Suddenly Teaching Online: A Path Made by Walking

I have now been teaching my previously face-to-face classes completely online for two weeks. My campus uses Blackboard as a course management system. It’s ok. It has some glitches and some design flaws, the worst of which is the inefficient way it uses screen real estate. I’m pretty familiar with Blackboard because I have been using it to support most of my classes for almost 20 years. And before that I was using WebCT, which Blackboard bought. Yes, it has been that long.

Blackboard

Here is what Blackboard looks like when you are responding to papers:

BlackboardScreenshot
The text box is really small. Lots of space is wasted at the top. The right side is taken up mostly by blank, unused, gray space. I can scroll down to eliminate some of the wasted space at the top, but I have to redo that positioning for EVERY SINGLE PAPER. I can make in-text comments (good) but it is hard to make the comment box go away without turning off the commenting feature, so it is basically, turn comments on, make a comment, turn comments off (bad). I can create, edit, and attach a rubric and score a paper by clicking in the appropriate cells (good), but if I score one paper and then find out that I have made a ridiculous error in the rubric, it will not let me edit the rubric. I have to score every subsequent paper with the defective rubric (bad).

Blackboard is full of issues like this. It has discussion boards and blogs, but the only real difference between them is that the discussion boards are organized by topic and the blogs are organized by student. They aren’t real blogs. Both tools are functional, but clunky. In the blog tool, in order to see other student’s blogs, you have to click a tiny down arrow underneath your own name, which produces a drop down menu. By default, it only shows blogs with posts, so at the beginning of the semester if you are the first one to post something, when you click on the down arrow, you see nothing. This causes a great deal of confusion.

So I am familiar with Blackboard, but I have never used it to teach a totally online course.

Other Tools

We also have access to Zoom for video conferencing and chat and Kultura for creating and uploading videos. The problem with video is bandwidth. Many of our students don’t have wifi at home and the places they used to use for wifi access–Starbucks, McDonalds, libraries–are closed. Besides, the whole point is to stay home and stay well. So they use their phones, but quickly blow through data caps.

Some of my colleagues are using Slack, which has a free plan, for chat. My grad students recommended that too. As near as I can tell, Zoom and Slack are overlapping products. Zoom emphasizes video, but does chat, while Slack emphasizes chat but does video. In my last seminar meeting, we did one hour of Zoom followed by one hour of Slack. They both worked well, but provided different experiences.

Genre Fiction So Far

For my “Genre Fiction” class, as I have posted previously, I have been producing podcasts for each story and giving them my notes. We are also using both blogs and discussion boards, using the Blackboard tools. Though there has been lively interaction on the discussion boards, there are six students out of 26 who are not participating. I have emailed them several times. Because I felt that I was losing touch with the class, I decided to have a non-mandatory Zoom meeting at the time when the face-to-face class would have normally met. Seven students showed up. It turned into a sort of focus group.

Only three students activated video, and one of these had arranged the lighting so that his face was obscured. The others not only did not activate video, but they were muted too. They communicated through chat or through icons like thumbs up. I had not expected such shyness.

They were all feeling overwhelmed, but they did not blame faculty. However, they pointed out that discussion boards were a lot more work than showing up in class. In a discussion board, everyone has to think and express their ideas. They see showing up for class as an interesting and even fun experience, but the discussion board is work. From their point of view, the homework load has increased tremendously.

This may mean that the ones who participate in the online activities are actually learning more than before. The in-class experience for them is more comfortable, enjoyable, but also more passive, at least for some.

After this discussion, I decided to eliminate one of the novels I was going to teach as well as the final, on the grounds that the discussion board work was ample evidence of their engagement and understanding. This will give them more time to work on their stories.

One of the books I am using in my seminar argues that teaching is “a path made by walking.” That certainly seems true for our sudden detour into online instruction.

Genre Fiction: Week 10

The combination of podcasts plus discussion board seems to be working well for some students, but I have about eight students who have yet to participate. Our students are overwhelmed with all the changes. Some have contacted me to say so. I think most instructors are using Zoom to conduct pretty traditional synchronous classes online. That means that students, who are usually taking five classes, are using a lot of Zoom. My asynchronous podcast and discussion board model give them more flexibility, but is different.

There are always students who are reluctant to express themselves in class. Some are also reluctant to express opinions on a discussion board that other students can see. I think this is part of the problem. I emailed the non-participants today. I will follow up.

Here are this week’s story podcasts. I try to do them in such a way that you could get something out of them even if you have not read the story, but if you want to read the stories, they are in the collection The Secret History of Fantasy edited by Peter Beagle.

