a required class and therefore it is a stumbling block toward their desired career. I have had students who didn’t respond well to me on a personal level and made it personal in their evaluations, and those are the kind that you just ignore because you are not their to get people to like you. But, mostly, my evaluations are very positive and I think I saw some of my strongest evaluations from this past spring semester (and I feel I need to thank the teacher I shadowed for the class I taught last spring as well. He is also a very competent teacher.)

But with this, I have been thinking of things that I wish I had been told as a new teacher, as the noob in front of the classroom. So here are some things, but realize this is not a comprehensive list and it just a list that relates to my own experiences in the classroom and what has worked for me and those things that have worked for me may not work for you.

  • Get anonymous feedback from your students: If you aren’t sure how you are holding up as a teacher, or if you are unsure of how students are responding to the content, ask  them, but make it anonymous. Also, be honest and explain why you are asking for this feedback. Finally, make sure you actually read and respond to the feedback for the students. For example, I asked my afternoon grant class for feedback recently because I was not sure how they were getting the course content, and so I asked. I found that there were a couple who needed a review of the logic of proposals and more that sometimes found the worksheets from the textbook were confusing (they are sometimes confusing). And so the next day in class I reviewed information on proposal logic where I tried to explain it in a different way and I also asked them to bring their textbook next week so we could use that to contextualize the worksheet on the benefits section of the proposal, since that is probably one of the more confusing worksheets anyway. I also explained how when I took this class, I also found the worksheets confusing at times, but using the textbook to contextualize them usually helps. What I found by doing this is that students appreciate you took the time to respond to the feedback they gave and start to trust you more as an instructor. So even if you are having a really rough semester, this will help you gain that respect and structure back.
  • Don’t take too many shortcuts in grading: I know this is tempting. I know it is tempting to create a list of comments and just copy and paste them into papers. I actually did it during my second year as a teacher, but I don’t recommend it unless you also take the time to make the feedback personalized, but even then it may be a big time waster to even create a list of comments to copy and paste. I know it sounds time-consuming and almost painful, but take the time to give individual feedback to each student on their paper. To ease up the workload, it may even be helpful to ask for drafts and comment on those so when you actually have to grade, you can ease up on the commenting. The reason I say this is because students do talk with one another about the feedback they get, and if they notice you are repeating things, word for word, they will have less respect for you, and probably rightly so. I realize that sometimes things do sound similar, but at least put an individual spin on it by addressing the feedback to them or contextualizing the feedback with their actual language in the paper. It also shows them that you actually took the time to care about their work. 
  • Prepare for class: During my first year of teaching, I do remember having 30 minutes before class started and not knowing exactly what I was going to do that morning in class. I also remember coming up with lesson plans as i was starting my computer. Please don’t do things like this. Students have written that they appreciate that I put time into my teaching agendas and that I come to class organized. If you come to class and you, as the teacher, look like you are not organized or have no idea what is going on, you will only find that your job becomes more difficult. This doesn’t always mean writing a lesson plan and putting it on an overhead, like I do, but simply knowing the material for the day. It is also helpful if you relate the layout of class for that hour to your students so they know what is coming up during that class period. I think the only thing that ever got me through those “last minute” days was that I am a good problem solver and a relatively quick thinker and sometimes I work good under pressure. If you can’t say any of those things about yourself, don’t even try this. But mostly, don’t do this. Ever.
  • Remember that you know the content better than your students: This is probably the most useful bit of advice/pep talk I was ever given during my first year of teaching. You will have students who intellectually are smarter than you, so having this in mind is super helpful to you as a teacher. You also will have students that are very dispassionate about your class, particularly if you teach a required general education requirement as I do. If you realize and understand that you know the content of that course better than they do, things will always go much smoothly and you will just feel more confident.
