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.

Sample Assignment Response: Analyzing Debatable Claims

Another of the assignments students are asked to do in ENGL 135 in the November 2019 session, following a course redesign, is an analysis of debatable claims. (A previous assignment is discussed here.) Students are asked to “select a TED Talk that presents a persuasive argument on a debatable issue,” record its identifying information, and draft a two- to three-page (so 650- to 975-word) summary that addresses a number of points evocative of other classes’ rhetorical analysis. To continue my practice of providing models for students to follow, I offer what appears below:

https://pi.tedcdn.com/r/talkstar-photos.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/41dce1f7-2417-4999-845e-97727063eac8/IlluminatedManuscripts_textless.jpg?h=200
Image taken from the thumbnail on the TED talk treated in the present sample, here, used for commentary

As with earlier sample work, the first task is to select a subject. To do so for the present sample, I went to TED.com and ran a simple search for one of my major areas of interest, using the search term “medieval.” Doing so yielded 92 results, which is a larger set than admits of effective parsing within the confines of the session and its demands. Accordingly, I restricted myself to the first page of results returned–which, at 30, was still a fair number. Given that the assignment calls for only two to three pages of work (plus title and references pages), I determined that the talk I would treat should be a shorter one. I was fortunate that two of the first three results returned fit that criterion, and I decided to treat the less formal of the two, since I want to make my work as fun for myself as I can reasonably do.

With a subject selected, I went ahead and set up my document, stubbing out a title page, main text, and references page and ensuring that the document as a whole was set to double-spaced 12-point Times New Roman type with one-inch margins on letter-sized paper. I also inserted running heads and page numbers as appropriate. I also made sure to enter an APA-style reference entry for my selected TED talk to make sure that it got done.

To help keep myself oriented in what would come, I copied and pasted the series of questions from the University’s assignment materials into my document. I then highlighted it in green so that I would remember to remove it later; I tend to give myself writing targets (such as theses for more formal work) in my documents, coloring them thusly so I know what I need to write towards and that I need to get rid of it later. It is a method I recommend, though I know others’ results will vary.

That done watched the talk, doing so twice. The first time was simply to get a feel for the talk as a whole. The second, though, I took notes, using the assignment questions as a guide. It made for somewhat jerky watching, to be fair, but it did allow me to get a basic outline down of the sample assignment.

With my notes ready, I began drafting. The first pass consisted mostly of expanding my notes into cohesive, coherent sentences and paragraphs, as well as adding introduction and conclusion. Revision ensued thence, focusing mainly on smoothing out transitions among materials–I opted to retain the order of the assignment’s questions in large part, mostly for ease, though I did alter their groupings somewhat–and on making the language accessible to student readers (as determined by Flesch-Kincaid grade level).

All that done, I reviewed my draft to make sure it adheres to usage standards that will be applied to student work. Once done with that, I rendered the draft accessible; it appears below, iteration of my continued hope to be of use to others: G. Elliott Sample Debatable Claim Analysis.

I still continue to appreciate support for drafting new teaching materials.

Sample Assignment Response: Current Event

One of the assignments students are asked to do in ENGL 135 in the November 2019 session, following a course redesign, is a summary-and-response piece that looks at two treatments of arguable topics in current news and related media, summarizes each, and compares the two. Each of the summaries is expected to be three paragraphs in length, formatted appropriately; the comparative passage should be some two to three pages. Since APA formatting is requested, a title page and a references list are likely expected, as well. And, following my long-standing practice, an example of the kind of work I hope to see on the assignment and a narrative of how I put it together follow.

Murder of Abel from BL Royal 19 D II, f. 10v
Murder of Abel from BL Royal 19 D II, f. 10v; I’m told it’s a public domain image.

Clearly, the first task to do to complete the assignment is to select a topic. I tend to restrict topics I’ll accept from students, and I am doing so for later assignments in the session, so I will follow the restriction as I generate the present example and steer away from treating abortion, gun control, legalizing marijuana, LGBTQIA+ rights, political ideology (in the sense of party alignment), and religious ideology. Doing so avoids “hot-button” issues about which most people have preconceived ideas that are more or less articles of faith. Experience suggests that most students–indeed, most people–are not willing to concede that they can be wrong about them, and a willingness to be wrong is necessary for learning. But even aside from the obvious topics, there is much to discuss, and in some detail.

