A Rumination on a Missed Opportunity in the Classroom

I spent quite a while teaching, as I have noted in this webspace and elsewhere, and no small amount of that teaching was in a class I was never actually trained to teach: Technical Writing. I had no coursework in it as an undergrad or as a graduate student, but got thrust into it while I was completing my doctoral work. Coming up to speed teaching it took a little bit of doing, and, in retrospect, I have pity for those poor students who first suffered through my learning how to teach a course for which I had no preparation; I apologize to you for my inadequacies, whether or not you are reading this.

Yeah, this kind of thing.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As is often the case when something new emerges, I fell back on what I knew to start teaching the course–in this case, roleplaying game materials. I’d done it at other times, as I’ve attested, and, at some points (for example), I used RPG materials in classroom exercises in my technical writing classes–usually as examples of layout and ease-of-use, maybe for interrogation of audience–as in my more “normal” English (i.e., composition, literature) classes. Things may not have always gone over well–some sets of students took better to “nerd” pursuits than others–but they always got across the points I meant to make, and they provided concrete examples to help my students understand what to do and what not to do, both of which are important in fostering learning. So that much was successful in my teaching, and I should be pleased to have had that much success, at least.

But as I have been thinking on the matter, for reasons I’ll not get into here, I have realized I missed out on what would have been one hell of an opportunity to work with the technical writing classes (even if it is something I would’ve gotten…spoken to…about–but I got…spoken to…several times as it was; I might have had a bit more fun with it). I could have had my students design games or gaming modules and playtest them for each other, which would have offered them no small amount of practice in parsing directions, writing directions, testing those directions out, and working through the other kinds of work they were asked to do by curricular dicta.

A fairly common set of assignments in technical writing classes–both from my experience and from the reading I did years ago to try to support my suddenly emerging experience–includes a set of instructions, a project proposal, and a project report. Sandwiched between the latter two would (ideally–but how often we fall short of ideals!) be the execution of the project proposed. To my mind, the instructions could be that project, with the proposal outlining what is to be given instructions and how and the report being made from attempts to execute those instructions. And if those instructions happened to be a RPG or a module for an existing one…

Data rolls natural 20 : combinedgifs
As the saying goes, “trust Data, not Lore.”
Gif from Reddit.com, here, and used for commentary.

The way I’m envisioning it (from the vantage of it having been a while since I’ve had to write a syllabus from scratch–though I’ve done such things several times), students would be asked to complete major assignments as noted above: project proposal, instruction set, and project report. For the proposal, they would have to note whether they would develop a new RPG or a module for an existing RPG (the latter being more likely, the more so for a more compressed class). The instructions would be the actual gameplay; while I follow Mackay in calling RPGs an art, I acknowledge the necessity of rules in them–and what are rules but instruction sets? The report would, as gestured towards, detail play; it would note what led to the proposed project, give a description of the project and the playtest, and discuss results–what went well, what went poorly, and why. Formatting and usage concerns would be assessed as might be expected, with differences chiefly between the instruction set and the other documents; concerns of audience would necessitate dramatically different presentation there. Students would have experience with producing writing to order in genres not necessarily familiar to them, something common to people who try to make their living writing–and I am often told that making classroom activities mimetic of real-life practice is a good thing. Students of such a mind would have a portfolio object. And I might have both samples for future use (always helpful when teaching) and grist for the mill of my own gaming.

Such is not likely to be, of course. I am doubtful that I will be at the front of a technical writing classroom again, after all, or really any. But that does not mean I do not dream–and that working more on developing such a course is not without merit. It might help me get more of the kind of work I still like to do…

Care to put some money towards curriculum development?

A Rumination on Some Exercises

It is not exactly a secret that I spent more than a decade teaching, that I thought for many years that I would make a career of being at the front of a classroom, helping students at one level or another learn how to do things that they might not enjoy quite at the moment, but that would help them later on–and that they might well come to enjoy, even if they did not do so in the moment. I spent a lot of time learning how to do that very thing (although not enough, clearly, else I’d be doing it now instead of working the job I have–but that’s probably for the better), and, as part of that learning, I got to do a number of the exercises I would later ask my students to do. It’s a good thing, truly; it’s hard for a person to guide someone else through something they’ve not yet done, after all, and I did try to make a practice in my teaching years of doing the assignments I asked my students to do–or something very much like them (adjusting, of course, so that they would not have the work done for them; they’d not learn anything if it were simply handed to them). I may have gotten a lot of things wrong in the classroom–I know I did–but I got that done right, at least.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

