152. Motherhood, Poetry, and Academia

Pursuing degrees and careers without role models can be challenging, no matter what the discipline. In this episode, Camille Dungy, an academic,  mother, and poet, shares her journey as a learner, teacher, and writer.

Camille is a professor in the English Department at Colorado State University, and the author of Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, a finalist for the National Book Critics Award. She is the author of four collections of poetry for which she has received many, many awards, including the Colorado Book Award, and the American Book Award. Her poems have been published in dozens of anthologies, many of which begin with the word “best” in the title. Camille is a recipient of a 2019  Guggenheim Fellowship, and many other awards and fellowships.

Show Notes

  • Camille Dungy
  • Dungy, C. T. (2017). Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History. WW Norton & Company.
  • Dungy, C. T. (2017). Trophic Cascade. Wesleyan University Press.
  • Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1816). Kubla Khan. (written in 1797)
  • Baldwin, J. (2013). The fire next time. Vintage.
  • Ta-Nehisi, C. (2015). Between the world and me. New York: Spiegel & Grau.
  • Joan Didion
  • Dungy, Camille (2020). This’ll hurt me more.
  • Macdonald, H. (2014). H is for Hawk. Random House.
  • Duke Lemur Center
  • Ruth Ellen Kocher
  • Cave Canem

Transcript

John: Pursuing degrees and careers without role models can be challenging, no matter what the discipline. In this episode, an academic, mother, and poet shares her journey as a learner, teacher, and writer.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare , a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

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MUSIC]

John: Our guest today is Camille Dungy. Camille is a professor in the English Department at Colorado State University, and the author of Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, a finalist for the National Book Critics Award. She is the author of four collections of poetry for which she has received many, many awards, including the Colorado Book Award, and the American Book Award. Her poems have been published in dozens of anthologies, many of which begin with the word “best” in the title. Camille is a recipient of a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship, and many other awards and fellowships. We’ve also worked together back at Duke when we were teaching in the TIP program for a number of years in North Carolina. Welcome, Camille.

Camille: And it’s great to be here. Hello.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Camille: It’s summertime, so I make this big concoction that I turned into an iced tea with all kinds of herbs and flowers and roots and things like that. It probably has way too many healing properties and so it goes over to being stimulating and exciting.

Rebecca: Sounds good. [LAUGHTER] It sounds exactly like what we need right now.

John: And you did talk in your book about enjoying tea rather than coffee. So, it was nice to see that as well.

Rebecca: Clearly a good reason to be a guest.

Camille: Absolutely. I am a firm believer in the power of tea.

Rebecca: How about you, John?

John: I am drinking Tea Forte Blackcurrant tea.

Rebecca: Ah, an old favorite, huh? [LAUGHTER]

John: Yes.

Rebecca: And I’m drinking Irish breakfast tea today.

John: So we’ve invited you here to talk about Guidebook to Relative Strangers and about some of the challenges we’re facing during these really challenging times. Could you tell us a little bit about your decision to transition into nonfiction for this work?

Camille: Absolutely. I’m not entirely sure that transition is the best word because I published a book of poetry within months of publishing Guidebook to Relative Strangers. So, branching might be a more accurate phrase for what it is that I was doing, or am doing when I’m writing prose; it’s just a branch of the writing process. But prose allows different kinds of depths of inquiry, it allows me to kind of stick with something for 20 pages in a way that I haven’t figured out how to do in a poem. And, in all honesty, when I was writing many of the essays in Guidebook to Relative Strangers, my daughter was very, very young, and I was trained in what I call the person from Porlock School, which is a kind of play on the Coleridge poem, Kubla Khan, where he goes into this deep reverie and he’s in this trance-like state and he writes this beautiful poem, and then the person from Porlock knocks on the door to sell him something, and it interferes with his reverie and he’s never able to return to that poem again. But, when you have a small child, you have a person from Porlock knocking on your door every five minutes, [LAUGHTER] and I needed to figure out a way I could keep writing, even through all of those interruptions and shifts and changes. And it turns out but for me writing prose, I can walk away in the middle of a word, come back some hours, days, even months later and pick up where I left off. And so it became a mode where I could stay and continue to write even as I was figuring out how to adjust my life around this new human.

John: I think Rebecca can relate to that very well right now.

Rebecca: Yeah, I was just thinking, yes, I have been transitioning and doing some other kinds of creative work currently, with the shifts and what have you of having a small child, for sure.

Camille: Absolutely.

John: Rebecca and I recently completed a faculty reading group this summer that included James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. These were both written to pass information from one generation to the next to help prepare for survival in a world characterized by systemic racism. Guidebook seems, in some ways, to be a similar message from you to your daughter. Did these authors perhaps influence work?

Camille: Baldwin is actually writing to his nephew. And that seems also important in this idea of the expanded view of who our children can be that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a child that was birthed from your loins, as it were. And in the case of influences, Baldwin always and absolutely fundamentally is one of the major writers in the English language, in my opinion. He’s just a fantastic writer. And so is always an influence and a guide and an ambition [LAUGHTER] to be able to write as saliently and sagely and attentively about person and culture and identity and community and self as Baldwin was able to write. Coates’ Between the World and Me came out well into my writing process. In fact, I think I was probably already at press by the time that that book came out. So, I’ve read it, but I don’t consider it to be an influence. You know, we’re roughly peers, I think Coates and I in terms of age and such. And so there are many similarities, I think in our perspective on what it means to be Black in America today. And having both claimed Baldwin, to different degrees and in different ways, that it becomes unsurprising thst there’s that kind of reflection. I would say that another influence of mine was, and this is more closely to having to do with being from California and being a mother would be Joan Didion. And there’s a lot of the work of Joan Didion, the way that she works as a journalist and a reporter and talks about history and enfolds history and historical commentary within a contemporary view of the world. And also the ways that she really juggled being a mother of one child, became also a model and a directive for me, as I was writing.

Rebecca: In the first chapter, you observe that Americans don’t care much about the things that concern people who aren’t like them. And when you belong, you can overlook the totality of otherness, the way that being other pervades every aspect of a person’s life. As someone who is white and had often avoided conversations of race and in trying to actively engage in them, I think you’re really capturing something that a lot of white folks experience by using words like colorblind…

Camille: um hmm

Rebecca: …and put out into the world. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Camille: Well, I mean, I can talk about it from my perspective, I actually don’t fully understand the need for that level of erasure. But, one version of it has to do with white supremacy, which we do understand. It’s this kind of power drive to dominate and eliminate the importance of others. But, I don’t think that that’s the drive that you’re talking about, and that antagonistic view of what white supremacy means. I think what you’re talking about has more to do with ease and creating a sort of placid world where everything seems simple and direct and understandable and never uncomfortable, and the moment you begin to engage identity in a way that brings in history and oppression and marginalization and isolation and any of those things, the dinner party gets uncomfortable, [LAUGHTER] and the conversation gets uncomfortable. And that is frustrating to people who are trying to make a sort of placid world. And it’s easier then to just pretend as if everybody is the same, and there’s no differences, and there’s no frustrations and there’s no systemic roots of violence and a separation and suppression…. which is easier for some people, obviously, than others [LAUGHTER] to believe and to carry on that charade. And so I feel like when I’m navigating, I’m very, very frequently navigating primarily white environments. I’m always sort of threading that needle of people wanting to be comfortable and have everything be nice and easy, and I’m sort of raising my hand and saying, “Hey, here I am in the room with all these realities that may or may not frustrate your attempts at that kind of simplicity.”

John: Could some of that be because the beneficiaries of privilege might find it easier not to contemplate that and to just wipe that whole issue aside?

Camille: Absolutely. It’s a lot simpler to wipe that whole issue aside. It’s a lot simpler not to interrogate your own complicity in institutions of systemic oppression. It’s a lot easier to see yourself as the nice person who’s having this dinner party and is inviting all these people into your home, then to understand the history of redlining that meant that you and many generations of your family were able to have homes in this neighborhood, whereas mine was only able legally to start living there in the 1970s. So, those kinds of conversations get really, really quickly uncomfortable for people, and so it seems easier to not have them. I don’t believe in that ease. I don’t believe that that ease is productive in any way towards moving us forward. But, I do think that right now, what we’re seeing in this country is that tension between the ambitions and dreams of our founding fathers and the omissions of who were included in those dreams, and what it means that those dreams were really always only written for a very small margin of people. And we’ve been pushing and pushing through the centuries to create a more inclusive reality. And as we do that, we really have to look at the history and understand what it is. And so a lot of my writing does that. I’m writing about the now. I’m writing about my own life and my own family and my own experience, and I cannot do that without then circling back to the historical precedents that got us here.

John: You describe a story that your maternal grandmother told you about why your great grandfather left Shreveport. Could you tell our listeners a little bit about that to help put this in perspective?

Camille: This story is really interesting, and as I told it in the essay, it’s a little bit confusing because, I don’t know where my grandmother was in this story. At best, she was an infant, my great-grandmother might well have been pregnant with her at the time. She tells the story as if she was there, but it’s difficult to understand, with the dates as we understand them, how that knowledge would have been there. And so this becomes one of these examples, like it’s impossible for my family to retell this story without really kind of being bodily involved in it, even though it may have happened before those people who I am familiar with were ever actually alive. The story is that my great-grandfather had a thriving metalworking business, and it was so thriving as to become a threat to the white people in the community. And so, one day he arrived in his shop and found the body of a cousin who was working with him, laid out dead on the table with a note attached, telling my great-grandfather that he had to be out of town before the sun set. And so he had to get together his entire family… If my grandmother was an infant at that time, that would have been about six children, and get all of them out of that home and into a new place, in a new state, quite literally. And so that kind of threat against a man who had a thriving business and was doing really well and therefore became a problem to the established order of things, that the threat was leveled by way of a murder, right? And the threat of more murder and more damage… that danger and challenge also [LAUGHTER] lives on in my family through that story and lore. And I know it’s part of the way that my grandmother lived her life and the way that she raised my mother and the way my mother raised me. So, that was over a century ago now, and it still lives quite as in the present in my family.

Rebecca: Earlier, I was reading one of your more recently published poems, “This’ll hurt me more,” and I was thinking about how, as you were describing the nonfiction or prose version, connecting your present with the past comes up a lot in your poetry as well. Can you talk a little bit about the use of the “switch” in that poem, and how that connects to the past and present?

Camille: In that poem, it really began with me looking out my window here in Colorado and seeing this kind of lilac bush and thinking, “Oh, that looks like the kind of thing my grandmother would have told me to go out and get a switch, if she was going to spank me.” I should say here, I actually don’t ever remember my grandmother spanking me, I just remember her threatening to spank me, and that was enough… [LAUGHTER] … like sufficient. But I was always fascinated with that word “switch” and where it came from. And it was years and years before I could ask my grandmother where, and she had no answer really, it was just that it was the word that she was raised to use for some sort of thin device that you would use to spank an unruly child. And then the poem goes into a number of situations in my own life, where people are actually punished or threatened with punishment or actually die and the danger that exists in living as a black person in America, and so it all, as much of my writing does, it braids and builds and folds and there’s multiple different stories that come into one space to come to a final cohesive statement.

John: One of the things you talk about quite a bit in your work is issues of identity. In your book, you talk a little bit about the very many names you assigned your daughter when she was young, in different circumstances, while recognizing that eventually she has to choose her own identity in our teaching, should we focus a little bit more on issues of identity? A group of faculty at the college participated in a MOOC on creating inclusive classroom environments, and one of the things that was emphasized there is having students explore their identities. Could that be an effective teaching strategy?

Camille: I use it, [LAUGHTER] always in my writing, and I try to be really pretty open about how I introduce that. So, for instance, in introductions, I will quite often ask for information about what name do want us to call you? Where are you from? And that may not mean your postal address. It may be like where’s your heart from? I now have been pretty stable for this portion of my life, but when I was in graduate school and I never really felt like I was from where my mail went. And so I always want to actually hear where my students really call home. And that seems to be an important part of identity, to understand that. And another one, we often say, you know, what’s your pronoun? And there’s very direct reasons for that question. But I feel like that question also may put people who have alternative pronouns in a unnecessary spotlight, right? When there’s one person in the room who goes by an alternative pronoun, then they become the different one. And so I offer that as a possibility, and I also say that one of the reasons that we ask for your pronouns is that we don’t want to misidentify you, right? We don’t want to misgender you or call you something that you don’t respond to. And so if there are other things that we may not be able to see about you, but are important to who you are that you don’t want to be misidentified in this way, please feel free to bring that into the space here now as well. And in that space here in Colorado, for instance, we have a lot of people of Native American descent who don’t read that way visually, but it’s an important part of their identity. And that’s a space where that can come out. And what other ways that people with invisible disabilities or who are differently abled in some kinds of ways, that’s an opportunity for them to bring that forward. Like, sometimes I may be recording things, or sometimes I may be doing something that looks kind of off to the norm. And this is my time to just tell you that this is going to happen, so it doesn’t have to be a big deal. It just becomes a space where in the very beginning of class, we can just say who we are, and say how we want to be seen and how we want to be known. And in my creative writing classes, it’s become really freeing. I’ve had a number of students who then, for the rest of the semester, are able to write into that space without a whole bunch of questions and workshop about who is this and why is this because that’s already come forward. So, yeah, I just think it allows for those kinds of questions, and those kinds of openings and opportunities… allow for community to be built, in which we actually understand people for who they believe themselves to be. That seems important.

Rebecca: I think It’s interesting that you’re bringing that up in the context of creative writing and how it can be freeing. Do you find that when people are trying to hide their identity, for whatever reason, it prevents creativity or prevents them from having a voice in the way that maybe they want to?

Camille: I don’t know. I mean, so many things prevent creativity. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Indeed.

Camille: …I think just innumerable things. And so in some senses, yes, that can be something. If you were really ignoring something at the core of you, something that’s troubling you or guiding you in some way and you can’t acknowledge it and see you, it may make honest writing harder. It may make honest revision harder as well, because people might see things and you resist that. On the other hand, you know, H is for Hawk, right, which is partially about Helen MacDonald’s own story of grieving but it’s also partly about E.B. White’s, like lifelong closeted self and the ways in which that lifelong, tortured ,closeted self also helped write some of the great books of the 20th century, because he was grappling with staying closeted in those ways, and it came out in fantastic characters. So yes, in some ways, I think, for me, it is important to be open and honest and searingly truthful, but I don’t think that, necessarily, it would be on the whole right to say that you could never write good [LAUGHTER] writing if you’re not honest in that way. For me, the reason that that’s important is… I just don’t think many of us have very much time. I think we’re all just incredibly busy all the time. Now, during the time of COVID, our busyness manifests differently, but we’re still busy. And, now there just seems to be so much more laundry. I don’t understand how there’s more laundry. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I agree. It’s like, skyrocketed, right?

Camille: It just makes no sense. So, these kinds of things… and I just feel like if you’re going to give me the time to sit down with something that I’ve written and spend 10 minutes, 30 minutes, 12 hours, reading one of my books, you should be actually reading truth, right? You should be reading an honest representation of life as I see it, and know it, and understand it. And so it’s a way of my honoring your time and your care with my time, with my book, that brings me to write with sometimes frighteningly radical honesty about my own life.

Rebecca: Thinking about time moving into fall classes and things, how are you thinking about time, and helping students think about time?

Camille: I’m trying to think about how to teach in… and we’re supposed to go back, but I just don’t believe it to be true. [LAUGHTER] I don’t think it’s really going to happen. And I don’t think it should. And so I’m trying to think about my classes in a really hybrid form that allows them to write out of their own worlds and the class to be happening kind of asynchronously for some portions of it, not all on Zoom, some audio elements, so that they can hear my lectures while they’re doing their laundry, [LAUGHTER] or out taking walks or doing these kinds of things. And some of those audio lectures would have, like pauses, where they would be given writing assignments right in the middle of their lives. I think this summer, I’ve taught a couple of online courses, the community of writers, which is a week-long course with the students and faculty have to write a poem a day, every day, and one of the things that I thought was really great about it in the virtual form (they called it the Virtual Valley this year) was that the students then had to make a space in their own homes, to create this habit, and to create this practice in the place where they live. Normally you go to California, you’re in the valley, you do this thing, and then you come home, having been somewhat transformed by this experience, but how do you translate that back into your normal life? Now, they’re in their homes, they’re in their lives, they’re telling their family, this is my hours, where this is my task to do, and, hopefully, that continues into the rest of their days, right? …that they built this sacred space. And so, that’s my hope, is that I can help my students in this more hybrid form to be able to do what I’ve always been trying to teach them to do, to build a practice. John knows me way back when I used to teach at TIP. There were these things that I would do, and our old director just thought I was a hoot, because I would have to get permission to take the kids to the Lemur Center or to take them to… Remember…, what was that place called? The Rainbow Co-Op. or something. There was that weird, like Co-Op that was off campus, and some of these kids had never been to a grocery store that wasn’t a Safeway or a Kroger [LAUGHTER] or something like the giant box store. And this was like, they had like little mini bananas that were green, or red. And they had all kinds of like the bulk bin, and I would have these kids walking up and down the aisles looking at food that was packaged really differently than what most of them had ever experienced. And that was the exercise. I didn’t really care. The poems were bad because they just had this experience. It was like not about how good your grocery store poem was, it was about how good their powers of observation became, when they were moved into a slightly different environment. And so that, to me, is always the key, right? …that’s at the base of Guidebook to Relative Strangers is all of a sudden, I’m traveling all over the country, I’m in these different environments with a new sidekick, right? [LAUGHTER] I’m traveling with my daughter, which meant that I all of a sudden have really different interactions with people than I’d have before. And as a writer, my job became chronicling that and figuring out why this felt different and what got revealed because that little schism was created that had enough difference that I was forced to look… and that, to me, as we move into the fall, and I honestly think, I’m a Doomsayer, but I honestly think the spring of 2021 also, we’re gonna have to help our students, and our colleagues, and our administrations, learn how to just accept this reality as a reality rather than trying to swivel back to what it was before. What is our new reality? What do we see? What are the advantages? and how can we build on those?

John: I think we very much agree with that. [LAUGHTER] We didn’t have any say in how instruction was being organized here, but I’m really worried about it, not just because of the health risks, but also because of the pedagogy involved.

Camille: Um hm.

John: … that teaching a group of people who are wearing masks and who are far enough apart so they can’t comfortably talk to each other, is going to be a very different, and I don’t think, a very productive environment. But, we try to support people as best we can. It’s going to be a challenge, in any case.

Camille: Absolutely.

John: One place in the book, you note that in 2013, you were one of only 12 African American female professors in your field. And that’s not uncommon in many disciplines. It’s certainly true in economics as well. What are the costs of the lack of diversity in higher ed?

Camille: Yeah. So now, I’ve kept a running tally with the women, Ruth Ellen Kocher, who was the poet with whom I started this tally and started thinking about this. Now we’re up to about 22. So, that’s actually a radical increase. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well, as a percentage it is.

Camille: But it’s still a very small number. So, my husband just turned in his tenure materials, and in the process of doing so he discovered that they were 16. I’m pausing because I don’t remember what it is 14 or 16. And the reason is, for my study, it was one of those numbers and his study is the other number, right? And so not that much different for 1100 faculty members to have 14 or 16, Black tenure line faculty, and that’s male and female, and I think one transgender person in that number. So, that’s not very much. The cost of that is, at a school with 1100 faculty members, it’s very, very likely that students will never have an African-American professor, that they’ll just go through their whole education system without ever having one. I thought about when it was that I’d ever had contact with a black faculty member in my field. I had one female professor in college and one male professor who told me that I shouldn’t try and become a creative writer, because… I guess he was trying to protect me… but because it was so competitive and difficult to feel that I shouldn’t bother, and I should do something else. So, in terms of supportive faculty members, that means something, right? …to not have ever had somebody who looked like me, for whatever complicated reasons we might say, had experiences like me, who was on my side. In other ways, those three faculty members that I can think of, which is a lot… if you ask people in my age how many, to say I had three at all… they were all literature people, they weren’t Creative Writing people. But, they weren’t actually particularly similar to me. They had really, really different upbringings. They were regionally very different. They were obviously aesthetically different, because they were in literature and not creative writing. So, I actually never really had the kind of mentor that other people very frequently have, moving along the way. I had mentors, I had support. You don’t get to the position where I am in the world without having mentors and support, but I didn’t have black faculty mentors and support until I was already in a tenure-line position. I was going to become a professor. I’m a fourth-generation college professor, it was going to happen. The likelihood of this being the path that I took… my sister’s a professor, the woman I chose as my daughter’s godmother is a professor, like this is in my blood. This is who I’m going to be. But what about the people for whom that is not the case? The first-generation college students, they have no idea what this could look like. If you can’t visualize yourself in those positions. If you don’t have people who you feel that you can trust that you can go to for advice. If you have people who have unconscious or very conscious biases against African Americans and their intelligence skills and their organizational skills and their sense of comportment, or any of those, and those biases get passed down to how they treat you in the classroom. All of those things become deterrents for people’s ability to thrive in this chosen field. And I think the more that we can eliminate those kinds of obstacles by increasing the kinds of people we see who may look like a person who we believe we may become in the future, the more radically inclusive our democracy can become. I just think that that’s important. I just think that our ability to become the best of who we can possibly be is, in many ways, influenced by what we see around us as possibilities. That was a long answer,

John: …but a very good one. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah. It’s an important one.

Camille: It’s a complicated question, right? It’s a really complicated question. Obviously, it’s not something that’s going to be able to happen overnight, based on the fact that the doubling of the number of black women poets in the country, it’s a doubling of that number, but it’s still only about 22. But I also think that there’s lots of small ways where this happens. And so it happens in who’s at the front of the classroom. It happens based on who’s on editorial boards for magazines, journals, book publication houses, because that decides what materials that come forward for publication appear to be relevant, necessary, interesting, right? It happens on what kinds of people are agents in the representation houses. It happens in terms of what kinds of summer opportunities people have? I know that Cave Canem, which is a home for black poets, which was founded in 1996 and has a summer workshop fellowship and also has a lot of regional workshops that they do all kinds of programming, like the kinds of programming that have come out of Cavey Canem over the last… what is that now?… we’re at 25 years… is incredible. But that was the first time that I encountered black poets at the head of the classroom. I was already a tenure-track professor. And that was the first time that I had black teachers teaching me poetry. And it changed the kinds of conversations that we had to have in the classroom, right? There were certain kinds of cultural cues that were just… we didn’t have to… let’s pretend we’re translating from another language, Like we didn’t have to italicize those Spanish words. [LAUGHTER] Because they were just moving in and out from Spanish and English is just like what huge parts of the culturism in America do. And so I italicize the Spanish words, this is a very strange kind of colonial idea of those are different than us. And many writers who work between Spanish and English have been really pushing against that marginalization of the Spanish language through italicization. So those kinds of things change our writing, and we get more teachers, we get more people publishing, we get more people writing and talking about that. I think our literature flourishes. And when our literature flourishes, our imaginations flourish. And when our imaginations flourish, our culture can thrive.

Rebecca: Yes. [LAUGHTER] …exclamation point. 32.02

John: You mentioned that there was expectations that you’d go to college. And I think also in your book, you noted that this goes back a few generations in your family, at least your grandmother’s generation, where I think you’ve said that all the siblings went to college and your grandmother’s cohort, all 12

Camille: of those children who were born between roughly 1900 and 1930. All 12 of them went to college. That’s incredible. It is.

John: When I read that, I was thinking one of my grandfathers only had a sixth-grade education, and that was not that uncommon at the time. So that gave your family quite a bit of an edge that many of our first generation students, as you noted, don’t have today. It is something we need to address. One of the things you mentioned in your book is that you would diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. And I didn’t know that until I read this. So how are you doing with it now?

Camille: Many of my friends and acquaintances only five bucks, I’ll get these texts like I didn’t know I’m on page thought of that. I didn’t know that sorry. Okay, which actually circles back to that radical honesty, conversation. It’s not something I talk about. It’s not like I don’t lead in conversation with it. It’s not really part of my outward spoken identity. And yet, I didn’t feel like I could talk about the vulnerability of my body without talking about that aspect of it, and of my experience, and a lot of these essays would have been written around the time of the big Obamacare debates and in many ways, the reason that I am fine and nobody has to know this about me is that I have excellent health care because I have really good insurance through my employer. Ask stay employed because I can’t run the risk of not having medical insurance, as so many people in this country are in jeopardy because of their state of employment or not employment or the ways that their employers set up medical care. We put people’s bodies at risks, their lives at risk, their ability to live productive, non sick lives. So that was, I don’t write that directly into that essay, it’s body of evidence that there was that conversation was going on around. And so in that sense, there are a number of things about who I am in this country, being a woman of childbearing age raises my mortality risks significantly in this country above most other developed countries and being a black person obviously raises my mortality risk in this country exponentially. And then having this chronic condition means that at any moment, and you know, any morning I could wake up and everything could look different, which is the case for everybody but it But right there in my brain and in my nervous system in a way that it’s not the case for other people. And so I just felt like to write about that sense of kind of perpetual background Jeopardy that I live with. I had to include that other piece. But the long or the short answer to that is I am doing great. I’ve got a really fantastic medical team and really great treatment. And I’ve mostly don’t even notice that that is an issue.

Rebecca: Maybe one of the last things that we can add a little bit about is maintaining the career while raising a child. I don’t know it’s a particular interest to me. How old is your child, Rebecca? She’s three.

