New Teaching Toolbox: Engaging Students with the Syllabus

Daisy Breneman and I published a CFI Teaching Toolbox last week. Here it is in all its glory — and in html format. (If you’re at JMU and would like to subscribe to the Teaching Toolbox email newsletter, go to the Teaching Toolbox page.)

So, we’ve all gotten emails (many, many emails) from students asking questions that are answered in the syllabus. Our response is sometimes amusement, sometimes annoyance, sometimes understanding: Why don’t students read the syllabus? Why don’t they remember what we put in the syllabus? Why do they still ask questions instead of checking what the syllabus said? As we all try to ease into yet another pandemic semester by working on our syllabi, this toolbox doesn’t have magical answers or solutions; but, we do hope to offer some ideas and strategies here for getting students to engage with the syllabus.

Maybe the first question to ask is: is the syllabus something WE engage with? Sure, we’ve written it at some point (though that writing process may have made heavy use of Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V). But do WE remember what’s actually in the syllabus? (Andreas here: I do not always remember, and sometimes students remind me of things I put in my own syllabus.) Is the syllabus even worth reading? Kevin Gannon, educational developer, historian, and JMU alum, makes this point in response to a viral story about an instructor who included instructions in his syllabus for how students could find $50—which all students overlooked. Gannon notes that syllabi are often the terms and conditions we all have to accept for a course, “boilerplate” text that’s required for reasons of accreditation and university policy, but mostly of little real-life interest to both students and faculty.  

So, what would a syllabus look like that’s of interest (and use) for us, and for the students?

Continue reading New Teaching Toolbox: Engaging Students with the Syllabus

The paradox of value neutrality in our teaching

At least in political science (I suspect also in other disciplines), there is a common ethic of political neutrality, at least in teaching. This makes overall sense: we don’t want to indoctrinate students but help them learn about politics and form their own opinions and political identities. In mainstream political science, at least, such a neutral stance is also taken: We just study what happens, we’re descriptive, not prescriptive. Of course, critical theorists have debunked such pretend-neutrality as a particular status-quo oriented value bias.

I suspect that other disciplines have similar written or unwritten neutrality norms. A few years ago, my institution adopted a (very laudable) program in ethics education that offered a range of approaches (they were called "key questions") and engaged students in using these questions whenever they encountered ethical decisions. The questions did not favor any particular ethical outcome; in fact, any decision could usually be justified by at least one of the key questions. Value neutrality! (This is partly justified with a reference to ethical dilemmas, in which no outcome is clearly good or evil. I should add, though, that the perception of a dilemma seems, at least occasionally, to be contingent on our highly individualistic "Western" value system, which is more accepting of openly amoral choices as long as someone comes up with a forcefully presented defense of them.)

What I find paradoxical about value neutrality in our teaching is that we take this stance in order to help students develop their own values, political views, identities; but by pretending that we are value neutral, we privilege NOT having values. In other words, we want students to make well-reasoned, carefully considered value choices while performing the roles of those who eschew value choices.

Obviously, who are we shitting? Not our students: they know that we hold values, and they imagine what they might be. I don’t think we are helping them become good, moral human beings by pretending we are moral and political blank slates.

Reflections at the end of a pandemic academic year

My friend and colleague Emily Gravett asked me to contribute to this semester’s final edition of the CFI Teaching Toolbox, a series of short email articles that she edits (and many of which she writes). Her prompt consisted of the following questions:

  • How am I doing?
  • What have I/we learned from the pandemic?
  • How will we transition back, thinking about summer and fall?
  • What challenges and opportunities can I identify in this transition?
  • What do I/we need to move forward?
  • What lessons do I want to carry with me?

The point was not to answer all of these questions, though I think I touched in some way on most of them. To see the responses of my colleagues, check the toolbox link above at some point on Thursday if you are not subscribed to the toolbox email newsletter.

Since you’re asking how I am doing, I’ll respond as I usually do these days—I’m doing OK. I have a well-paid job; I live in a spacious house; I can get out to forests and parks; I can work from home (saving on my commute made me more productive) and protect myself pretty well from COVID. But underneath all of this is a sense that things are falling apart, that society is tearing at its seams. I am worried about the colleagues, friends, and family who are sick. A good portion of the population is unwilling, for ideological and ego reasons, to bear even minor costs that would protect others. Some of the most prominent politicians and media personalities fuel such destructive, selfish behavior. And through all of this, we get constant news of all kinds of police shootings, all kinds of racist attacks, mass shootings. Our society seems broken. And then I remember that maybe it just appears to me, a white, well-to-do, educated middle class guy, that society used to be overall whole, things were good. For Black people, for example, America has been broken from the beginning (N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth metaphor is quite fitting).