That said, I did not always find the assignments congenial–and, often enough, I was not in a position to simply select other exercises, being bound by my always-contingent positions to adhere to prescribed sequences of assignments. Since I still write, sometimes even for money, I still run into exercises that are not necessarily to my taste or liking; I still have to do writing that I find difficult, whether because I am not in a good headspace to do that work at that time, or because the work, however remunerative, is somehow otherwise objectionable to me. And sometimes, I have had exercises that I thought were good ones that ended up being…otherwise. The last, I try not to discuss more than to note that they have happened; it does me no good to dwell on the details more than I already have, and I can assure those readers who grace me with their eyes that I have rebuked myself thoroughly, at length, and in detail about my many failures. The first, I can address with another cup or pot of coffee and a shift in music, or else a lapse of a day–though that day all too often stretches out further than I ever ought to let it do.

The “otherwise objectionable,” though, is thornier. I have refused jobs that were outright racist or sexist to my first reading. (Yes, there have been some execrable fucks who’ve tried to get me to write for them.) More often, though, I’ve had issues of being asked to do writing that is innocuous enough on its surface but that is profoundly uncomfortable for me. The objection is not to the scope of the work, but to my having to do it; there are things which I do not do well because I know I should not be doing them. I try to be aware of my limitations, as those who have read my Hobb Reread entries will note; I often remark that I am not adept in a particular area, despite knowing enough to note that the area is applicable. Sometimes, I am aware of the mismatch before I get started, and I can turn away before going thence; too often, I do not realize it until I am in the midst of it, and all that remains is to plow ahead as best I can and keep it in mind for the future. And maybe I can work to be more comfortable talking about some other things than I already am, too.

That might actually be nice.

I can always use more help, and I always appreciate what I receive.

A Rumination on Something Recalled from Teaching

As I was chatting online with a friend of mine–yes, I have friends–I’d mentioned some of the work I’ve been doing recently. When I did so, I noted that part of that work is in drafting multiple choice questions and the answers for them–work that is not difficult, as such, but that takes a fair bit of time to do. That part makes sense, really; drafting multiple choice questions requires composing the stem (i.e., the question), the right answer, and three or four wrong answers (distractors). The distractors additionally have to look like they could be right (with the possible exception of one, which can be included as an “obviously wrong” answer and which I often use to make some kind of joke or another). But, anyway, as I was noting the work, I recalled a story that I recounted to said friend, who suggested I write it…

Oh, this takes me back…not that I follow the advice…
Image from Gerry Everding’s “For Better Multiple-Choice Tests, Avoid Tricky Questions, Study Finds” on The Source, and used for commentary.

Back in 2009, I started teaching at a two-year technical college in Midtown Manhattan. While the main campus was just out back of Penn Station, south of the big post office, the location where I taught was further up Eighth Avenue, and I remember the wind always smacking me in the face as I rounded the corner of 57th Street to get to the door. And most of the teaching I did there and then was remedial reading and writing, working with students who had been out of schooling for a while and needed to get reoriented to it or who had dropped out of school and were working on their GEDs. Most of them were older than I was, something I’d gotten to “enjoy” the entire time I was on site at grad school, and many of them had had…strained relationships with formal education previously.

Now, my usual teaching practice at the time was still worked with what I’d learned as I was getting certified to teach high school English; within the boundaries set for me by the institution, I offered a large number of smaller assignments, rather than a small number of larger ones. Most of the time, those assignments took the form of short-answer quizzes, usually what I used to close class (i.e., lecture, discussion, and activities happened, then the quiz; students could leave once the quiz was in). I’d generally score them fairly leniently, or what I thought of as leniently, returning them to students at the next class meeting and going over answers. But since I worked from my background and expertise, and the students came from different circumstances, what I looked for and what they offered did not always line up.

As such, one group of students asked me–rather vociferously, as it happened–to give them multiple choice quizzes instead of the short-answer I’d been assigning. At the time, I was doing the preliminary research for my dissertation, which was taking a lot of time, and I was learning how to live with my then-fiancee in advance of our wedding now more than eleven years behind us, which was also taking some time. (I love you, my sweet sopapilla!) Knowing from experience even then how much time was invested in putting together multiple choice questions, I was hesitant to oblige–and I admit to no small degree of annoyance in my “youthful” arrogance. How dare these…students question my assessment methods?

Look, I know I’ve been an asshole at least as often as not. I’ve been trying to be better, but I can’t change what I’ve been.