  • Meet students on their level: If you are teaching a class where students are in a particular profession, like engineering or business, start reading professional journals and news articles in those fields. Then, when teaching, bring up some of that information during discussion or activities. Seriously. Not only does it show that you also know some of the information they know, but it helps you integrate that information into the course as a whole. I know in a FYC class, or any first year class, this may be a difficult task, but you know how you always have that one student who likes to show off what he or she knows. Yeah. That student’s major/field may be something you want to look into. Sometimes it helps, and sometimes it doesn’t, but it is worth trying. And I really was taught this from the instructor I shadowed for Business and Technical writing. I saw how he used that knowledge in his lessons and I saw how much respect he earned from his students for that work, and so it is an invaluable activity. And  relevant news and information sources on Twitter in those fields can be really useful to learn some of this information, so it really isn’t as time-consuming as you may think. And to add to this, you could also add simply knowing what is going on in the field you are teaching. Students also notice this and respect it.
  • Stop any disruptive behavior ASAP: This is something that even I need to get a bit better at, but if you see a student acting disruptive (talking during lecture, coming in late frequently, etc) call it out. Realize that this kind of behavior not only disrupts what you are trying to do as a teacher, but also annoys other students. A recent example for me would be the student who answered the phone and had a conversation before class. Even though it was before class started, I still talked to that student by letting her know that it probably wasn’t wise to let every student in the room in on her plans. Sometimes it helps to talk to students outside of the classroom about these issues, or at least for me that is most effective, but sometimes it takes time to understand how to approach this as sometimes students get more disruptive once they are called out in class. But no matter what, make sure you respond to any behavior that you find disruptive to you and your students.
  • Be consistent: Always be consistent. When you find what works for you in the classroom, keep doing that. For me, I find that writing out teaching agendas, going over the tasks for the day immediately, and sharing the homework for the coming class period and repeating that at the end of the period is the best approach for me. It emphasizes my organization, my focus on tasks, and responds to my introverted nature since I know that as a student myself I like to know what is going to happen in class that day instead of just dealing with it happening as it goes along. I like to know if I will be doing group work, individual work, or both during a class period beforehand and so I share this with my students. And I don’t deviate from this at all because it is what works for me.
  • You don’t know the answer to a question? You will get back to them next class: Yes, I have been asked questions I could not answer. Yes, during the first and second years of teaching I tried to fake it. Don’t do it. Just tell the student they asked an interesting question, but a difficult one, and so you need to look that information up and get back to them. One time I did this, I had a student slightly snicker. I responded with the fact that even though I am teaching a college class, I am not a Google search and so sometimes I do need to look that information up. Student never snickered at me again. But all other times I have done this have gone well, thankfully. And yes, I always was able to find the answer for the next class period, so far anyway. Just realize you do get tough questions, and sometimes highly philosophical ones, and you cannot prepare for those on the spot, so just say that was an interesting thought and that you will respond to it during the next class. These also sometimes create fun discussions.
  • Don’t be married to your lesson plan or teaching agenda: Students are people. People have emotions. Sometimes you may have what you think is a fun activity for the day, and notice it isn’t working. Don’t force it. Find another way to relate that information, or if you can, work on it another day and move onto something else. This is partly why I try to write the entire week’s teaching agenda’s before hand. This is why I always have a syllabus schedule. This is why you always have a Plan B and even a Plan C. Things don’t always go as you expect them to, and so don’t force it. Note how your students are reacting and respond thoughtfully.
  • Don’t lie about your teaching experience: When I started teaching, my mentors told me that if I want, I could say I have taught before, if I felt I needed that extra confidence in the classroom. I even heard this when I sat through the TA training class for my PhD. I don’t recommend doing this unless maybe you are a really good liar and you know you could pull it off. I could not pull it off and I feel like, at least for me, saying that I had taught before during my first semester of teaching backfired, so I made sure to be honest my second semester. I feel that students can figure out if you have experience or not anyway, so it is best to be honest if you are unsure if you can get away with it. Just remember no one is going to walk into that classroom and be awesome right away. It takes time, so be honest about the time you have or have not spent in front of a classroom. 
  • You are not there to be their friend: This was the hardest lesson for me to learn. You are not their to be your students’ friend or get them to even like you. That is not the point. The point is to teach them the course content to the best of your ability. If they don’t like that or you, oh well. You are doing your job.

