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.

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.

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.