Camille: Oh, my goodness, those are good years, but wowza.

Rebecca: You’ve noted that several women writers lose essentially out on an entire book because of family. Can you talk a little bit about your experience being a mother and an academic and a writer, and then also maybe how that is playing out differently for folks during the pandemic. Well,

Camille: right, I mean, I do definitely feel like the pandemic has brought forward a lot of buried realities in this culture. And so nothing new has manifested because of the pandemic, but because of the stresses on our culture due to the economy issues. And due to the kind of peril that the virus causes. We’re seeing so many things. And for the most part, we’re seeing child caregivers who are very frequently women bearing the brunt of this situation, and not a particularly active interest in figuring out ways to accommodate this fact. Right. So plenty of people are like, well, we’ll just send the kids back to school and that’s gonna be their childcare. I’m like, Well, I don’t know. But every single one of my daughter’s teachers has children. So now, they’ve got this complicated question of like, how do they take care of their own children? Wow. Taking care of my child, my friends in France are getting paid to stay home and watch their children by the government. That’s the way that that is happening and many other first world nations, but not here. This is not your question. My answer part of it is like, there’s really no way to talk about a lot of these things without going in a lot of different directions. And so I feel sometimes my essays are really leggy, and that they’re braided essays. And they follow several different narrative threads at one time, and I hope that they tie together, but they just definitely go in a lot of directions. And that’s part of why essays could work because I can really dive in and talk about those things at great length in a way that I have not found myself to be able to do in poetry to that degree, but part of it is because I just don’t think that any of these questions have easy answers. Did they have any answers? We’d answer them already. We’d have dealt with it right? But they don’t And so we need to look at them in lots of ways. I think to be artists at a mother is an incredibly difficult thing, or a working person and a mother is an incredibly difficult thing. And I don’t think our country was designed to support that. Now I’m going to circle back to history again and say, you know, like, our country was essentially designed on slavery, and servants, right? It was built on the idea that other people would be helping the wealthy and the powerful to do all their daily things that they would be nannies in the house, that they would be House Cleaners that they would be cooks and maids, and etc. And as we mechanized and created vacuum cleaners and washing machines and other sorts of devices that would take the roles of those poor white or black or Latin x workers, then who took that over, it was the middle class women, right that they were then be put In the vacuum cleaners, they would be running the washing machine, it was like never really a system built in to figure out how the labor gets done. And the work outside the home gets done. And we just never evolved. And we’re seeing that now. And so those of us who are working parents, particularly working mothers, and then if you add to me, like, I’m an artist, I’m a professor and writer, that’s really two jobs. It’s hard to have two jobs and raise a child, I have a really great partner. And so I have the faith in the fact that my kid is not going feral in the process, and I don’t have the kind of partner who kind of tabulates like, I’ve watched the kid for eight hours. Now it’s your turn for 12. And so that really helps me that I have that. And I also have figured out just I write her in to the work, what I’m living in now is a world where I’m observing my child a lot and so those observations end up in The work rather than trying to separate those two things, but get included. And I think my other piece of advice for working parents who are sort of trying to do another thing, like being an artist is to just people talk a lot about stealing time. But I would call it more like making time just finding those little pockets of time that can accrue to become something pole. So there’s a essay at the very end of the book called differentiation, which only was able to be written because I was completely overwhelmed by I think she was three and a half or four years old at the time, and that was an incredibly time consuming era. She loves books, but she couldn’t read yet. So who was reading those books all the time, right? She loved art, but like you couldn’t leave her alone with watercolor. So you know, it’s just like full, complete involvement as a parent, so I just wrote for 20 minutes a day. That’s it. 20 minutes a day I recorded Everything that I could. And eventually that 20 minutes a day became the feed work for what was the essay, I wouldn’t have been able to write that essay without all the detailed notes that I had been taking in the 20 minutes. So those 20 minute exercises were not the essay, but the essay could not have happened without those. And so that’s the permission that I like to give to working parents is you don’t have to write for eight hours a day, like that model probably just isn’t going to work and you’re going to be frustrated trying to find it, what’s the minimum amount of time, what’s the minimum maximum that you can create for yourself, and for me, it was 20 minutes. For some people, it may be as small as five, but that just brief period to just record all you can to be that person you want to be with the knowledge that you’re preparing the soil for the time when you have time again.

John: You mentioned earlier the issue of the fragility of the body, especially black bodies. One of the things you describe in your book is the experience of being pulled over by the police in Minnesota. And you place this in the context of things happening, man, which sound remarkably like things happening now with Trayvon Martin at the time, Jason Harrison, Eric Gardner and camera rice. So could you tell us a little bit about that, and perhaps what types of things we might want to do in our classes to provide support for students when these things happen?

Camille: Ah, right, the experience of being pulled over in Minnesota, so close to where later that falando casteel death happened in the same general area after our pullover and now we have the George Floyd story. And then I also speak in the same essay about a lynching that happened in the town we visited in Duluth, Minnesota, earlier in the 20th century. And I think one of the things that’s important to me When I think about all these just ongoing brutality against black people in this country is that ongoing nature is that for some Americans when this new name or this new incident crosses the headlines, it feels like, Oh, this is today, there’s just horror that has happened just yesterday or just last month. And for many of us, we’re like, oh, again, another, right, and the names pile and the incidence pile and the terror which is what the point of it is, the terror piles up and the fear of moving around freely and a lack of belief that we can move around safely. It comes from years of systemic violence and being passed off as individual incidents. And so to me part of the importance of writing about these things in such a connected manner is to talk about the ways that these seemingly individual incidents are part of a culture fabric that needs to be reworked entirely. And part of what happens for me, I think being a writer is a way of being a teacher is that when you write these histories, you write these ways of digesting and understanding and coping with these histories. And you provide tools for your readers slash students and to be able to address them as well. But part of it again comes from honesty and openness, both on my part as the author to write the stories as accurately and in as much detail as I can and has to do with the readers to be able to absorb and be willing to really, truly acknowledge circling back to the conversation that we had earlier about discomfort to be able to sit with the discomfort and then not just push it away, but to work to try and make fundamental change. And so as teachers, one of the things that we need to do really listen to our students, when they express the kind of discomfort that you’re talking about john, I’m really understand how the institutions with which we’re affiliated are either repeating these kinds of traumas, either by ignoring or pushing them aside or trying to diminish them or just not addressing them for the students. And by truly listening into by truly trying to make systemic change within the institutions with which we have any power connection, which may just be our by your own classroom, it may just be that classroom that we’re in that we can create a space of true comfort and true seeing for people. And it’s not easy. As I said, that space for black poets that I described 20 years ago. It’s 25 years of work and effort and community engagement and growing new poets and growing new teachers and new professors that that new boom of young black poetry professors have come through that organization and have built and developed some kinds of communities. And so how can we be part of building communities, organizations, structures, classrooms spaces that create this kind of support that mean that those who have died before us don’t die in vain, but really become part of true change? So I’m heartened Yes. I’m heartened by the summer and the summers kind of large outcry towards social justice. I’m also aware of the fact that I have seen searches like this over and over and over in my own lifetime. And so I want to make sure that the momentum lasts and that the energy and the outrage remains not just for those of us who are at direct risk, but for all of us because I think all of us are at direct risk, whether it’s your body on the line, or not.

Rebecca: Definitely powerful things to be thinking about really finding ways to support students and our communities that we live in, and the communities we don’t live in.

Camille: Mm hmm. you volunteered to do a reading for us.

Rebecca: Alan heard or got volunteered.

John: I think it was

Camille: recently, the perfect word for that, which is to be voluntold.

Camille: We do a lot of that.

Camille: Yes, I will be happy to read I’m gonna read a poem from Trophic Cascade, which is the collection of poems that came out within months of Guidebook to Relative Strangers. And some of these poems were written in the same mindset or the same kind of sensibility that the FAA developed. And so this poem that I’m going to read, came out of a trip, as many of the essays and guidebook to relish show strangers come from trips. This came from a trip into the San Francisco Bay. I was living in Northern California at the time and I went into the San Francisco Bay, there’s an island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, the prison An island most people are familiar with is called Alcatraz. I probably don’t need to tell you anything about Alcatraz. Except for that, you know, it was really difficult to escape from Alcatraz, there’s another island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, which is called Angel Island. And it was the closest relative in our time would be the immigrant detention centers of the day. People say that it was very similar to Ellis Island because it was this immigration stop off point. But you only ended up on Angel Island if there was an issue with your papers. And so in some senses, it was much more like a prison or detention center where you’re held for untold amount of time until you were either sent back where you came from, or allowed to go into San Francisco. So this poem is kind of doing the same thing that I’ve been talking all along about bringing in history and also my contemporary situation. And the other thing that we didn’t talk about very much and guidebook to relative strangers is my I sort of obsessive interest in ecological environmental questions. And so that also is coming into play in this poll. What I know I cannot say we sail to Angel Island, and for several hours I did not think of you. When I couldn’t stop myself Finally, from thinking of you, it was not really you, but the trees, not really the trees, but they’re strange pods blooming for a while longer. A bloom more like the fringe fan at the tip of a peacocks tail than anything I’d call a flower. And so I was thinking about flowers, and what we value in a flower more than I was thinking of the island or its trees and much more than I was thinking up you. recursive language ties us together. linguists say I am heading down this road. I am heading down this road despite the caution signs and the narrow shoulders I am heading down the curvy road despite the caution signs. And then narrow shoulders because someone I fell in love with wants to live around here, right there. That is an example of recursive language, every language. Nearly every language in the world demands recursion. Do things bring us together more than our need to spell out our intentions, which helps explain the early 20th century Chinese prisoners who scratch poems into walls on Angel Island. And why a Polish detainee wrote his mother’s name in 1922. I was here, they wanted to tell us and by here, I meant the island and they also meant the world and by the island, they meant the world they knew. And they also meant the world they laughed, and the world they wanted to believe could be there as the world they knew required passwords. Think of Angel Island immigration station is purgatory, the guide explained he told tales of paper files Others picture Brides, the fabrications of familiarity, so many lives depended on inquiries demanded consistency. Despite the complications of interpretation, an English one would ask how many windows were in your house in the village? How many ducks did you keep? What was the shape of the birthmark on your father’s left cheek? and Japanese and Cantonese, Danish, Punjabi, the other answered, then it all had to come back to English. The ocean is wide and treacherous between one home and the other is there can be no turning back. No correction once what is said is sad. Who can blame the Chinese detainees who car pawns deep into the woods on Angel islands walls? Who can blame the Salvadoran who etched his villages name? A few things tie us together more than our need to dig up the right words to justify ourselves. Travelers and students we sailed into the bay disembarked on Angel Island. I didn’t think about you, which is to say the blue gum Eucalyptus is considered a threat, though we brought it across oceans to help us desired first for its timber because it grows quickly and was expected to provide a practical fortune. And when it did not enlisted as a windbreak desired still because it is fast growing and practical. The blue gum has colonized the California Coastal forests, squeezing out native plants dominating the landscape and increasing the danger of fire. I should hate the blue gum Eucalyptus, but from the well of their longing, by which I mean to say from their paws. You know what I mean? I hope their original home from the well of their longing blooms explode like fireworks. I love them for this. Do you hear me? I absolve you You are far too beautiful and singular to blame.

Camille: I have a thought that there was another poem that might be a better tie in to everything that we said and it’s much shorter. Can I read that and then you guys can decide which one you want to use, we decided to use both. Here is the next poem. This is a poem from my collection trophic cascade, which as I said, I was writing along the same time that I was writing guidebook to relative strangers. The incident that I described in this poem happens on my daughter’s second airplane flight. The first airplane flight she ever took, we went home to meet her namesake great grandmother. And the second airplane trip she ever took was work trip with me. She was four months old, and I went to Washington DC to do some work with the National Endowment for the Arts. So you can picture this child as a very, very young child in this poem, frequently asked Question number seven. Is it difficult to get away from it all? Once you have had a child I am swaying in the galley working to appease this infant who is not fussing, but will be fussing if I don’t move. When a black steward enters the cramped space at the back of the plane, he stands by the food carts prepping his service. Then he is holding his throat, the way we hold our throats when we think we are going to die. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. He is crying. Oh, my God, what they did to us. I am swaying less my brown baby girl make a nuisance of herself. And the steward is crying, honest man tears seeing you holding your daughter like that. For the first time, I understand what they did to us, all those women sold away from their babies. he whispers. I am at a loss now, perhaps I could fabricate an image to represent this agony. But the steward has walked into the galley of history. There is nothing figurative about us.

Rebecca: so vivid, so powerful.

John: I was just going to use exactly those words so powerful,

Rebecca: and really appreciate the level of detail be in that moment.

Camille: And I think for me, it was one of those first experiences like really vivid experiences of Wow, I’m having an entirely different interaction with this person that I would have had before I had this baby in my arms and that interaction is absolutely about the present moment. And it’s just Deeply inflected by the past and a path that neither of us ever physically lived through, but which we are historically always reliving. And so the concerns in that poll essentially became the lens through which I wrote all the essays in the collection,

Rebecca: I always find it really interesting how having a child opens up conversations that maybe one wouldn’t have had otherwise, it would have been unspoken, otherwise. Mm hmm.

Camille: All kinds of conversations and with people you wouldn’t converse with. I like to tell a joke that when she was little, and she traveled with me, and we traveled a lot, and then the kid by the time she was three and a half had already accrued her own frequent flyer, award ticket, but often on flights, like Southwest are the kind of place where you could choose your seat, I will very frequently have an empty seat next to me and it’s just unconscious bias, and people just leave the seat next to the black person open, which honestly is sort of fine in those kinds of instances, right? It’s like one of the very few times where that works out. Okay, but it never worked out with the kid. And I was always like, I’ll get that MTC. And then I can put the baby in the MTC and then I wouldn’t because the unlikeliest of people would come and take that seat because they wanted to sit by a baby. And then they can’t talk to the baby, they can only talk to the baby’s keeper, right? And so like, we would end up having these conversations that I would never have had, because they would have never put themselves next to me. And it was a beautiful thing. And it seemed to be worth recording and thinking about both what had divided us and also what bridged us.

Rebecca: I think that segues kind of nicely into the way that we always wrap up our broadcast, which is asking, what’s next so many bridges to the past? And

Camille: what are the bridges to the future? I know, I think I’m doing the same thing. I’m writing poems and essays and I can toggle back and forth and it just depends on how much time I have and what my mood is and what my level of obsession is. I’m really thinking I’ve lived in Colorado for seven years now. Which is longer than I’ve lived in one home for a very long time. And so I’m finding myself really rooting down. I can’t travel right now because of COVID. And I’m so I’m looking out my window and walking around my land and thinking about where I live in deeper, more complex ways. And I’ve had the ability to do and it’s been pretty interesting on the page to see what new discoveries I’m able to make. And a lot of them are just new discoveries. I’m making, like other people know these things. And I’m just coming into their knowledge. And so that’s always fun. Well, thanks

Rebecca: for such a wonderful conversation and being so generous with your time.

Camille: Thank you.

John: Thank you. It’s great to talk to you again. It’s been far too long has

Camille: been john, it’s really good to see you and talk to you and Rebecca, thank you for your part in this conversation.

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John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

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94. Open Reflection

Students can provide useful feedback on instructional practices and class design when they are asked, In this episode, three students from John’s spring economics capstone class join us to provide their reflections on the class’s experiment in developing an open pedagogy project. Our guests in today’s episode are Maria Aldrich, Victoria Heist and Charlie Tararzona.

Show Notes

Transcript

Rebecca: Students can provide useful feedback on instructional practices and class design when they are asked. In this episode, students join us to provide an open reflection on one class’s experiment in developing an open pedagogy project.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

John: Our guests today are Maria Aldrich, Victoria Heist and Charlie Tarazona, three students who participated in the creation of an open pedagogy project in one of my economics classes this spring semester. Welcome.

Victoria: Thanks for having us.

Maria: Thank you.

Charlie: Yep, excited to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

John: None of you are drinking tea, are you?

Maria: No.

Victoria: No tea.

Charlie: No tea today.

Rebecca: How regretful. [LAUGHTER]

John: It happens with many of our guests. I’m having ginger peach black tea.

Rebecca: And I’m drinking Lady Grey. The issue is our tea selection is no longer close to our recording studio. It’s a problem. It’s an epidemic now with our tea choices.

John: …now that we’re recording in this little closet in a building next door, where at least we don’t have toilets flushing every 30 seconds or so that we have to edit out.

Rebecca: So John, can you start first by explaining what open pedagogy is, to kind of frame our discussion?

John: Going back a step further. Last year, I saw a presentation by Robin DeRosa who presented on this at the SUNY Conference on Instruction and Technology and she made a really compelling case for some of the advantages that open pedagogy projects have. And open pedagogy just involves having students create content that is open and shared publicly with the world.

Rebecca: So what class did you do an open pedagogy project in?

John: This class is a capstone course in the economics department here. It’s taken mostly by seniors and a few juniors. And it’s a seminar course in economic theory and policy. It’s one of our smaller classes. And we had only 27 students in this capstone, this semester.

Rebecca: So why this class?

John: Because the students were ready for it. The course builds on all the courses that they’ve had up to this point and it allows them to pull together material they’ve learned in all of their prior courses, as well as the cognate classes in statistics and math and so on.

Rebecca: So what kind of project exactly did you propose to these students?

John: I originally proposed two options. One was to do something on behavioral economics, because past classes have found that to be a lot of fun, and another one I suggested was they could just pick current topics and work in small groups and create papers on that. Turned out that they really didn’t like any of those ideas and given the nature of open pedagogy, I left it up to the class to decide what their topics would be. And I think it was actually Charlie, who came up with the idea. And would you like to tell us what that was?

Charlie: I know you had mentioned in the beginning of the class the idea of open pedagogy. And I found that pretty interesting because it seemed like a good opportunity for us as seniors and juniors to really put what we had learned out there. And also, in terms of topic selection, you gave us the opportunity to really choose which topics we wanted to talk about. We ended up choosing the topic of intergenerational mobility and economic inequality. We focused more on the economic inequality aspect of it in the end. But yeah, like I said, it was just a good opportunity for everybody to really finish their college careers with something that they can show.

Rebecca: Dr. Kane is going to close his ears now and you guys are going to tell us exactly what you thought when he said, “Hey, you’re going to write a book.”

Victoria: I was hesitant at first, just because group projects are kind of daunting, especially in economics. However, a collaborative group project was exciting to do… to see all of our work put together. As economic students it isn’t something you really see, it’s usually individual work.

Maria: Oh, yeah, I would agree with Victoria. I was kind of hesitant at first, especially because it was something new for our class so I figured there are probably a lot of kinks that needed to be fixed. So I was a little worried about not having everything fully figured out at first. I thought it was something interesting. It appealed to me because I like the thought that other people could read what we had written and we could have control of what we would want to talk about.

Charlie: And the topic and the idea of a book project really intrigued me… that it just let us put out there what we had learned over these past few years and gave us something that we can show in the end of it.

Rebecca: Were any of you scared?

Victoria: Not scared. I wouldn’t use that word.

John: Were you concerned?

Victoria: A bit concerned, just because I like doing my individual work. I feel stronger in that.

Maria: Yeah, I would agree. I think group work can sometimes be difficult to have for every class because everyone has a different writing style and everyone works on their projects at different times. So I think at first, you’re a little bit worried that not everyone will be able to work well together. But I found that in my group, we were able to work very well and we’re able to meet once a week to go over what we needed to work on for the week.

Charlie: Yeah, I found something similar to that experience. Whereas my group, after the first few weeks, figured out what we wanted to do, and when we could meet, and what was the most effective way for us to put the book project together? And I think it turned out really well.

Rebecca: So you’ve all mentioned groups, can you talk a little bit about what the groups were, how they were determined, and how that worked?

Victoria: The groups were groups of three from the class, because there’s 27 people. And then we’re able to email Professor Kane and ask if we wanted to work with anyone specific, like if we had friends in the class, we could work with them. But if not, or if we didn’t want to work with someone we knew, we’re able to randomize it.

Maria: I was put into a group of two other random people that I didn’t know, but we were able to set up a group chat immediately and communicate very well through that.

Charlie: I actually emailed Professor Kane about being a group in Victoria and we also included another student in that. I think it worked out pretty well and I was happy with how it turned out.

John: Before the groups were formed, though, the class decided on what the topics would be. So we had kind of a free-form planning session where we narrowed it down to nine topics you wanted to address. And then at that point, we knew how big the groups were going to be. And it worked out nicely with three people per group.

Rebecca: How did each group get assigned a topic?

Charlie: So the way we assigned topics was, we had created a list of the nine topics, and then each individual group could choose their top three, and then we divided them that way based on everybody’s top choice. If they didn’t happen to get their top choice, they usually got their second or third, I think that only happened for maybe two groups, and they seem to be fine with what they ended up with.

John: And going back a little bit further, it was a weighted voting scheme that you didn’t just rank them… that you assigned points, if I remember was it 10 points I gave you? And so if you really wanted to chapter you could bid all 10 points on that. And if you were indifferent, you could have assigned weight to your top three preferences and so forth. And it did work out really nicely where I think most groups got their top choice, but two of them ended up with their second or third choice, but it seemed to work.

Rebecca: How did you find collaborating in the end?

Charlie: I found that it worked really well meeting every week. We also had presentations every week that we gave on specific topics that we’re talking about during that week. So that set the initial schedule for us to meet every week and talk about what we were doing and what was going on. Also with the book project at the time, in terms of organization, I found it very laid out and simple.

Rebecca: That sounds like you had a writing group that met that frequently, but it also would be more of like a study group as well?

Charlie: Yeah, I would definitely say it was a mix between a writing group… a study group. Your group members ended up being the way, if you wanted to succeed in the class, like that was the way to do it was to work cohesively with your group members.

John: And it should be noted that they had other tasks in the class as well, where they selected topics that were presented each week and each group was responsible for presenting an article or a research paper on a topic, some of which were related to the book and others were completely different. The groups were persistent across all the assignments and involved more than just writing the book.

Rebecca: How’d you get feedback to make sure whatever you’re putting out in the public was good enough?

Maria: Well, we mainly used Google Docs. At first, we tried to use hypothesis. But that wasn’t really working out well. So we ended up just going back to Google Docs. And each group would be given a couple of chapters to review each week. And they would write a couple comments in that chapter as well as some comments made by our professor and we used that and we also used each other’s feedback to make those edits.

John: How did that work? Where the comments helpful?

Victoria: No. [LAUGHTER] Just because I’m very protective over my work, which I know I should be open to criticisms. However, I got some comments sometimes I was just like questioning, like instead of “what about this article that you might want to look at” it would be “change this word,” where I know we emphasized that often in class many, many times, but still people would persistently do that.

John: I hope that wasn’t from me. Was it from me?

Victoria: Oh, no. Well, if you wanted to do that, you’re the professor. You can do that. But you also give us feedback that’s helpful. Whereas, students I feel like if they’re rushed or doing it, like 20 minutes before the class, they’re not going to look at me like, “Oh, what about this topic that might be interesting to consider.” Instead, they’re like, “Switch this word.” That just might be the students in the class too, just because we did have a lot of work in the class. And I found that because our group would meet to practice our presentation before the class, a lot of groups are doing their final work 15 minutes before the class.

John: Yes, the quality of the work did vary a little bit across the groups and across the individuals within the groups. Overall, there was some really high quality work, and all three of you did really well. But the quality of the feedback varied quite a bit.

Rebecca: So the feedback was generally done outside of class? Like not during class time?

John: Primarily, except for the presentations on the work where there was some feedback during the presentations.

Victoria: Yes, but I found that your feedback was most helpful, rather than the students.

Maria: Yeah, I would say I paid a lot more attention to Professor Kane’s feedback than some of my fellow students. Luckily, we didn’t have that experience. We had a lot of people give a sincere, really constructive feedback, but sometimes I’d be hesitant to take that feedback because I didn’t know that was the direction that I should be going in. But I definitely think our experience was a little better and our comments were more substantial, I would say.

Victoria: And I think next time maybe switching the groups that review the feedback might be helpful, because if you have one group that gives worse feedback, and you keep getting that, it’s not as helpful.

John: The way it was structured was each group reviewed and provided comments on three other groups, and we did that on three stages. And the class decided to maintain persistent groups there. I did give them the option, but I think it does make much more sense to vary it so you’re getting a wider range of feedback.

Charlie: I think the idea to keep persistent groups stem from the fact that we wanted to have somebody read the paper and then continue to read the paper throughout the weeks when we were supposed to be improving it or making it better. So then they could also see the changes we were making. And I agree with my classmates where I think we can say that it didn’t work out too well. There’s some groups just didn’t happen to give feedback that was too good.

Victoria: I also think part of it was the length of the papers because each of us had to review three full papers for the weeks that we did that, and three 20-page papers is a lot of reading to do on student written economics. And I think maybe in the beginning it was helpful to read all three, but maybe as time went on to scale that back a little bit, so we don’t get burnt out.

John: More detailed feedback on a smaller number of papers.

Victoria: Yeah because at first, I find myself doing it too. Like the first paper, I’ll take the time to read every single word and provide helpful feedback. But I can see myself not doing as much on the third.