Anyway, the students kept pressing for the multiple choice quizzes, and I finally had enough of it. My lips curled in what might have been a smile or a snarl, and I asked them if they were sure they wanted the next quiz to be multiple choice–I didn’t have time to draft one that meeting. They said “Yes” in one voice, and they repeated it when I asked again “Really? Are you really sure?” So I nodded, made a note, and moved through the rest of the class meeting as if nothing had changed.

I didn’t do anything when I got home that night; class ran until 9pm, and I had an hour commute back to the apartment. The next morning, though, after I’d gotten showered and some coffee into me, I sat down to work, drafting the quiz I’d give to my students when I saw them next. I spent a while poring over it, working in some detail from the assigned readings (one of the areas where I did not have room to change things was in the reading sequence). And when that class met again, they got to sit for the quiz. Their faces nearly lit in joy when they saw that I had, indeed, given them what they wanted; they got a multiple choice quiz. The difference between the right answer and the distractors was in comma placement and nothing else, but they got the multiple choice quiz they’d asked for.

And they got another one in the next class meeting; every answer was C. On the one that followed, every answer was C–except the second-to-last one, which was A. After that one, the students asked if they could go back to the short-answer quizzes; I was happy to oblige them.

Honestly, I should have been happier when I obliged them the first time. Getting into what amounted to a pissing contest…it’s never a good look. Years later, I find myself regretting it–as I probably should have years ago.

Help fund me so that I can stay out of the classroom?

Another Student Story

A while back, I wrote about a former student I’ve decided to call Chuck. While he was something of a problem, largely for getting me involved with institutional bureaucracy, he was neither the only one such nor the first. Nor, in the event, was he the most problematic of them in that regard.

First Day Of College Read The Syllabus GIF - FirstDayOfCollege  ReadTheSyllabus Shock - Discover & Share GIFs
Useful advice that too few follow.
Image taken from Tenor.com, used for commentary.

No, that one for me was back at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where I earned both of my graduate degrees and where I did my first few years of college teaching. In many ways, it was a good experience, although I readily admit I did not make the best possible use of my time there–but the fault for that is mine and not the institution’s.

While I was there, and maybe in my second year of teaching there, I had a slate of first-year composition classes, as is typical of graduate students in English. As is also typical, I had some conference activities scheduled, and, in an attempt to be responsible and forthright about them, I had noted on the course syllabus when I would be away to take care of them. And as is not uncommon, I also had a note on the course calendar about the mandated attendance policy–namely, that students could miss a set number of classes without penalty, but after that, grade penalties would accrue up to and including failing the course.

You may be able to guess where this is going.

As happened most sessions that I taught a class with a mandated attendance policy, some students suffered grade penalties due to missing too many classes. (In my defense, 1) the policies were mandated, and 2) I offered students the chance to “test out” of the class; if they could submit A papers without coming, I’d agree that they didn’t need to be in the room, and I’d excuse all their absences. None made the attempt.) As happened many such sessions, a few students failed on absences alone. And as happened more often than I care to recall, there were complaints about the grading.

The one that stands out, though, was a student I might well call Kofaire. She’d been a student in a second-semester composition class I taught in the spring, and she’d failed the class because she’d racked up something like thirteen absences in a class that met some forty-five times. (It’s been a few years, so my counts may be a bit off.) When she came to my office hours in the summer–because I tried to teach summers, needing the extra money–I looked over the records I had, quoted the mandated policy to her, and sent her on her way; I’d thought that would be the end of it.

Wrongly, in the event, because Kofaire went from me to my department head and made the same complaint. Of course, she got the same answer after the department head pulled her copy of my syllabus and the gradebook I’d turned in (because all of us were asked to do that). It should have ended there, and I think, on Kofaire’s part, it would have–but it stopped being up to Kofaire at that point, because Maman Kofaire got involved, then.

Karen | Know Your Meme
I don’t remember if her name was Karen…
Image from Know Your Meme, used for commentary.

I first learned of Maman’s involvement when I came into my office, checked my voicemail, and found not one, not two, but seven messages from her, asking (in various terms of politeness) that I call her back and talk about Kofaire’s grade. Now, FERPA being FERPA, and me still not having begun to mellow out in my old age, I did what I thought I ought to do: delete the messages. But they didn’t stop; when I came back to the office after teaching, I found three more messages waiting for me. And this went on for a couple of weeks, with every day seeing message after message after message asking and demanding that I talk with Maman about Kofaire’s grade.