Where do we go from here? I look forward to interacting with people “in the flesh” again, though I think we will be keeping more distance for a while. (Small groups suit me better than large crowds, personally.) We’ve added tools to our teaching that we’ll keep using. But I hope we will learn more deeply from our long pandemic year: That education can’t just be about knowledge but requires ethical formation. That teaching includes leaving a society to the next generation that is more just, caring, and sustainable. That the individualist, competitive model that we’ve followed for centuries has met a point of failure that requires foundational rethinking of what we are doing, and how. That innovation is not the result of more gizmos but consists of strategies to build a better society and become better humans.

Pandemic Teaching Memo to Myself

Here is another CFI Teaching Toolbox that I wrote for the start of the fall semester. Follow the link to subscribe to the teaching toolbox email newsletter.

As another pandemic semester comes around and wreaks havoc with our teaching routines, I’ve found that I have to set some reminders for myself to go back to when the whirlwind of work makes it seem that nothing matters than the next immediate urgency. I didn’t have time to embroider these insights on pillowcases (so much for summer plans). A listicle will have to do:

  1. I’m overworked, overwhelmed, and freaked out. My students are likely to be more overworked, overwhelmed, and freaked out. Or maybe they’re just doing fine. Who knows? I’ll have to reach out and check in with them—in person, by email, through anonymous surveys, whatever works. Let them know that I care about their well-being.
  2. I’ll have to focus on the essentials in my course: What is most important for students to learn? What are the central, inspiring, compelling questions that I want students to think about? What knowledge and skills should students definitely take away from the class? What things do I cover only because they’re in the textbook? Everybody’s bandwidth is limited this semester!
  3. As Cara Meixner reminded me two weeks ago, I need to keep affective learning goals and practices in mind. Practice care for myself and my students. We’ll all need it! And intellectual growth has to come along (and is often the result of) affective growth. 
  4. I love to geek out over new teaching tools and methods, but I’ll have to focus on a few simple, reliable, and effective teaching methods and tools. It is tempting to try out all the Shiny New Things that I come across, but doing so will only overwhelm me and confuse students.
  5. There is so much to read about teaching during a pandemic, and my reading list keeps growing faster than my reading time. Good news: I don’t have to read it all. Or most of it. [Or any of it! adds Emily Gravett]
  6. There is so much advice out there! Not everything works for me: Video lectures are supposed to be up to 10 minutes long, but I noticed that, if I follow this advice, the production process takes much too long. Longer, fewer videos (and less lecturing) may be good enough. More lower-stakes assignments followed by in-depth feedback are better than a few high-stakes assignments, but, with my other professional responsibilities, I simply may not have the time for too much grading or commenting. 
  7. Even though I just promised not to overwork, I am still committed to following principles ofinclusive and anti-racist teaching. This is something that I’ll have to go back to again and again, reflect on, journal about, work on.
  8. This semester will be chaotic. How will we adapt to physically distanced in-person teaching? Will livestreaming lectures through a doc cam work? Will there be an online pivot 2.0? Will we get sick? I need to be prepared to improvise; focus on what’s essential (second point above) and what’s simple and reliable (fourth point above); take a deep breath; and adopt, adapt, and improve.
  9. I need to give students input and agency. What questions and topics do they find essential? What are their preferred ways of interacting? What tools do they use to stay in contact with family and friends? In the past, I’ve found that they can tell me what works for them.
  10. In a rush, I often end up lecturing too much. Reminder: I’ll have to find ways to make my classes interactive, even if it’s only in simple ways: brief surveys or polls, two-sentence “papers,” reflective paragraphs, and other Classroom Assessment TechniquesCanvas discussion boards are my friend(and can be set up for small groups), Zoom (I hope we’ll soon have a campus license) breakout rooms are my friends. I’ll plan on combining individual activities (reflection, writing) with small-group work (pairs of students, for example) and large-group interaction. 
  11. I don’t have to grade to provide feedback. In fact, I don’t always have to provide feedback; student peer feedback can be part of activities, for example, in small-group discussions. I don’t have to respond to every single discussion board post (I’ll post this right above my monitor); instead, I’ll provide summary take-home points or observations afterwards in a short video or email.
  12. Maybe the most important point for me to remember: I need to stay in touch with friends, colleagues, frolleagues. Just because, but also to get feedback, advice, and new ideas. And I’ll have to sneak into some of the (free! can you believe it?) programs offered by my colleagues at CFI andLibraries.