Like I said, the list is not exhaustive and maybe contains some things that are skipping ahead of new teacher status, but I think it contains some thoughtful and affirming advice and I’m interested in hearing what other advice other teachers have for the less experienced, or noob, teacher.

After the first week and some good advice

Sunday, September 1st, 2013

On Thursday, I finished the first week of teaching for my grants and proposals class. Overall, it went pretty well and I think I have a good group of students this semester and I’m definitely excited to be back in the classroom. One thing that I noticed that is different about my class in comparison to the other upper division writing classes I have taught is that I spent most of this first week basically talking students away from the ledge.

To give some perspective, grant writing and research has a bit of a reputation of being “hard.” I put hard in quotation marks because I see it more as challenging and not hard. Yes, grant writing and research is challenging. Yes, it takes a lot of writing and revision. Yes, it takes a lot of communication with others. But I always try to tell students that even though this class is a lot of work, it is going to pay off in the end because no where else will you have the ability to practice grant writing skills, get feedback, and have constant encouragement the whole time. Plus, taking this class is actually saving you money considering how much it costs to learn these skills from other organizations that charge buckets of money for the same information.

Telling students that usually puts it in perspective, and my 5pm section got this right away when one student said, “wow. we are getting a good deal here.” Indeed, you are getting a good deal. I could also remind them about how at our university, they are receiving a fantastic education and won’t be straddled with as much debt as someone who attended an ivy league or top tier school, but I didn’t go into that. I figure that they probably know this anyway since they all are juniors or seniors, or at least they better know this.

So while I was talking students away from the ledge this week, I kept thinking back to some advice I was told as a new graduate student as I entered my MA program back in 2006. The advice is this, and it is deceptive in its simplicity: get the work done, treat yourself well, and stay away from the jerks. When I was told this the first time, I thought oh, for easy. I can do that. In reality, this is advice that is much harder than you immediately think.

Getting the work done, at least for me, is usually the easy part. I love work. I love what I do. I work probably too much. I can definitely get the work done. Not a problem. Treating yourself well is the next bit of advice, and sometimes I maybe need to follow this better than I do. While I do make sure to get in my required hours of Netflix viewing and reading for pleasure, I could probably stand to take a whole day off or two here and there, especially since I kind of have four day weekends (which, by the way, is already wigging me out a bit in the sense that i have to remind myself if it is Saturday or Sunday or what day it is). But at the same time, I kind of don’t have four day weekends since I also have to read for my comprehensive exams coming up this fall. (Meeting is next Monday, ya’ll!) So that is something I know I need to pay more attention to. Finally, staying away from the jerks sounds easy enough, but sometimes you are surprised by who turns out to be a jerk and who doesn’t. Admittedly, while I think I am ok at reading people, I sometimes don’t understand their intentions the best. Thus, I make mistakes in judgement. I’m trying to get better at that. And it is awkward to try to explain to someone the reason you have not hung out lately is because that person is kind of a jerk. So it goes.

But the point is while I was talking these students down and away from that ledge, and I could understand their feelings since I have also taken this class as a student, I thought back to that advice and honed in on it. I told them a lot of this work is collaborative, so while it looks like a large amount of work, it isn’t as bad as it seems outwardly. The collaboration will help create a good final product. But at the same time, it is also important to have fun with this and be creative. So yes, while they have a lot of work to get done this semester, just like how I do, they also need to give themselves downtime when appropriate and make sure they build good relationships with their team members. If they can do that, they will probably create some great projects and I am looking forward to seeing them.

Get the work done. Treat yourself well. Stay away from the jerks. I’ll just keep repeating that.

Feedback and making connections

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

First off, I do think it is important that we, as teachers, develop connections in the classroom with our students, though I think the older we get, the more we may find this difficult. For example, once you have been out of school for a while and find yourself less and less understanding what is “popular culture” to these students, the more you may find it difficult to foster those connections.