Meanwhile, I wasn’t the only one getting to handle Maman. She’d gone in to talk to my department chair, bringing Kofaire with her and (inadvertently?) stepping around FERPA thereby. (The student, being present, could agree to have the conversation with others.) Kofaire had evidently been of the opinion that, if a day in the class had no explicit assignment made, there was no class that day–despite the explicit notes about when class wouldn’t meet. Maman seemed to think the same, complaining about spending her “hard-earned money for [Kofaire] to have a class with some damned worthless grad student” and vowing that it would never happen again.

My department chair sent her out of the office. I am told that the college dean did the same. As did the Dean of Students. And the Provost. Rumor reached me that Maman even tried to go to the University President, only to be asked something like “Why are you bothering me with this?” But it was more than rumor that let me know Maman hadn’t dropped the matter.

No, it was when Maman found out what classroom I was teaching in and ambushed me outside it, jawing at me for thirty minutes about how it wasn’t fair that Kofaire had fared poorly, and that she didn’t understand how some upjumped student could sit in judgment over her darling little girl. I count it to my credit that I kept my mouth shut except to say that “I can’t discuss students, ma’am” and to excuse myself as quickly as I could–to my department head’s office, where I reported the incident. I believe there was even paperwork.

I found out later from one of the campus police (I was in judo classes with him) that my report and the observed harassment from Maman Kofaire resulted in her being barred from campus. Kofaire herself, I believe, took second-semester composition again and had perfect attendance, scraping by with a low passing grade. And I have something of a story to tell, one I know others have, as well; maybe there’s some study that can be done about such narratives by someone who’s still able to be in academe…

I’m not writing syllabi anymore, but I am still writing, and I could still use your support!

Chuck

I have often fretted about telling such small stories as I have lived or seen. I have wondered what right I have to relay events to such audiences as find me, to speak of others in my life, to write what I have heard and may well misremember. Occasionally, though, discussion will turn such that a story comes out, and, once it’s out, I might as well keep it that way.

Unicorn Horn Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images - iStock
Close, but not quite.
Image taken from iStock, used for commentary.

One such that recently came up hearkens back to my days in the classroom–somehow, many of my stories move that way–when I was teaching several sections of first-semester composition. It’s a common enough class for adjuncts to teach–and, whatever my “formal” title might have been, I was an adjunct, working on a term-limited contract that hinted at but never promised renewal. As happened from time to time, I had my students read a short story from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which I then devoted class time to discussing. That is, I gave them the story on a Friday, telling them that they would do well to look at some historical context for the character types in the story, and be ready to discuss it on Monday and Wednesday in advance of a writing exercise to come on the following Friday. I believe I was going to be away at a conference that day, and I needed something for them to do while I had somebody else cover my class.

One of the students, whom I’ll call Chuck(lefuck), spent the class meetings on Monday and Wednesday with his head turned to the side and his jaws flapping–a common enough occurrence, really, and easily visible in the small-but-still-overenrolled class I was teaching. Another, whose name was something like Mary, had a really good few questions when she came in, though; she’d clearly taken my recommendation to heart, which is always flattering, and she’d clearly thought about what she’d read, which is always good to see. And, when I read over and assessed the writing exercises my students had done on the Friday, I was generally pleased with what I saw; Mary earned an A or an A+, and Chuck…didn’t.

I thought nothing more about it until the next semester started. When I got back to campus–because the break between semesters was a break for me, too–I got called into the composition director’s office. Evidently, Chuck was unsatisfied with the grade he got–a D–and complained to Daddy, telling him that I had been “pushing a gay agenda” in the class and “called [him] out repeatedly” because he “stuck to his beliefs.” Daddy was a golfing buddy of the provost’s, so Daddy complained to him. The provost called my department chair, who, to his credit, reminded the provost that the institution had a grade appeal policy for a reason and invited Chuck to follow school policy.

I have the distinct impression that Chuck, faced with that invitation, wanted to decline. I also have the distinct impression that Daddy demanded he not. And I learned that Chuck talked to the composition director–I was evidently considered hostile–who denied the grade change. Chuck went to the department chair, who also denied the grade change. Chuck went to the dean, who denied the grade change. And Chuck went then to the academic appeals committee, the ostensible institutional final word on the matter.

It was at that point I became involved in the matter again; the committee summoned me to appear before it. But I was not a stranger to academic bureaucracy at that point, having already completed my doctorate and having taught at more than one school previously. I knew that, because it was an internal institutional matter, FERPA protections did not apply; they could not, with Chuck’s performance being, indeed, the very matter being discussed. So I made sure to bring copies–printed from the institution’s learning management system, through which all the students’ papers had been submitted and returned with comments–of Chuck’s work, and I dressed to impress, it still being a time when it was the seams at my shoulders that strained, rather than the seams at my waistband.