What does your own beginning-of-semester listicle look like?

The wild ride that’s this year continues. Let’s hang in there and make the best of it. Best (of all possible) wishes for fall 2020!

Special Summer Teaching Toolbox: Inclusive Teaching

Two weeks ago or so, I added the following to the CFI Teaching Toolbox series.

As the Black Lives Matter protests revived this summer, there have been increased calls for inclusive,antiracistculturally responsive, and other teaching approaches that focus on JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion). These are not the same things, and we thought it was worth focusing on these different concepts in different toolboxes (stay tuned!). Inclusive teaching is about “creating equitable and welcoming educational environments for the diverse learners in our classrooms.” The focus of inclusive teaching is to make sure all qualified students are included in the learning community in our classes as equal members, with equal opportunities to learn and to succeed, independently of their socioeconomic background, racial-ethnic-cultural identity, gender and gender expression, sexual orientation, disability status, and the like. While inclusive teaching can be compatible with other forms of JEDI-oriented teaching and should ground the latter, it does not necessarily transform and decenter the curriculum from the Eurocentric traditions that feed the content in many disciplines. In other words, inclusive teaching may attempt to include minoritized students in a class community that is still dominated by white perspectives, institutions, traditions, ways of knowing, and other ways in which white supremacy structures our learning environments (see e.g., Haynes 2017). 

Here, I’d like to summarize a few of the key principles of inclusive teaching that form the basis of a reflection tool that two colleagues—Ed Brantmeier at CFI and Carl Moore at the University of the District of Columbia—and I developed a number of years ago. “The tool” is not exactly a cookbook for creating inclusive courses, but it does raise a number of questions that are important to consider as we try to make our classes more inclusive. When we created the tool, Ed suggested making a distinction between course context, course subtext, and course text. Let’s take a look what these can practically mean for our teaching:

Continue reading Special Summer Teaching Toolbox: Inclusive Teaching

Pogo, not Pivot: Punk Learning

Reflecting on this past spring semester, I think a good way to think about our sudden move online is in terms of punk ethics and aesthetics. I suspect that many of us, in the middle of our online “pivot,” could identify with Denise Mercedes, guitarist of the legendary if under-recorded Stimulators: “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m going to pick up a guitar and here I go.” We aren’t Khan academy. Our class videos are not polished. Our discussion boards, quizzes, and assignments are created in a hurry, not tested for validity and reliability, and may have to be adapted in response to student questions. But many of us try to be honest and authentic, remain true to ourselves even online, connect with the students, are available and empathetic, make connections, know that we were in the same boat as many students: scared, overworked, bored, distracted, overstimulated, homesick, itchy to get out.

I’ve never been part of the punk movement; I was too much of a nice kid, to be honest (and wouldn’t a nice kid be honest?). But I came of age during punk’s heyday. (At first, punks seemed scary young people—older than me, though—with safety pins stuck through their skin; but when I got to know a number of them later on, I was struck by how many were in fact rather gentle souls.) I think punk had an influence on all people growing up in the 70s through the 90s who had an open mind for social change and for alternatives to what one was supposed to do by the authorities: three chords could go a long way if employed effectively and with a message; creating things yourself, even imperfectly, was better than buying shiny but shitty stuff; social rules were there for the questioning, particularly if they led to injustice; direct emotion, even anger, were important in opposition to those injustices; rational argumentation alone does not suffice. In a situation like today’s, in which our lives are deeply disrupted, our social connections are more important than ever, our abilities to adapt, multitask, and improvise are stretched to the limit, and our social inequalities are ever more clearly matters of life and death—in this situation, we can learn quite a bit from punk.