Of course, you can also do this through love of the subject matter, which we all as teachers should always have, and sharing that appreciation with our students, some of whom feel the same way we do about that subject or maybe parts of what we teach. Or maybe they just cling to our enthusiasm and reciprocate that. I mean, as a student myself, I’ve always appreciated the more passionate teachers and even if I didn’t particularly like the subject matter, I usually was able to connect on some level with a teacher who showed passion for the subject. I respected that. I compared it to my own feelings about writing and literature and in that way I was able to at least feel all right in the classroom, even when I struggled with the subject matter, though I still always hated being called on since it was something I struggled with (I am thinking math here).

One of the things that, for me as a teacher, has always helped foster these connections is encouraging feedback from students and encouraging their questions. For new classes, I usually ask for feedback a few times during the semester, I usually try to time it out in 3-4 week intervals, and that works pretty well in terms of being able to change things and improve them based on that feedback. Students also seem to appreciate the openness as well since the more you do it, and are consistent with it, the more helpful the feedback becomes. I’ve found that the more open I am for questions, and the more I make myself available for these questions, the better the class progresses. When teaching a new class, I think this becomes even more important since it is not only new material for the students, but also for you as the teacher.

Sometimes this feeling of newness causes an appropriate level of panic, even in us teachers. We think this like oh no, what if I am going to be exposed as a fraud? We also think things like oh my, I have to make myself even more available for questions now since this material is as new for me as it is for them. And this kind of thinking sometimes leads to what I call crazy ideas, such as giving way too much personal information to students or allowing students to seriously contact you any time of the day, such as giving your phone number, even if you have a policy that states it can only be used during X amount of hours.Those ideas are all bad. For one, you are not teaching 24/7. Everyone needs time off. Everyone needs some level of privacy. For example, do we really want to hear about what our students did last Friday night? Not really. I am sure they wouldn’t want to know what we were doing either, though they may make up some funny or sad stories about it, if they wanted to. Giving too much information could lead to that information being abused, probably not by all students, but maybe one or two.

When I teach online, for example, there is the assumption with some students that because I teach online, I was always online and so if I didn’t answer their email within the hour they sent it, there was sometimes another email to follow, sometimes with all caps in the subject line. I mean, I could see this as amusing, and on some level it is now that it is in the past, but at the time all I could think was really? I am not online 24/7, much less do I typically check work email after 5 or 6 in the evening.

Because of this I’ve developed email policies that state a student should expect about 24 hours for an email reply during the weekday, but if a student emails Friday afternoon, that student may not get a response until Monday morning. I also never give my phone number out in my syllabus or elsewhere, even though I don’t have an office phone, though this has never been a problem since students typically email or talk to me after class or during office hours anyway. Though, I have given my number out to students who have had emergency or personal situations (a death of a parent and being 9 months pregnant, for example). In these instances, I thought it was OK and it wouldn’t be abused and it wasn’t abused.

But this isn’t to say that I don’t try to make it easier for students to contact me, as I am very concerned about my availability since I don’t have an office phone and because I am teaching a new class this semester, and so I have started to welcome students to use Twitter and given my course a hashtag so it is easier to ask me questions or communicate with me online. In my syllabus, I share my Twitter username @adventuresinphd and the course hashtag #engl459 so they can contact me with questions, share resources for the grant writing class, or just share any information they find relevant to the course. I encourage students to engage with the class using this as well. I also have them do a semester-long (or unit long, if they wish. I’m flexible to a fault) Twitter assignment that I have shared here.  I also had a similar assignment for my online summer class as well. Along with this, I also open a forum discussion thread in Blackboard for questions and encourage students to ask questions there as well as encourage students to answer, if they know the answer.

What I have noticed in doing this is that students will use whatever they are most comfortable with in terms of communicating with a professor and so far that has been email. I’ve had probably more students use the Blackboard discussion forum than Twitter, so far. But I also blame this on the Twitter assignment not being semester-long, only as long as an assignment. I think maybe a longer Twitter assignment will spark more engagement, or that is my theory, at least, though I also realize some students will be highly resistant, as is typical with social media assignments.

