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?

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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.)

Spring 2020: A Look Back With Relief

The end of spring classes is now several weeks in the past. By this time the train has moved on and we are in the midst of another round of tasks that will eat up the summer: I (foolishly) promised online workshops on online Team-Based Learning and discussion boards; I have two week-long institutes on faculty portfolios to facilitate; I will support faculty who are applying for state-wide awards; and I’ll have to prepare this year’s new faculty orientation program, which probably will be online in some shape or form. And on top of this I’ve been pulled in to help a colleague with little tech preparation to run an online four-week course, adding 1-2 hours to five days of the week until the middle of June. And I should probably prepare a report on the assessment data that I collected last year about our New Faculty Academy. Good thing that I cannot leave the house!

So, how did the spring semester end? Not with a bang but with a whimper! (Funny how good poetry can devolve into cliché, eh?) I noticed that I was slo-mo crashing during the last two weeks of classes or so. Nothing dramatic, but working felt more and more like wading through some kind of jelly; you could do it, but it was more effort than usual. I was badly, badly behind with grading, and the class became less interactive than I wish it had been. In addition, the end of the semester provided an added need for educational development programs, so I helped write a CFI Teaching Toolbox about final exams and participated in open office hours and consults on that topic. At least I managed to record a few lectures on different approaches to interpreting the Constitution. These will be useful for future classes, even for flipping in-person classes. (And I just saw that the first video got 18 views, which means that 11 students out of 29 did not watch it—that’s a fairly typical “attendance” rate for the last week of classes. Sad in principle, but not too bad for this emergency!)

Looking back at the semester, here are some things that I’ve observed, some surprising, some not so:

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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:

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More on jigsaws and video lectures

In my post from March 31, I mentioned an assignment in which students in my US Judiciary class were asked to create mini online lectures on aspects of the Supreme Court process. I think it was a smashing success: Six of the seven student teams have created their videos, and a seventh is on the way. Not only that: the other students are busy watching and commenting. I uploaded the videos into TechSmith Relay, since this has two advantages: First, the videos can be restricted to the class only, so that student privacy can be guaranteed and FERPA won’t come knocking on my door. Second, there is a feature that lets students comment and ask questions about a specific point in the video. Neat! I can see video views, and there now in the high 70s and 80s. Not bad for 29 students. (OK, some of those views must have been me, but still.)

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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!

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