And it wouldn’t be academia if there weren’t a literature on Punk Education (one collection of essays is aptly titled Punkademics, another, Punk Pedagogies). There is at least one academic journal dedicated to punk. I particularly like Estrella Torrez’s chapter on “Punk Pedagogy” (which is in the Punkademics volume, made openly available by the authors with the request to ask academic libraries to buy print copies). Inspired by her own punk past as well as Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Torrez talks about education as “a fundamentally empowering, liberating, and healing cycle of reciprocity between teacher and learner” (2012, 133). As other punk scholars, Torrez notes that her approach to teaching aspires towards a Do-It-Yourself ethos that eschews consumerism and commodified materialist lifestyle; opposition to conformity; opposition to teacher-learner hierarchies; “equity, rebellion, critique, self-examination, solidarity, community, love, anger, and collaboration” (136). I use the word “aspire” here, as Torrez also emphasizes the willingness to dare—and to fail (connecting nicely to other arguments about learning through failure).

This is fairly heady stuff. There’s also a lot to unpack, considering the fact that there has been plenty of bigotry, misogyny, white supremacy, etc. in punk. Accounts of punk frequently ignore the role of women and black people/people of color, as do accounts of, say, the feminist Riot Grrrl counter-movement. Rebellion does not always include (and does not always equal) critique, solidarity, love. As Torrez notes in her account of coming of age in the punk movement, “This once liberating and liberated space where education had occurred had instead become a site for schooling, a socializing space to train youth to be more punk than the next kid” (132).

As an academic, I love diving into the rabbit hole of social theory. But in the spirit of learning from punk, I thought it might be useful to translate some fo Torrez’s punk principles (always remembering that there’s diversity and disagreement, and an internal contradiction between “punk” and “principles”) into what they mean for my own current online teaching situation:

DIY: Avoid excessive technological sophistication and instead focus on how we can learn with the tools that we know and like to use. What are our three chords that directly get down to business? Three technological tools may well be one too many. (Interestingly, this recommendation chimes with what online meeting pros say.) Also: Use only tools that the students have access to and know how to use as well (or can easily learn how to use). In the end, we want to forget about the tech and focus on the substance.

Imperfection: This ain’t no fucking yacht rock here. Important thing is that it works, that it’s important, and if not, that we learn to make it work and important the next time around. In other words, do not edit your “ums” and “ahs” from your online lectures; don’t sweat it if you cannot get the Zoom breakout rooms to work; say, “screw it, this didn’t work” and come up with another way to learn on the spot.

Interrogate commodification: If possible, use open materials, whether they are open textbooks or materials otherwise available on the open web. But also, and maybe more importantly, make the use, commodification, and manipulation of ourselves online a theme with students. What do we permit Google, Facebook, etc. to do with us as commodities and advertisement targets?

Teaching for social justice: Our classes shouldn’t be competitions for who is better and who is worse. They should be communities in which we learn from each other and in which we support each other according to our needs. At the very minimum, this means that we have to remove hurdles to learning based on disability, socio-economic status, vulnerability to micro- and macro-aggressions, type of pre-college preparation, access to WiFi, mastery of punctuation rules, and the like. But, more ambitiously, our teaching should be what bell hooks calls “a counter-hegemonic act, a fundamental way to resist every strategy of white racist colonization” (2). This is an ambitious goal, especially for somebody like me—a white guy working at a predominantly white institution—but it can be translated into specific steps that we can take, as well as knowledge and skills that we can learn.

Undermine teacher-learner hierarchies: Of course, we’re the subject-matter experts, but the students are the ones who learn. Work together! What are students’ interests in the topic? What is important for them? How can they shape the curriculum, the course structure, the goals, the activities, the assignments? (I know, this is basically Learner-Centered Teaching, right?)

Let there be drama: Learning is not only cognitive but connected to emotions—we know that. Punk emphasizes emotional transparency, particularly the expression of passion and anger. Passion and anger are also central, I think, for students to understand why something that they’ve possibly never thought about is important. And students need to learn to express what they are passionate about, what angers them. Referring back to my note about social justice, it’s worth noting that the suppression of anger as part of an imposed civility requirement can be unjust, for example as we discuss racist discrimination. As an instructor, I have to learn how to respond to emotion and anger in the classroom, help channel it into directions that lead to learning, and protect vulnerable students.

Community, love, care: I find it interesting that Torrez lists community and love, and I’ve added care as a third that I think cannot be separated from the other two and makes them work in education. Particularly in the current situation, as we interact at a distance, we have to devise strategies to care for students in our classes, to build community, and to make sure they experience the loving support that they need in order to learn in scary times. And, as a male prof, I have to make sure to take on the care work that is often, and without recognition, dumped on faculty with less power—often female faculty and/or faculty of color, often in insecure positions.