The committee called me in just after sending Chuck out of the room; again, I was evidently considered hostile to him. The members told me that Chuck had complained that his grade was issued because I was discriminating against him based on his beliefs, and that I had “made him uncomfortable” through forcing discussion of practices he found morally repugnant, namely the story “Billy and the Unicorn.”

I couldn’t help it; I laughed. And I told them what had happened with that story, that I’d assigned it as a reading to inform an in-class writing exercise, that a student–who’d looked into unicorns and noted that, historically, they are attracted to virgins–had asked if she ought to read the unicorn as homosexual, that I’d noted it as one way to regard the character, and that I’d asked the class if and how it changed their reading to look at the unicorn in that way. The members seemed to agree it was an appropriate thing for me to have done in a college classroom, and they agreed that, in a class of under twenty students, one student persistently having his head turned to the side with his jaws flapping out to be called out every now and again. And they agreed, when I presented them the copies of Chuck’s papers, including my comments on drafts and notes on final submissions that the comments had not received attention, that the student’s grade was an appropriate one.

Now, the story came up in another discussion, one involving a number of people who still teach at the college level, as well as people who have completed degrees, about student complaints. I certainly earned enough such things in my years at the front of the classroom, and it is probably for the better that I am no longer there; I was in the wrong more than once. But I was not always so.

Whether I am in this, though, I am not sure.

Support my ongoing efforts?

Reflective Comments for the November 2019 Session at DeVry University

To conclude a practice I most recently iterated at the end of the July 2019 session at DeVry University, and following closely the patterns established in previous practice, comments below offer impressions of class performance among students enrolled in my section of ENGL 135: Advanced Composition during the November 2019 session at that institution. After a brief outline of the course and selected statistics about it, impressions are discussed.

Students enrolled in ENGL 135 during the November 2019 session were asked to complete a number of assignments in quick succession. Owing to changes imposed by the University, there was little overlap with previous sessions’ assignments and examples. Three short papers (a current event response, a claim analysis, and a case study on counterargument and rebuttal), a presentation deriving from the last of them, and an informal statement of connection between the course and careers accounted for most of the course grade. Discussion activities took up more than a third, and an online assessment took the remainder, as noted in the figure below.

November 2019 Class Assignment Spread

Point values sum to 1,000.

Homework and presentations were assessed by adaptations of University-provided rubrics. Discussions were assessed through an instructor-developed rubric.

The section met wholly online, so no attendance was assessed. Online office hours were generally held Mondays at 6pm, US Central Time. Its overall data includes:

  • End-of-term enrollment: 25
  • Average class score: 687.88/1000 (D)
    • Standard deviation: 289.871
  • Students earning a grade of A (900/1000 points or more): 6
  • Students earning a grade of F (below 600/1000 points): 8

Numbers of students receiving each of the traditional letter grades are indicated below:

November 2019 Grade Spread

As I have intimated, I do not intend to return to teaching, whether at DeVry or at another institution. I had been having doubts even prior to the session about whether I was doing any good continuing to teach and continuing to teach in the specific circumstances at the institution, though I continued to accept pay for doing so, so I did not voice those doubts quite as openly as I might otherwise have done. I understand my complicity in structures and their continuation well enough to know that I would invite more justified critique by offering my own. Some events early in the session, both in and outside the class, affirmed those doubts, and, as I compose this final report about my teaching, I know I have made the correct decision in withdrawing from the profession.

I have a number of regrets about my career in the classroom. I have had what is perhaps an unfortunate amount of time to consider those regrets, to mull over what I ought to have done better. Some things did improve in time. For others, the opposite was true; certainly, I have lost much of the joy in the work that I once felt. I have also lost the grinding necessity of continuing; I am in a much more stable place, emotionally and financially, than I have been in previous sessions. Having that stability, being able to stand firmly for a bit and take a look at my circumstances and situation, has let me see what others have likely realized for some time. Having stable footing is letting me step away–and it is time, indeed, for me to do so.