“The Edge of the World” by Michael Swanwick

This story asks the question, “What if the Earth were flat and had an edge?” A group of teenagers climb down the cliff face of the edge of the world.

Notes

“Super Goat Man” by Jonathan Lethem

A story about a third-rate failed super hero who is also a college professor.

Notes

“John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner” by Susanna Clarke

A very funny short story set in the same world as Clarke’s fantasy novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Notes

“The Book of Martha” by Octavia E. Butler

If you had god-like power to make humans better, what would you do?

Notes

 

Genre Fiction: Week 9, Day 2

Our President has finally decided that the rest of the semester will be online. I think that is wise because it is hard to shift from an online course back to a face-to-face one. It is also clear that our Covid-19 situation will last longer than a few weeks.

For the second meeting of the ninth week of this course I assigned two stories from Peter Beagle’s collection, The Secret History of Fantasy. I include a podcast and some notes for each one.

“Fruit and Words” by Aimee Bender

Here is a link to the notes I used in making the podcast.

This story is about marriage, hope, magic and mangoes.

“The Empire of Ice Cream” by Jeffrey Ford

And here are the notes.

So far, this system seems to be working. Students have to listen to the podcasts to get the discussion questions. Then they respond on the new discussion boards. Several students are already doing this.

Genre Fiction: Week 9, Day 1

My “Genre Fiction” class (click link for syllabus) is designed to be either an ordinary literature course or a creative writing course, depending on how the student wants to approach it. As a final project, students can choose to write a critical paper or a short story. However, most students in the past have written stories.

At this point in the semester, we have completed our exploration of detective fiction, reading Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Conan-Doyle’s “Adventure of the Speckled Band,” Dashiel Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, and Walter Moseley’s Devil in a Blue Dress. We have begun the fantasy section of the course, reading two Conan stories by Robert E. Howard, “The Tower of the Elephant” and “Red Nails,” plus Tolkien’s The Hobbit. We are now reading a collection of short stories, The Secret History of Fantasy, edited by noted fantasy author Peter Beagle.

Throughout the course, students have been doing writing exercises from Ursula K. LeGuin’s wonderful writing book, Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. We have been discussing plot, characters, world creation, style, point of view, and other issues in story craft.

Now, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, we must take our class online. For Tuesday, March 17, we are discussing two stories. I will post podcasts about them and the outlines I used to create the podcasts below.

Stephen King, “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut”

“Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” Notes

Neil Gaiman, “Snow, Glass, Apples”

“Snow, Glass, Apples” Notes

We are also reading Chapter 9 “Indirect Narration, or What Tells” in the Le Guin book. The first exercise in this chapter asks the students to write a page or two of dialogue between two characters without any description so that everything the reader knows about who they are comes from what they say. Students will post the results of this activity to their writing blogs.

The Madness of Herds

There are indications that the policies that my campus was promoting regarding offering both online and face-to-face instruction simultaneously are going to be mitigated. Our department had a very interesting video meeting through Zoom in which it was clear that we were all in agreement. After the meeting, one of our members crafted the following statement:

The Department of English and Modern Languages (EML) holds that pedagogy rests in the hands of teachers. We collectively do not subscribe to the “banking concept of education,” where content is deposited into the minds of students through strict lecture (and recording). This is not a model for humanities instruction. To that end, faculty are empowered to make pedagogical decisions that match their subject matter to students’ needs while maintaining consistent instruction through the end of the semester. Under pandemic conditions, this will likely mean primary virtual instruction. Faculty will make reasonable accommodations to help students succeed when access and resources are restricted or unavailable.

I think that most faculty on campus would agree with this statement. The union has pushed back strongly. I think that we will be teaching fully online courses.

However, I think that higher education will be forever changed by this crisis. We are all being forced to think, teach and learn in new ways.

Today I went to a supermarket to buy milk and ice cream. I had been to the same store three days before. At that time, although toilet paper and bottled water were in short supply and hand sanitizer was not to be found, everything else was normal. But today, the store was tremendously crowded. There were no shopping carts in front of the store. Pasta, flour, canned soups, milk, and many other items were sold out. I know that in many countries it is not unusual to see bare shelves in a market, but I have never seen this in California before. I was told by someone that all the local stores were the same. Suddenly, everyone was behaving as if civilization were ending.

I don’t think civilization is ending. That might come later if we don’t do something about climate change. But people are suddenly very insecure. And somehow they all become insecure in the same way all at once. It is very strange.

However, strange as this behavior is, humans are also brilliantly adaptable. We will get through this.