Self-examination and critique: As tenured faculty in a 12-month faculty development position, I have quite a bit of institutional stature and privilege. Critiquing injustice has to include self-examination of my role in it and how I can work to move higher education towards justice. More generally, this is connected to using meta-cognition, self-assessment, reflection in my own work, but also in my work with students: How can they use self-examination to learn? How can they use reflection to deal with life under COVID-19? What are their experiences, and how do they matter?

Failure: One thing I love about Torrez’s essay is that she includes a narrative of how she fails in implementing punk “principles” in one of her classes. This obviously connects to other recent (and not-so recent) conversations in higher education (see for example the failure c.v., and—Lord have Mercy!—the idea of a growth mindset). But the approach is a bit more radical: We fail. We can expect to do so. Things often don’t work out. So be ready to get up and try again. I think we can’t hear this often enough these days: We are not set up to succeed in our work, in the current situation. In fact, we’re set up to get sick. And we have to pick up our pieces and do what we gotta do. Or not.

Since academia is so concerned about excellence, one more thing: There’s excellent punk. See Denise Mercedes in this later videos, with the revived Stimulators, in what must be her 50s:

(I revised this blog post on July 22, 2020, as I created an abbreviated version for a CFI Teaching Toolbox.)

Examining Exams

Here is a CFI Teaching Toolbox email on final exams in these COVIDious times, co-authored by my colleague Emily Gravett and me.

Special Edition Teaching Toolbox:

Examining Final Exams

by Andreas Broscheid and Emily O. Gravett

One of the main concerns we’ve heard from colleagues about online teaching is connected to the integrity of grades. Online exams and other assignments give new opportunities for cheating: Students can use Google to look up answers without actually having learned the material; they can email and text each other during exams; they can take photos of test questions and distribute them widely; they can outsource their work to others who are more knowledgeable and more than happy to be paid. After all, on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

Common responses to such concerns include timed tests that make it difficult for students to cheat, as cheating takes time, and various forms of online proctoring, for example, through video conferencing systems monitored by professional services. Yet these approaches can be problematic. Timed tests are not only a barrier for some students with disabilities (who theoretically can get extended time through an ODS access plan, though not all students have the economic resources to get the required medical tests to receive such accommodations in the first place), but also for students who do not have the economic resources for fast or reliable internet connections. (Try taking a timed exam from a McDonalds parking lot!) And forced video proctoring violates student privacy, as we—or the proctoring services—spy into their living spaces that now double as work spaces, and data security, as their movements are tracked and sold to third parties. (For more about problems with video proctoring, see this recent Washington Post article.)

Some disciplines and programs may nevertheless force instructors to use such “brute force” strategies against cheating, even if these strategies discriminate against otherwise already disadvantaged students and do not fully prevent the problem. We hope that the current crisis leads to a reconsideration of such policies, but faculty may have no choice but to follow suit in such circumstances. For those who have the academic freedom to avoid timed and proctored exams, we offer the following suggestions and considerations, in addition to those from JMU Libraries:

Continue reading Examining Exams

Online Jigsaw!

Today started with another oops moment. Yesterday, I spent several hours creating class activities, a feedback survey about the first week, and another short video lecture. I posted everything in a Canvas module—and then forgot to make the module available. One missing click! and the students couldn’t access the materials. Welcome to LMS land!

Continue reading Online Jigsaw!

On Rigor

When I moved to Harrisonburg, I got a history book about the Shenandoah Valley from the local public library. This was not a scholarly history but a popular book from the 1950s or 1960s, full of anecdotes about places with drawings illustrating the stories. I wanted to get a sense of the local mythology, the stories that people who had grown up in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County had learned in school and connected to specific places. As expected, the book was full of stories about the Civil War from a Confederate perspective, complete with the usual racist tropes; I remember the story about a freed slave sad that the South lost the Civil War and pining for his “master”. I don’t know if the library still has that book (I forgot its title), but I hope they have replaced it with something that is a bit more, let’s say, contemporary.

Another story that I remember from the book was about Stonewall Jackson as a professor at the Virginia Military Institute before the Civil War. As legend has it (or maybe there are even sources, I don’t know), Jackson prepped for classes as follows: He sat in a stiff wooden chair facing the wall, maybe 10 inches or so away from it, and recited by heart whatever he was going to lecture, later, to the students.

Don’t be like Stonewall Jackson.