Sample Assignment Response: Career Connection Analysis

Female Boss Gives Presentation To Team Of Young Businesswomen Meeting Around Table In Modern Office
Female Boss Gives Presentation to Team of Young Businesswomen Meeting Around Table in Modern Office from Shutterstock, used for commentary

The final assignment required of students in ENGL 135 during the November 2019 instructional session at DeVry University is a career connection analysis. For it, students are asked to compose a somewhat informal paper (formatted in double-spaced 12-point Times New Roman with one-inch margins on letter-sized paper, but not requiring formal citation or most other APA apparatus) of some 500 words in length that addresses one of two prompts (quoted from University materials here):

  1. Discuss how the skills of writing, researching, presenting, working in teams, and using technological tools help you in your current role in the workplace. Which of these skills do you find most important right now? Which skills do you think will be important to you in helping you achieve future goals?

or

  1. Look up an occupation you are interested in pursuing after you graduate from DeVry. To find information on occupations, you can visit the Occupational Outlook Handbook at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/. Search for a career you are interested in, such as software developer. Then, click on the “What They Do” tab. Compare the duties of that occupation to what you learned in this class. Which skills that you learned in this class will be most useful to you in your chosen career?

Being well past my own graduation, I cannot address the second prompt directly as given. I can, however, address the first. As such, in the interest of posting an example for my students’ use, I set up a Word document with the requisite formatting and proceeded to draft a response to the prompt. To do so, I divided the task into several short, informal sections (i.e., I stubbed out keywords to guide my drafting, but I did not put in headings, as such): my current workplace role; uses of writing, researching, presenting, working in teams, and employing technological tools; most important skills; and future-goals-related skills.

As I began drafting, I found that the first “section” occasioned only a little bit of attention; it was enough to note the position and its basic duties before moving into the details of composition-class skills I use. The rest, though, seemed to fall into place relatively easily; having taught college-level writing since 2006, I have had time to think about how the skills such classes trade in apply to the working world outside. Since leaving off the search for full-time academic work (note here, here, and elsewhere in this webspace), I have had more occasion to think about how what I have learned can continue to serve me outside the enterprise I had sought to enter. Compiling half a thousand words on the subject took little doing in light of such thinking.

Having composed the document, I looked over it for ease of reading, hoping to keep it in late high school or early college, per Flesch-Kincaid grade levels. I also looked it over for adherence to usage standards; even an informal document benefits from easy reading. That done, I rendered the document such that it can be opened by multiple operating systems, which I offer here in the reiterated hopes that it will be of use: G. Elliott Sample Career Connection Analysis.

This is the last one, perhaps ever. Send a little help to send me on my way?

Sample Assignment Response: Case Study Presentation

Yet another assignment required of students in ENGL 135 during the November 2019 instructional session at DeVry University is a presentation deriving from the earlier Persuasive Writing and Counterargument Case Study that distills and re-presents the materials from the written document in more interactive form. The assignment asks for seven to ten slides and ten to twelve minutes of audio, which precludes giving a straight reading of the paper. (Typically, a five-page paper will be a ten-minute read–and not all of the papers will be the full five pages.) Slides to introduce the presentation and to provide references are obligatory; slides to present content will vary based on the needs of the presentation.

Presentation Screenshot
Once again, I’ve gotten to do a lot of staring at this kind of thing.
The image is still a screenshot taken from my earlier work.

I’ll note here that I make liberal use of previously prepared materials in this discussion, as the assignment and its preparation follow general models I’ve already established, here and here.

As I had with previous exercises of this sort, I opened the paper I would be remaking for presentation, printing out a copy (because I still work on some things better physically than on a screen) and conducting a reverse outline of it to highlight what ideas I treat and in what proportions. Doing so, I found that I had overlooked some typographical errors in the piece when I had proofread it (annoyingly enough, but correcting them is an effort for another situation); I also found that I had eight “sections” in the paper. Taking them with the requested introductory and references components would yield ten slides (and the paper from which the presentation emerges only deploys four references, so one slide for citations would likely be enough).

With the basic organization of the presentation taking shape, I once again opened the PowerPoint template I have prepared against use for this webspace and saved it as a working document for ease of finding it again at need. (I should emphasize here the utility of saving self-generated templates; it makes much easier later on if there is going to be continuation of a project.) After I had, I stubbed out the slides I expected to need, leaving myself an additional blank one ready to use at need. I also set up the overall introduction on the title slide, as well as inserting the references list where it needed to go. (Again, I do that early so as to prevent forgetting to do it later.)

Having set up my basic slideshow, I knew I would need to introduce explanatory images; as I’ve noted elsewhere, such media as students are asked to produce for the assignment rely on graphics for their effect, but merely decorative pieces distract and annoy. Fortunately, an early slide appeared to admit of some illustration for context, as did at least one of the more argumentative slides later on in the presentation. I pulled down images for those slides, putting them into place and citing them both at their inclusion and in the references slide. It did introduce more material into the last, not enough to prompt an additional slide, but enough to occasion reformatting. As with earlier presentations, however, the fact that the references slide could be examined in isolation allowed me to feel comfortable with the changes.