John: I gave feedback in three different ways. The first time I gave video feedback, and while I’ve heard that that can be really efficient, I was taking about two hours or so per paper. And that was really slow and people really didn’t like the feedback that much because some of the feedback was fairly long in terms of the suggestions. So, I probably gave a little too much feedback. The second was with comments embedded in Adobe. And the third time I just basically went along with everyone else and provided the feedback directly in Google Docs. And the nice thing about that is I was able to see some other suggestions and sometimes I’d say, “Well, maybe that’s not such a good idea.” Because in many cases, the original draft actually made more sense than the feedback.

Rebecca: What way did you all like feedback better?

Charlie: I think the best feedback I received was actually in class feedback when I would go to Professor Kane and ask him, “Hey, you know, this is what’s going on with my paper. Is there something else I could look at? Is there another source I can find?” I found that to be the most effective in helping me write the paper. I was also a fan of the comments in Google Docs, they were pretty helpful.

Maria: Yeah, I think the most helpful feedback were the comments from Google Docs because, for that last draft, I was able to go through and resolve any comments that I had made the changes to and that just helped motivate me to make my draft a really good copy. And then I would say that I was really against the video feedback because I personally like to review feedback multiple times. I like to go through it and make changes to it. And I found myself just typing up his comments at the end of the doc so that other teammates could see it as well. So I was definitely against the video feedback and prefer the Google Doc comments.

Victoria: Yeah, I prefer Google Docs as well, just because I could see where exactly you wanted the changes done. It gave more specific feedback and then it also gave the students validity I guess, like this should be changed. Like I made a comment in one paper and said, “I think you mean a different word.” And they just resolved it and moved on. But then Professor Kane came through and said, “Yes, I agree.” And I think that you agreed, and they now are aware that yes, those changes need to be made.

Rebecca: I think sometimes when a faculty member responds to student comments in a way that it also helps students know how to make better comments. So it would be interesting to see how another round of that would have gone after Dr. Kane had responded to some of those right? To see if the comments were better the next time around.

John: Yeah, I think I should have done that from the beginning. And I’m sorry, I didn’t. But in the future, I’ll probably use Hypothesis. Now that we have Hypothesis in Blackboard it will be much easier. Among the problems we had is that people had some trouble making comments on Google Docs because they also had edit access to those and they couldn’t mark up specific text. And with PDFs, that was a bit of a problem given the way the browsers were set up that they had to change a program in order to make comments on PDF documents. So now that we have that in our learning management system, it’s going to be much easier to do that and the comments will be a little more persistent, because one of the issues was people were, as you mentioned, resolving comments sometimes before anyone else had a chance to see them. And the strategy was to have the draft documents with the comments copied over to another folder, and they were only supposed to make changes in their working document, not in the documents used for comments. But there were three or four people who through three drafts, just didn’t quite get that notion and I’d see the email saying that comments were resolved, and I would go back in and unresolve them. But in any case, there were some problems with those. That’s an issue that I think has to be worked out a little bit more efficiently.

Rebecca: Beside some of the technical issues that we mentioned, what were some of the biggest challenges of working on a project like this?

Charlie: I think one of the bigger challenges was keeping the cohesive idea behind the whole book where the topic we had chose was income inequality and we also had talked about intergenerational mobility. But as the book progressed, we kind of saw that portion of the book fall off a little bit where chapters were really focusing on the income and economic inequality topic.

Rebecca: So is that something you discussed in class to keep everybody on track?

Charlie: I think we mentioned it at one point towards the end, we’re just like, “Okay, are we going to keep this? Are we going to not keep this?” And I think we agreed, we could talk about it but we won’t make it a major portion of the book.

John: There was also some scaffolding on the project… that it didn’t just start with people starting to write, groups were first asked to put together a bibliography, and then an annotated bibliography, and then an outline of the chapter, and then the actual writing started after they had feedback on each of those steps.

Maria: I would agree with Charlie, I was definitely worried about the cohesiveness of the entire book. But for my group, specifically, we did a very broad topic, the global trends of economic inequality, and for myself, it was really hard to find relevant subjects to talk about because it was just such a broad topic. It was really hard for each of us to find something that we could spend a large amount of time writing about. So I’m not sure how the other groups felt. But for us, it was definitely hard narrowing down what we specifically wanted to talk about, and then to find resources that were recent enough to include.

Victoria: Yeah, I agree with you on that. I think one change I would make after we figure out the specific topics, you can go deeper in that because it’s hard as a group to form a thesis statement or very cohesive argument because we ended up doing more of a timeline than like an argumentative paper because you have to split it up.

John: Your topic specifically was on what?

Victoria: Tax-structure and income inequality. So basically, we looked at early 20th century, later 20th century, and the 21st century, and how the changing tax structures led to increasing income inequality over time. So that’s kind of how we split it up. But I think if I was to do it again, I would take a different approach to it, because I did the first section and finding information on World War One income inequality is much harder than it seems. So I struggled a lot with that too.

Charlie: Yeah, in terms of how we wrote our chapter of the book, I’m usually a fan of writing papers that follow a timeline as an explanation but that’s just a personal preference. It doesn’t work for everybody. So I can definitely see how making the cohesive argument along with following that timeline can be pretty difficult.

John: In your chapter, I think the timeline made a bit of sense. We were talking about the evolution of it and the transitions in your chapter were pretty smooth. I don’t think that worked as well in all the chapters, quite often it looked like they were three essays…

Victoria: Yes.

John: …chopped and pasted together.

Victoria: There was this one paper with a bunch of sub topics, but it wasn’t cohesive. And I was reading it and it just did not make any sense to me how it was organized. So that was one of the suggestions I made… maybe taking a step further in class and presenting maybe our papers a little earlier.

John: In more stages…

VICTORIA. I was just trying to read it and I just could not make sense of the organization of it, where maybe if we caught that earlier we maybe could have made better paper.

John: I was giving them feedback in several groups… that sort of feedback… that they need to smooth out the transitions and have a more logical structure. But some groups responded really well and did a nice job with that, other groups were a little more reluctant to do that.

Rebecca: Perhaps some groups will respond really well to some peer pressure. [LAUGHTER]

John: And having the presentations in class would have helped do that. When people in the class were saying, “This is just too disorganized.” And most of them got better by the end, but it was a stretch getting there.

Rebecca: So you’ve talked a little bit about some of the challenges, but what was really rewarding about working on this project?

Victoria: I found it really helpful to work with the group. I had Charlie and then another student, Junweii, in my group and we all read each other’s parts. I know I went through the document and made comments for my own group too. And we were all able to bring it together, make comments for each other, ask each other questions about like what sources to use especially too. And it was easier in that regard than an individual paper. Because if you make a mistake and you don’t realize it, no one’s there to help you, it’s just you. But here we have people to help each other.

Charlie: Yeah, I always find it beneficial to complete a task with other students also trying to complete the same task as you. It just makes the learning more interesting. And you’re more willing to go and spend the extra hour looking at the document to just make sure you understand what you’re writing, but also that it fits with whomever else you’re working with. I found it really beneficial or satisfying just the fact that we, like I said, could create something that any ordinary person could probably read and understand what was happening.

Maria: Yeah, I think the most rewarding part for me was just seeing that finished product and getting you know, positive feedback from Professor Kane and from my other group members. I think working in that group setting helps to motivate me to do the best of my ability. And I think it was just rewarding at the end to see everything come together well.

Victoria: I think it gave us all a deeper understanding of the material too because, instead of writing it yourself… because you can write something and not understand it. I’ve done it many times. [LAUGHTER] But when you’re sitting in a group, getting a presentation ready, you each need to understand the material. So you’re explaining what you learn to each other. And that’s something you don’t get by yourself. I found that really rewarding.

John: What about the public nature of the project? The fact that this will be out there, it will have your names on it, and it could be out there indefinitely.

Charlie: I found that portion of the project pretty intriguing and exciting. Just like I said, you can go out there, and obviously we’re college students, we’re looking for employment after this. So just showing an employer, “Hey, I’ve written something that’s been published. It’s out there, you can go read it for yourself and see what you think.” It gives something for the students to show.

Victoria: Yeah, it made it exciting because we knew what was at the end of the project. Rather than just a finished paper, we actually had something to like prove ourselves, like we did this.

Maria: I think for me, it was cool to know because at the end of the semester, I’m able to go to my family and say, “Oh, here you go. This is something that I worked on all semester long. Here’s something that you can read and you can better understand what I’ve studied for the past four years.” So I think it was helpful that I was able to show my family I’ve worked hard on this. This is something that is to show for that.

Charlie: I would definitely concur with that. Economics as a topic isn’t really discussed when you’re talking just with family members, so many of them don’t understand what you’re talking about. And you’ll try, but it’s hard sometimes. So to put something together that they’d be able to read and understand, I found that pretty satisfying.

John: And how did the class select the audience for this? What level was it written for?

Victoria: Students with a background in economics I think we decided on. But we came together as a class and decided on that. But you need economic background to understand some of the things we wrote.

John: But at an introductory level, so it wasn’t written at an advanced level. It was written for people who’ve had an economics course somewhere along the way.

Victoria: Or just no background. You don’t have to go to college to read the book.

Rebecca: How would you change this project in the future? We touched on a couple of things here and there, but do you have any other key things that, if the same exact project were presented to another group of students, how would you change the structure? Or the way it’s organized? Or the way that it’s presented the first day?

Victoria: Thinking about the class as a whole rather than just the book project, we did weekly presentations which was a lot of work in itself. So I would probably minimize those and focus on the book. Because we were sitting there reading 20+ page economic journals every week and making a presentation on it and doing the book project. So I think having more time dedicated to the book project and presenting on that material, rather than just economic journals that people have written, like it gives background, which is helpful, but maybe a little less, or maybe shorter ones, or ones that are just easier to understand. Because I know a lot of times you would say, like, “I know you guys don’t understand this, it’s challenging. But we still need to know it.” Like you would explain it in class, which would be helpful, but reading something you don’t understand is really difficult for students… in economics specifically. That’s challenging.

Maria: Yeah, I would agree. I think, at the beginning of the semester, it was a lot of work to have to juggle both the presentations and the book at the same time. So I kind of like the idea, I’m not sure if it was you Victoria, who mentioned it in class, of doing the presentation one week and then the next week working on the book and having class time devoted to the book in the week after. I think that would have been very helpful too because we did meet as groups, but if we were able to meet in a class setting than I think other classmates will be able to make comments on your chapter and offer advice. I think it would just help overall with the workload that we have.

Charlie: I also agree with that. I think the improvement can be made where we’d work on maybe a random topic every other week, and do a presentation on that, and then also incorporate the book project into that. I think it would help with the cohesiveness of the book along with just feedback and all the other problems that we had discussed.

John: One of the things I had suggested at the very beginning, you may recall, is I suggested one option is to spend the whole class focused on this. Another option is just to do it the way it was done in the past, or something else. And the class actually voted for the something else. Now having had the experience, the something else didn’t work quite as well, and that more class time should have been devoted, I think, to this and I saw that too.

Victoria: I think we’re just looking for something exciting. Like yeah, it’s a book project like we know what we’re going to do with that. But the presentations just added something else, but if I went back to a book project because then we could have taken the steps at a slower pace too, like the annotated bibliography, like the topics, we could have taken way more time with that than we did. Because once we did that very quickly, and then went into presentations, and then we just had due dates instead of meetings in class.

Maria: Yeah, I think for us, what appealed to us with this combination of the book and the presentations was that the presentations offered structure for us when we knew what we were getting with those presentations. We knew each week that we’d come in with the presentation. And I think with the book, we were excited because it was something new and different and I think we were a little too hesitant to go fully and choose the book, because we weren’t sure what we would be doing in class. We weren’t sure how we would be tested on that. So I think the combination of fields lost because we were able to have that structure, but we were also able to try something new.

Charlie: I know for some of the students in the class they had mentioned to me… they were hesitant to get rid of the presentations weekly because they were a fan of learning something new every week and learning a different topic, not just focusing on the book project. They really wanted to increase their knowledge base by just learning about multiple fields of economics. So I think that’s why we ended up going with what we went with in the end. But I think we all could all agree that if we had done that every other week, it would have been more efficient.

John: I agree. And I think some combination might be good for the reason you mentioned, but more class time devoted to it would be helpful.

Victoria: Maybe at first too, do a presentation. Like the first presentation, I don’t know what week that was, but maybe keep that one because when our group really met each other, we worked together, and then we planned a time every week where we would meet.

John: And if this is done again, and that will be if the class wants to do this in the future, perhaps that first topic for the readings could be related to whatever they choose to do so they’re actually doing some scaffolding with the presentations then.

Rebecca: I had something similar in my classes before where a team formed early on. We did something small, low stakes, to figure out how to work with each other and what doesn’t go well. So that when we did something a little more high stakes, you already knew what the wrinkles were going to be so that you could plan for that moving on. So it sounds like your presentations served that purpose, whether or not you intended that to happen or not.

John: But it became a lot of work when it was done every week, in addition to writing a book.

Victoria: That was difficult.

Maria: Yeah, I think it just helped to make us all more comfortable with each other and more comfortable speaking in front of the class.

Rebecca: So the big question is, of course, should other faculty do this?

Victoria: Yes, I’m working on my honors thesis right now, which is kind of what you would do in a traditional seminar. And it’s very difficult. So just having people there… write it with you… know what you’re talking about… You can ask them questions. In our group chat, we often ask, “What would you recommend for this part of the paper? Or what articles do you think are appropriate for this?” If you’re doing it by yourself, it’s very difficult. And the overarching topic… I feel like in a lot of seminars, they have that. It’s a topic for the seminar, but it doesn’t really filter through as well as the book project does, because we are all cohesive, all of us together working as a class of 27 people, which you never see. So, I found it really helpful and I liked it a lot. And it wasn’t like a crazy amount of work. You did the work, and you study, you did the presentations, and you wrote a paper, but it didn’t take you hours every day to work on. I feel like I learned more in this class than I have in other classes that I write individual papers for.

Maria: Well, I think I would partially agree and partially disagree with that. I think as a class, we all appreciated that Professor Kane was willing to change like the class structure and was willing to try something new. And I think that was definitely intriguing for us and provided something different as our last economic course. But I think if I had done my own topic paper, I think I probably would have learned a little bit more, I think just I would preferred that. But I think it was still important to get this experience and try something new.

Charlie: I think I would definitely suggest it to some other faculty members to maybe try this out. Like Victoria was saying, working with a group is pretty beneficial. And I feel like, from a personal standpoint, I learn more when I’m working with other people who I can ask questions to, get feedback from. Really, it helps your understanding of the class. In terms of incentive, I find that I wanted to work on the book project because you had that end goal of, “This is something that I can put out there and show to somebody.”

Victoria: Yeah, but at the same time, group work can sometimes be the worst thing that ever happens to you. Like we got really, really lucky because I know Charlie, we’re friends so we were like, “Okay, let’s work together. We’ll just get one random person.” Junwei was like such a blessing. We just work together so beautifully, but I feel like if we had someone that didn’t want to do the work… wasn’t willing to put in the work… didn’t show up to meetings… that would ruin the project for us. So I don’t know how you could fix that. But just if there’s a good group, it works. If there isn’t, I feel like it wouldn’t work as well.

Rebecca: So good to write one book during your time here, but maybe not many books. [LAUGHTER]

John: But there could be other things. For example, they could have been podcasts that were created. They could be collections of essays.They could be video projects that are put together by groups. So there’s a lot of different things that could be done.

VICTORIAL: Yeah, I would throw that out there. If you did this again with another book, like, yeah, you can write a book, but you can also do that… a different kind of form of the same kind of structure. That would be interesting.

Maria: I would be interested in doing some type of podcast because I know some of my friends in their classes have been required to do podcasts. And I feel like you have to prepare really well for that. So I think maybe that would have forced your teammates, if they weren’t doing the work, to do the work so that they wouldn’t get to the studio and not have anything to say. So I think that would have been another really cool option.

Charlie: I think it would be a good option for capstone classes, just because I know for a lot of majors, you hear what the capstone is about for the three years before you even get there. And I know personally for me, I’m also trying to get a political science degree, my capstone is next semester, like I’m already dreading the 25-page paper I’m gonna have to write. So to switch it up and have the students maybe not know exactly what they’re in for, I think it gives a little bit of an intrigue and like, “Okay, this isn’t just the I’m going to go and write a paper all year. It’s something else that I’m going to do.”

Victoria: Yeah, it’s more fun. I’m more willing to write a paper that my group members are in. Like we can all see each other too in the Google doc and talk to each other in the chat… be like, “What do you think about this part?” Or like Charlie can watch me while I’m writing my part of the paper and say, “This is good. Maybe change this. Or bring this sentence up.” You don’t do that in individual papers and even if you write an individual paper and have peer feedback, it’s not the same as having it right there, real time, or just people caring more because it’s theirs too.

John: We did have some issues with that early on though, in the first draft or two, because there were some people who really didn’t want to try using Google docs for writing. And were any of you involved in that?

Charlie: So, I’m not opposed to Google Docs. [LAUGHTER] I had just always used Word documents before. So it took a little bit of getting used to but once you commit to it, it’s a really nice thing to have in your repertoire. Google Docs, I feel like, is used by countless numbers of people, companies, places, businesses, the college. So honestly, as a student, you should just take the incentive to try to get to learn it. And once you learn it, it’s really beneficial to you.

John: One of the problems was that some people were writing in Word and then uploading it to the drive and that made it really hard for other people to edit. And eventually everyone switched over, but it did take a few iterations with some people.

Maria: So yeah, I think there were a couple of challenges with having different drafts because people made comments on separate drafts. So I think just sending out a reminder email would be helpful and letting people know because I know I think I made my changes on the wrong draft the first time and we had to send an email right away to have him fix that. So I think just having it set up all before the due dates like before you mention it in class would be really helpful too.

John: Yeah, there were some rough spots. This was new for me too.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up our podcast by asking what’s next for each of you?

Charlie: This December, I’m looking to graduate from Oswego, which is exciting for me. And after that, I’m not really sure what’s going to go on. We’ll see.

Maria: Well, I’m graduating this Saturday, and I’m going to be moving down to Florida for a little bit and doing an internship there.

Victoria: I’m also graduating Saturday and I’ll be working at HSBC this July in their graduate development program.

Rebecca: Sounds like exciting futures for each of you.

John: What are you doing in Florida? An internship where?

Maria: I’m doing the college program, the Disney College Program.

John: Oh, wonderful. Maybe I’ll see you there at the OLC conference. Well, thank you. It’s been a pleasure working with you all semester. And thank you for joining us.

Charlie: Thank you for having us.

Victoria: Thank you.

Maria: Thank you.

[MUSIC]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

93. Reflective Writing

Formative feedback, reflection, and practice are all essential to improve our skills. In this episode, JoNelle Toriseva joins us to discuss her approach of combining faculty and peer feedback with reflective practice to improve student writing skills.  JoNelle is a writer and an Assistant Professor and Director of English Communications and Media Arts at Genesee Community College. JoNelle has won the Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry from Cutbank. Her work has appeared in The North American Review, Salt Hill, The Literary Review, The Saranac Review, The Cincinnati Review, Descant, and JACKET, among others, and included in Days I Moved Through Ordinary Sound published by San Francisco’s City Lights, and Best Canadian Poetry in English.

Show Notes

  • JoNelle Toriseva
    • Assistant Professor and Director of English Communications and Media Arts at Genesee Community College.
    • winner of the Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry from Cutbank (The Literary Journal of the University of Montana). The judge for that prize was Oliver de la Paz.
    • Selected by Shane McCrae, J.R. Toriseva’s Barbed Water, was the winner of Saudade’s annual poetry contest, and is now available from Argus.
    •  Toriseva’s work has appeared in The North American Review, Salt Hill, The Literary Review, The Saranac Review, The Cincinnati Review, Descant, and JACKET, among others, and included in  Days I Moved Through Ordinary Sound published by San Francisco’s  City Lights, and Best Canadian Poetry in English.
  • Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) at GCC
  • 2. The Metacognitive Cafe Online Discussion Forum – The 11/8/2017 Tea for Teaching podcast with Judith Littlejohn that was referenced in this podcast.
  • National Novel Writing Month

Transcript

John: Formative feedback, reflection, and practice are all essential to improve our skills. In this episode, we examine one professor’s approach of combining faculty and peer feedback with reflective practice to improve student writing skills.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guest today is JoNelle Toriseva, an assistant professor and director of English Communications and Media Arts at Genesee Community College. JoNelle has won the Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry from Cutbank. Welcome JoNelle.

John: Welcome.

Jonelle: Thank you. Very happy to be here.

John: Our teas today are…

Jonelle: Bombay breakfast.

Rebecca: That sounds tasty.

Jonelle: Which I get from Jasmine Pearl, my favorite tea company.

Rebecca: Yum. I think this morning I have black currant.

Jonelle: Mmm, nice.

John: And I have ginger tea.

Rebecca: Yum. So we invited you here today to talk a little bit about reflective writing. Can you talk a little bit about some of the kinds of classes that you teach and how you use reflective writing as part of that practice?

Jonelle: Yes, well, I came to academia through being a community artist. So I went to a lot of schools, and a lot of community programs… prisons, different places and taught writing in very different situations and in coming from that background, building community was really important, and also goals. So when people want to write, they want to write for a variety of reasons. And so to help people get what they wanted out of these community writing courses, I would have people tell me their goals. And I had done some reading in how to help people achieve their goals and a big part of that can be having people write down their goals. So my whole reflective writing practice has come out of goal-setting, and having people write their goals and then share their goals with each other and learn how to achieve their goals. Some people like to break it down step-by-step, other people haven’t told another person what they wanted and haven’t experienced that kind of support that comes when you share what you really want to have happen. And a lot of magical results can occur when people talk about their goals, write down their goals, learn that other people will help them achieve their goals. So this reflective writing came out of that I learned that that was working, and that was helping people. And I thought, “Oh, why don’t we do this three times a semester. So people can kind of check in with themselves, and people can adapt what they’re doing if necessary.” Sometimes people come into a class with one set of goals, and they’ll realize, “Oh, no, what I really wanted to do was this, or that.” So I have different points in the semester when they can go in and adapt, and rewrite, and edit their goals.

Rebecca: How important is that piece of community and sharing of the goals as part of this reflective process?

Jonelle: It’s highly important. And I didn’t realize how important it was at first, but a lot of people haven’t had the experience of supportive community before. And so just stating a goal out loud… First of all, the person has to figure out how they’re going to put that into words and they can help them plan a little bit more what that goal might look like if they are actually thinking about it. A lot of people come to writing and they want to write a bestseller. And they may not have thought it through. But once they have to state their goals, they break it down, “Oh, I want to write in this genre.” Or some people will want to write a memoir about their family history and so they’re not really looking to write a bestseller, they’re looking to write something that honors their ancestors. So it helps people understand exactly what they’re trying to get out of their writing practice.

Rebecca: How do you make sure that students feel safe to share those goals and actually are taking that goal sending really seriously?

Jonelle: I do it by setting standards and also doing it right away in the course. So people see what is expected. So they’re still, at the beginning of the course, they’re still meeting each other and getting to know each other and so it’s just part and parcel of what happens in the course, it’s one of the expected criteria: that they respect each other, that they listen to each other, and that they respond in a positive and supportive manner. So I set the tone right away with it. And people respond really well to that because I find that people, they’re coming to school, they’re coming to class for a reason, they do want to get a certain thing out of it, and they’re able to say what it is that they do want to get out of it. And I also set it up ahead of time that they can’t say, “Oh, I want an A in the course.” We talk about breaking down what the writing process is, and so they’re working on specific goals. Like one person may have to work a lot on transitions, or one person may be working on creating an edited draft that can go to a certain publication. But no matter what that goal is, it’ll be broken down into chunks that are manageable and also skill related.

John: Are these online or face-to-face class?

Jonelle: I do it in both. So if we’re in a face-to-face class, I’ll have them do a writing assignment and then they will share with a neighbor close to them. If it’s an online class, they will do a post about what their goals are and then they’ll respond to two other students posts. So they’re doing one-on-one sharing with each other in either mode.

Rebecca: What are some tips that you have for other faculty in helping students prepare to write those goals?

Jonelle: What I usually advise people to do is to have a time set aside for individual reflection. So they’ve been thinking about what they want out of the course, we’ve been talking about what constitutes the course, what kind of skills they’re learning. And then we’ll do five-minute writes on them in their own process on them and their goals, and so they’re used to already doing short writing sprints about these goals. So we do practice and then also I have examples of what other students have written for their goals so they can kind of see the level of detail that goes in, and it’s something that’s very practical and it can be used as a “to do” list. And I also share with them my own writing goals so that they know everybody might have a problem getting started, or ending, or writing a good conclusion. So I’m very honest with my own writing process and I think that helps them also be honest about their writing process.

John: Some of your work is in the accelerated learning program or the ALP program at Genesee Community College. Could you tell us a little bit about that program and those classes?

Jonelle: Yes, Accelerated Learning Program is really exciting. It’s a process of where you just sit side-by-side with learners and help them achieve what they want to achieve. It’s something that I first learned how to do in graduate school at Mills College in Oakland. As part of my graduate school training, I was tasked with teaching a small seminar group of students who were selected from the freshman first-year writing course. So I had a group of six students from this writing course who I would go to class with, I would go to their composition course with, and then I would meet with them as a group and teach in seminar style weekly, thesis statements, organization, researching skills. Whatever the teacher was teaching in the one-on-one course, I would supplement and also do some more extensive teaching as the students needed it. And then I also met with each of the students individually weekly and talk to them about how their work was going, how their classes were going, supporting them if they needed any kind of academic help. And this kind of one-on-one, close involvement really helped these students because they knew there’s somebody that they could talk to, and that there was somebody that could get them help. And a lot of the problems that these students were having were not cognitive problems. They were just not as well read as some of the other students and they didn’t have some of the same training. One of these students also didn’t pick appropriate material to write about. For some reason this person only would talk about and write about Bruce Lee. So no matter what we’re talking about, she would only write about Bruce Lee. So I worked with her a lot and helped her widen our writing scope. So things like this, people that just didn’t have some of the same experiences as the other students in the class.

