Annual Activity Report, School Year 2006-2007, Terry Elliott
In the 2006-2007 school year I taught all of the general education English classes. They continue to prove a fresh challenge to both my teaching methods and my teaching content. I doubt I will ever be a burnout. A rust-out, perhaps, but never a burnout.
In English 100 I continue to require in-class and out-of-class essays using various discourse forms. I allow for constant revision, but with an increasing emphasis on “significance”. In other words I am requiring that students truly re-view what they have written in light of comments and class work so that revisions are at minimum more in line with the publishing world’s 20% new material requirement.
I discovered Cathy Birkenstein and Gerald Graff’s They Say, I Say this past year and find it to be a revelation. When my enhanced 100 students begin the fall semester, many have no clue as to the ‘tribal’ rules of academic writing. They don’t know the game and they don’t know the moves. The idea that reading might be a conversation to which they are a party is new and strange to them, but TS/IS clues them in on some of the biggest secrets. The templates that the authors provide are a real comfort to students who are thrashing about for something to say in a way that won’t get them bloodied on their papers. This book provides a way out of this difficulty that makes sense and a way in that is useful for all of their university writing contexts.
I am beginning to move toward using weblogs more in my classes. Their capacity for generating public writing available for public comment is unparalleled. One of my arguments for creating a university-wide blog presence was that Blackboard couldn’t do this revolutionary job of providing a ‘printing press’ for each student while blogs can.
Last year I confined much of my blog work to the students’ semester long “I-Search” projects. Students used the weblogs to thrash out their topics, to generate first drafts, to get feedback from others, and to sometimes get responses from outside the classroom community. This year I plan on doing this again, but I also will be creating a class weblog, which will have its own rotating editorial board. This board will gather information from their classmates’ weblogs and from other sources relevant to the class community to be published on the class weblog.
Lack of confidence is the mark of most of my enhanced 100 students. I hope this responsibility will give them greater facility in their ability to enter into even more interesting conversations both inside our academic community and out.
All of the new initiatives are made possible by our new lab and by our room assignment there. The document camera alone makes for interesting new improvisations every day.
I spent 2006-2007 totally online with English 200 and I was totally uncomfortable. I thought that my experience with weblogs and other social writing platforms online (forums, wikis, etc.) would give me a leg up on this online business. In some ways it did, but mostly I discovered that teaching online is exactly the same as teaching face-to-face. It is about creating communities.
I discovered that my greatest strength as a teacher in the classroom had to be transformed. I am able to “read” a class in a F2F setting quite readily much as a salesman sizes up a potential customer. Their body language always gives them away and that “thin slice” of information from the first few minutes of class always stood me in good stead. It should have been obvious that I would not have that rich vein of data in an online class, but it was still a shock to me.
I spent the better part of the year re-configuring my teaching style for this new and alien community of learners. Teaching a winter term literature course online helped accelerate the process by allowing me to, as Richard Saul Wurman puts it, “Fail faster.” This sounds bad, but it really wasn’t. I think of online teaching last year as similar to the hundred little mid-course corrections a pilot makes in the course of a flight. The passengers get to their destination, but rarely even know about all the changes.
But I knew I had to have a better plan this year. This summer I went to two professional development courses that helped in very concrete ways. The first was an online seminar via the Sloan Consortium (http://www.sloan-c.org/) titled “Workload Management Strategies for Online Educators”. This course has provided me with dozens of immediately useful techniques to help create that online community.
For example, my students always had a hard time gathering all of the assignments for the week into a clear view of what needed doing and when. I put the deadlines down in what I assumed was clear view and assumed it was their job to pull it together. Wrong.
That approach was not disastrous, but it was hardly seamless. I found out a simple approach at Sloan-C that solved the problem. I now create a simple chart, which students can print out and check off as they complete the assignments. These charts have the added benefit of providing an excellent way to plan content and to see at a glance what my week’s workload will be. As usual, what’s good for the student is good for the instructor.
The second PD course was Quality Matters’ (http://qualitymatters.org/) Online Course Peer Review Program. This one-day course made me realize that I was leaving out important, navigational and learner engagement tools out of my online course. I also was re-introduced to the continuous improvement model that is at the root of all creative dissatisfaction. The QM rubric was thorough and useful in helping me re-view my own course with student eyes. I plan to undergo a rigorous, format review of my Introduction to Literature class this spring so that I can become a reviewer myself at WKU.
English 300 has always been a bit of an enigma for me. I understand our departmental goals and I am happy to work toward them, but it always seemed there was something missing from my research emphasis. When I walked through the doors of our new computer lab, Room 102, I knew what it was—the Internet and its connected power. Even though I was using the same text and much the same syllabus, I felt it was a completely different course, much more relevant and useful to my students.
I began to emphasize new tools for old tasks. For example, I taught students how to gather information in new ways. I demonstrated how to use USB drives to make their information portable. Let me explain. The problem many university students have with gathering research information online is that the tools they have in one lab might not be the tools they have at home or somewhere else on campus. If students put the browser, Firefox, on their own USB drive, then they can add any number of useful tools to that browser which might not be available in our labs. Once installed these “extensions” can be used anywhere that your USB drive can be used. That means that hard won research travels with the student and can be added to anywhere.
I always taught the use of these tools within the context of English 300 and never felt that they stole time from the larger goals of the course. On the contrary, I know they increased my efficiency as well as theirs. At the same time we introduce them to tools they will be expected to know in their work worlds.
Many of these tools have odd sounding names—Bloglines, Zotero, Diigo, de.licio.us, Google Alert and Notebook—but their function is to increase the efficacy of student research, learning, and writing. It is a rare tool that enables us to do more and do it better in the same amount of time so I will likely use the tools more often not less often.
Last year was my third one teaching at Western. I feel that my world here is mostly mine to define. I appreciate that gift, but I never know when something new will re-order my place in that world. Take the new critical thinking initiative. I am finding many of the suggestions from Dr. Paul’s remarks working their way into my courses. I am beginning to respect group work more and am teaching it better. I know that this three-year initiative will prove invaluable to me personally and professionally. May we be cursed with interesting times? I can’t wait.