Figures in place, I began to put text into the slides. A commonplace of presentations is that the text on the slides is not a script but a guide for the audience and the presenter; it is neither necessary nor advisable that the presenter read straight from slides (save for quotations). Instead, the text on the slide should help orient both presenter and audience to the information being delivered verbally. Consequently, while I did find myself once again making some notes that came out as complete sentences, I worked to avoid such in stubbing out text on my slides, and I produced versions of my earlier writing of much less formality, given the demands of the medium.

Text laid out, the time came to insert audio into the presentation. Following my previous practice, I worked slide by slide, recording short stretches of audio through the embedded recorder in PowerPoint. (The convenience of having such is part of what keeps me using the program.) I also once again made sure to save after each slide, still having no desire to suffer data loss if it can be avoided. And, following previous practice, I made sure to keep my audio cues in the same place on each slide, the consistency serving to make my slides easier to navigate.

Getting that done, I gave the presentation a final review to check it against assignment requirements (and, hopefully, to eliminate any typographical errors in the current version). Afterwards, I put it where my students and others can see it, where I hope it will be of some help–here: G. Elliott Sample Presentation. As noted, it is a PowerPoint, so it requires such a program to view it.

I shall continue to thank you for your support as the holidays approach.

Sample Assignment Response: Persuasive Writing and Counterargument Case Study

Another assignment required of students in ENGL 135 during the November 2019 instructional session at DeVry University is a short paper that explicates one argument and offers a refutation of that same piece; the paper will form the basis of a graded presentation later in the session. Students are asked by the University to select “a scholarly article from a reliable source that relays a strong position on a debatable topic” for treatment. A further refinement specific to the class advises students that a set of topics will not be acceptable for treatment (i.e., papers treating them will be refused or awarded failing grades):

  • Abortion
  • Gun Control
  • Legalization of Marijuana
  • LGBTQIA+ Rights
  • Political Ideology
  • Religious Ideology

Image result for game of thrones
An indication of the topic treated…
Image taken from HBO.com, used for commentary

The paper is to be some four to five pages, or 1,300 to 1,625 words, exclusive of title and references pages, formatted and copy-edited to align to APA standards. It is also to address a University-provided series of questions that presents a serviceable outline for a short paper; in brief, they ask for an introduction to the selected article, a summary of the selected article, a short rhetorical analysis of the same, presentation of one or more counterarguments, and an explication of the writer’s own position on the selected topic (with the tacit acknowledgement that the position may well have changed in the course of doing the reading and drafting for the paper).

In preparing an example of such a paper for student use–whether my own or others’ who may happen across such things–I began by selecting a topic to consider. Most of those occupying current news headlines have not received formal scholarly study such as would be printed in academic journals, so, for me, recourse to my own more scholarly interests seemed to be in order. Much of my work focuses how the medieval is mis/used by later periods (i.e., medievalism, as distinct from medieval studies), so I figured to look at some of the ongoing scholarly arguments in that area. Knowing that the piece to be written is fairly brief, I figured that more involved scholarly treatments would not be ideal for me to select, so I thought to turn to The Explicator, which focuses on presenting shorter pieces of literary explication.

Neither the University library nor my local library had access to The Explicator, however, so I expanded out from the specific journal to the Academic Search Complete database that both have, using my local library (which I find easier to access) and entering the term “medievalism” as a general search parameter. The search returned a total of 555 hits, so I moved to narrow my search parameters. First came restricting results to peer-reviewed full-text articles, which trimmed the results down to 209. Next, I restricted results to the previous ten years–2009 to 2019; 107 results remained. I did notice, though, that the database offered another search limiter, restricting to academic journals only; I selected it, narrowing my search results to 60 sources–a much more manageable number than the original set of results.

Skimming the 60 results, I found a couple of articles that appeared to directly address medievalist texts with which I have had some engagement. Both were longer, perhaps, than I had originally intended to treat for the present project, but my familiarity with the subject matter of both suggested that they would be relatively quick reads for me. I looked at their references lists to see what lines of argument they would be engaging, and one made more use of secondary and critical materials with which I am familiar than the other; I chose that article, printing it out for my own ease of reading and notation.

Having pulled down the article, I did as I had done with the earlier current event assignment, setting up a Word document in which to draft my sample and inserting the article’s APA-style citation into it immediately so as not to forget to do so later. Then I read the article, making marginal notes (and benefiting from wide margins on my printed copy) as I did.