John: So the classes are for students who are in need of getting them up to the level of the courses, but it’s accelerated because they’re working with the regular classes, but getting additional assistance within that environment so that they don’t get behind in their progress?

Jonelle: Exactly, yes. So what was being done at Mills College then started being done across the nation in different ways, different people started different programs. And the program that we accepted and did for GCC is Accelerated Learning Program. And in that program, it’s a little bit different than the one-on-one tutoring, but it has a very similar philosophy. And in that course, a student will be enrolled in English 101, and then they will have another course called English 100 that gives them supportive training and workshopping directly from that 101 course. So it’s roughly half of the amount of students, there’s 12 students in it and they get individualized workshops on whatever topic they need to have more reinforcement on. And it addresses non-cognitive issues and addresses skill-based issues as well. So a student takes a credit bearing course along with a non-credit bearing course at the very same time. And we found that this improves retention, it improves class performance, it gives students a lot of confidence when they’re in that English 101 class and gives them the start that they need to catch up work that they didn’t have, for some reason, in their high school experience.

Rebecca: Do you find that the role of reflective writing is different with these students? Or do you do more reflective writing with this group of students?

Jonelle: Depending on the group, depending on what they need, but a lot of times writing about their thinking can be incredibly good for them because they’re able to learn how to follow their thought—and that writing is thinking—it gives them bigger writing muscles so that they’re able to write for longer periods of time and write for bigger projects. They learn how to write themselves into a project so that they know how they’re going to address it, how they’re going to shape and form the narrative, what kind of sources they’re going to be talking to. A lot of writing is the writer in conversation with texts that have gone on before or texts that are currently being created. So it’s kind of part and parcel of the writing process in many ways.

John: So you also teach classes on writing for science and business, do you use similar types of reflection in those classes as well?

Jonelle: Yes, I found that a lot of writing is very similar in that you follow many of the same kinds of steps and ask yourself many of the same types of questions. So if you’re writing an academic paper about theater, or an academic paper about a biological situation, or you’re writing something in the field of chemistry, your approach is very similar although your results are going to be very different. But a writer always has to decide how they’re going to frame their writing, how it fits into the landscape of the current writing in the field, how they can work to improve their writing. So the reflection works for any sort of writing that someone will do.

John: What’s the feedback and revision process that you use in your classes?

Jonelle: Many different layers… the first feedback is, of course, given by the writer themselves, the writer talking to themselves, talking to their piece, and this can be done in whatever way is best for the writer, either verbally or on paper. Then the writer will do peer feedback. So they’ll be reading their work to a peer and a peer will be reading a work to them, and they’ll give their views and also ask questions. So it will be helpful in the developmental stage to get more questions about what is actually on the page, what could be on the page, what needs to be on the page, and then going into revision where the student will work with me, or work with tutors, or work with each other on sentence crafting. Are the sentences crafted the way they need to be? Or do we need to have more sentence variety? How is the point-of-view working? Does that need to be shifted? Are there places where the focus is dropped? Has everything been included that needs to be included? Those kinds of questions get answered. So we go from the larger, macro view to the micro view, looking at, you know, is everything in place? Is everything nailed down? And that will be through working with themselves, through working with me, through working with each other, through working with tutors, and then going back to model texts and looking at their work in comparison with other papers. Are they meeting the standards? Are they meeting the scope? Taking a look at how they measure up to other writers out there. So there’s lots of different layers of reflection and feedback that go in. And hopefully that process is continual, and they will keep doing it after the class as well so they can continue to improve as a writer.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit more about the relationship between an iterative revision process, and reflection and reflective writing?

Jonelle: The reflection is what will help a writer have an increased amount of success throughout their career. So when a student is writing a paper for 101, that’s one paper, but if they realize the steps and realize how this writing will connect to their future writing, then they’re able to set themselves goals, meet these goals, so they can become a better and better writer with each paper and with each writing experience. Because we’re not just training somebody to write a good research paper for a first-year class, we want them to be able to also work well at the transfer institutions, go on and work well at the masters level, at the doctoral level. Writing is a process that we continually redefine for ourselves and we continually have to get better at. So it’s this lifelong skill and the reflective writing helps people take baby steps in that larger arc of the lifelong writing, hopefully.

Rebecca: You talked a little bit about model writing. Do you use your own writing or your own process and the ways that you struggle through your own process as a model for students as well?

Jonelle: Yes, I definitely do. I tell them what’s worked for me, what hasn’t worked for me. A lot of times my talk about how I’ll do short chunk writing like write for five minutes, write for 10 minutes, write for 15 minutes using the kitchen timer when writing gets hard to do. Also taking breaks, how I motivate myself to write if I’m in a really bad funk, and this makes them laugh and also makes them realize, it’s a very human process. So a lot of being a writer and improving your writing is just learning how to work with yourself and talk with yourself so that you keep on getting better, you keep on going back to the writing process and treating yourself with kindness is important.

Rebecca: Something that seems to be coming up in the way that you’re talking about is also the need to see yourself as a writer. So it seems like the reflection is a way to help students start to identify in that way.

Jonelle: Yes, that’s a great, great insight. A lot of people have to be given permission to write or they have to give themselves permission to write in some way. If I’m teaching a creative writing class, often I’ll have people introduce themselves to each other and say, “I’m a writer,” and then they’ll hear it back. And just that ability to say that they’re a writer and be seen as a writer can be incredibly motivating and supportive for people. So yes, it’s important for people to be able to just be able to state that they are a writer. And so many of us are writers in so many different areas that it’s important for people to inhabit that role for themselves.

John: Sounds like a lot of this is building a growth mindset in students, especially students who perhaps may have struggled earlier with writing to let them know that they can, in fact, become more proficient through working on this.

Jonelle: Yes, yes. And that is something that is going to come from inside of them. We want to build up that writing muscle, that writing ability so that they do well in this class, but that they also do well in their next classes, and that they have resources of people that they can reach out to when needed if they come to a standstill. But yes, it’s creating lifetime learners and lifetime writers who will be there for each other.

Rebecca: I’m particularly interested in the student response, especially from students who are in an English 101 class, who don’t identify themselves as a writer to start off and are not in some sort of major where writing seems obvious.

Jonelle: Yes, writing has become such a big part of our lives. We text all the time, we are writing emails to each other. It’s so important that we can present ourselves well in writing and that we can understand what audience we’re writing for. So we talk about all the different writing situations so that they’re aware of how much they are writing, and I tried to use topics that are interesting to them: food, music, things that we all have in common. And so they’re talking with each other, they’re seeing each other as writers, they’re reading each other’s writing. And they start to realize, “Yes, I’m part of this community too. And I can define my role as a writer in my own unique way.” It’s fun to see them blossom, and also redefine the role of writers… a serious role… someone in an attic with crazy hair, or is it somebody writing a text… They can see themselves as a writer in their soccer playing… concert going. If they’re a math major, if they’re a science major…. Everybody writes, so they can see the role of writing in their fields and in their lives.

Rebecca: I think that sometimes faculty even don’t have that identity, despite the fact that they might do a lot of writing and maybe even a lot of publishing. They don’t always recognize themselves as writers.

Jonelle: Right.

Rebecca: And that makes it difficult to filter down to students if you don’t also see yourself as a writer.

Jonelle: Right, and it’s important for people to give themselves credit for the writing and the thinking they do. And also all that goes into writing an article, they may do things just automatically and not realize all of the steps that have actually gone into what they create and how complex it is. So they can sit back and give themselves a few kudos. And I find many departments will have weekly meetings where they will have people read papers, and that can also highlight what’s happening in their academic field and give a spotlight on the writing and the writing process. And that also helps build community.

Rebecca: How have your colleagues responded? Do other colleagues use similar approaches? Especially maybe some of this goal setting strategy that you laid out at the beginning.

Jonelle: Yes, I find that a lot of people do reflective writing in their own way. One of my colleagues, Marie Iglesias-Cardinale, has students write letters to themselves and to her and that is another way of framing the reflective writing. So you can do it in many different ways and have it work in a way that is more natural to whatever subject you’re doing, or also to your personality too. Some people like the journal writing, some people like the epistle letter writing, some people could frame it as a podcast, some people could frame it as a selfie, a writing selfie. So people can do it in a variety of ways. And a lot of my colleagues here, Judie Littlejohn, does a lot of metacognitive work and having students look at their learning, which is what this is also having students look at their writing. And I think that more and more people are coming to realize that people have to train their brain to learn a subject or to write a certain format that they’re going to be writing and that our brains are so plastic and able to respond to these tasks that we set before them in a way that is only helped by self reflection.

John: Judie was a guest on our second episode actually. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes. But it does sound like much of what you’re doing is helping students become more metacognitively aware of what they’re doing and processing their own learning much more actively.

Jonelle: Yes. And it helps them get tasks done in other places. So if they can remember “Oh, I did these steps for this paper. What if I start doing them for this article I’m writing?” This is a way to get into that so they can fall back on past successes to have future successes. But a lot of times we have to train ourselves to write in a new way for a new writing task, and that can be daunting. But if you’ve had success before, you can talk yourself through the new tasks.

Rebecca: Good advice to remind ourselves during a summer writing sprint perhaps, right? [LAUGHTER]

Jonelle: Yes. Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve recognized over time doing reflective work with my students is, needing to give and dedicate class time to that activity. Because we know that it’s important to student learning, but students can see it as a throwaway kind of an assignment if you don’t actually dedicate time and effort as part of the actual in-class time. Because if it’s just a homework assignment, sometimes it’s not taking quite as seriously.

JONELL: Very true. And also having them be in conversation with each other helps them with the process as well, I think. So it’s not just that they’re spending time on the project, it’s that they’re doing social interaction, and that social aspect of learning can be so crucial. And they may not have the confidence yet to talk about their work at home or with their friends. But if they’re in a class, they all have to be doing it, there’s this is kind of group impetus that can help them reach that point.

John: That type of peer support can be really helpful in helping them work through difficulties.

Jonelle: Yes, and they may not have that kind of support anywhere else. So that’s why I think it’s important to have it be a part of class because they may not have outside support in their family or among their friend group. So for us to build that academic dialogue is so important for them to see themselves as writers, and to give credence to what they do, and to make space for what they do.

Rebecca: One of the things that I find challenging not only with writing but also, I teach design so we do the same kind of process with visual work, is to help students move from the “pat on the back” motivational feedback, to actually critical, useful feedback so that they develop those skill sets so that they do start to have that community of practice around them outside of a classroom setting. Do you have any tips on how to help move students in that direction?

Jonelle: Well, I think that continued conversation is really important. I will model what kinds of feedback that they should be giving. If it’s an online class, they have to have 350-words in their response to make sure that they have a level of detail and also to give them a rubric so they have to address the elements. I don’t know what they would be for design, but say for a piece of fiction: that you’re looking at dialogue, you’re looking at plot, you’re looking at characterization, theme. So if they’re incorporating some of that vocabulary into their conversation, that can also be a starting point for a future conversation. They’ll be looking for the line in something else, but they’ll be looking for a round character versus a flat character in something that they’re looking at outside of class. It’s kind of creating that atmosphere for the magic to happen and then hopefully, it translates outside of class too.

Rebecca: To round out some of our discussion on reflection, can you also compare the early kinds of reflection that you do in your class versus ones that happen at that midterm or later on? You mentioned those briefly at the beginning, but we didn’t really explore those opportunities.

Jonelle: Yes, the first reflective writing is mostly just goal setting, what they want to get out of the course. And I originally started them on that because students will come into a creative writing course and they may have ideas of writing an entire novel in a course when they haven’t written anything at all before, and then they may leave the class upset with themselves… they haven’t finished a novel. So I try to find out why they’re really in the course at first, so that I can help them achieve the goal that they want to achieve, knowing that I may have to give them resources outside of the class later on. Say they’re writing a novel, that can be like a five-year journey. So it’s something that we can’t address just in 16 weeks, they’re going to need to have something outside to keep them going. So I take a look at what their goals are. And this writing is pretty short and it may not be as nuanced. And then as we go throughout the semester, I devote midterm and end-of-term writing reflection, and those ask more detailed questions, and I have them give more detailed responses. And by then they’re more comfortable with each other as well, so they’re more willing to call each other out if they’re not meeting their goals, if they’re not putting in the writing time, if they’re not putting in the work with their workshop group, or if they need to be doing more editing or revising. They’re more willing to see that in themselves and sometimes they’re more willing to see that in each other but I find that if they can look at one of their peers and say, “Oh, your peer wants this and yet they’re doing this.” They can say like, “Oh, well, I can see easily how you should change this.” Whereas what they don’t see that as readily in themselves. Why I have them work with each other is so that they can see how each other have a different approach to a writing problem, because they’re often able to solve each other’s problems easier than they can solve their own. But then they’ll see, “Oh, I just need to do this. Like maybe I need to wake up and go to a coffee shop instead of writing in the kitchen. Or maybe I need to go write in my car at lunch instead of going to the cafeteria because I’m just going to talk with my friends and not get what I need to get done.” The reflection process becomes longer… more questions… more involved as the semester progresses.

Rebecca: Do you have your peer feedback groups change over time?

Jonelle: Yes, I always mix those up. Otherwise they get complacent with each other and the social interaction kind of overplays that artistic interaction. So always mixing it up.

John: We always end with a question. What are you doing next?

Jonelle: Well, I’m always creating different writing communities. One of the largest writing communities that I really love, and I love to tell people about is National Novel Writing Month where everybody writes a novel in November and it creates a huge community. It’s fun, it’s free. So if people are interested in writing, I suggest that they look at nanowrimo.org. And it’s something that I always love to do every November is to start a novel and to write with other people in community. So you’ll be seeing me in November in the nanowrimo world doing that.

Rebecca: That sounds fun.

Jonelle: Yes, it’s very fun. You can do other projects also. It’s fun to have that group impetus of working together.

Rebecca: Cool, well we’ll look forward to seeing what that novel looks like then.

Jonelle: Thank you.

John: Thank you for joining us.

Jonelle: Thank you, have a wonderful day.

Rebecca: You too.

[MUSIC]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

66. Just-in-Time Textbook

What would you do if you are scheduled to teach a class of 75 students and discover that several very expensive textbooks would be required to address the full range of course topics?  In this episode, Dr. Jessica Kruger rejoins us to discuss how she responded to this challenge by working with her students to  create their own textbook. 

Jessica is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior at the University at Buffalo.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: What would you do if you are scheduled to teach a class of 75 students and discover that several very expensive textbooks would be required to address the full range of course topics? In this episode, we talk with someone who responded to this challenge by having her students write their own textbook as they progressed through the course.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

John: Our guest today is Jessica Kruger, a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Community health and health behavior at the University at Buffalo. Welcome back, Jessica.

Jessica: Thank you. Happy to be back.

Rebecca: Today our teas are:

Jessica: Not today, but maybe a little bit later to relax, thinking about all of this stuff I need to do before the start of the semester. [LAUGHTER]

John: …and I am drinking Rose Garden Black Tea that you brought back from…

Rebecca: …Epcot. So I’m drinking the same thing. We’re having a tea trial this afternoon.

John: It’s one of the blends that they only sell at the Twining store in Epcot I believe…

Rebecca: …Yeah, and it’s a nice counterbalance to the lovely weather we have outside.

John: We have invited you here to discuss the open pedagogy project that you ran last semester in a class with 75 students. Once again, scaling things to a higher level than people normally do it. Could you tell us a little bit about that class?

Jessica: This class is a 300 level public health course. It’s titled Methods and Mechanisms in Public Health. It covers three main topics, so we start out with environmental health and then we move into information about health theories and health behavior theories and then we end with disparities. And so with this class, there was not one single book that would encapsulate all the topics. Instead of having the students buy three or more different books, I started to think, well, what else could I do?

John: The natural thing is to have them write their own book…

Jessica: Of course, why not?! I think the cost of textbooks are continuing to rise, and especially with this sort of course that specialized with these three different areas. I don’t think I would ever find a publisher that would make something quite like that. So why not write your own?

Rebecca: How did you pick the topics that were included and how did you get going on this project?

Jessica: So I actually heard about open pedagogy and writing a textbook with your students at the CIT conference that happened last year, and I was really inspired by Robin de Rosa and what she had done. And so immediately after hearing from her, I thought, “I bet I could do this.” At that time, I don’t know if I was deranged because it was the end of the semester, or maybe it was a stroke of brilliance. Probably a mix of the two. But I thought, let’s figure this out let’s see how to do this. And so, as I was looking over the syllabus and the topics, I started flipping through their textbooks, I started looking at other resources that were available and began to put the topics together and I broke it down by the weeks of the syllabus. So my students were actually writing the textbook before they learned the content. Which for them, was very scary and for me, a little bit scary too. But the great part is they actually had to go out they had to find resources, they had to put it together. And as I was building this, I created Google documents and made skeleton outlines for the chapters and that’s how they kind of got started.

John: So you created the skeletal outlines and then they fleshed it out?

Jessica: Yes, literally. The outlines were a title of the chapter, some objectives, and headings, different headings of sections. I attach some information in each Google Doc, some resources that were out by the CDC or other peer reviewed sources that I thought could be helpful. And of course, I invited them to come meet with me, especially if they have no clue what I was talking about with this topic.

John: …And within each week, did you have a subset of students work on it? Or did you divide it up among all the students? How did you arrange that?

Jessica: So in this class, my very small class of 75, which is actually my smallest class this past semester, I broke them up into groups of four to five students. They didn’t get to choose their groups, but they did get to choose their topics. As they went through and looked at it, we broke it down and said, “Okay, this group decide what is your top picks,” and they could choose. And they knew the order of the chapters, so if they wanted to get it done out of the way, they could do it at the beginning of the semester or wait till the end. And so each group worked together to make a contract, divide up the work and choose how they’re going to execute this.

Rebecca: So what worked well about that method and what didn’t work well about that method?

Jessica: Oh, students love group work. We all know that they love group work, right? If I could figure out the secret to making it go smoothly all the time, I guess I would probably be a millionaire. But nevertheless, I think there was some strategies that did work well. And the fact was, I had the maker group contract. Barbara Oakley actually has a article called “How to work with a couch potato,” and in that article it talks about how to deal with someone who’s not pulling their weight and how to create a group contract that’s actually useful. And so the students worked together with their group and talked about how they’re going to evaluate each other. I didn’t set a peer evaluation, they did, and they also broke up what they’re going to do. So as they’re creating this chapter they would all right in a different colored text. So one student was green, one student was orange, and so they can see visually what each person did. And my caveat was, if someone drops the ball, they drop the ball, you don’t have to make up their work, as long as it’s stated in the group contract, that is fine. If they don’t do the summary they don’t do this summary, your chapter doesn’t have a summary. That’s okay.

John: How did that work? Did everything get completed?

Jessica: Actually, we only had one chapter I believe that doesn’t have a summary and most everyone did their part. There’s always some squabbles back and forth. There were some groups who did really good strategizing and had someone go back through and create one voice for it, other groups didn’t. But overall it worked out quite well breaking it up that way, but also giving them that out, realizing that they didn’t have to make up something that someone else didn’t do.

Rebecca: So how did you handle chapters that weren’t fully complete and you needed the other students to read those chapters?

Jessica: I had a wonderful TA last semester, and the chapters would be due about a week before they needed to be put on to UBLearns. She would alert me to anything that was going on or anything that should be changed and I would look over the chapters. And then I would bring in some other content or modify it. But overall they actually did a really great job of putting this together and finding sources…

John: …you mentioned UBLearns…

Jessica: …UBLearns is actually our Blackboard learning management system. So they would offer it in Google Docs, and then I would take that and create it so that they could comment on it, but not actually edit it. And this allowed them to get feedback from their peers, which we plan to preserve the feedback for the next time is classes taught, so this book is a living continuing iteration.

Rebecca: So as the students were reading the chapters as assigned reading, is that when they were providing the comments and the feedback?

Jessica:Yes, they would go through and we had some very astute grammar students that would go and pick commas, and also asked for more explanation, which was excellent. I could actually use that in my teaching to talk further about areas where I could tell that students needed more help.

John: Did the original writers go back and fill in some of the gaps at that point?

Jessica: Sometimes they did, but for the most part, we left it as is. We used version one and the plan is for the students who take this class next to take those comments, continue adding, continue changing, and revamp the book. So there’ll be multiple versions for each semester that it’s taught.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how you handled copyright and giving credit where credit is due for each of these chapters and how you might handle that in future iterations?

Jessica: Overall the class work together to figure out their creative commons license, and what they chose was a CC BY-NC-SA. Which means, people must attribute and give credit, it’s non-commercial and it’s share alike. We talked about this as a group, we learned about copyright and they all actually signed a contract as if they were publishers, as they are. We discussed how to attribute content, some chapters did it one way some chapters did it another way. So you’ll see in tech citations in some areas and and others you’ll see, “this was modified from the CDC website at this location.” And so some of it was actually openly sourced information that was reused. Now, this is their first time writing a textbook, so can I stand behind that everything is completely cited perfectly? Absolutely not. But they did a good faith effort to make sure that their information was cited properly.

John: …and there is a little note at the bottom of each page listing sources and saying that, to the best of our knowledge, this is not subject to copyright. If you find anything that appears to violate it, please notify us. So there is a procedure for addressing that stated on each page, I believe?

Jessica: Correct.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how the groups decided to evaluate each other?

Jessica: Yeah, I think group evaluation and teamwork is such a challenge. I myself, despised group work as a student, and as a faculty member sometimes I’m like, “Ah, I know they need to work with others, but…” But really having them create their own contracts and having them evaluate each other on their own terms, so some groups decided that “we will do everything perfect and we will come to every meeting.” No, that’s not a group contract. That’s not something that you can actually achieve. But what you can achieve is open communication, and so most of the groups actually used GroupMe or other tech tools to stay in contact, they would set up meetings sometimes before after class. They would also work on the Google Doc in tandem, you can actually see when someone else is working on a Google doc and point out different sources to each other and discuss how they’re going to put it together. And so that allowed them to evaluate each other and most students gave each other pretty high marks in peer review. And I don’t know if that’s because they all like each other and they’ve all been in multiple classes together, or if it’s actually how they feel that this came together. But overall, it happened, it got done and so I do think they work together pretty well. Some groups obviously better than others depending on their strategy, but having them create the contract I think is the important aspect that I found

John: And you were able to monitor that by seeing the colors of the contributions?

Jessica: Yes. So I had them color code their contributions and if they didn’t color code because someone was an editor or whatnot, they would note that so they knew what each person was doing. And then before I would send it out to the class, I would take out all those colors and do some type editing. But overall, each of them were contributing and most of the students in the class are juniors and seniors, so they’re upper level students.

Rebecca: Did you have students evaluate each other at the end of their contribution, or at the end of the semester?

Jessica: It was at the end of their contribution, and it’s fascinating because I asked them during that process, not only to evaluate themselves, but to evaluate this project. And it’s fascinating because as I’m going through it, I’m looking at it and asking them, “Do you think other classes should do something like this?” And about 50% said no, at that time. I was like, “Oh my goodness. Is this going to fail? What’s happening? Why do they despise this so much.?” But, at the end when we did an overall evaluation, it was actually overwhelmingly positive, it was all positive about the whole project. So it just goes to show you that as you’re in the thick of something, you may see it as challenging, overwhelming, but in the end, when you see that final product, when you see that 19th chapter for 200 page book that you’ve created with your fellow students, that’s powerful.

Rebecca: You ended up getting your book printed and copies distributed to each of your contributing students. How did you pull that off during the semester you were writing it?

Jessica: Very carefully. I worked very closely with my TA and I spent countless hours editing and making sure pagination was correct. I think in the end I probably put in a whole work week just getting that together and working with the university printing service. I sent it in, it was excellent. I’ve never printed a book before not knowing how to do anything like that, and thankfully our university had some funding to allow me to print books for all of the students. And to see their faces when they got that book, was just outstanding. I actually created a celebration and so I invited the Director of the program, the Dean, the Chairs, and even people from OER Services at SUNY. And the students walked into a cake and people clapping for them, and then I reveal the printed book.

Rebecca: So you had to have had the book finished multiple weeks before the end of the semester to make that happen?

Jessica: Well, I was hoping to have it finished sooner. But you know, life happens, and so they actually got it on the day of their final and their first question is after it’s revealed is, “Do we still have to take a final?” In fact, they did, but it turned out alright. So it was the day of their final which was a week after the end of the semester. But it all turned out fine, everyone was happy, and they got to eat cake.

John: What proportion of their grade was based on this collaborative work?

Jessica: It was actually about 10% of their grade… [LAUGHTER]

John: [LAUGHTER]… low stakes assignment, relatively, for writing a book.

Jessica: It was very low stakes, which, as you choke on your tea, I couldn’t believe that they would do it for 10% of their grade. But in fact, when you take all of these small pieces of writing and put them together, it actually wasn’t a huge whole. When you have 75 people writing a little bit at a time, they got into it when they had to do it but when they were done, they were done. So it was actually just a small percentage of what they had to do. I like to use non-traditional teaching techniques and experiential learning, and so this class also took a field trip and did a lot of other exciting teaching techniques. So this book was something that was a small percentage of their grade.

