Resources for Pandemic Teaching: A Miscellany

When I started teaching, I had enough youthful optimism to imagine that I could remember, from year to year, what I thought about my past classes: what readings worked well, how I wanted to tweak assignments, which great new ideas I had encountered and wanted to incorporate. You see where this is going: experience soon showed me that I could not remember all of that from year to year, so I started a document called “Teaching Ideas,” organized mostly by course, to which I outsource the tasks of memory.

This year, it grew a new opening section: ideas and resources related to online teaching in the pandemic era. As usual, I was taking these notes for myself, to inform my planning for my fall classes. They have now grown into a fairly large pile, very loosely organized and lightly edited. Please add other ideas you have found useful in comments!

Covid Thinking

  • Beginning of the term
    • Divide discussion boards? (Gernsbacher suggests 6 to 9 in each discussion board group)
  • Weekly schedule
    • Weekly newsletter to each class previewing the content and tasks of the week
    • But casual short videos as in Flower Darby article
    • Weekly checklist of graded assignments: by day, with points, making sure to build in points for interaction, follow-through, and self-assessment
    • Karen Costa on writing groups
    • End-of-week shout-outs to classmates (either direct or back-channel and shared by me later)
  • General resources
  • Resilient Pedagogy
    • Andrea Kaston Tange on Resilient Design for fall teaching and subsequent Twitter thread about principles. Key question: “How can I design a class that could function wholly online if it needed to, but that has assignments and modes that could work in person if we have the ability to meet that way?
      • Examples: group notes that get distilled for key points to share; rotating responsibilities on discussion boards; short teacher videos that set up the readings and such
      • Reducing complexity with exceptional, step-by-step clarity of instructions
      • Face-to-face discussion as precious and focused, used only for purposes that can’t be achieved asynchronously
      • Redundancies: discussion assignments that use the same prompt for message board or in-person discussion
      • Note the links to related resources at the bottom
    • Aimée Morrison on Resilient Pedagogy (series of blog posts)
      • Stable, semester-long groups (with the introduction to the series)
        • Groups of 3-5 are the key to everything else
        • Groups rotate through assignment responsibilities, such as choosing or summarizing readings for the class or making lecture notes
      • Collaborative class notes
        • “This assignment is a classic win-win-win-win: it produces a classroom where disability accommodations do not need to be asked for, it makes my life as a teacher a lot easier, it calls forth a sense of ownership and responsibility among students, it allows for a greater number of resources to be shared and documented. And if the main teacher has to disappear for four weeks, and then the whole shit show has to suddenly move online? Well, most of the record of the course is already there, waiting, ready to be picked up by whomever is able, as they can.”
      • Other posts to come, according to the first installment:
        • One-page reading summaries
        • Short assignments, different modalities
        • Short assignments, not sequence
        • Flipped classroom: pedagogy of gentle provocation
        • Meta-cognitive classroom: teaching the teaching
    • Joshua Eyler Twitter thread
      • Key point: “As opposed to other contingency plan models, which require faculty to do lots and lots of extra work (what does X activity or assignment look like in f2f? in online synch? in online asynch?), the resilient model advocates for designing 1 time & using regardless of modality.
    • Bill Hart-Davidson on Resilient Pedagogy
      • “A resilient pedagogy requires planning for the important interactions that facilitate learning.”