Among the things to discuss is an issue prevalent in the academic field I sought to enter (about which more here and here). That field, medieval studies, is currently grappling with its racist appropriations and underpinnings, with a particular event (recent to the time of this writing, meaning within the last 60 days) and reactions to it standing out as exemplary of the struggle still ongoing and still needing to be done. There are many articles surrounding the event, as a quick Google search for it revealed (and I admit to being helped by being familiar with the topic already), and I selected two such, one from the Washington Post and one from Inside Higher Ed.

After selecting the topic and the articles to treat in the example assignment, I opened a Word document and began to format it for use in the assignment. That is, I set it to double-spaced 12-point Times New Roman type with one-inch margins on letter-size paper; inserted my running head, headers, and page numbers; and stubbed out sections for my title page, main text, and references list. Doing so obliged me to develop a title–easy enough, given that APA asks for descriptive paper titles–and it allowed me to record citations for my articles so that I would not forget to do so later. The latter is particularly important, as I’ve had many students lose points or fail papers entirely because they “forgot” to add citations that they “meant to go back and put in later.”

That done, and knowing I would need to summarize the articles, I read them. As I did, I made marginal notes (I printed the articles, as I read better and more swiftly from a physical page than a digital) and identified major points of argument, as well as strengths and weaknesses of the pieces as I read. I began with the earlier-published piece, the chronology seeming to make sense.

Having read the pieces, I began to write my summaries of them. As with the reading, I began with the earlier-published piece. Even before moving through the summaries, though, I stubbed out the direction I wanted my text to go, making sure that movement between the parts of the paper would be clear and indicate to readers how the new part connects to the previous. It also allowed me to move towards a thesis–which I hold a comparative piece should have. That is, comparative works should move past simply listing similarities and differences to make a claim about the things being compared–usually in terms of some value-judgement (“Ð is a better example of writing than Þ because…”).

Once I had my thesis in place and my summaries done, it came time to actually argue the thesis. That is, I had made a claim, so I needed to support it. The response portion of the paper is supposed to take some two to three pages. I average 325 words per page, making my target length somewhere between 650 and 975 words for the portion–figures which I looked at because my summaries ended at a strange point on the page. My habit in all but the shortest papers is to make a counterpoint and rebut it before moving into my central argument, and though 650 words is quite brief, 975 allows me space in which to make the more nuanced presentation.

As I wrote, knowing that the piece is intended for student use as an example, I strove to make the text accessible to first-year composition students. Consequently, I wrote in relatively short paragraphs (approximately 85-150 words), keeping the average reading level right around the end of high school, per Flesch-Kincaid grade levels. I revised to keep the reading level in line as I composed, thinking it important.

After arriving at a decent stopping point that fell within the word-count range I’d established, I reviewed the text I’d written for overall adherence to APA usage standards. Finding no problems (but acknowledging that my own eye for my work is not without flaw, and that proofreading immediately after writing is other than optimal), I put the text in a form others could access, which I present here in the continued hope that what I do will be of use to others, both in my class and in others that may be taught: G. Elliott Sample Current Event.

I continue to appreciate support for drafting new teaching materials.

A(nother?) Rumination on Teaching

With another session of teaching looking at me, it occurred to me that I might take stock of the teaching career I have had–as opposed to the ones I had wanted to have and clearly now do not. After all, I’ve been at the work of teaching college classes since 2006, and I’ve been working on being an educator since 2000, at least; I’ve got a bit to look back over, and I’ve kept records of most of it. Maybe I can even get something good out of the data.

I do have to admit that my records are incomplete; there are some teaching sessions for which I no longer have my gradebooks. I am not sure why. Too, there are other gaps in my records because there are gaps in my teaching; while I was in constant rotation through Spring 2012, after that, my teaching grew more…intermittent. And, owing to different grading practices at different institutions, I have had to normalize grades reported, making them all conform to a single, simple standard (percentile grading to three decimal places, reported on an uninflected A/B/C/D/F scale, with some scores rendered negative by departmental policies rendered as zero). So there is that to consider, as well.

Even so, I can provide a fair bit of information. I have records of 1,547 students completing the college classes I have taught since the Summer 2006 term (again, noting that there are several terms I taught from which I no longer have student records). Those records cover 34 terms of teaching (with concurrent terms at different institutions considered different terms), for an average of 45.5 students taught in each term. Their average grade was 66.139/100 (D), with a standard deviation of 22.595. Some 104 of those students (approx. 7%) earned an A or the equivalent, 418 B (27%), 375 C (approx. 24%), 220 D (approx. 14%), and 429 F (approx. 28%). Percentages are approximate due to rounding.