John: [LAUGHTER] That’s impressive.

Rebecca: How much time do you think each student actually spent on the writing that they contributed?

Jessica: I would speculate a few hours. They were writing in chapters and I didn’t give them page limits, which was interesting because most groups wrote about six pages on average. But then you had some groups write more and they were allowed to put pictures and videos and diagrams because some of these are models. So some of the chapters were far longer and some students are more lengthy writers, some are more succinct. And so it just depended on the group and what topic it was.

Rebecca: Did they also have to present their chapter?

Jessica: They don’t have to present their chapter but they did have to read the chapters. The whole test was based on the book and the presentations that I gave during class on the content.

Rebecca: What advice do you have for other people who might want to take on such an adventure?

Jessica: [LAUGHTER] Ah man… [LAUGHTER] I think you should do what sparks your interest and you should really follow your passion and if this is what you want to do, proceed with caution, but dive in. That seems to be my approach to a lot of these quote unquote weird pedagogical techniques that I like to use. But this was really a joy. It was a lot of work so much work, not only to set it up and get it ready, and then convince students to do it for only 10% of their grade. If you would have seen their faces but, I said, “Hey, guys, guess what? We’re going to write a textbook.” They all looked at me like I was insane. And so did my colleagues. [LAUGHTER]

John: [LAUGHTER] That was gonna be another question. Has anyone there considered following up with this and doing something similar on their own?

Jessica: I have not had anyone take me up on that. I’ve had a few people asked me, “Do you think others should do this?” And my answer is usually, “You should think about it.” It’s a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding the students get so much out of it. For my evaluations, the students not only said that this helps them learn the content better than a traditional textbook, because it was written by other students, but it also helped build their confidence. They were writing a book, and now they can put that on their vitae, and all the students were so excited because they’re going to take it home to their parents and show them what they’ve done in class. They also talked about just that it was new and novel and how that makes them excited about it. But it depends how much time you have, how patient you are, and what the topic area really is.

Rebecca: When you go to do a revision next time you teach the class, do you expect your time costs to be the same, or do you expect it to be a bit different now that you have a structure?

Jessica: I think now that I have a process and understand how much time it’s going to take versus saying, “This will be fine. It’ll work out well,” I think it will take a little bit less time. But I think with that you also have to get students buy-in, because it’s not completely new, it’s something else is someone has created. And sometimes that’s more challenging to add to it, to modify it to make it better. But I think it’s a good exercise in teaching students the importance of revision and adding to something and building it.

John: Did any students object to having the work being posted publicly, or were they all happy with that?

Jessica: They were actually really excited. When we first were doing that hey said, “So where is this going to go?” I said, “Well, it’s going to be public. Everyone’s going to be able to read this.” And they looked at me, and at that time I don’t think they really understood what open source was, completely being on a website in the Lumen platform, being able to see this content. But once it was printed in a book, they said, “Well, where does it go next? Are we going to print more of these is in the library?” I said, “Well you just wait.” And then I was able to send them the URL, thanks to the SUNY OER Services who put it together, so that the students can now show it to their friends and post it digitally and share it.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] What kind of kool-aid did you hand out the day you’re talking about this assignment? [LAUGHTER]

Jessica: [LAUGHTER] Well, I should mention that all of these students were actually students that I’ve had previously and I think having that level of trust and understanding that, “you never know what’s going to happen and Dr cougars class, just be ready to roll with it.” I don’t think I could have done that with students that I haven’t had for multiple semesters. So that trust and rapport was really important and saying, “You can do this, I believe in you. Let’s do this together.” I think without that, this would have been more challenging and students would have said, “Who cares about that 10%, I’m out.” But in this case, they understood and they followed along and they were happy to do it. It was something of a challenge. I think some of the comments in which students told me about this, were just amazing. One of the students said that they generally felt this was a great experience and a wonderful opportunity and that experiences like going on field trips and writing a textbook was exciting, and made me feel like a kid again in elementary school. It makes me more motivated and looking forward to learning experiences. So I think having novel experiences and having something that’s new but also exciting and exhilarating and gosh, a little challenging, is good for the students.

John: …and they’re actually creating something themselves, which by itself should be a little bit more motivating than passively consuming a textbook that someone else created.

Jessica: Exactly.

Rebecca: I think the report that you mentioned earlier is important too. I think that’s an interesting component to this particular project that some people might not realize how important that that can be. But having that little bit of trust to go on a bigger adventure, then maybe they’d be willing to otherwise, I think is key, but something that we all can be thinking about.

Jessica: Oh yeah, I think it’s so important to make connections with your students and people do it in many different ways. I’m usually known as being (taryn?? 22:00), that shameful word in academia. But in fact, I think it’s so important and that’s how I can get so much buy-in from students and get them to join me in these learning adventures that we tend to go on.

John: We do have a note to ask you again, to come back at some point and talk about the field trip, things that you do with these large groups of students as well. But I think maybe we should leave that for a future podcast, if you’re willing?

Jessica: Excellent. Sounds great. I love being on the show.

Rebecca: I don’t know if I dare ask our final question. But we always wrap up by asking what’s next? [LAUGHTER]

Jessica: [LAUGHTER] What’s next? Well, this semester I vowed to focus and more self care and I’m actually teaching a new course called Stress and Population Health. And so with that course, I’m trying to take my own advice, which is sometimes the most difficult, and only doing a few crazy activities during the semester. So my students will go on more field trips, they will do some experiential learning, but they’re also going to be focusing on stress within the college campus, and performing some stress reduction tabling around public health and also learning a little bit more about meditation and how overall in the US we’re a little bit too stressed. So with that, I think “what’s next” is we should all take a little bit more care for ourselves, to be around for students and to give a little bit more. So, that’s where I’m putting “what’s next.”

John: That sounds like a good strategy and perhaps chance to relax a little bit and I believe that when I hear about it later, at the end of the semester. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] You have to remember that it has to be in comparison to, you know, someone’s lack of stress is really dependent upon how much stress they generally pile upon themselves.

Jessica: [LAUGHTER] Exactly. So, I’m only doing half of what I typically do in my crazy teaching. But still, I think it’ll be fun, exciting, and I’m looking forward to another great adventure and semester.

John: …and you’re also doing a COIL course at some point, aren’t you?

Jessica: I have currently already done one COIL course and I have actually just created a another COIL connection in Jamaica and have plans to create additional COIL connections so that we can actually compare components of health cross culturally and cross nationally.

Rebecca: Sounds really cool.

John: …and we should note for listeners outside of New York that COIL courses are Cooperative Online International Learning courses where classes pair up with classes from other countries.

Rebecca:Thank you so much for joining us again, Jessica and sharing with us how you rolled this project out and giving us all a little bit of inspiration and a little motivation to do some of this work ourselves.

John: Yes, thank you. I’m still amazed by the 10% but I looked through much of the work that your students have done, and it’s a really impressive work.

Jessica: Thank you. They’re very impressive students. I’m honored to have work with such amazing people. It couldn’t have been done without them believing in themselves and believing in what we were doing was important.

[MUSIC]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer and Jacob Alverson.

[MUSIC]

60. Inclusive Teaching

Are your class conversations dominated by a small number of voices? In this episode, Dr. Danica Savonick joins us to discuss a variety of class activities that support an inclusive learning environment and promote equity in participation while increasing student learning. Danica is an Assistant Professor of Multi-Ethnic Literature at SUNY Cortland, and a recipient of the K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders award, a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in Women’s Studies, and a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship.

Show Notes

Studies of bias in the classroom:

Transcript

John: Are your class conversations dominated by a small number of voices? In this episode, we explore a variety of class activities that support an inclusive learning environment and promote equity in participation while increasing student learning.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Rebecca: Today our guest is Danica Savonick, an Assistant Professor of Multi-Ethnic Literature at SUNY Cortland. Danica is the recipient of the K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders award, a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in Women’s Studies and a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship. Welcome, Danica.

John: Welcome.

Danica: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

John: Our tea’s today are…

Danica: I’m drinking a coconut lime seltzer.

Rebecca: That sounds pretty good.

Danica: It is.

Rebecca: It’s a good alternative to tea, I suppose.

Danica: I think I’m pretending that I’m on a tropical island or something.

Rebecca: Yeah, the weather around here would make me want to do that, so perhaps it’s the same there.

Danica: How far away are we from from each other? I’m here in Cortland, you’re…

John: About an hour and 45 minutes, I think, by car.

Danica: Okay.

Rebecca: Very rainy today.

Danica: Yeah, and I hear we have some snow coming up in the next 24 hours or so, so should be interesting.

Rebecca: I have the Prince of Wales tea.

John: …and I have a holiday tea from Twinings that I picked up in the tropics in Orlando at the Online Learning Consortium a few weeks back.

Danica: Sounds yummy.

John: It is good.

You’ve written quite a bit on creating a supportive environment for discussing issues of race, class, gender and sexuality. Let’s first talk a little bit about the context in which you address these issues. What courses do you normally teach?

Danica: I generally teach American literature courses. Sometimes those are general education courses, sometimes they are within the English major. I’ve also taught a number of writing classes that are a little bit more interdisciplinary in nature, and regardless of whichever course I’m teaching I like to give them a theme or put my own little twist on them. For instance, if I’m teaching a writing course, this semester the topic is the purpose of education and so we’re drawing from a wide different disciplines… people who’ve been writing about different learning methods and then when I teach English courses, some of the topics I like to do are the arts of dissent and we’ll look at the theme of dissent in American literature. This semester I’m currently teaching Intro to Multicultural Literature, which has been super fun and then next semester I’ll be teaching a graduate course on feminist world-making, which I’m really excited about.

Rebecca: Well that sounds really exciting.

John: What are some of the challenges you face in discussing some of these issues in your classroom and trying to have productive conversations?

Danica: Well, some of the problems that I’ve noticed are consistent regardless of what classroom or what school I’ve been teaching in, but some of them vary according to the student population. But one of the most common problems that I see is just a lack of student participation, or if there is participation it’ll be the same two or three students who dominate the conversation… and actually just this weekend when I was home for the holidays I was talking to my family about this—my aunt is auditing a course at SUNY Purchase—and she was saying that the same one or two students speak every single class period and she’s curious about what the other students have to say and what they’re thinking… and even my grandmother who was at Brooklyn College in the 1950s… she said she remembers feeling too scared to talk in most of her classes… and so it was only one or two of the… I guess… the brightest and most vocal students who would talk in the classes. And then, of course, as I started teaching I started to notice this as well and I think it’s every new instructor’s nightmare probably that “What if nobody talks? What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do with all that silence?” And so, I guess the main problems I’ve been trying to address are not having the same one or two students dominate the conversation but having really every voice be heard in the classroom… and the more I’ve thought about it and the more I’ve come to study classroom dynamics the more I’ve realized it’s not entirely the fault of the students in those situations, and actually quite often it is the shared responsibility of both the professor and the students to create a kind of environment where everyone feels like their voice matters and that they have something that they can say… that they won’t get shot down by the professor… that they’re not intimidated by their peers and whatnot. So a lot of my work has been trying to increase participation in classrooms and also because my focus is often on race and class and gender and sexuality in literature, we have to figure out how to have productive conversations around those really difficult issues. And for a lot of students, it’s their first time talking about these issues and so we’ve had to establish ways that we feel comfortable talking about those important questions and issues.

Rebecca: I was actually just gonna follow up to what you were saying… really curious about the emphasis on the first time students have talked about some of these things, and I think that that’s really important. We’ve been having a reading group on our campus with a book called Race Talk and that’s something that we’ve mentioned pretty frequently: that a lot of these students have never been in a context to have a conversation about race… a lot of the faculty have never been in a situation to have a good conversation about race… So, when it’s someone’s first time, how do you help that be productive and feel safe? Because you have to be vulnerable to be in those situations.

Danica: Definitely. One of the most effective things that I think I’ve done is tell students that we’re inevitably going to mess up in these conversations because our educations have not provided us with the language and the grammar and the vocabulary for talking about conditions of structural inequality… and so I make that the baseline or the premise. We know we’re gonna say the wrong thing and we are likely going to accidentally offend someone and so as a class what we do is establish protocols or ways that we want to collectively address how to handle those situations and we come up with a set of community guidelines and principles and ideas that we agree upon for how to behave when we realize that, “Oh no, I could have said that better. I wish I hadn’t said that…” or if one student feels offended by something and so I think that has really helped, especially for students who are having these conversations for the first time; they know that it’s okay to say the wrong thing and we have an established procedure in place for how to deal with those moments.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how you set those guidelines up and how students participate in that process?

Danica: Yeah, definitely. This is one of my favorite things to do every semester is have students co-author a set of community guidelines in order to foster inclusive discussions of difference. Because I want every student to understand that their voice matters and I know one of the reactions that you can get is students can start feeling alienated if they say the wrong thing. They can disengage. They can start thinking that I don’t have a place in this conversation. …and so one of the ways that we create that environment is we’ll co-author this set of community guidelines. Rather than having students write them from scratch… I think that can be really difficult… so, instead what I’ll do—it takes about I would say half of a class period to maybe half an hour, could be 40 minutes, it depends on the size of the class—I’ll print out some really basic guidelines, four or five things that I think might work well in the class as principles that we might want to agree to abide by. So things like we won’t make assumptions about anyone in the class’s race, gender, ethnicity, things like that, and we read over them as a class. I usually project them at the front of the class and they also have them in front of them on a piece of paper and we’ll read through them as a class. They can ask questions… they can ask me to define a word they don’t understand, and then I give them about ten minutes to read through them quietly on their own with pen and paper and cross off and edit and add and remove anything that they don’t like about the guidelines… to add additional guidelines… to change the wording of certain guidelines… and then rather than calling on students individually and having to put them on the spot, I have them work in pairs of two to go over some of the amendments and edits and adjustments that they would like to make and then after five minutes or so we go around the class and each pair presents one or two amendments that they would like to make and so it really ranges from adding different adjectives and verbs to adding whole new amendments or saying that they didn’t like one of the ones that I put up, which is totally fine with me. The idea behind not having to ask them to do it from scratch is just that they have something to work with—it’s not that I’m wedded to those particular principles, I just wanted to give them some kind of language and some kind of grammar for how they might formulate the different community guidelines.

Rebecca: It seems like the pair scenario would help to mitigate any issues that might arise from a dominant group dominating the rules.

Danica: Yeah.

Rebecca: That was gonna be my question but then I realized as you were talking that that might actually be how you solve some of that issue.

Danica: Yeah, and it’s pretty egalitarian. We go around the room and each group says something, even if it’s by the time we get to the end sometimes the groups are like, “Well, everyone already said what we were gonna say, so we just wanted to agree that we really liked the amendment that this other group made.” And so that way each pair gets two or three minutes to add something, to say something, and then we move on, and so it’s not like one pair gets to really dominate. The other thing I forgot to mention is students go home, they have at least one or two evenings to think about the guidelines that we came up with. They have access to them. They can open them up at home and it’s not until the beginning of the following class that we ratify them, and often when we come back together at the beginning of the next class they’ll have thought of one or two things that they want to adjust and once we make the final edits and adjustments then we as a class decide that we agree to abide by them.

John: Another nice thing about doing it in pairs is when people are speaking it’s a little safer because they’re representing their group; they don’t have to take a stand and it makes it a little more comfortable perhaps for those who might have been reticent.

Danica: Exactly.

Rebecca: I like that you have the ability to review over a couple of days as well because that also gives students who don’t want to speak up the opportunity to email you or communicate with you separately too, right?

Danica: Yeah, definitely.

John: How well have the guidelines worked? Have students responded well? Do you get more buy-in to the guidelines since they created them?

Danica: Yes, absolutely. I was really surprised the first time I did this. I was like, “This is one of those wacky pedagogical experiments; I might fall flat on my face, they might think that I’m an alien from another planet.” But, they were so enthusiastic and I’ve actually had students from former classes say “That was one of the most meaningful things that we did that semester. I think about that a lot. I wish more teachers did that…” and so I’ve gotten really positive feedback on it and it’s also fun. It’s always one of the best conversations that we have throughout the semester. And you know it turns out that they have a lot to say about the issue. Actually, I often do this assignment when we’re teaching a work of literature called Citizen by author Claudia Rankine, which talks a lot about microaggressions… and students have witnessed and they’ve experienced these microaggressions in the classroom and so they’re eager to have a chance to participate in crafting a classroom that isn’t going to have these kinds of uncomfortable and awkward moments. I also should say that when we do this I share with students beforehand several of the studies that have been done recently on classroom participation and who feels most empowered to speak in the classroom. So, there’s been a lot of studies done on gender and the experiences of students of color and what a lot of these studies have found is that those voices that are most empowered to speak in mainstream media and culture are also the students who feel empowered to take up time in the classroom. And so I share this with students before we begin the community guidelines activity and they’re always really interested. I have the sense that some of them have witnessed or experienced or might have some sense that these things go on, but to actually see the research and to see the findings and to see these massive studies that have been done, they’re just interested in it, and especially because my classes are about race and class and gender and structural inequality, I think it’s fascinating for them to see the way that what we often think of as huge systemic issues can come to influence who speaks and who participates in the classroom as well.

Rebecca: Maybe we could share those citations in our show notes?

Danica: Certainly.

Danica: You’ve used something called Commons in a Box. Could you tell us a little bit about what that is for people who are not familiar with that?

Danica: Sure, it’s a free open-source learning and writing platform. It came out of the CUNY Graduate Center. It’s a combination of WordPress and BuddyPress, and so it’s this easy to install package that allows you to create digital learning spaces, and so different universities have taken it up to do different things. Often I’ll see institutions using it as a space for their professors to host course websites. They might want to have some kind of blog that features student writing. They could use it for digital humanities projects… and it’s free and it’s open source and so all you really need is server space. As often as possible, I’ve tried to host my courses on either Commons in a Box, or currently I’m using an installation of wordpress.org as an alternative to using Blackboard or Canvas and I could talk a little bit about why if you’re interested.

John: Yeah, could you tell us a little bit about what the advantages of this is compared to say one of the common course management systems?

Danica: Sure. I see the primary benefit of these platforms as they help students to develop transferable skills that are going to aid them in the world beyond the classroom, and so I’ll talk a little bit about what I mean by that. WordPress is one of the most common platforms on which the websites in the world are built .The latest statistic that I saw was something like 30% of the world’s websites are built on the WordPress content management system, and so I like to organize my courses on WordPress so that I can familiarize students with how websites are put together… how you can build them… how they think… how they organize information… and so what I try to do throughout the semester is scaffold students’ interaction with the platform. At the beginning it’s pretty user friendly: they create an account, they are able to log in to our site and then gradually they start going into the backend (which WordPress calls the dashboard) and they start creating their own content. So, they get to experience the process of going back and forth between the backend and then the front-end and seeing what that process is like and how information is organized on the WordPress platform. So, they start creating blogs and then what I like to do towards the end of the semester is deconstruct our class website and take it apart and break it and redesign it with students so that they can see, first of all, how easy it is to build a website. A lot of my students are new to this. They’re not necessarily computer science majors. They haven’t taken computer science courses, and so they’ve interacted with a lot of websites but they haven’t really gone in and thought about how they might build their own and so I show them how our course website is built and we redesign it we do all kinds of things and then often for students’ final projects they will have the option of designing a website related to something that we have done in the course and they often choose that option. They like it… they like getting to experiment with WordPress. For most of them it’s their first taste of the platform and several of them have said that they’ve gone on to learn more about WordPress because they’ve become really interested in it and I see this as a really great opportunity for students first to think a little bit more critically about how the internet works and how these pages that we’re constantly interacting with… how they’re constructed… and also to develop a transferable skill that could become a really valuable part of their resume and the skills that they will bring to the work world. Being able to build websites on WordPress is huge and so I find that starting that process early can be really helpful. It also creates an opportunity for us to have conversations like why is our course built on WordPress when all of your other courses are on Blackboard and we get to talk a little bit about what Blackboard is and the different ways that content management systems, especially in higher education, work to structure certain kinds of relationships of teaching and learning.

John: Does the institution host WordPress, or are you hosting your own instance of it?

Danica: Ideally, the university will host it. When I was at CUNY they have a really strong culture around open educational resources and free writing platforms and there’s a big community around that. It might exist at my new institution—I have to do a little bit more work to find it. As far as I know there’s a lot of people that are using Blackboard at my institution. Ideally… best-case scenario… the university would provide server space and then you could have an installation of WordPress or Commons in a Box, but currently I’m using Reclaim Hosting and Domain of One’s Own in order to have a classroom commons installation that I’m using across the three different classes I’m teaching.

John: Do you use the open aspect of that? Is the students’ work public or are you keeping it closed to the classroom, or is that something decided on a case-by-case or class-by-class basis?

Danica: Yeah, that’s a great point, thanks for bringing that up. It varies. Parts of the class web sites are public, parts of it are private… and another benefit of working in a quasi-public, quasi-private space is that it allows us to have conversations about what information students are putting on the Internet and what they want visible. What do they want to become part of their professional digital identity? What do they want to show up in search results versus what do they not want to show up in search results? So, we have a lot of these conversations early on in the semester when they’re establishing their accounts. We talk about the risks and the repercussions versus the benefits of using their real name to do the blogging that they’ll be doing on the site, and then for their final projects… often, but not always, I would encourage them to use their real name because they put a lot of time and effort there carefully revising these projects and they are deliberately constructing them with the idea that they’re going to be writing for a public audience. But, of course, in this climate of anti-immigration that we’re living in, you have to be super careful about what you’re encouraging students to put their name on and so I always have conversations around that. There’s always an option never to use your real name. You can always use a pseudonym for the blogging and for the final projects. You can always submit solely to me instead of publishing to a public audience, because I understand there are severe risks and in some cases they will outweigh the benefits of creating something publicly.

John: And we should note that you have an article in the describing your work here and we’ll include a link to that in the show notes as well.

Rebecca: You mentioned student blogging. Can you talk a little bit about how the student blogging is used in your classes and how that augments student learning and how that might facilitate some of these conversations that might be tricky to have?

Danica: Sure. I love student blogging—I don’t know how I would teach these courses without it. My courses are structured around the blog—it’s one of their major assignments, and so for every single class two or three students are assigned to blog about the assigned reading—I think the requirement is something like 800 words or so—and that they have to do a small close reading… so an analysis of the excerpt of whatever literary text we’re reading and it has to end with two discussion questions, and for every student who isn’t blogging. So, the majority of the class they have to leave a comment on those blogs before our class period starts, and so the blogs are due at noon the day before class and then students have from noon until our class period to leave their comments and then the way the course is structured the same day that those three students are blogging… so they’re each writing a blog… they are also facilitating a class discussion… a ten-minute activity… or it can be a presentation… it can just be more of a conversation. They have ten minutes at the beginning of the next class to do whatever they want, and I encourage them to make it the best lesson plan that they have ever seen or the way that they want their ideal course to be structured, and so I encourage them to try things like think-pair-share or to do interactive activities and it’s really exciting to see, first of all, the things that students choose to blog about, because with the readings that we’re discussing there’s so much that you could talk about. I have certain things I want to talk about but those might not necessarily align with what students are interested in within the text, and so having these open-ended blogs allows students to identify what it is they’re most interested in; it allows them to get feedback on their writing from their peers prior to our class session. One way that I’ve come to think about the blog… that I talk to students about it… is as a rough draft for a paper. They’re putting out a thesis… they’re putting out an interpretation… they’re providing some evidence from the text to support it… and then they have this tremendous opportunity to get feedback from all of their peers… and so in the comments the other students will be like, “I really like this point…” “I have another example that can help you support your point…” They might raise objections; they might raise counter points: “Well, have you thought of this other thing?” And so it’s a really great way for them to increase the quality of their writing and their ideas by getting feedback from their peers. Actually, this happened just in our previous class, a student was using a term “devaluing” to talk about sexuality in one of the books that we were reading and a lot of his fellow classmates were saying that word wasn’t working the way that he thought that it was working. So, in his facilitation he kind of talked through the feedback that he got and as a class we came up with a better word that would more precisely name the kind of relationship that he saw developing in the literary text, and so with the class facilitations it provides students with an opportunity to practice their public speaking and to practice standing up in front of a classroom. A lot of the students say that they’re really nervous at first, but that they’re glad in the end that they did it and they always get through it and we always manage… and so this kind of pairing of the blog with the in-class facilitation really teaches students that they are active knowledge producers and that they have something to contribute to the class and that their voice matters. They know that they’re not allowed to just disappear and sink into the background—they’re actually the ones up there in front of the class leading the lesson and it’s interesting to see actually the ways that it increases their performance once they’re back in the chair of the student, because they know what it feels like to be up at the front and so they’ll put out a question and they then get to experience what it’s like to have no one raise their hand and so they become much better as students and much more engaged once they return to their seats and resume that more traditional role of being a student. I never know what students are gonna do for their facilitation. They don’t have to run it by beforehand, so it’s always exciting. I don’t know what they’re gonna do in class today and it’s really made my role as an educator different and I’ve had to learn to listen really carefully to the things that students are saying when they’re up there presenting and my job becomes connecting what they’re saying to the main ideas and the main skills and the main topics of the class. So, for instance, if a student is giving a presentation I might interject and say that’s a thesis statement,… what you just said… you just made a thesis statement and then they start to recognize learning how to make an argument, how to make a thesis statement is one of the skills of the course, but it takes a long time or they’re not quite sure what I mean by that, but when they’re talking they’ll just do it naturally and so my job becomes pointing out to them that they are already doing the things that we’re learning about and just helping them recognize better the ways that their facilitations are connecting to the themes and the skills of the course.