      • “Ultimately, I think the work of building a resilient approach to teaching and learning should be work to preserve and celebrate the best ways to be together, face-to-face or online, so that we make the most of the time we have set aside for learning. When I select a suite of tools to enable learning in my own classes — online, face-to-face, or a hybrid of both — I try to build a studio. I ask questions like, how will students see and learn from one another? How will they be able to reflect on their own progress? ?How, when I am demonstrating, will students be able to shift perspectives in order to answer their own questions?”
  • Peer learning, groups, engagement
    • Ideas from Andrea Kaston Tange, Borrow These Ideas:
      • Start class in breakout sessions for conversation
      • Have students write the check-in questions to ask each other at the beginning of class
      • “Ask students to write about what an article, the first chapter of a novel, a recipe, an economic theory, or anything else they are reading assumes they already know.”
      • “Assign roles in small groups: synthesizer, skeptic, note-taker, reporter. This is particularly helpful if you have some remote students and some in-person ones, as the remote student could have the role of skeptic or synthesizer and produce starting points for conversation that might happen in class (which they might miss), and the note-takers will then have produced notes that those who miss the synchronous discussion can use.”
      • “Flexible Synchronous: Assign students to working groups based on their own schedule and availability. Give each group different questions about the reading to work through, and ask them to make notes in a shared document.”
      • “Wholly Asynchronous: post a question in a Q&A style forum, where students have to post some kind of response before they can see anyone else’s. Have a follow-up assignment where they have to read through the threads and each come up with one synthesis statement that draws together two or more observations made by others, and post that to a shared google doc.”
    • Asynchronous discussion on Piazza (with help from Laura Sinnett). Advantages:
      • Ability for students to ask questions and get answers in public–and questions can be anonymous
      • Ability to set up stable groups (as in Morrison essay linked above)
      • Standard discussion formats or Wiki-style collective composition
      • Also allows posting of resources, so can replace Blackboard completely for my purposes
    • Georgetown site on peer learning
    • Melissa Wheler, Building community (also see the next section here)
    • Tips for online discussion, Edwige Simon
    • Short video responses!
    • Ali Briggs, “Ten Ways to Overcome Barriers to Student Engagement Online” 
      • Among other things, make contact before the course begins (with welcome video as well as text), use reminders and checklists for helping students stay on track
    • Morton Ann Gernsbacher “Five Tips for Improving Online Discussion Boards” (PDF download)
      • Divide into groups of six to nine students–separate, parallel discussions 
      • Direct traffic: make initial posts and subsequent discussions into separate assignments with their own deadlines, and use further direction such as respond to someone who doesn’t have a response yet, or different from whom you’ve responded to before
      • Assign actions for the responses: “Find three quotations that interested/surprised/annoyed you and explain why”; use verbs such as find, compare, explain, describe, identify–they imply work getting done, not shooting the breeze.
      • Incorporate student interactivity: jigsaw prompts (find an X that nobody else has found), snowball prompts (build on something a previous student provided). Or 3C+Q: response to another student must include at least two of compliment, comment, connection, and question.
      • Deter parachuting (which is doing the discussion post without doing the underlying assignment)
  • Videos
  • S3 UDL (Universal Design for Learning) hacks from Britt Abel in ACM Workshop
    • Add modalities: could video or audio be an alternative to writing? Even for first steps in a scaffolded assignment? (Essay by Karen Costa on [not] requiring camera presence)
    • Scaffolding with cognitive support (providing outlines, summaries, graphic organizers)
    • Align assessment criteria align with goals of assignment
  • Grading and self-assessment
    • Beloit Student Feedback Strategies (in Documents as PDF)
      • Such as Three things that have engaged you, 2 things you will use in the future, 1 thing you still have questions about