Online Instruction

On Wednesday we got a message from the President of our university that instruction will be “paused” from today until Tuesday next week and that we would move to a “virtual” form of instruction after that until March 27, which is the beginning of spring break. After spring break they will “reassess” our local context and risk. Then we got a message yesterday from the Provost that said that we would be providing both “virtual” instruction and face-to-face instruction unless “all” of our students preferred “virtual” instruction. Apparently, the administrators bought cameras for the classrooms. They seem to think that an online class is just the same as a traditional class, but with a video feed of the lecture.

I think that these administrators have forgotten what actual teaching is like.

As soon as I heard that we were switching to online instruction, I redesigned my courses.

  • I eliminated some assignments and activities that required face-to-face interaction.
  • I added some new discussion boards.
  • I shifted points around to accommodate participation in discussion boards instead of in class discussion.
  • I made plans to produce podcasts instead of lectures.
  • I informed my students of these changes and got feedback on the changes.

I also began helping the Teaching Associates that I supervise to begin thinking about redesigning their courses. They were freaking out because they are new to teaching face-to-face and suddenly, midstream, they have to switch to an entirely different mode of instruction. I told them that there were actually better prepared than many faculty for this change because they are much more familiar with the technology. One responded, “Yes, we can do this!”

Composition courses are not lecture-based. We have writing activities, whole class discussions, group discussions, collaborative projects, presentations, poster sessions, etc. If we lecture, it is only for a short part of the class meeting.  Meeting with a few students in an almost empty room and lecturing to a camera will not work. This is not information transfer. It is teaching and learning. And it doesn’t make sense to move instruction online and then try to move it back again.

I am afraid that the administrators are afraid to be truly decisive. They want to have it both ways. And they have forgotten the reason we are doing this. If we want to reduce or slow the spread of Covid-19, we have to take decisive action, not a little of this and a little of that, leaving all options open.

I plan to post my podcasts and other instructional materials here. Those who follow this blog for teaching materials and ways of presenting rhetorical concepts may find the series of posts I put up in the next few weeks a bit course specific for their own use, but I hope you will find something useful for your teaching as well.

Will We Have to Move Online?

As the novel coronavirus Covid-19 spreads throughout the world, festivals, conferences, corporate meetings, and schools, colleges and universities are shutting down. Educational institutions are considering moving all instruction off campus and online for a period of time until the crisis passes. My campus has not decided to close at this point, but we have received numerous emails that imply that it is a possibility in the near future.

Many of my colleagues teach classes in the traditional way, without online tools. I am a bit more prepared. My courses are neither hybrid nor online, but all of them are “web-enabled” in that I use our course management system, Blackboard, to host documents, discussion boards, blogs, and group projects. I also use the online gradebook. I have also been supervising Teaching Associates using the video conferencing app, Zoom, for which the campus has a license. Zoom is very easy to use.

My “Teaching Writing” seminar is small, so if I move it online I can use Zoom to hold synchronous class meetings. Combined with the tools on Blackboard, this should work fine.

My “Genre Fiction” class is probably too big for Zoom. For that course, I plan to use a combination of specialized discussion boards and podcasts. Our undergraduates do not always have internet access at home, so we have to be careful about bandwidth. That is one reason I want to avoid video lectures.

I record a lot of music, so I have good microphones and other equipment. However, I am new to podcasts. I tried an earlier one here on Stasis Theory.  I got some good feedback on that, but it wasn’t entirely successful. Today, as an experiment, I did a short podcast on a story for Genre Fiction, “The Barnum Museum” by Steven Millhauser.

I think my students will find this helpful. I have asked them for feedback.

I hope that we don’t have to close the campus. However, I think that the virus is beyond containment at this point and that we are in the mitigation phase. That means that we have to slow the spread so that our health care system is not overwhelmed. Closing the campus may in fact be helpful in that regard.

Writing Matrix Extension 2

In my seminar, we are reading James Berlin’s Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures: Refiguring College English Studies. I include this book as an example of a cultural studies writing pedagogy aimed at teaching students how to recognize and resist what Berlin calls “hegemonic discourses” expressed in “cultural codes.” This is sometimes called “critical thinking,” in that the goal is for students to see how the language in everything from advertisements to political discourse is designed to make them think and act in ways that support the dominant ideology of the culture. The idea is that if we can see how we are being manipulated, we can free ourselves and make our own decisions.

These days, we have to create a list of public outcomes for every course we teach. I sometimes joke with my students that one of the outcomes for a cultural studies course should be “Students will learn to resist hegemonic discourses.” Because the institutions that offer these courses are often trying to impose hegemonic discourses, or are at least complicit in maintaining the dominant ideology, I wonder if such an outcomes statement would be questioned.