Rebecca: I wanted to circle back to the leaving comments for other students—so they do the close reading, they post about that and then students comment on it. When they’re commenting, how do you help students learn what a good comment is?

Danica: Yeah, that actually becomes a topic of discussion early on in the semester. They’re given a few guidelines: it should be, I don’t know, a hundred and fifty words or so; it needs to make a contribution to the post; it can’t just be “I liked your post” or “I didn’t like your post,” and then what I’ve tried this semester is we implemented—kind of halfway through the semester—this rule that each comment needs to provide a quote from the text so that the commenter is either supporting providing further evidence that will support the author of the blog’s claim, or providing a counter example. One of my students last class, he said “Conversation makes the best interpretation” and I really loved that because they’re starting to learn through the commenting the ways that all academic writing is a conversation among various viewpoints and that when they’re writing a scholarly paper… when they’re writing a research essay… they are inserting their voices into larger conversations; they’re in dialogue with people. It’s not like you write a paper in a vacuum; it’s actually a synthesis of all these different viewpoints and ideas and so I see the commenting as kind of a rehearsal for class discussion. So when we show up in class, say, for instance, students aren’t being particularly talkative, I can say, well, you said this in your comment, and so I know that they’ve already engaged with the ideas and it allows often our class conversation to reach a higher level because they already know what several of their peers’ interpretations of the text are; they’ve already thought about them; they’ve already thought about the pros and the cons and how we might need to complicate some of these analyses; and so it just takes our class discussions to the next step.

John: Do you do anything to ensure that everyone responds to a certain number of posts to make sure that you don’t see everyone replying just to one other post to make sure you get some balance there? Do you have a mechanism for doing that?

Danica: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, for every class students have to comment on at least one post; they’re welcome to comment on more than one, but the requirement is one comment prior to class. I don’t have a mechanism for ensuring that. The class is 25 students, if we have three bloggers, one blog might get ten comments and the others might get four or five, and one way to kind of address that in the classes is encouraging students to think about their blogs, think about the title of the blog, think about the content of the blog, think about how they’re competing for the attention of their peers. I encourage them to say, “Okay, your peers have three blogs to choose from, how are you gonna get them to read yours?” It’s a way of getting them to think a little bit about audience and what is the function of a title. What is the work that a title can do? …and from that introductory paragraph how can they give their reader a sense of what their blogs gonna be about? How can they convince their reader that there’s gonna be a good payoff that their blog is worth reading? And so it’s interesting to see the different ways that they try to attract the attention of their peers. Because they do want those comments and I find they get excited about the different feedback—they’re not required to respond to the comments, but they do often… which, yeah, it’s always exciting to witness. I try to linger, I lurk a little bit on the blogs and I’m often not interjecting in the conversations, but just kind of reading through them and that’s actually the other benefit is that it ends up serving as a mode of formative assessment because I can see what they have understood from the readings and what might be missing… what might be the things that I need to address in the time that I have—what’s not quite getting through to them, either in terms of aspects of the reading that they overlooked or in terms of the skills. So, if I tell them that your blog needs to have a main point; it needs to have a thesis, and I’m seeing that they’re not quite doing that I can then adjust my lesson plans so that that becomes the focus of the next class and I can use their blogs, their own words as an example to say, “Okay, how could we give this blog a stronger thesis?” …and so it’s quite common that we’ll end up editing or revising some of the blog posts. They get projected up on the screen and students, because we’ve created a culture that they’re constantly giving feedback on each other’s ideas, students feel a lot less embarrassed or they understand that we’re all trying to become better writers and so they’re okay with it if I project their blog post and we talk through “What are some of the pros? What are some of the cons? How could we strengthen this?”

John: And it’s a much more authentic learning experience having them focus on audience and trying to build a strong thesis statement.

Rebecca: It seems like the blog post assignment really primes students well for the final projects that you had mentioned earlier that have a public audience because they’re already practicing writing for a specific audience and it’s another writing for a more general audience, I would assume. Can you talk us through that a little bit?

Danica: The final projects for my class often vary, but they’re usually collaborative… they’re usually digital… they’re usually public… they’re usually some kind of creative student-driven element. It’s usually students identifying the topic and then running with it, whether that’s a research blog or whether that’s currently my students in Intro to Multicultural Literature are co-authoring a glossary of key terms for literary studies—I have never done this before. It is a total experiment—I don’t know if they know that this is my first time doing this, so it’ll be interesting. I don’t know if they’ll hear in this podcast, but whatever, it’s fine. So I’ve done different versions of these collaborative public final projects. They vary sometimes based on the content of the course, students’ level of preparation, what are the aims and objectives of the different courses. It’s a little bit different for a basic writing composition course versus a more advanced literature course… and so one of the format’s I’ve done is have students co-author scholarly articles that they would submit to an actual journal, and so I did this in one of my freshman writing classes. We spent the entire semester talking about contemporary issues in education… so related to technology in the classroom… active learning versus lecturing… conditions of educational equality in segregated schools… and about halfway through the semester they were put into groups and they had to identify a research question. They did an annotated bibliography, they developed a whole research project, and then they made it into an article, a short article that they submitted to the scholarly academic peer-reviewed journal Hybrid Pedagogy to see if they could get it published or not, and I had been in contact with the journal’s editors since the summer before the class, so they knew this was coming. It would not have been possible if I hadn’t been working with them because they knew there was gonna be a really quick turnaround time where the students needed to know if they got revise and resubmit, if they got rejected, or if they got accepted… and I knew that this was a wildly fanciful or an unrealistic expectation to ask students to get a scholarly journal article published—these are basic writing students at Queens College—a lot of them are first-generation students… they work jobs… they are English language learners… and so in addition to reviewing of the conventions of English grammar and how to write a paragraph… how to write an academic paper… all things that were new or needed to be reviewed… they were also trying to get their writing published in a major publication… and so what ended up happening with that is that several students got revise and resubmit. But by the time they did it was the end of the semester and finals were happening and so I tailored the assignment a little bit towards the end. I tweaked it, because all semester I’d been telling them “these blogs are important, these things that you’re writing your research, everything, all of this matters because people are actually going to be reading this and you want them to take it seriously and you want them to listen to you. You don’t want to lose their attention halfway through.” … and so we needed to come up with a way that they would still get published even if they chose not to endure the editorial feedback loop of revise and resubmit, or the accept with minor revisions, and so what we had them do is they took the feedback that they got from the editors and several of the groups chose to post to HASTAC.org, which is a tremendous resource. It is an academic scholarly network of 15,000 plus members of scholars and students and academics and artists and activists and so there’s a special group within HASTAC that showcases and features and highlights the writing of undergraduates. So many of my students ended up submitting their final blogs there, but one group did continue—they kept revising their submission and going through the queries that they were getting from the editors and then the copy editors and just all of these stages of the writing process that were very new to them. This is a required writing course… no one showed up at that course eager to do all these drafts and revision and the skills that we teach in a basic writing course… but they continued in that editorial feedback loop for about a year after our class ended and then in August of 2017 their article was published in Hybrid Pedagogy, which was very exciting and so that is now something that they can put on their resumes and I was just so impressed with them for sticking through it because we know everything that goes into writing a journal article but for them they didn’t even know at the beginning of semester what a peer-reviewed journal article was… and so it was like a huge learning process. So, that’s one of the formats of these collaborative public final projects: submitting something to an established publication, which required a lot of willingness on the part of the journal editors to work within a really quick timeframe and the managing editor Skyped into my class several times and talked to students about the journal, helped them with their submissions, they got to pitch their ideas to him, it was great. Some of the other formats I’ve used that have also been good—I’ve had students write explicitly for HASTAC and that’s an opportunity for them to tailor their writing for a very specific community. So that’s something that we did this semester in the writing class that I’m teaching. We read so much about HASTAC… we read about its history. There was an article in Inside Higher Ed calling it the ethical social network and talking about their commitment to protecting their users’ data; we learned about who is a member of HASTAC, who are the different people who are reading it; how does the website organize information—by topic, by tags, by categories and so they were reading and analyzing the site itself before they even started writing their research blogs. So it was a similar process where they identified a research question and they authored blogs that were specifically going to be then tailored for the HASTAC audience, and so one of the big aims of that assignment was this skill of kairos and figuring out how to tailor your writing for a specific community of readers and figuring out what are the conventions? what are the affordances of this specific writing space? and how can I best get my point across to this very specific audience? So, that was useful in helping us have conversations about audience awareness and tone and how you make an argument; how do you convince someone that your point is right without alienating them. So that’s one example of having students write for HASTAC. …and the nice thing about HASTAC is that it comes with a built-in user community. You have sixteen thousand people who are visiting the site and reading things. The other kind of format for these public projects is what we’re doing now with the keywords. Students are co-authoring these individual keywords, they’ve identified specific words that have emerged that they’re interested in throughout all the readings that we’ve done this semester and through our discussions and through the blogs and the final product for that will be something that is hosted on our course WordPress site… so it’ll be a page or an offshoot—I’m hoping to write some kind of table of contents that will link to each of the student’s posts—hopefully there will be media, and so this will be something that they can then share. They can decide that they want to make it part of their professional identity, part of their portfolio, or they can decide not to—it’s really up to them. …and so one of the things that I’m constantly thinking about in developing these assignments is like how to actually connect students to audiences of readers and people who could actually benefit from a keyword entry on memoir or on ghosts… that’s another keyword, apparently we talk a lot about ghosts in my class… and this is coming out of the research that I’ve done on activist pedagogy and really thinking about the role of the teachers connecting students to audiences and people that could potentially benefit from the writing that they’ve been doing. So, thinking about these projects as both a benefit to the students in the class and also to larger publics and communities.

Rebecca: How have students responded to this sort of work? You know, you mentioned that, you know, some of the classes are required courses—students are not necessarily marching in excited to do these sorts of things… so it sounds like you’ve hooked them a little bit. What is their final response to these?

Danica: In general it’s been really positive. The jury’s still out for the semester. We’re gonna do course evaluations I think next week, so I’ll learn more. But in the past, I do a lot of framing around what we’re doing in part because I was always a very willful student and I did not like being told what to do. But if I understood why I was being told to do that thing then I would get really into it and really excited and so with these student-centered assignments and activities I’m always super explicit: this is why we’re doing this; these are what I see as the benefits of this; this is why we’re authoring a set of Community Guidelines; this is why you’re doing a presentation; you’re doing a presentation because public speaking is one of the most valuable skills that employers look for and so when I’m writing your recommendation letters I want to be able to tell them what a great public speaker you are and that’s why I’m asking you to stand in front of the classroom and facilitate this. Also, I should mention this semester and at SUNY Cortland a lot of the students are going on to become teachers and so it’s important to have these experiences at the front of the classroom. I think that being explicit really helps students, and the other thing I’ll say is that I often am explicit about how frustrating student-centered learning can be, and we talked about how it can feel difficult and how sometimes we just wish that the teacher would give us the answers rather than making us figure it out ourselves or making us work in small groups and so I try to create spaces for students to express those kind of emotions and reactions to things. I also try really hard in designing these student-centered assignments… to design… to create the conditions where for instance, we’re doing a collaborative writing project… I try to give them an assignment that actually requires multiple minds and that if they had tried to do that exact same assignment on their own the final product would not be as good as if they were doing it as a group. So I put a lot of thought into kind of carefully constructing these in a way that they will be oriented to succeed in them. Recently I wrote a blog on collaborative close reading, which is a really, really difficult skill to teach—it takes years, you know, for most of us to learn how to do close reading, but I’ve tried to create this assignment that had students work on it in groups, and so rather than having to notice all of a million different things that are going on in a passage of literature, they had a bunch of different minds put to the task and they were all looking at the same paragraph for 20 minutes and dissecting it and they were all contributing their different insights and so rather than having to go at it alone they were able to learn from the different perspectives that the other students brought to the text, and so I think just being really explicit about why behind everything has helped to ensure that the reactions have generally been positive.

John: How have other faculty responded? Have other people started working on building more productive conversations? Have other people in your department started working more on open pedagogy projects?

Danica: Well, I would hesitate to say anything explicitly about my department because I’m so brand-new. It’s my first semester in the department. But one thing that’s been super exciting for me has been to see people… especially with this recent blog that I wrote on collaborative close reading… it went viral on academic Twitter and people have been reporting back, because that’s one of the things that I asked them to do is let me know how it works… let me know if, you know, you have any suggestions for how to make it better… and almost every day I’m getting tweets from people at universities across the country saying, “I tried collaborative close reading and this is what my students did…” and they’ll post pictures of the passages that their students highlighted and so that makes me feel like I’m part of a community that is bigger than my own institution. So, when I’m running these, of course I hope that they will be helpful to my colleagues, but I’m also… I really feel like I’m part of a bigger academic community and part of that is because I post these blogs to HASTAC, and so it really is, people are a community of 16,000, however many users, but then it can get tweeted out. So, even if you don’t have a HASTAC account you can still read the blogs and there’s so many ideas about scholarship being really isolating, but things like that… and getting to talk to people and discuss pedagogy with people at different institutions makes it feel a lot less isolating. But in terms of your question about reactions of colleagues, I have been super lucky both at CUNY and now at SUNY in terms of support for the kinds of things that I’m interested in doing. These are schools with very strong commitments to education, where people are already interested in and talking about student-centered methods and curious and wanting to learn more. The other day I have my students write found poems—which is the genre of poetry where you take some kind of existing document—often it’s a bureaucratic document—and you make it into a poem by cutting it up and whiting it out and mangling it and turning it into poetry and my students created these awesome, awesome found poems; they were beautiful. So, we spent a day in class, I gave them whiteout… I gave them scissors… I gave them tape… They started as banal documents; they made them into stunning poems. They would bring in their tuition bills or song lyrics with offensive stereotypes in them—one of them brought in the transcript from the Brett Kavanaugh hearing and they took these documents and as a way of thinking about language and power they made them into these gorgeous found poems and so I went to the chair of my department and I said, ”Hey, you know, my students created these poems and I would love to have someplace to display them ‘cause I think they’re really awesome” …and not only did she give me permission to tear down what was on the bulletin board, she helped me do it. We tore down these old flyers that had been up there for decades and we put my students’ found poems on and so now we have this beautiful display in our hallway of student work and several of my colleagues have reported seeing students stop and read the poems and take pictures of it and so they’re excited to see their work has become part of this gallery. In general I’ve just been really lucky and fortunate to work with colleagues who are similarly invested in helping students. I did think of a few ideas for people who might not be so fortunate on ways that they could start doing student centered things. The first would be, and I’ve already mentioned this, creating a free profile on HASTAC.org because there are so many people out there doing really creative and exciting things in their classrooms… and connecting their classrooms to larger movements for social justice… and thinking about how do you engage students in really important discussions about contemporary social issues… and so HASTAC has been a phenomenal place for me to connect with other people who are doing that kind of work. I try to start small, and so something like think-pair-share is so easy… it’s taking an index card, giving students 90 seconds to respond to some kind of open-ended prompt, then they turn to the student sitting next to them, they share their responses and then we go around the classroom and I transcribe each group’s answer to the question on the board… and so their ideas become the material that I then get to teach the course through, and we crowdsource responses to some question related to whatever the topic of discussion is that day and something like that is so easy, it’s so simple—we have gone through… I would say we’re in the thousands of index cards in terms of my courses this semester. Because the students like it and they recognize that that changes the classroom dynamic. They recognize that suddenly it’s not just one or two students dominating the conversations. So, when they get up to the front of the class and they get to facilitate something I would say, I don’t know, 65, 70 percent of them choose to do think-pair-share because they recognize that it really lowers the barriers of anxiety about participating in class—everyone has 90 seconds to scribble something on their index card and it’s only an index card,— it’s tiny—there’s not any kind of pressure to write something beautiful and then that becomes just such an easy way to really transform the dynamics of the classroom… low cost… low time investment… and even when I’m thinking at the bigger scale of assignments and rethinking the research paper so that it’s not just being submitted to the professor, but it’s for a public audience, I try not to overhaul everything at once. So it’s like each semester I’ll try one new assignment. Not throwing everything away and starting from scratch each time, because it takes a lot of energy to do these things. And so thinking about how we can make small changes and experiments but not overwhelm ourselves or our students… and the other thing that I would suggest if somebody finds themself in a situation where they want to start trying these things but might not have the kinds of tremendous support that I’ve been lucky to have is… there’s just so much research out there on the effectiveness of student-centered pedagogy. We’ve read a lot of it in my course this semester on writing and education. We read a lot of the studies that have shown how positive of an impact it can have on students to discover ideas for themselves and to work in small groups and solve problems and arrive at answers rather than sitting and listening to a lecture. Just kind of having some of those studies in my back pocket—I’ve always felt that if I was called upon… you know, “Why did you do that? I can’t believe you let the students help assess each other’s papers.” I would have some things that I can cite, that I could go back to to say “Well, actually, it’s been shown that asking students to metacognitively reflect on the implications of their writing is a great strategy.” So that kind of thing has been really helpful for me in terms of thinking about relationships to colleagues and different reactions to this kind of pedagogy.

Rebecca: We normally wrap up by asking, what next?

Danica: Well, at the small scale, I guess, we have this digital glossary of keywords that will be coming out from my multicultural literature students… going to learn all about ghosts and power and assimilation and why these words are important for how we think about and analyze literature… so really excited to see what they do with that… and then I guess at the bigger scale I’m working on a book on the activist pedagogy of teacher poets from the 1960s and 1970s, and I’m hoping that some of that work will help us really understand the ways that a lot of contemporary student-centered practices… things that we’ve talked about today… a lot of them emerged in the 60s and 70s and especially in relation to the critiques of power emerging from the social movements of that era from the women’s movement and the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War… and so I’ve been thinking a lot about how those critiques of power necessitated new relationships of teaching and learning and this was especially happening in the work of poets who I’m interested in and so that book is also considering the ways that interactions with students shaped American literature in ways that we rarely consider and also the tremendous role that poets and authors and especially feminist poets have played in creating a lot of the contemporary student-centered pedagogy that we know today to be so effective.

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.

Danica: Yeah, it’s really fun to work on.

John: In some of your posts you’ve listed a large variety of techniques that people can try and we’ll include links to those in the show notes as well. Thank you, this has been a fascinating discussion and we look forward to hearing more about what you’re doing.

Danica: Thank you so much for having me, this has been really fun.

Rebecca: Yeah, thanks for joining us. [Music]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.

57. Scalar

Imagine an online environment that makes the thought processes of a writer visible, including the loops they get stuck in, the relevant tangents they pursue, and the non-linear way in which their ideas evolve.  Now imagine that all of these features are easy to use and implement in the classroom. In this episode, Fiona Coll, an Assistant Professor of Technology and Literature at SUNY-Oswego, joins us to discuss how Scalar, a free open-source publishing platform, can help achieve these goals.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Imagine an online environment that makes the thought processes of a writer visible, including the loops they get stuck in, the relevant tangents they pursue, and the non-linear way in which their ideas evolve. Now imagine that all of these features are easy to use and implement in the classroom. In this episode, we examine how Scalar, a free open-source publishing platform, can help achieve these goals.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Rebecca: Today our guest is Fiona Coll, an assistant professor of Literature and Technology at SUNY Oswego. Welcome, Fiona.

Fiona: I am very happy to be here, Rebecca.

John: We’re very happy to have you here. Our teas today are…

Fiona: Today I am drinking Cranberry Blood Orange Endless Sunshine tea, which is a very, very ambitious kind of tea by the Republic of Tea, and I just have to note that on the side, it proclaims that drinking this tea will “create social balance one sip at a time.”

Rebecca: So maybe that’s what we should all be drinking right now. [LAUGHTER] I’m drinking English Breakfast.

John: I’m drinking Bing Cherry Green tea.
We invited you here to talk about your work with Scalar. What is Scalar?

Fiona: Scalar is an online publishing platform designed for long-form, media-rich writing. In the words of Scalar’s creators, this means media-rich digital scholarship. It’s an open source platform created by a group called the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, and the whole idea behind this platform is that it was built to serve scholars who were working on non-traditional, long-form academic writing, specifically projects that might involve visual culture or media culture. There are particular features of Scalar that have been geared towards this use case, but I would like to argue that Scalar is actually a fantastic tool for teaching because of some of its unusual features. Can I tell you about them?

John: Sure.

Rebecca: Yeah, please. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’d be asking anyway. [LAUGHTER]

Fiona: The best way to approach these unusual features is, I think, to describe how you use Scalar, and so I will. The basic unit of content in Scalar is called a page, and it seems fairly unremarkable when I begin talking about it in this way. When you’re creating a Scalar page there’s a text box where you enter a title, there’s a text box where you enter a description, and then a large text entry field where you can put in text and format it. You can choose from a few layout options. You can integrate media into that page. You can enter metadata. You can annotate. You can add comments. So far, so WordPress… fairly straightforward. However, things now get interesting once you create a Scalar page. Once you’ve created a series of Scalar pages, you can start building routes through that content. There are two ways to organize the pages that you create in Scalar: the first is to use tags, which create nonlinear clusters of organized content, or you can use the path feature in Scalar, which is, as it sounds like, a path—a linear, step-by-step progression through a sequence of Scalar pages that you determine. You can get very creative with this path structure; you can create branching paths or very complex forking paths; you can create recursive or looping paths that come back to steps you’ve already been through; you can create rabbit-hole paths that lead people away from the main branch of your content into an unretrievable nether place, but the point is Scalar does not impose any sort of order on the content that you created and indeed that’s why the platform is called Scalar—it comes from this reference to two ways we think of quantifying movement in the world, I suppose: Scalar versus vectors. Vectors are quantities that have both magnitude and direction to them and a scalar quantity is one that has only magnitude and so Scalar, the publishing platform Scalar, does not force you to do any sort of particular relationship between the things that you create. Again… doesn’t sound especially revolutionary, but remember how I mentioned you could add tags and comments and annotations to a piece of Scalar content? When you do that, when you create things like tags and annotations and comments, those all become Scalar pages themselves, and they can participate in this larger set of relationships. So a tag, which is also a page, can be tagged with something else, it can be a path of its own, a comment can be a tag, an annotation can also be a comment, can also be a tag, a path can be a tag on something. So, any piece of content in Scalar can be given any sort of relationship to any other piece of content, and what this means is that there’s a sort of radical, non-hierarchical organization to the way Scalar allows you to approach the products of your own creative work. So this becomes really, really interesting if you imagine what this means for creating something like an essay. We have a long tradition of thinking of an essay as an extraordinarily linear thing that begins at the beginning, that moves through a sequence, and that ends. But Scalar allows us to reimagine what an essay might be, not just what it might contain, so not just moving beyond text but moving beyond that linear structure, and when I first understood just how radically Scalar allowed the breaking down of this old-school essay model, I became very excited to imagine its possibilities in the classroom. So, I learned about Scalar and immediately thought that this would be a fantastic way to defamiliarize the writing process for students, and by “defamiliarize the writing process for students,” what I mean is I thought that this would be a fantastic tool to get students to reimagine the way that their thoughts unfold in writing. I wanted them to reimagine writing as actual making, as actual construction, and not just as a sort of tragic endpoint for a thinking process.

Rebecca: It’s active, basically.

Fiona: It’s active. It is a process; writing is a process and I always say writing is thinking, and students I don’t think quite understand what I mean by that, but what Scalar might allow me to do, I imagined upon first encountering the platform, would be to get students to think about how sections of their thoughts work; how ideas might connect to other ideas… not in linear ways… but in roundabout ways that might meander through other references or images or clips they came across on the internet or things from other classes… that thought is not linear no matter how much we try to get them to package it into straightforward, well-behaved writing.

Rebecca: So this is really exciting, I can imagine writing something like “I have this thought and now I’m in a loop and I can’t get out; I’m cycling through ideas and trying to get myself out and I just can’t, but sometimes that happens when you’re writing and it’s like, oh, this isn’t gonna work; I don’t have a conclusion.

Fiona: This is how the process of writing works; you do get in loops. It is a reiterative experience where you try something out and you might end up back where you started; you try it again, you come back where you started, but perhaps the loop needs to be there for a particular reason but there’s a little exit ramp you might find to some other form of thought and Scalar doesn’t force you to try and pretend that that is not happening, that that complexity is not happening. It allows you to in fact mark the way that your thought is moving and branching in non-linear ways and allows you to capitalize on those threads and those directions. One of the things that Scalar does that very useful in getting students to think about their writing process is that it timestamps every iteration of a particular page and it saves every iteration of a page. So there’s a sense in which students are free to revise or rethink. There’s a sense in which Scalar holds safe and secure all of the versions of their thought, so it works well in terms of allowing them the space to experiment and the space to make mistakes while also giving them a time-stamped chronology of the work that they’ve done. So, there are multiple ways in which Scalar allows for the thinking process to be represented.

Rebecca: It also seems like it’s a good model for students to know how long they’ve spent writing because their idea or conception of how much time they may have spent doing something might be really inaccurate.