    • Each assignment: task, purpose (long-term as well as immediate), criteria (including examples of successful practice)
    • Make self-assessment/check-in regular and graded!
    • Linda B. Nilson, Specs grading and assignment bundling
    • Abby Mullen, Contract grading (and Miriam Posner version)
    • Cia Verschelden on bandwidth replenishment
    • Attendance: “we miss you when you’re gone” approach, with follow-up conversation, rather than docking grades
  • Evidence-based learning in general (partly from GalaxyKate thread)
    • Brown et al., Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning
    • Bruning et al., Cognitive Psychology and Instruction
    • Clark and Mayer, e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning
    • Mazur, Peer Instruction (short video)
    • Sarah M. Leupen, Evidence-Based Instruction (lecture)
  • Two contrary insights to hold onto about learning in a traumatic world:
    • James Baldwin “It’s very hard to look at a typewriter, and concentrate on that, if you’re afraid of the world around you.”
    • Toni Morrison: “I get angry about things, then go on and work.”

Frankenstein: The Creature’s Pronouns

In every discussion of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that I’ve seen in heard, in person or in print, everyone has used masculine pronouns to describe the creature. Except one: a few years ago, I taught a Romanticism seminar in which one student referred to the creature as “they.” While fully supporting any person’s autonomy in choosing their pronouns, I resisted applying “they” to the creature. All of us were using masculine pronouns to describe Victor Frankenstein, Henry Clerval, and other characters; the creature seemed to fit into the same categories of manhood and masculinity as those characters. Surely the creature identifies as a man, as we would now put it?

Certainly, the book’s other characters identify the creature as a man, and the creature follows models of male desire and violence that he encounters–I think of Frankenstein as a great modern myth of learned, toxic masculinity–and there is some oblique evidence that Victor has created him with male organs of reproduction. But I wanted to take my student’s implied question seriously and point to a moment in which the creature clearly labels himself a man. However, whereas Victor, for instance, talks about himself specifically as a man, I’m not sure the creature ever does.

And the more I looked into the issue, the more I began to realize that there is a much stronger case for “they” than I had anticipated. The creature’s crucial assertion of masculinity, for instance, seems to be his explicitly Adamic request for a female partner. But even there, the evidence is slippery. The creature says, “You must create a female for me with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being.” I concede that we have to read against the grain pretty aggressively not to see that as an expression of the creature’s desire to possess a woman in a way that he’s learned from, among other things, Paradise Lost and Felix de Lacey, who thinks that “the captive [Safie’s father] possessed a treasure which would fully reward his toil and hazard.” And that kind of desire is gendered masculine in the novel.

Even in this case, though, it’s really Victor who does the work of gendering the creature and the potential hetero partnership with Creature 2, as in his statement that “They might even hate each other; the creature who already lived loathed his own deformity, and might he not conceive a greater abhorrence for it when it came before his eyes in the female form?”

The lack of a third-person narrator means that the Voice of the Novel never has to use pronouns for the creature. The 1817/8 Preface that Percy Shelley wrote never genders the creature, either.

But we have a statement from the author describing the creature in the third person: Mary Shelley’s 1831 introduction. I went to the text, fully expecting it to settle the question in favor of “he.”

Quite the contrary. Shelley first refers to imagining the creature as “the phantasm of a man”–so man, yes, but what to do with that “phantasm”?–but from that point on, the creature is a “thing” and takes “it” pronouns: “I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days.” Even if the creature is not human, as this introduction and Victor both suggest, Shelley could use masculine pronouns but chooses not to.

The more I look into this, the more unexpectedly interesting it becomes. I think you can make a case for the creature being and identifying as male all along, with my whole way of thinking here constituting presentist over-reading. In many ways, I still accept the case for “he,” and so far, I have continued using it myself.

However, I can also see a good case for reading the creature as Falling into masculinity, as represented by the way it? frames its desire for a partner and more generally starts to shape its life in the mold of the novel’s men.

The questions we ask our students (and the ones they answer)

The accreditors are coming around to our campus again soon, so assessment is on the march. We held a two-day writing assessment workshop on campus over the summer, and I participated in scoring essays written by first-year students the previous fall. I came away just as skeptical about the quantitative assessment of college writing as I have always been, but I nonetheless found my self shaken by how much the exercise showed me about the pedagogy of college writing.

Recognizing the limitations of giving everybody the same prompt, detached from any connection to course content, the framers of our assessment project—a group of skilled and thoughtful people—gave the teaching faculty some directions about framing their writing prompts but left room for tailoring them to each class. This approach represented our effort to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of writing assessment: the distorting artificiality of standard exercises, on the one hand, and, on the other, the inability of standardized questions to capture the kind of context-specific scholarship that we most want our student to practice. I was on my first committee trying to navigate those waters in about 2002; I haven’t yet seen anyone find safe passage.