Student Grades to 20 October 2019
Student Grades to 20 October 2019
Number of Students by Term to 20 October 2019
Number of Students Taught by Term to 20 October 2019
Average Scores by Term to 20 October 2019
Average Score (out of 100) by Term to 20 October 2019

Breaking grades out by term taught yields some interesting information, some of which has been reported in this webspace previously. (I have offered grade reports for many teaching sessions I have completed, although not all. I did not anticipate I would be offering a report on myself in such a way as to need a comprehensive record. I probably should have, though.) In reporting the distribution of letter grades across time, I have worked in percentages, since a teaching term with 99 students will necessarily report higher direct numbers than will a teaching term with 45.

Percentage of Students Earning As by Term to 20 October 2019
Percentage of Students Earning As by Term to 20 October 2019
Percentage of Students Earning Bs by Term to 20 October 2019
Percentage of Students Earning Bs by Term to 20 October 2019
Percentage of Students Earning Cs by Term to 20 October 2019
Percentage of Students Earning Cs by Term to 20 October 2019
Percentage of Students Earning Ds by Term to 20 October 2019
Percentage of Students Earning Ds by Term to 20 October 2019
Percentage of Students Earning Fs by Term to 20 October 2019
Percentage of Students Earning Fs by Term to 20 October 2019

Notably, the proportion of As has risen, as have those of Cs and Ds, while the proportions of Bs and Fs have fallen (overall; I am looking at trendlines). Even so, there are some definite troughs in students earning As, and there are some tall, tall peaks in students earning Fs. While some of that is on the students (I can only award one score to work not submitted, and a lot of students have left a lot of work not turned in), there are some I would adjust at this point if it were available to me to do. There have been times I have been overly harsh in assessing my students’ performance (not as many as the students think, however), and I realize it now, with the benefit of a perspective I could not summon while I was doing more teaching–much more–than I am now.

In truth, I am not sure what the data show. That is, I know what the numbers are, but I am not sure how to parse those numbers to extract any meaning from them. I am sure some will say that the facts speak for themselves, and perhaps they do, but if they do, they do not do so in a language I can understand or at a volume I can hear.

Teaching still doesn’t pay much here. Care to help?

Initial Comments on the November 2019 Session at DeVry University

I have been offered and have signed a contract to teach a class at DeVry University for the November 2019 instructional session, a section of ENGL 135: Advanced Composition. It is wholly online, with the session spanning 28 October 2019 to 5 January 2020; consequently, instruction will be almost wholly asynchronous, though I will hold a regular office hour, likely on Wednesday evening, given other scheduling concerns I have at the moment.

An IStock image by Jaroslav Frank appearing on Robert Ubell’s 13 December 2016 Inside Higher Ed article “Why Faculty Still Don’t Want to Teach Online,” used for commentary

The redesign I mentioned previously seems still to be in place, but they seem to tend to less grading than I recall from earlier experiences teaching ENGL 135. I will have to generate new examples, of course, but I need to be doing more writing, anyway, and students continue to benefit from having the models to follow. Given broader events, I am not sure how I can produce ethically sound examples that will still do what I need them to do; I am not the master of my own curriculum, here, but am obliged to follow a prescribed sequence once again. I knew that going in, though; my comments from more than a year ago still seem to hold.

For all the problems that are in place with the kind of teaching I will be doing, I am still glad to have the opportunity to do so once again. Though I presently need the funding less than I have in the past–the regular job I work treats me pretty well in that regard and in several others–it is still welcome. More welcome is the chance to once again put to work the skills I spent so long developing; I hope they have not atrophied such that they will no longer serve me or the students enrolled in my class.

Reflective Comments for the July 2019 Session at DeVry University

Continuing a practice I most recently iterated at the end of the May 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 112: Composition during the July 2019 session at that institution. After a brief outline of the course and selected statistics about it, impressions and implications for further teaching are discussed.