After reading the article, I stubbed out a prospective paper structure in my set-up Word document, following the general structure lined out by the University. With that structure in place, I began working towards a thesis statement, knowing that a fair bit of the material I would compose in the process of arriving at that thesis would need to be discarded as I worked on a fuller draft of the sample assignment. It does not pay to get too attached to words amid drafting; they are supposed to change in revision.

When I arrived at a working thesis, I followed my common composition practice of copying it, pasting it to the end of my working text, and highlighting it in green–something I do to help keep myself on target while reminding myself that I need to delete it later. For me, it’s like scaffolding when building; it’s needed to get the building up, but once the building’s up, it needs to be taken down. Once that was done, I started drafting, working backwards from the thesis to flesh out the introduction and then moving forward through the paper.

A couple notes about that drafting need making. For one, I did not work linearly through the draft. I rarely, if ever, do so when I am composing with a keyboard. Instead, I stub out bits to ease transitions into parts of my papers, and I halt work on one part when I have an idea about another part. I am usually able to get back into my own head when I read what I have written, but I lose track of ideas easily if I do not write them down, so I spend a fair bit of time jumping back and forth as I put words on the page, working to smooth them together as I go and in revision. I suppose that I make some small, repetitive use of what Asimov discusses in “The Eureka Phenomenon,” namely letting my subconscious mind address issues while I attend elsewhere.

For another, I did not have the luxury of sitting down to compose in the same place where I have my standing research apparatus. Over years of study, I’ve put together a workable library of scholarly texts, most of which are not open-access, and all of which have my marginalia throughout; even where the texts are now in the public domain, my annotations are not, and I use my annotations a fair bit. Consequently, as I drafted, there were several points at which I noted that reference to other sources would be useful. Following my long-standing practice, I made in-text notes about them, highlighting the notes in teal so that they would attract my attention for fleshing out and removal.

When I had fleshed out a draft, I saved it and sent it where I could supply the references that were yet missing. Once I had filled those gaps in the paper and expanded somewhat, I reviewed my draft for ease of reading; once again, considering the needs of the audience for which I write it, I strove to peg its reading level late in high school, perhaps early in college. Finding some success in that, and having proofread for adherence to APA usage conventions as I did so (again, with the note about the problems in doing it so close to having done the writing), I rendered the paper into a form accessible to readers. I present it here, hoping that it, and my efforts more generally, will continue to be of some value: G. Elliott Sample Case Study.

I shall thank you for your support as I move towards new endeavors.

Another (!) Rumination on Teaching

I wanted to be a teacher when I was the age my daughter is now. I went through high school thinking I would be a teacher. I went through most of my undergraduate study thinking I would be a teacher, though the subject I thought to teach would change. I went into and through graduate school thinking I would be a teacher, if at a different level. I spent my early career years–and that’s a strange phrase for me–thinking I would be a teacher. I’ve spent the past few years clinging to that thought, holding tenuously to the notion that I should spend at least part of my time at the front of a classroom, trying to help bring others along.

the hobbit work GIF
Image from Giphy.com, used for commentary. Clearly.

At this point, though, my grip is slipping–and not because I am holding on with one hand to keep my bloated self from falling into a pit from which there is little chance of escape. No, it is because I am struggling to hold what I realize has been an increasing weight off of the ground, one that I have been carrying for years in no small part because I have been too stubborn to put it down. I have tried to do well at the work, tried to be responsible and responsive, tried to make some difference. And perhaps I have done those things in some small way; I do, from time to time, hear from one student or another, and I am gratified by it.

More, though, I have made excuses for remaining in the college classroom, as a glance back across this webspace will make clear. I have tried to justify my continued presence in a system that has made clear it has no permanent place for me, even as I have found what seems to be a permanent place outside it (and one that does, in fact, allow me to make good use of the skills and expertise I developed during my formal education, if perhaps not as I might have expected and not as well as others with more focused training might have done). And it is clear to me that the excuses no longer work; it is time for me to put the weight down.

Given the academic labor market (about which, perhaps, this and this), I am certain that others will soon pick up the weight I set down. And it is possible that I will need to pick it up again, myself, in time to come. But for now, so far as I can see, I am ready to leave it. I am ready to let go my grip and finally straighten a back that has bent at such work, usually hunched in a chair in front of a computer not unlike what results in this present piece of work, drafting things that will not be read. But at least such work as this is work that I enjoy, and I can no longer say the same for what I do in the classroom, despite years of making a go at it.

Thirteen years of it is enough of a sample, I think.

Even now, I remain thankful for what you give.