I realized that my writing matrix did not include this concern among the skills and abilities I had listed, so I have made yet another revision. One could certainly argue that other writing skills are more important, but because many university writing courses are organized around a cultural studies pedagogy, I felt that it was important for “Critical Thinking/Ideological Insight” to appear in the matrix.

WritingCourseMatrix-color-extended-1a

This is getting a bit unwieldy, but I think it is still useful for thinking about the goals and content of a writing course.  Again, not every course will include all of these concerns. Previous posts on this matrix can be found here: What Writing Courses Do and Writing Matrix Extended.

Writing Matrix Extension

I used the nine-cell matrix in the previous post in conversations with colleagues and in my “Teaching Writing” seminar. After these discussions, I decided that the matrix needed some extensions, which I have represented here:

WritingCourseMatrix-color-extended

These extensions are closely related to the cells they are above or below. Writing in a home dialect such as Black English, Spanglish, or Hawaiian Creole is clearly related to self-expression and also to audience awareness. Composition instructors need to be aware of the ideological, ethical, and rhetorical implications of insisting that students always write in Standard English. I sometimes have my graduate students look at the websites of Jamaican newspapers, where the articles are written in a prestige Jamaican dialect that has similarities with British English but is not quite the same as either British or American English. However, when the Jamaican reporter interviews a witness to an event, the responses are written in Jamaican Creole.

In the adjacent cell to the right I have introduced the skill of storytelling. Narrative is often neglected in writing courses, but in our culture today, a good story is often more convincing than facts and arguments. I explore this further in the post, “A Narrative with a Point.”

Finally, the cell in the bottom right is a counterpart to the one above it. A good writer knows the conventions and knows how and when to break them, especially in creative writing. I explore this a bit in “The Alternate Style” and in “What Makes Punctuation So Confusing?

The matrix is not so neat and tidy anymore, but the apparent tidiness of the first version was misleading. This one is not designed to be definitive either. What I hope to do is inspire conversations about writing courses that will help teachers and outsiders see how complex they really are.

 

What Do Writing Courses Do?

When we design and teach writing courses (which of course are also reading courses) we often start by looking at the outcomes for the course or by creating our own list of outcomes. Then we start listing writing assignments, often based on texts we find interesting to teach. We imagine how long it will take to present the assignment, for students to write and revise the various sub-components and drafts, how long we need to grade it and return it, and we set a due date. We create a sequence of reading/writing units, probably of increasing difficulty and length. Ideally, each assignment with its various tasks and drafts addresses at least some of the listed outcomes. Realistically however, the connections to some of the outcomes may be tangential at best. In addition, some students started out weaker or stronger than others. They are unlikely to end up at the same place.

And what happens after your course ends? Do students go on to another course? Do they write in their disciplines? Have you prepared them to do that? What is it all for? Where are we going?

In order to think about this a little differently, I created the following chart:

WritingCourseMatrix-color-1

I intend this as a big picture map of what a writing program needs to do. The course you happen to be teaching might be focusing on a few of the cells in the chart more than others, but as you design your course, you should be aware of the big picture. These cells are not discrete items in a list. There are complex relationships between them.

Fluency

Fluency is based on a lack of fear. The fear is usually caused by the concern about “Standard Written Conventions” in the opposite corner of the chart. Students given an assignment will sometimes spend 30 minutes writing and rewriting the first sentence before they have even decided what to write about. No real writing can occur in the face of anxiety about making a grammatical error. We have to work on that.

Self-Expression

“Self-expression” is important to beginning writers. It is a powerful purpose. It shouldn’t be denied absolutely. It is a purpose to build on. How does a student grow beyond self-expression? “Intertextuality” is one direction. What do other people say? Can you quote them to support what you are saying too? “Inquiry” is another. Can you find out more? Do you still think the same thing after knowing more? Both of these types of activities help build audience awareness too.

Interdisciplinarity

“Interdisciplinarity” is the connection of the writing course to the rest of the academic world. The student in your class is not likely to be an English major. When they write in science or in engineering, will they have to unlearn some of your stylistic recommendations? Do you have to know how to write like an engineer in order to teach them? No, but you can help them ask questions and analyze documents to see how it is done. Also, rhetorical strategies such as thinking about audience, arguments, and evidence tend to be universal. It is stylistic preferences and organizational patterns that change.

Making Things Happen

“Making Things Happen” is really the true purpose of all writing, but it is more obviously true of academic and workplace writing. Students should be aware of the connections your course has to writing in other environments for other purposes. It makes your class more meaningful to them and they are more likely to be engaged.

And in fact, thinking about how your course fits into the big picture might help you become more engaged too!