Students enrolled in ENGL 112 during the July 2019 session were asked to complete a number of assignments in quick succession. While there was some overlap with previous iterations of the course in terms of the assignments requested, there was not congruity; the later assignments differed from previous practice. Three papers (a profile, a rhetorical analysis, and a “persuasive” paper) and a presentation deriving from the final paper accounted for the majority of the grade; discussion activities accounted for more than a third, and a quiz over APA guidelines occupied the remainder, as presented in the figure below:

ENGL 112 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 in a hybrid on-live session on Wednesdays at 6pm, US Central Time, with online office hours generally being held Mondays at 6pm, US Central Time. Its overall data includes:

  • End-of-term enrollment: 18
  • Average class score: 762.222/1000 (C)
    • Standard deviation: 158.91
  • Students earning a grade of A (900/1000 points or more): 5
  • Students earning a grade of F (below 600/1000 points): 1

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

ENGL 112 Grade Spread

Since the class met at a prescribed time, it was possible to assess attendance. Most students in the section missed at least one class meeting; some missed quite a few more, as indicated below (with the figure being classes missed, students missing that many classes, and percentage of students falling into that category):

ENGL 112 Rptd Absences

This session has been one of the better ones I’ve had in the past few years. Although live attendance could have been better, the students who did attend were more engaged than many I have had in my classrooms since leaving New York City, and student engagement in discussion threads was quite robust. I think it directly ties to the quality of the work I received from students in the class; many of the papers and presentations I got were good ones, if perhaps not the most adventurous. (I note that many students took a “safe” route in their final two major assignments, but with as many as were in their first session at DeVry, if not in college, generally, I cannot be justly annoyed at it.) It is the kind of thing I continue to hope to see when I take on a new set of students, and I am particularly happy to have gotten it this time around.

The thing is, the fact of having good students does not do much to help me further develop my skills as a teacher. Working with good students is easy; they do most of the work, needing only limited guidance. In the kind of lock-step curriculum in place at DeVry, there is not the flexibility to challenge further those students who show themselves able to do more, and while I have worked to reward those who have done that more, there is only so much I can do within the constraints within which I must operate to keep working. The same offers have been and will continue to be open to any students who seek to avail themselves thereof, but I am still not sure how to get more students to take me up on them. It is something I clearly need to continue to work on.

As ever, I am glad to have had another opportunity to put to work those skills I spent years developing. I am less happy that the September 2019 session does not have me teaching–but I look forward to future sessions that will.

Class Report: ENGL 112, 28 August 2019

For the final meeting of the session, discussion opened by noting the availability of evaluations and the looming end of the session (31 August 2019). It moved thence to treat questions from the previous class meeting and earlier before looking at others’ presentations to offer critique and addressing final assignment concerns.

Class met as scheduled, at 1800 CDT in Room 114 of the San Antonio campus; the class was broadcast online, and a recording will be made available soon. The class roster listed 18 students enrolled, a decline of one since the last class meeting; seven attended live online or onsite. Student participation was good. No students attended the week’s office hour.

Students are reminded that the the rhetorical strategies presentation, of which a sample is available here, is due before the end of day Saturday, 31 August 2019.

Grading will be finalized shortly after the session ends, with reflective comments to follow after.

Class Report: ENGL 112, 21 August 2019

After addressing questions from the previous class meeting and before, discussion remarked upon student surveys being available. It then turned to concerns of presentation, in anticipation of the final assignment for the course.

Class met as scheduled, at 1800 CDT in Room 114 of the San Antonio campus; the class was broadcast online, and a recording will be made available soon. The class roster listed 19 students enrolled, a decline of two since the last class meeting; seven attended live online or onsite. Student participation was reasonable. No students attended the week’s office hour.

Students are reminded that the following are due before the end of day Sunday, 25 August 2019:

  • Discussion: Presentation Experiences (five posts or equivalent)
  • Discussion: Presentation Peer Review (five posts or equivalent)

Students are urged to be at work on the rhetorical strategies presentation, due at the end of the session. (A sample is available here.) Working on it longer will allow for better results.

Sample Assignment Response: Rhetorical Strategies Persuasive Presentation

Typing Monkey GIF - Typing Monkey GIFs
Hopefully, it goes better.
Image: “Typing Monkey GIF” from Tenor.com

Another of the assignments students in ENGL 112 are asked to do in the July 2019 session, following a course redesign, is a “persuasive” presentation that derives from the earlier “persuasive” essay. The presentation should be five to seven minutes in length, containing five to seven slides (possibly more, if the references list is particularly long), and should provide a summary and breakdown of the earlier essay. Following previous practice, I propose to provide a more targeted one for the current session–the more so because the assignment is new to my experience of the present course (though I have examples relevant to other courses on hand).