Fiona: That’s a fantastic point because I think students do have a strange dislocation from the actual effort it takes, the actual labor that goes into producing something like a polished text. So, on the one hand there’s just an awareness of the sheer time that goes into that, but there’s also a sense in which Scalar allows students to really, really dig into the revision and the editing process, which often is hard. So, students sort of do the standard essay writing and I often find it difficult to convince them to let go of certain aspects of what they’ve written or to radically or drastically revise…

Rebecca: But it’s still there.

Fiona: But it’s still there; they don’t have to worry about losing it—they can try something completely different and perhaps see what happens when they release their hold on that idea that writing is just something you open up a word processor and do… start at the beginning and go until you’ve hit the word limit.

Rebecca: You’ve got pathway one like normal way, then it’s like here’s my cycle weird way, here’s my figure eight way.

Fiona: Yes!

John: When you have students work with this are they working individually or in groups?

Fiona: This is the next thing I wanted to mention, which is that Scalar allows for both. It is extraordinarily flexible in terms of this exact question. I usually begin by having students create content, create Scalar pages on an individual basis, but all of the students are creating within what I call one great big bag of Scalar content. Scalar uses the term “book” to describe one project in this way. So, the students can create their own content, tag it as their own content, organize it according to their own methods, but then I get students to interact with each other’s content, so they read each other’s content, they start to make tendrils of connections between their content and other students’ content, and then eventually I build up to students generating content collaboratively. So it works really well in allowing a wide range of writing collaboration, and the point I make as these networks of connection get more and more elaborate is that this is how knowledge works, this is how knowledge is created; it’s a collective, collaborative enterprise and nobody does best working in isolation.

John: When they do this is it something that’s shared just within a class or is it shared publicly?

Fiona: Again, Scalar has both options available. I discuss this issue of public versus private writing with the students and we usually make a decision together as to whether or not the students want to make their material, their writing, public or private. I’ve also had a class in which one student was very happy to make her Scalar project public, but all the rest of the students wanted to keep theirs private, so she was able to easily take her content, make a whole new Scalar book and proudly display it for everyone to see, so it is remarkably flexible in terms of what it allows you to do with what you create.

Rebecca: What about the converse, though, when it’s a one or two students that have a reason that it needs to be private?

Fiona: And there’s absolutely no problem in keeping a Scalar book entirely private. I also give students the opportunity to erase what they’ve done… so to remove it entirely. We do talk a lot about privacy, public writing, and issues of copyright is another angle that seems important to talk about in terms of the Scalar ecosystem. The group who has built Scalar is deeply invested in promoting open access and fair use of cultural resources as part of their commitment to generating very dynamic and free intellectual exchange, so they created something called the Critical Commons—it has a relation conceptually or figuratively to Creative Commons—but their Critical Commons is a place where copyrighted media is taken and transformed critically and then posted for fair use purposes. So you’ll see people who have taken clips of movies, for example, or a television shows but transform those clips through a critical apparatus that Critical Commons enables, and this allows students to really think about what they’re doing when they reference a piece of culture, whether that’s a photograph or a song or a video, that by adding their critical commentary to it, they are transforming it, they are generating ideas that are making that piece of content new, and Scalar’s link to Critical Commons allows them to really think about issues of copyright, issues of intellectual openness, what happens when something is locked down and is unavailable for access to them to write about, so it becomes a much, much broader discussion about the nature of knowledge, the nature of information in our 21st century.

Rebecca: It sounds like the emphasis then with this Critical Commons is the idea of fair use and understanding fair use and describing fair use and putting in a structure in place that embodies and enforces fair use.

Fiona: And that embodying and enforcing of fair use that you describe then becomes part of how the students think of themselves as creators, so what does it mean to take something that another student has written and to use it in some way in your own thinking? Where do the bounds of fair use lie? It’s often something students haven’t thought about and this actually relates to the labor-related facet of Scalar that I find really useful in terms of student learning. I often feel that students see the Internet as this place where disembodied text has just appeared and exists, but by generating it themselves they have to confront the fact that a lot of work or a lot of effort went into generating the things that they don’t think very much about, and so Scalar allows students to think about the writing process in new and interesting and productive ways, but it also allows students to think about the nature of information that they engage with on a daily basis.

Rebecca: It’s really funny that we’re talking about fair use today because I was talking to my students about fair use this morning. We had a visiting artist who uses fair use in her work and then there was like a thousand questions when she was here. I said, you know, “We’ll talk about fair use, I promise, on Monday, when we all get back and she’s not here and we’re not taking up her time to dig into it.” But, it’s funny because they have this commercial point of view and then also the cultural maker point of view and they conflate it as if it’s all the same and that is really different. Context matters… and that you need to be thinking about these things, so we tried to untangle that today, but you’re right, students don’t think about that at all; in fact, scholars don’t think about it very often either.

Fiona: It’s true, and I first used Scalar in a class that was comparing and contrasting 19th-century book technologies with 21st-century digital writing and publishing technologies and part of the reason that worked the way it did is that 19th century literature is, of course, out of copyright—it’s public domain—and so we were able to play very freely with the literature from that period, and then students had to stop and think and realize that the 21st century, again, literature in various interesting forms, was different, was fundamentally different because of this legal category that we use to distinguish between what is public domain and what isn’t, and students are fascinated by it, while also not understanding it or understanding its logic, necessarily. So, Scalar’s making visible of something that students just hadn’t thought about before is one of its many, many strengths or one of the many valuable ways in which it operates in a classroom.

Rebecca: Can you take us on an adventure through one of your classes to get us a better sense of how you’re actually putting it into play in a specific class with a specific group of students?

John: In terms of maybe the type of assignment that they might be working on?

Fiona: For sure. I first used Scalar in a class that contrasted 19th-century material book production with 21st-century digital publication technologies and I asked the class to really consider the ways in which genre, in particular, is affected by the shape of publishing possibilities. So students are used to thinking about genre as something that is an intellectual idea or an abstract idea informed by author influence or cultural anxieties, but they rarely think about genre as something that is shaped by the actual material affordances of publication, so we read 19th-century texts, we read 21st-century texts and then I asked the students to produce their own creative or critical response to the material in our classes, and what that meant was that some students wrote relatively traditional research essays that incorporated media, sound, video. It meant that some students created choose-your-own-adventure type creative stories that played with the notion of genre as Scalar allowed them to unpack conventions that were and were not possible in that electronic form. Students also used other sorts of technologies to play with the way that technology shaped the kinds of stories they could generate, but that’s a broad overview of how Scalar worked in one particular class. I am using Scalar currently in a class about digital literary studies and the students are making digital editions of 19th-century texts. So, students are in groups, they’ve each been assigned a story by an obscure local Oswego author and they are in groups deciding how they want to present these stories to the world… new and refreshed by their 21st century perspectives on the stories, so some of them are emphasizing maps and timelines. Some of them are emphasizing illustrating the stories. Some of them want to actually remix some of the stories and generate alternate routes through the stories. So, they’re able through Scalar to invent and create these approaches to literary interpretation—they’re making arguments about the text through their use of Scalar, and I should mention that one of Scalar’s appeals is that it’s possible to do a lot with minimal technical knowledge. It’s also possible to do a lot if you have maximal technical knowledge. There’s a lot of room for customization if you are fluent with CSS and that sort of business. It accommodates a really wide range of technical skill.

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about how the choose-your-own-adventure type things work? Is that difficult for the students to program the branches?

Fiona: The great news is the students don’t really have to program the branches. The student I’m thinking of in particular wanted to write a choose your own adventure story that turned into a different genre of story depending on which path you took through her story…

Rebecca: I love that idea.

Fiona: It was a fantastic idea and it really showed just how well she grasped the possibilities that Scalar offered. So she began—there was an introductory page that set up a scenario—it was a mystery, perhaps a murder mystery story at the beginning, and then she had a couple of options: you could choose to follow one character or one event; and as each choice branched a little bit further and a little bit further, so there were many, many iterations of the story, and again each arm of the story took on a slightly different generic set of conventions. It was relatively straightforward; literally in Scalar you simply mark, using a little sort of dialog box that you check or uncheck. you mark what pieces of content you want to attach to a page. So, there’s no encoding, there’s no high-level function that students need to worry about; they can simply imagine what they want to connect and they can make those connections relatively easily. I will say that one of the other things I love about Scalar is that it generates productive difficulty for the students, it generates a lot of intellectual uncertainty which is something that I find… [LAUGHTER] I enjoy producing in students in a constructive way, obviously. Because Scalar is this enormous bag into which students just throw pieces of content, it can get overwhelming really quickly—there can just be this amorphous, chaotic mass that they struggle to make sense of—but that’s part of the advantage, I would argue: it really, really makes them think about high order levels of structure and organization. So even though they can do multiple kinds of organization… even though they can be very creative about how they organize, they do have to really think about how they want their content to relate to one another. So Scalar has this ability to get students thinking at that high level of structure while also allowing students to pay very, very close attention on the level of annotation and close reading—it combines those two levels and sort of everything in between in a way that I find very, very useful for students to be doing. I haven’t even talked about the kind of media annotation that’s possible. But, you can annotate, on a pixel level, images. You can annotate in various time stamps on a video or a piece of audio. There’s an extraordinary level of very, very specific detail that you can attend to as well as dealing with these large high order or large-structure levels of organization.

Rebecca: How did you learn how to use Scalar and then also how do you help students learn how to use the platform?

Fiona: This is a fantastic question. I learned to use Scalar in a very short, informal lunchtime demonstration given by Cathy Kroll—who I believe is at Sonoma State University—at the 2015 Digital Humanities Summer Institute in beautiful Victoria, B.C. and Cathy Kroll simply went through the process of making a Scalar page and she simply explained—and there are all sorts of interesting, cool things you can do with this organizational system—and that was enough; that was enough to allow me to at least discover its possibilities. So, the barrier to entry is low, but then you can ramp up things an awful lot, and I do find that I’m learning more and more as I go. I first imagined using Scalar in my own scholarly work—I am working on this, again, obscure local Oswego author—and I was trying to imagine ways to experiment with bringing these stories back to digital life, but I found that I was almost more excited by the possibilities I was seeing in students and so I thought I would take the exact same approach. I tend to give students a very, very basic introduction to what Scalar can do and then just let them loose, so allow them [LAUGHTER]—again, productive frustration—they make mistakes, they lose pages, they can’t figure out if they’re tagging a page or if they’re making a page a tag. I allow this brief sort of beginning phase of crazy-making exploration and then I ramp up the features, so I introduce more and more features. I begin by, I suppose it’s the carrot versus the stick analogy, so I begin by showing some of the very cool things Scalar can do, so with a basic knowledge of how metadata works students can produce these very gorgeous timelines or maps; I show them how they can use iframes to pull in content from various places on the web and enliven their writing. But, I also then ask them to think very hard about how they’re engaging with other students’ work, and so it feels as though I start with one page and then just allow them to explore on their own while giving them pushes in certain directions to make sure that they are exploring as fully as possible.

John: Maintaining those desirable difficulties as they develop more skills.

Fiona: Maintaining the desirable difficulties, exactly. I’m still trying to figure out how much I should push them, so how much I should demand of the students. I know that other people have used Scalar simply as a writing tool, so just dealing with text and organization. I know that others have encouraged students to make use of the multimedia affordances of Scalar and I’m still figuring out what the balance is for my students who are mostly students of literature.

Rebecca: The first thing that comes to mind to me is how the heck do you grade that? [LAUGHTER] There’s a lot to keep track of and map and pay attention to, so how are you evaluating students in like what criteria and and how do you actually just sort through all of that content?

Fiona: This is a fantastic question and one I am still figuring out… [LAUGHTER] the answer to. As I’m introducing students to Scalar and as I’m letting them make a mess and generate multiple versions of a single page and get confused themselves, I do encourage them to keep in mind that ultimately they want to be imagining not just their own thought process and writing process but what it might feel like for a reader to come across their material, specifically a reader that is me; [LAUGHTER] specifically a reader that will be assigning them a grade. [LAUGHTER] At the very same time, I do try and emphasize process over product, and because students come with such a range of technical capabilities, I build into my rubrics how hard a student has worked to correct a deficiency or to overcome a limitation in their ability to understand Scalar. Ultimately I am interested in the argument that they’re making, but I do reward and encourage what I call bravery—willingness to try new things; willingness to fail; willingness to get things wrong but then to turn that failure into something useful or to meditate or reflect on it in a conscious way. So, there’s a metacognitive aspect to all of this, and essentially in every assignment I’m still trying to figure out what the balance between rigorous analysis and explorative risk-taking might be. I tend to err on the side of appreciating the risk-taking, I will say that.

Rebecca: So do they submit like a URL to you?

Fiona: No, what happens is they tell me where they want me to enter their work. I usually create an index page and I ask them to put their starting point on that index page, so they’re all contributing to one page that serves as my starting point and that’s the easiest way to wander through things. I can go hunting if I need to. I encourage the students to tag what they’re doing with their own names. If there’s a good search function, for example, if I’m looking for something that’s been lost. It definitely feels like hunting in a barn full of hay sometimes. That’s not quite the same as hunting in a haystack but it’s not quite not the same either. [LAUGHTER]

John: Have any other faculty in your department or on campus adopted Scalar yet?

Fiona: I don’t think anyone else in my department has adopted Scalar. I do think as my classes perhaps turn more towards public facing projects that might change, because I do think there are a number of faculty and approaches that could do very cool things with Scalar, but so far I have had to pull my examples from elsewhere… from other campuses. But hopefully soon there will be some robust Oswego examples.

John: Have you ever had students build upon the work of earlier classes?

Fiona: I have not, and that is something that I’m trying to figure out how to do successfully, for a couple of reasons. So it would be easy to do if I just kept one giant Scalar project and had students continually reiterate upon the work that had come before; I haven’t actually repeated a course yet that I’ve used Scalar in, so that in fact might be a next step for my work with Scalar—it would involve, of course, getting permission from the students to do this or to allow them to anonymize their work, but those are things we could work out—but I have not yet done so. I could imagine the Digital Archiving Project as being one that would lend itself towards that sort of semester after semester continuation.

John: How have students responded to this compared to more traditional writing classes?

Fiona: The great news is that students seem very, very excited by what feels like them to be freedom. They respond really well to the autonomy that Scalar offers them. They tend to respond in a slightly opposite direction when they realize that freedom comes at a price and that price is an awful lot of work and figuring out technical details, and some students truly do flounder—some students just find it absolutely maddening to try and understand what’s happening. But some students absolutely thrive and really run with the creative remixing possibilities and really embrace the radically democratic approach that Scalar allows them to take to their own writing and writing in groups. So, I would say that there’s a now predictable sort of curve: initial excitement as students think about the possibilities, then there’s an inevitable drop in enthusiasm as the students realize just how much work this involves and how much new thinking they have to do to wrap their minds around the defamiliarization that Scalar offers, and then perhaps two tails after that: one very enthusiastic skyrocketing of competence and then one more medium flavored… just sort of making peace with what I’ve asked them to do, and I do always offer students options, and if someone just feels absolutely unable to grapple with Scalar there’s always the possibility of doing a different sort of project, but I haven’t yet had a student who has completely resisted.

John: This is a nice follow-up to our earlier podcast with Robin DeRosa where she talked about open pedagogy and it seems like this would be a nice tool for students to create materials that can be widely shared, if they choose to.

Fiona: If they choose to, and I do think I’m gonna bring the concept of open pedagogy or open ed more and more explicitly into classes in which I use Scalar to make that a part of my justification, or something else to get students thinking about. It’s a growing and very exciting movement—the open pedagogy and open education movement—and I’m excited to see how Scalar can continue to be a part of that.

Rebecca: Does Scalar offer, by default, a way to license individual pieces of content using Creative Commons or is it more how you would traditionally license a website by copying and pasting the code from Creative Commons, for example, on an individual page?

John: Or is it just a Critical Commons option?

Fiona: That is a fantastic question. I think you would need to attach your own Creative Commons licensing; I don’t know that there’s a built-in feature. However, I should say that that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist; it just means I don’t know about it at the moment, but I do think you, again, get to choose your own approach to that very issue. but I’m gonna look into it and see if I can figure out if there’s a built-in tool or aspect of Scalar.

Rebecca: We can make a note of that in our show notes, too, afterwards.

Fiona: I will follow up. [LAUGHTER]

John: And if we find any links we’ll include them.

Rebecca: ..[If] people wanted to get started, do you have a couple of examples that you might recommend for people to look at?

Fiona: I definitely have a few examples that I can recommend. I can add those to the show links, perhaps, and there are examples that range from student projects through elaborate library-based projects to very beautiful, customized versions of Scalar projects. I’d be very, very happy to share them and encourage people to try out the platform.

John: We always end our podcast with a question, what are you going to do next?

Fiona: To this point I have used Scalar in upper division literature courses where students come to the course already equipped with a certain set of writing and thinking skills that I can leverage and encouraging the curiosity and bravery I mentioned. So, next semester I’m gonna try using Scalar with a first-year composition course, and so I’m in the planning stages right now to see how that particular experiment might unfold.

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.

Fiona: I’m super excited about it. As you might be able to tell, I really, really, am fascinated by the ways in which Scalar seems to activate student curiosity and student agency in their own intellectual work.

John: And if you reach freshmen with this they might perhaps suggest it to some other faculty as something they may wish to try.

Fiona: I like it, I like it as a plan.

Rebecca: Sounds like we’ll have to do a follow-up.

Fiona: I am here for it. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well thank you. This has been fascinating.

Rebecca: You’ve piqued my curiosity; I’m gonna go explore, so I can’t wait for those extra links so I can find a way in.

Fiona: If I’ve piqued your curiosity, I believe I have done my job.

John: And I did create an account a couple years ago when you gave a workshop and I kept meaning to go back, but now I’m more likely to. [LAUGHTER]

Fiona: Well let me know how you find it; let me know what you discover.

John: Thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you very much.

Fiona: Thank you so much; it was wonderful to talk with you.
[Music]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.

39. Video feedback

Have you spent hours writing comments on student papers only to see them end up in the trash can as student file out of class? In this episode, Dr. Jessica Kruger, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior at the University at Buffalo joins us to explore how providing video feedback may help motivate students to hear, see, use, and understand your feedback.

Transcript

John: Have you spent hours writing comments on student papers only to see them end up in the trash can as student file out of class? In this episode, we explore how providing video feedback may help motivate students to hear, see, use, and understand your feedback.
[Music]
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[Music]

Rebecca: Today our guest is Jessica Kruger, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior at the University at Buffalo. Welcome, Jessica.

Jessica: Thanks, glad to be here.

John: Glad to have you here. Today our teas are:

Rebecca: Jessica are you drinking tea?

Jessica: I am drinking tea.

Rebecca: Yes! Score one for us. [LAUGHTER]

Jessica: Today, I chose actually a chamomile tea from Yogi, and the Yogi tea proverb today is “not sharing is not caring.”

Rebecca: Sounds perfect. I’m drinking chai today.

John: …and I have blueberry green tea.

Rebecca: So, Jessica, can you tell us a little bit about the types of courses you teach?

Jessica: Sure. I teach in a brand new undergraduate public health program, and the courses that I currently teach: introduction to public health, which spans the gamut of information… anything can be public health… and we talked about it all in that course. I also teach a class called Social and Behavioral Aspects of Health and Methods and Mechanisms in Public Health.

Rebecca: What are your class sizes? or the kinds of things that you do in classes? What do they look like?

Jessica: My smallest class is 75 students and my largest is about 250. This upcoming semester it may be over 300. My class, when you walk into it, you’re going to hear music playing at the very beginning (probably pretty loud) to start the class. After the music stops, we get into the material, and if the students can guess it, the song usually actually relates to the topic that we’re covering, or something that’s going on in the world. I think my most apparent connection between music and academics and the world was, we had an ice storm here in Buffalo and, of course, the song was, you guessed it, Ice Ice Baby. [LAUGHTER]

John: What is the purpose of the music to start up the class.

Jessica: I like to get people comfortable and it usually fits with my personality… pretty fun… pretty open… pretty outgoing… and so when they come into class they should sit there, get acclimated to the environment, and then get ready to go for the day. Once the music stops, they know to stop their chatter, put away their phone, and get down to business.

John: Do you talk about how it relates to what you’re going to be doing or is that something that just flows naturally?

Jessica: Sometimes it flows naturally and other times the students will say “So, why did you play that song?” and it takes them a moment and I was like “didn’t you hear the reference to cigarette smoking in it? Obviously, we’re talking about tobacco today.” [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: One of the reasons why we invited you to talk to us today is about how you give students feedback. Can you talk about the kinds of assignments you give students and the kinds of feedback that you want to be able to give them?

Jessica: Yeah. In my class of 75, the small one, we get to know each other very well. But, in that small class, we actually write a paper… and this paper isn’t just a 15 to 20 page paper. They do it in sections, so the students never know in the beginning… and I actually never give them a page number… of the paper that they’re going to write… and it’s all about the social and behavioral aspects of a specific health topic. For example, some students write about maternal mortality… infant mortality… tobacco use… and they have to describe the public health issue, but also what behavioral,or what social parts of the puzzle, fit into this health issue. They’re writing this paper in small chunks. They’re turning in about a page every other week, and with that they get written feedback on some of their papers. The typical written feedback where you say “Oh, you know, you need to cite this. You need to add an apostrophe here” or “Hey, could you explain this further?” But what I also do is, twice during the semester, as they’re putting their papers together to build it into a larger document, I provide them with video feedback… and this video feedback is something new. I tend to make videos to describe things for friends, families… and I said “why not just make videos for my students?” They can see my emotion… my face… how tired I am after reading all 75 papers, and they can also see the excitement when I say “Oh my goodness, that’s such a good point. I’m so glad you made that.” They can also hear, in my voice, how I’m feeling towards their paper or what’s going on, and I can even show them “This is actually how you do a citation” because they can see my screen.

Rebecca: That sounds really great. I can imagine that modelling behaviors or modelling how you think through writing could be really useful for students.

Jessica: It seems to be effective.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how it works, what your process is, in terms of how you’re recording it?

Jessica: Sure. Students turn in their paper via Blackboard and when I go in to grade the papers, I pull it up and I also pull up a program called Panopto. Panopto is a screen capture software similar to Screencast-o-Matic and it allows me to take a screenshot or a screen grab of my computer screen, and also you see a little picture of me in the corner. I enable that just so students know that “Hey, I’m there.” In a class of 75, you may not get that personalized attention in class, but you are getting a video made directly by the professor with your paper.

After I pull up the paper, I start going through it. I usually scroll through it once or twice to point out and start thinking and distilling my thoughts about it, and then I go as if I was just reading the paper. I start going through and saying “Oh, you know, you need a transition sentence here” and highlighting it or highlighting an area where I say “I think you need another citation here” or “That’s a really great point, I’m really glad you added that. Could you also add some more?” and so this allows students to: 1. visually see their paper and any sort of modifications they need to make, but also to see that I’m actually reading their paper and giving them some hopefully quality feedback that they can help improve upon.

John: There’s a lot of research out there where people are more likely to misperceive a negative tone or read a negative tone into written text, and they’re much less likely to do that when they actually see facial expressions and so forth. Have students taken the feedback a bit more appropriately?

Jessica: I actually think that’s a good point because I assess this and one of my students comments really struck me. They said: “I like that I can watch you read my paper and see where I went wrong. I feel videos helped increase the trust with the student and the professor. Sometimes written feedback makes you feel attacked or that you feel the professor’s just being unfair and biased towards your writing.” So, I feel that this does help break down some of those walls, and they can see the emotions, but also realize I’m also using a rubric to grade. It helps them better understand the rubric and how I’m figuring out their score in a fair way.

John: So, do you grade the whole paper with the video feedback? How long are these videos?

Jessica: So, because they’ve turned their paper in in multiple chunks in my class, I usually know what I’m looking for in each of their papers. I remember their topics. I know their writing styles, and so my videos for some of the students who are very good writers only last maybe about one to two minutes. For those who may need more correction and more additional support, I’ve had videos up to 10 minutes long. But the average is about 3 to 5 minutes.

Rebecca: Do you pre-read and then record or are you doing the whole process being recorded?

Jessica: I slightly pre-read, just so I’m not caught too off-guard. But, sometimes some of the most real and genuine comments come from when you see something and you’re like “Wow, I can’t believe they actually picked that up from lecture! That was awesome.” That point really struck a chord with them and they put that into their paper.

Rebecca: I really like that what you’re describing is annotating their papers but doing it live. Not only are you providing the feedback, but you’re also providing a model for having a conversation with a piece of writing, which is probably how we want students to read… which i think is really cool.

Jessica: I would agree. I never thought I would be doing this. It mostly came out of the fact that I have pretty terrible handwriting and my spelling is not always the best. So, instead of sitting down and typing out comments, which I found took me actually a lot longer than video grading, I feel like this adds that connection aspect, models some behavior, and also give some information that they can use versus my chicken scratch.

John: How do you share the information back to the students?

Jessica: I’m able, with Panopto, to get a live link and that link can actually be emailed to the student directly through the program. The student gets an email in their inbox saying: “Hello, there’s a video that’s being shared from Dr. Kruger. Please click on this link to watch it.” I also embed the link into our Blackboard shell, so that they can go back and look at it at a later time.

John: That’s a very convenient way of doing it. It’s much easier than having to render the videos and then send them out, and that is one of the nice features of Panopto. We use it at Oswego as well, but I don’t know of anyone who’s using it right now for this purpose, but it sounds like a great idea.