In this latest assessment exercise, the variation among the faculty-written prompts was dizzying. Some were detailed, to the extent that they sounded like guidance for writing full-length scholarly articles. Some consisted of a single sentence inviting the student to analyze two writers, period. Some asked for summary followed by analysis. Some asked students to respond to passages that we faculty had trouble understanding out of context. My point is not that the prompts were bad but that they were so varied that it would be hard to imagine them producing writing that we could assess with a consistent set of criteria.

The real surprise came from reading the students’ essays. In crucial ways, their writing revealed that the students often had not read the prompts carefully, and they were right not to do so. The prompts asked for different kinds of writing, but the students responded in largely uniform ways. They understood the assessment exercise. Most of them have done similar things throughout their elementary and secondary educations: they knew they were supposed to write a short essay, conventionally structured, with some quoted evidence sprinkled in.

And indeed, that’s exactly what we assessed. With our rubrics and inter-rater reliability training in place, we were almost always able to score the essays in a straightforward way because the students knew to rely on the skills that had been praised and rewarded so often in their educations, no matter what their teachers tried to tell them on a given assignment.

The students’ ability to perform assessment-ready writing humbled me in two ways. First, it reminded me that students have often deduced my expectations when I have not explained everything that they need, even though I tend to explain a lot. The assessment exercise showed me how much we all lean on unstated expectations. Second, a gained a new way of thinking about how difficult I have found it to try new kinds of assignments, even with students who are curious, creative, and ambitious. Now I see such assignments in this light: every time I take a step away from an assignment that boils down to “Write an essay of length X on topic Y,” I remove some of my students’ confidence that they know what implicitly earns rewards in academic writing, even if the explicit requirements are incomplete or difficult to understand.

I still want to push my students and myself to break away from conventional essay assignments. I want them to become capable editors as well as readers, to give presentations that deploy ironic as well as explanatory slides, to work productively as members of creative teams that must evaluate their own work and choose how to share it. As I ask them to learn these skills, however, I will do so with a renewed awareness of how much I am requiring them to leave behind the techniques and assumptions that have gotten them to this college in the first place, and I need a similar sense of humility as I encourage colleagues to try new techniques and assignments. I have been thinking especially about the dynamics of classroom authority, race, gender, sexuality, class, and disability: it is easier for some of us than others to ask students to step away from expectations they know they can meet.

I am just beginning to turn from these thoughts to building a structured sense of how to respond constructively to them. From conversations I have had so far, I suspect that my thinking will draw heavily on the methods of my colleagues in the creative arts, for whom it is nothing new to ask students to express vulnerability, to judge one another’s work constructively, and to work in teams whose members have complementary skills. More to come.

Research after writing

Here’s a question that has bugged me for a long time: how can we teach research skills at the introductory level? Or, even trickier, how can we teach research in a non-disciplinary skills course at the introductory level? This semester, I’m trying out a new answer: teaching research by having students research papers they’ve already written.

Every first-semester Grinnell student takes a class we call the Tutorial: a content-based introduction to college-level skills in writing, reading, discussion, presentation, information literacy, and more. (The course is famously overloaded with priorities.) My versions of the course emphasize writing skills, and in the past, I have chosen not to do much with research beyond quotation and citation skills and an introduction to our library facilities; that is, I have covered information literacy rather than independent research skills, leaving the latter to upper-level courses. In thinking about adding a research component for Tutorial, I have always gotten stuck on the problem of assigning research when students cannot read enough to get a strong sense of a research field. Under such circumstances, how can I avoid turning the “research” into the reading of a few semi-random sources, chosen for their vague relationship to a developing paper topic?

This semester, I will try a new approach: building research into the revision of papers. The students will assemble annotated bibliographies of secondary sources for the course’s final portfolios, and they will choose the readings based on issues that arise in my initial responses to their papers. Because the course is portfolio-based, we can identify areas in which secondary sources would help amplify and refine a given argument. The students’ research will thus have a sense of purpose often lacking in preliminary bibliographies: they will go to secondary sources to solve specific problems. Here is the assignment. Comments are most welcome. If this approach works well, I will work to generalize its application to other introductory courses.