To draft the presentation, I knew I would need to work from the materials I have previously developed, so I opened my saved copy of the earlier essay. That ready to hand, I did a reverse outline of it, noting how much space I allocated to which components of the paper (excluding cover page and references list, which take a prescribed length and “as long as they need,” respectively). Doing so showed me with an introduction, three points that take up approximately 206 words each, a final point that takes close to 400 words to develop, and a conclusion, plus references. That leaves me seven slides’ worth of material, possibly eight due to the length of my references list. Knowing I need to observe length guidelines and that the introduction slide cannot be the same as the introduction of the paper (the slide needs to reflect the cover page, with an overview slide that glosses the introduction to the paper), I knew I could not simply bring over the points as presented.

With two slides at the beginning and at least one at the end already reserved, I knew I had two or three slides to make my points. Normally, this would mean I would make two or three points only, out of the four available; generally, one slide takes one point. From my outline, though, I knew I had one point that outweighed the rest, and by a large margin. I figured that that point would get a slide of its own, reflecting its importance. The other three could be glossed together, perhaps in one slide, compressing them to effect. I would be able to touch on all of my points while emphasizing the importance of the most pertinent, while still allowing myself room to expand if I needed it.

A rough plan in place to put together the presentation, I opened a PowerPoint template I’ve long had for use in this webspace; it’s colored and formatted such that it lines up with the materials I present here, coming off as of a piece with them and helping me to present my work in a unified manner that increases my perceived professionalism, thus ethos. I saved it as my working project so that I could find it again at need and began to stub out the slides I knew I would need. Some adjustments needed making to keep my formatting consistent, which happens; one exception was the References list, which I allowed to auto-format in the interest of compressing the information. The slide can be looked at in isolation and at larger magnification, if needed, so its legibility amid the presentation is less of an issue than it might otherwise be.

Presentations rely on graphics to make their point, and I had not generated graphics in drafting the essay from which the presentation derives. I was obliged, then, to do so, rather than to use decorative graphics such as the GIF at the top of this blog entry; presentation graphics need to be informative rather than entertaining. I tend to use Excel to do so, finding the program useful for converting numbers to figures and setting them up appropriately. As I developed each graphic, I inserted it into the appropriate slide; the graphics take precedence over any text, so I placed them with the intent to insert text around them. I also inserted text-box captions, as appropriate. Too, I made sure to save my work with each adjustment; I’ve lost too many projects not to do so.

With the graphics in place, I inserted the text I wanted to have present. Reading straight from slides is far from ideal; the text on slides should serve as a set of guideposts for speaker and audience, rather than as a script. I placed the text with that principle in mind, moving swiftly to bullet out my ideas. Owing to my background, I did draft complete sentences for my text, but that need not always be the case, as long as what is presented conforms to the usage standards expected by an audience working in the field the presentation treats.

The text in place, it came time to record audio for the presentation. Moving slide by slide, I recorded short audio pieces to embed in each slide, saving after doing each; again, I’ve lost projects, and I have no desire to repeat the experience. I did not read straight from my preceding paper, though I had it ready for review; instead, I extemporized from each of the sections I had identified in the reverse outline, making sure to note my sources of support in my narration (in addition to where they appear in the presentation’s text already). Because I want my audience to engage with the presentation, rather than passively receive it, I made sure the audio does not automatically play; I placed audio icons consistently in the slides to ease access.

All that done, I reviewed my work, making adjustments I saw as needed to bring the presentation in line with stated requirements as nearly as I could determine. With that done, I put the presentation–which I hope is helpful–where my students and others can get it: G. Elliott Sample Presentation July 2019. It is a PowerPoint file, so it has to be opened with that program or a similar one…

I continue to appreciate support for drafting better teaching materials.

Class Report: ENGL 112, 14 August 2019

Following the address of questions from the previous class meeting and before, discussion returned to concerns of citation, which had been brushed against during the previous week’s meeting. It then treated some common concerns of usage noted from student papers and suggested by students during the meeting.

Class met as scheduled, at 1800 CDT in Room 114 of the San Antonio campus; the class was broadcast online, and a recording will be made available soon. The class roster listed 21 students enrolled, unchanged since the last class meeting; eight attended live online or onsite. Student participation was reasonable. No students attended the week’s office hour.

Students are reminded that the following are due before the end of day Sunday, 18 August 2019:

  • Discussion: Integrating Research in APA Style (five posts or equivalent)
  • Rhetorical Strategies Persuasive Essay (in .doc, .docx, or .rtf format, please)

Students are urged to be at work on the rhetorical strategies presentation, due at the end of the session. (A sample will be made available for student reference soon.) Working on it longer will allow for better results.