And so I guess I will just be updating you with how this all turns out. I feel teaching this grant writing class will in some ways be similar to getting thrown into the fire, but I always a like a challenge, so I guess I am OK with that. I know that, as a colleague has stated to me, it is probably the hardest class to teach in the upper division writing curriculum, and after writing the first unit, the agendas for the first two weeks, and the syllabus and schedule, I totally believe that.  I’ll keep you updated, as always.

When work does not feel like work

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

While I have been spending each day, more or less, reading for my comps, I’m also prepping to teach a new class this coming fall semester, Grant and Proposal Writing. I’ve been in this class as a student and was able to TA for the class last semester, and now I am transitioning into teaching it. So, most days, once I get done with reading and annotating a few articles for my exams, I’ve been working on getting this new class together.

Today I wrote up the agenda for the first week, which those of you who teach know that this also means my first couple assignments are nearly ready to go and my syllabus and schedule is probably complete. (Yes, this is true.) As I was writing the agenda, I was looking over the agenda of the previous teacher so that I could use her ideas as a springboard for my own as well as incorporate the activity she does for the first couple days, which as a student and a TA I really liked. But, of course, as with anything that suddenly becomes “your own” in some sense, changes occur. For example, I’m using Twitter in this class as as a semester-long project. Students will create a twitter account and follow nonprofits, organizations, or people related to their interests that will hopefully apply in some way to their final project ideas. In the grand scheme of things I know this won’t happen for all the students, but I also think Twitter will be a good arena for them to keep up on discussions, sometimes as they happen, regarding social, political, and/or personal interests they have. Plus, I try to have some type of social media professionalization in all my classes and I have probably already demonstrated my somewhat notorious love for Twitter to far more people who would even care to know. The thing is I have just learned so much from following my interests on Twitter and networked with many people because of Twitter.

Aside from Twitter, as I worked on the agenda, and because of something a tweep shared with me on Twitter, I got to thinking about how writing the agenda, as well as writing the syllabus, schedule and first few assignments never felt like “work” to me. I actually enjoyed working on these documents and critically thinking through how to teach what grants even are to my students on that first day of class.

But the Twitter share relates more strongly to how I was procrastinating on reading for my comps just a few days ago. Instead of doing my reading, as I had vowed to do according to my agenda, which I sadly even keep during the summer months, but then I am a graduate student, I started creating an online portfolio for when I go on the job market. I did this because  I knew that while dissertating (yes, I made it a verb because it is really) and looking for a job, I am not going to have the patience to work on also creating an online portfolio. I know this about myself. I will not have the patience to care. So right now I have what is an in-progress online portfolio geared to getting me, with any luck, a good teaching job somewhere not where I am at.

But also while working on the website, I didn’t feel it was work. I instinctively knew it was work because really, why the hell else would i do it? But it didn’t feel like work. In fact, the digital writing I do, and at times the non-digital work I do, doesn’t ever really feel like work. Not like how writing those seminar papers that I loathed felt like work. (Though I did not loathe every paper I wrote. Just a lucky few.)

The article that was pointed out to me by someone on Twitter is from Computers and Composition by Leon and Pigg (and Stacey Pigg actually spoke at our institution a couple years ago about her work in the WIDE Program at Michigan and it was cool stuff) regarding how graduate students professionalize in digital spaces.  (and yes, you need to find it on your own university database, as annoying as that is.) As I was reading it, I could totally relate. That is pretty much what I was doing in the creation of the online portfolio. It is my reason for being on Twitter, and for trying to get my students to use Twitter in professional ways. I also love iAnnotate on my ipad for reading PDFs of articles since I can highlight and take notes without having to print out the article and file it who-knows-where in my tiny office space or my small apartment.

I’ll admit that teaching students the importance of digital professionalization is not easy. Some students are downright resistant, and remains so, throughout the semester, for example. But as digital arenas become the ways by which we see professional organizations and businesses, it becomes imperative to learn how to use them in a professional context. And really, this is already happening. If someone wants to give a business a bad name, they’ll call them out on Yelp or Facebook. In this sense, these digital spaces are powerful tools and I always do read the reviews. I just need to get better at teaching these skills to my students, and use them in the classroom, because as much as we use them to form consensus, we can also use them for dissent.