Rebecca: You’ve already talked about some of the advantages and disadvantages, but can you suss out a couple more details related to that?

Jessica: Most definitely. Because this was new to me and actually it’s quite new to the literature. Video grading compared to written feedback and audio feedback actually hasn’t been studied that much, and if it has been studied it’s been done in fairly small classes… not as small as mine, even smaller classes, about 14…16 students… and so I wanted to actually compare the students perception of the written feedback that I give them within this class and the video feedback that they’re receiving. So, they received written feedback about eight times in the class. They received video feedback about twice because their paper was assessed about ten times through the semester… and so at the end of the class I gave them a survey and I was looking at the quality that they felt (if it was better than written, about the same as written feedback, or worse than written feedback). their ability to understand information, the helpfulness of the information they were given, the accessibility… so, were they able actually get the information through the link that I provided… and also the ease for them to make changes within their paper. Overall, almost all of the students felt that this was better than written or about the same as written feedback. For example, 75% of the students that responded to the survey said that the quality was better than written feedback, and a quote that supports this from a student is that they said “Video seems to give a better chance to explain what you want fixed faster to say then write all the comments. So, I noticed you tend to include more information…” which was a neat observation of the student, even though they probably got their paper back covered in purple pen and stickers. But, they still felt there was more information from that video.

Rebecca: I wonder if some of the information that they’re perceiving is the facial expressions and stuff, so it’s not actually the commentary but how to interpret the commentary.

Jessica: Most definitely, and actually I didn’t tell the student that that’s a little face in the corner. I didn’t want to point it out, but actually most of the students noticed it, and the most common comments I’m seeing with all this information is “This information is really clear, but it also makes me feel really connected to my instructor.” One student even says “University of Buffalo makes me feel small, but the one-on-one interaction is really appreciated and makes me feel more personal and more connected to the instructor.”

John: So, it sounds like it benefits you by giving you a little bit less work, perhaps, and the students. Are there any problems in terms of students getting the feedback? Have they voiced any concerns? or are they as likely to read the feedback as when you give it back to them on paper?

Jessica: I wish I could sit down with all of them and say “So, tell me the truth, did you actually go through this?” What I’ve found is actually, within the students that I surveyed, about 67 undergraduates out of the 75 completed the survey, and 85 percent of them had actually watched the video feedback, which i think is pretty good. I’ll take 85 percent any day. With the papers, they continually got them back. So, I’m not sure if they actually read them. I hope… because they needed to incorporate those changes in their final paper in order to improve their grades. But that’s one thing with paper we actually don’t know. With Panopto, I can see if they’ve actually clicked on the video to watch it. Some students actually watched it multiple times, which I found to be interesting. They went back to review before they turn their paper in again to make sure that they made all those changes.

It’s actually neat. When I sent out links I would see the views spike up and then when their papers were due again I would also see the views spike. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That seems like a good trend to have seen, right? Did you have any other interesting findings?

Jessica: So, with this very exploratory research in this, with a larger group of students, I was wondering about the users making change. When I’m making changes when I get comments from a reviewer. they’re usually on paper, right? Reviewer 2, you probably wouldn’t want video feedback from them. But, I thought it might be more challenging for them, because they’re watching a video and watching their paper, versus having a piece of paper next to them making the changes, but 81% of the students said it was better than the written feedback. One student said “It was much easier to understand what exactly you wanted fixed. With written feedback you have to first understand their handwriting and then understand exactly what went wrong, which is often hard.” So, I think that the voice and the emotions and the pictures helped them synthesize that information faster and easier than maybe that written feedback. I did have another student said something surprising. Although they knew I was going to do this in class, I had a student say “I got this email link about a video. I didn’t know that that was real, so I didn’t click on it. I didn’t watch it at all.” [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Sounds like a good excuse.

Jessica: Yes, exactly.

Rebecca: But that does bring up some issues related to accessibility and access. So, what do you do for students who maybe video isn’t the best method for them? Maybe they need a transcript or they need captions or something? Do you have a different method that you use for those students? or how would you approach that, if a student needed something like that?

Jessica: I always allow students to meet in person and discuss their paper so if the video option… if they need transcripts or other accessibility option, Panopto does have a built-in feature that may or may not be enabled for people’s campuses. Our captioning will be enabled soon, but with that does come a barrier of accessibility. So, I always give students the option of meeting with me. You can also upload the video to YouTube and create your own transcripts, which also have some challenges…. and there is actually, in the offices of accessibility, the ability to send them a video and they can send you back transcript as needed. But, in this case, if a student needs any sort of accommodations, I’m happy to meet them where they are and figure out a different way for that student besides the video feedback.

Rebecca: I think it’s always just important that as we’re thinking about these new methods that we’re not losing track of the fact that electronic documents may or may not be accessible naturally unless we take some extra steps. So, I think it’s always good when we let students know upfront that like “Hey, we’re trying this thing out, but if you need something else, let me know.” So, I’m glad that you’re doing that, but also that you’re making people aware of some of the tools that are available as well. This is such a great technique.

You said you were working on a paper, right?

Jessica: Yes, that’s where I was pulling the stats up. I’m like “Okay, I gotta pull that up.” [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I look forward to reading that when that’s out.

Jessica: Yeah, I have to figure out what journal I’m gonna send it to, which is always a fun thing to figure out, right?

John: One thing that I think might be worth mentioning is that for people who are using Blackboard who have really bad handwriting, as I do myself, we used to have that Crocodoc option to mark up text. It’s probably more work than video feedback, but at least you could embed comments and notes and other things. Now that Blackboard has lost that and they’ve replaced it with a New Box View, providing comments and providing feedback in Blackboard is so much more difficult, cumbersome, and so much less flexible than it was even with earlier releases. I think video feedback is a really good way of doing it, and Panopto is a really nice tool because it’s all stored on the server, you don’t have to store their videos, you don’t have to somehow transmit them to the students, or give them links to things in your own cloud services. So, it just seems like a really good approach.

Jessica: I think there’s a lot of utility for this for people who are teaching online. That’s how you can make that connection with the students. They can see who you are, if you’re comfortable with that, and also get to know them a little bit. I have colleagues who use tools such as Flipgrid, and one of their first assignments is: “Show me where you study” to kind of get to know each other. But, this is getting to know each other on an academic level, and knowing that I’m just not some person sitting behind a desk with a pen marking up your paper to bring you down… I’m here to help you learn and to help you grow as a writer and a future public health professional.

John: I used Voicethread in my online class last semester and it provided a similar experience. It got to the point where, and students commented on this too… some discussions were done in Voicethread and others were done in text… and when I was reading and some of the students noted that when they were reading text comments and text responses from students they could then hear the voice of the students. They could match the people to voices and it gave it a much deeper sense of connection then I had experienced before… because I had just used primarily text discussion forums.

Rebecca: I also want to note… 75 students in doing a writing assignment… like wow… that’s crazy. [LAUGHTER]

Jessica: Yeah. I think it’s important to help meet our learning objective for the course overall… and some would say I’m a glutton for punishment. But the students actually don’t complain about the paper as much as they complain to me about other things. Because they really don’t know that it’s going to be this long paper and grading it in these digestible chunks is actually much easier for me and the students. So, don’t tell my students next semester, but they’re still going to have to write the paper… and I still not to a page count, but the average page count for last semester’s class was just 15 to 20 pages at the end.

John: That’s a lot of grading.

Rebecca: It’s pretty incredible. How long does it take you to do each chunk? I mean you must have a down to a science because you’ve been doing it for a while.

Jessica: With the written feedback it takes me a few minutes per paper because they have a pretty solid outline that they follow and students have similar topics and I encourage them… I’m like “Work with a friend if you’re both writing about tobacco in Pacific population your background is going to be similar. If you both have the same source, be sure that you’re not plagiarizing.” But, you can work together and still have very separate papers… and so part of it becomes very repetitive at the beginning of the paper discussing a background on a public health topic… which is pretty straightforward, but where they get creative is actually where they get to health design and intervention that they think will work to help solve their public health problem.

Rebecca: At least it sounds like they get interesting.

John: It sounds like you scaffold it very nicely. How many times do you provide them with feedback over the course of the semester?

Jessica: About 10 times. Next semester, I’m going to do it a little bit less because it’s a lot of work on my part, but the smaller the chunks to grade, the faster it is to grade them… and the sooner I can realize that they might not understand something then we can cover that in more depth during the class. So, I use this project as a way to help them improve writing, but also it’s a nice check of “Oh, they actually don’t understand that concept so well” or “They’re applying it in a way that really isn’t the best, so let’s go back… let’s talk a little bit more about it and we can all be on the same page…” and I really, really like the way that it’s broken down and I don’t think I would ever wait til the end of the semester for one giant paper. Ever. [LAUGHTER] Because it causes a lot of anxiety for the students and it takes a long time to read such a long paper if you haven’t been working on it in chunks. I think my favorite thing that I hear from students is “You know, I never thought I would write like this” or “I didn’t like the idea that we had to turn in small pieces of paper but, you know what? I’m done with your paper in my class and I was procrastinating all the other papers. So, I’ve learned a new technique in writing and reducing procrastination.”

Rebecca: That must make it so that is a lot better to read at the end too.

Jessica: Oh, most definitely. If they make minor mistakes throughout it, they can fix it for when they turn it in for more credit, so that they’re not losing out on points.

Rebecca: So, we generally wrap up by asking what’s next? So, what’s next for you, Jessica?

Jessica: So, what’s next is I get to have a fun summer but coming back to the school year, I think I’m going to be writing a textbook with my students. I’m very much into the ope educational resource movement and so very passionate about it. Public health is a little bit behind other disciplines in adopting open educational resources… and I think one way to get students excited about this, but possibly other faculty, is to write a textbook… and like all of my classes… they’re small. [LAUGHTER] So, I’m going to attempt to do this with 75 students next semester. I’m either crazy, delusional, or ahead of the curve. I’ll let you know, hopefully on another podcast.

Rebecca: Sounds great. Sounds like it’s quite the adventure that you have planned for yourself for the fall.

Jessica: Life is always an adventure. [LAUGHTER]

I’ll let you guys in on a secret. I’m going to take a hundred students on a field trip this next semester to do some experiential learning… which will be really fun… and also terrifying to take that many students on a field trip. but I think experiential learning is so important in any academic field… and so, I’m this huge advocate and always trying to integrate it in my classes. One thing that I do is I’m highly involved in student-run free medical clinics and have been my whole career. As a student, I had to start my own medical clinics and now I want you just to suffer and do it like that. [LAUGHTER] I want them to have the same opportunities that I had and learn about the different disciplines and working together and helping out the community overall. So, each week I take undergraduate students with me to a free medical clinic and their job is to screen and advocate for patients and it’s so great to see how passionate the students are about helping these folks that they’ve never met… and also how invested they can get. The other day, when we went to the clinic, one patient needed eyeglasses and we actually didn’t know of any free places to get eye exams… and so the student took the initiative… got on their phone… called probably 10 eye exam places and then made it his mission to actually create us a document and call corporate offices to see if we could get eye exams for these patients that are in need. So, it really allows them to take charge… take off the training wheels… and become an advocate and use those public health muscles for good.

Rebecca: Sounds like a lot of rewarding days.

Jessica: Very much so.

John: That sounds like a lot of busy and long days as well. [LAUGHTER]

Jessica: I think the most common question I get is “Do you sleep?” and I do… eight hours a night. Sleep is very important for overall health. [LAUGHTER]

John: …and, in your field, that’s something especially to focus on.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for your time, Jessica. It’s been really interesting to hear what you’re up to… and I think you’ve offered a lot of fruit for thought for most of us.

John: Yes, thank you very much.

Jessica: Thanks so much. Happy to be here.

[MUSIC]
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Theme music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance from Nicky Radford.

31. Writing Better Writing Assignments

Complaints about student writing are embedded in faculty conversations across disciplines. What if the issues with student writing, though, are not their fault, but ours instead? In this episode, Allison Rank and  Heather Pool join us to share suggestions about writing better writing prompts that provide student with explicit expectations.

Allison Rank is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the State University of New York at Oswego and Dr. Heather Pool is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Denison University.

Show Notes

  • Rank, A., & Pool, H. (2014). Writing Better Writing Assignments. PS: Political Science & Politics, 47(3), 675-681. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096514000821
    Hypothesis
  • Bean, J. C. (2001). Engaging ideas. The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical.
  • Rockmore, E. B. (2015). How Texas teaches history. The New York Times, A31.
  • Braver, Lee (2014). How I Mark Up Philosophy Texts. APA Newsletters, Fall, 14,1 Special section. p. 13

Transcript

Rebecca: Complaints about student-writing are embedded in faculty conversations across disciplines. What if the issues with student-writing though are not their fault but ours instead? In this episode, we’ll talk about writing better prompts to make explicit what the expectations are and how to get there.

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an Economist.

John: And Rebecca Mushtare, a Graphic Designer.

Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

John: Today, our guest are Dr. Allison Rank, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the State University of New York at Oswego and Dr. Heather Pool, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Denison University. Allison and Heather are co-authors for an article titled Writing Better Writing Assignments published in Political Science and Politics. Welcome, Allison and Heather.

Heather: Thank you.

Allison: Thanks.

Rebecca: So, welcome back to Allison, I think, right?

Allison: Yes.

John: Yes, welcome back, Allison.

Rebecca: So, today, our teas are?

John: Tea Forte, black currant black tea.

Allison: Water again.

Rebecca: It was coffee last time.

Allison: Okay.

Heather: I’m also water because I forgot that this was tea-oriented.

Rebecca: Yeah. Yeah. We have to send out those reminders ahead of time, I guess. Mine is Harney & Sons Paris tea.

John: What prompted your interest in writing about writing assignments?

Heather: I’ll start with that. I was director of a writing center at the University of Washington for a social science writing for a couple of years and then, Allison filled my seat after me. It was after we had seen numerous prompts that our students were coming in and asking for help with, and Allison, after she had completed her time at the writing center, came to me and was like, “I think we can do this. We can do some people feedback about how to do a better job at writing these.” We saw a lot of prompts that could have been more clear, let’s just say that.

Rebecca: Were there prompts that you didn’t understand?

Allison: I think usually we could figure out how to interpret them, but it was very easy to see why students couldn’t figure out how to interpret them.

Heather: Yeah. Right. And so, oftentimes, what happens is prompts are basically dissertations, right? Where you could literally write hundreds of pages on them or they’re so narrow that if you answer all of the questions, then, there’s no space for analysis or creativity or anything like that.

Allison: To add some details, so Heather had that job for two years and then, I had the job for two years. We’ve had four years between us of seeing these various prompts come in across the sub fields of political science and we’re actually seeing a lot of very similar problems and prompts on very different topics, which I think, for us, was part of being able to think about it’s the structure of how we write the prompts and how professors think about prompts is actually a place for an intervention and then, starting to teach our own classes sort of getting the sense that sometimes what comes back from students is on them, but also, we need to be a little bit more responsible around what it is we ask students to do because sometimes, some components of their poor writing may actually be more our fault than we’d like to admit.

Rebecca: I think we can all probably experience the idea that you get something back here like, “Yeah.” “Yeah, yeah, you answered that, yup.”

Allison: Yeah.

Heather: Right. Well, and part of it too, just to follow up on what Allison said, is we ourselves were early career and we’re just writing our own writing assignments for the first time. As a TA, you sort of inherit the assignments that people write and you’re like, “Okay, yeah. We can work with that.” But then when it comes to create your own, there’s no roadmap out there at all, and so, you stumble into stuff and you write assignments that the students have no idea how to interpret. And so, on the one hand, it was seeing some things that were out there that we thought, “Wow. There’s problems here. There’s commonalities,” and we can imagine how to get out of that problem and part of it was self help.

Allison: Yeah.

Heather: We’re looking for a resource that didn’t exist and Allison’s brilliant idea was like, “Ooh, we could create that resource.”

Allison: Yeah.

Heather: And so, that was a huge part of it.

Rebecca: Faculty definitely want students to be good writers …

Allison: Yeah.

Rebecca: … but we expect students to come in with those skillsets often and faculty often see themselves as content providers but not necessarily writing instructors. And I think that we hear that a lot even on campuses where writing across the curriculum exists. What role do you see faculty having in helping students develop their writing beyond just the prompt?

Allison: I think that faculty have a really important role to play on writing, but I think part of it comes from knowing what it is that you want to help students improve and having reasonable expectations for what the class that you have set up can actually help students do. In doing our research, when Heather’s saying we had a hard time finding roadmaps as we dug into a lot of the Bloom’s taxonomy literature and trying to figure out if we’re writing prompts that asks students to take particular steps, are we actually providing students a roadmap for those steps.

Allison: So, one of the things that I struggle with a lot is the way in which I don’t recognize that I’ve been disciplined. So, I’ve been disciplined as a political scientist. I ask questions in a way that political scientists ask questions, and then, get mad when my students don’t understand. That’s part of my expectations. But I also never make that explicit in content, even in the content-driven courses. That the way I’m approaching this content is about a political science perspective and here’s how that might be different and here’s how those expectations should then influence the way that you write a paper or approach a question.

Allison: And so, I think that it’s linking up the expectations for helping students with writing to the expectations we have around content-delivery is I think where a lot of faculty should spend more time.

Heather: I teach political theory, it’s not really a testable subject, and I could do a test but I don’t think that’s a particularly helpful way to evaluate people’s engagement with the content. On some level, I actually think it’s a cap out when faculty members say that they’re only content providers in part because I think we learn through writing and it’s not until we’re actually able to write about things that we grasp the kind of significance and the meaning and all of those things and we actually have some research. And I think in being … engaging ideas, I could be wrong, she suggests that we learn as we write. It’s only in the process of actually trying to put other people’s words into our own context that we actually grasp what’s going on.

Heather: And so, to be effective content teachers, I think we need to figure out how to be effective writing teachers as well and I think it’s important to be clear when we’re asking them to summarize and when we’re asking them to analyze and when we’re asking them to evaluate and those are all different things. And we need to give them opportunities to work on those things before we have them write big final papers or we ask them to do all of those without any scaffolding.

Rebecca: So, speaking of those nice keywords, I know that I’ve had conversations with students and they can’t actually tell me the difference between describe, analyze, reflect, things like that. So, can you share a little bit about how you might frame that for students, what those words mean and how you structure that?

Allison: Sure. Now, I’ll say off the top, I think that faculty, a lot of the time, don’t know what they mean when they use those specific terms. And so, part of what we would actually see in the writing center is prompts that said describe, but we read them a no, that if you actually just described, you are not going to get a good grade on this paper. That that was the word that was in the prompt, but I would bet money, if you follow those instructions, you would have problems. So, I think, I occasionally, for students to actually define the terms that are in the prompt, if I’m asking you to analyze let’s walk through in class one day, what would be the difference between summarizing this content and analyzing this content, so, actually walking them through what the terminology is.

Allison: I also think that that’s where having sub prompts after a prompt can be really helpful, where you break down for students that I expect you to summarize or describe a particular amount of the content and then, analyze something so that they have to distinguish for themselves what part of this assignment am I addressing in different components of my paper.

Heather: Yeah, I think that’s great. I do things like I have students do small stakes regular assignments where I have them summarize and then, reflect, and then, ask a question. And so, they’re already thinking about the difference between summary and reflection and then, I actually, in class, will talk about what’s the difference between describing something and analyzing something and one example that I use, because I went to grad school in Seattle is I’m getting off of a plane in Seattle. Seventy percent of the people on the plane are wearing super awesome Gore Tex water repellent gear and 20% of them are wearing wool and 10% of them aren’t wearing coats. So, that’s a description of the situation. But analysis is telling me why that’s the case. That’s trying to explain what we see and to make sense of it.

Heather: So, I then ask them to come up with reasons why, what that description says makes sense or what stories they can tell about why that’s what they see. There’s also a great piece, it’s the Netflix … the new Sherlock Holmes, it’s the lady in pink where he walks into a room and he sees a woman dead on the floor, and then, Sherlock Holmes goes through and comes up with all the stories about the particular things that he’s seeing are what he’s seeing. And it’s a really effective tool for students to be like, “Oh, summary is really different,” right? And many times, prior instructors may have asked them to summarize, and so, they’re relatively good at that, but it’s the analysis part that they really struggle with. Again, I think it’s our job to help them figure out what analysis actually is.

Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve noticed in my own department, we’ve been talking about writing in our department quite a bit lately. We had a conversation … My department is made up of art historians, designers and studio artists that all makes up like an art and design department. So, it seems like it’s all one discipline but we all have really different cultures within that discipline, and that we talk through what’s some of the kinds of writing that we do on our department and discovered that we didn’t really mean the same thing.

Rebecca: And so, we’re working on developing a common language and sharing that out within our own department to make sure that we can be consistent between levels because I think that’s some of the confusion that our students are experiencing.

Heather: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right, and of course, writing across disciplines varies greatly, so we may put these statements in different places if we’re in the Humanities or if we’re in the Social Sciences, we may approach quotes differently and whether or not it’s appropriate to use them or not appropriate to use them, what counts as evidence differs from discipline to discipline. And the way I set that up for students is to say, “You’re going to end up in jobs where you don’t actually know what they want when they ask you to write something, and you’re going to need to be able to figure that out, and that’s actually what we’re trying to give you here is the ability to approach a writing practice and figure the rules out. And there’s different rules in different disciplines and your job is to develop the facility to be able to move between those things as needed.”

Allison: Yeah. I’ve done something in class with my intro class which tends to be … it’s very frequently a general education class. There tends to be students from a lot of different majors and actually, just asking them how do you think you’re supposed to write paper. And you’ll get all sorts of answers about …

Heather: Right.

Allison: … what a thesis statement is supposed to be, you should never use I. Which is a thing in political science, it’s like “No, I’ve got a correct that right now.”

Rebecca: Yeah.

Heather: Right.

Allison: You need to tell me I argue X, Y and Z and students are so taken aback, but it’s so much easier if you start, at least for me, by getting them to tell you what are all the rules you think you know so that I know where I need to tell you that at least for this class in this space, that’s not the right rule.

John: But part of it is just being more transparent with students …

Heather: Yes.

Allison: Yeah.

John: … and making sure they understand what you expect from them in terms of coming up with good writing prompt. You mentioned scaffolding a bit.

Allison: Yeah.

John: How do you scaffold it in terms of the stages of writing? How do you break it up for students or do you have them just submit it in whole draft or what?

Allison: Yeah. I think it really depends for me on different classes. So, for the intro class, before their four-page papers, they write a couple of four-page papers, they do something called reading reflections but it’s really a worksheet where they have to tell me the author or authors, the title, what type of source is it using the Chicago style guide. It’s essentially breaking out for them, everything they would need to know for citations, they have to tell me the research question, what they think the thesis statement would be in their own words, which again, is to get them in this format of saying like Madison argues X, Y, and Z. A couple of good quotations and then, their own initial impression of the piece. So then, when they sit down to write the paper, they already have the stack of material that’s like, “Oh, if I want to argue X, who would I go to as evidence to support that claim?”

Allison: In my advanced classes, I tend to break it down more in terms of the annotated bibliography, so before they would ever touch writing a longer paper, I first want an annotated bibliography and I do it slightly different than a “normal annotated bibliography” I ask for one paragraph of summary, and then, for every entry, I need one more paragraph that tells me the relationship between that piece and at least two other pieces in the annotated bibliography. So, getting them to think through what are the relationships that help them categorize where a literature review could go before throwing literature review on top of what it is that they have to write. And I may have stolen the annotated bibliography from Heather.

Heather: It’s possible, [inaudible 00:13:03] annotated bibliographies, yes. So, yeah, I do some similar things. I started to use Allison’s reading reflection assignment that I’m inching closer and closer to that mostly because I’m a little overwhelmed by grading. I have them do seven of these reading responses, I call them, where they do summary, reflection, and then, ask a discussion question. So, that is getting them to train to summarize stuff, and again, the point is they have to do one of those for each of the authors that we read, so they actually have a pretty decent summary and they have the other 24 summaries from people in the class that they can go to when it comes to writing their own papers.

Heather: And then, for my intro class, I hand a paper out and they need two and a half or three weeks before it’s due and then, I require a draft on say Tuesday, they then do peer review in class on Thursday, and then, the final draft of the paper is due the following Tuesday. So, they have to have a pretty decent working draft a week before the paper is due. And if you make a good effort, then, there’s no deductions from your final grade so it’s not a graded assignment but it is one that if you don’t do it will hurt you, and the same thing for sub [inaudible 00:14:06] good faith peer review. I like that a lot because the peer reviewers catch really irritating things that when I see them time after time after time, I get angry.

Heather: And so, the peer reviewers catch a lot of that where they say things like, “You seemed to have a problem with paragraph structure,” and somehow, when they’re hearing that from their peers and then, they hear the same thing from me when I give them feedback, I then ask them to do a reflection on the feedback that basically enforces them reading the comments, where one of the questions is, “Do you any commonalities in the feedback you’ve received from your peers and myself?” and surprisingly, there often is commonality there. And so, then, I start to get them thinking about what their patterns of error and what can they do to address those patterns of error.

Heather: So, in terms of scaffolding, I make it due early and I make a little stakes draft and then, they have a week where they can talk to their peers, they can come talk to me on office hours, et cetera, so that the paper that they turn in has been seen by at least two other pairs of eyes.

Allison: Yeah. I should say I do in my advanced classes, I have a version of that where there’s a draft due two weeks before finals week and then, students do not get evaluated on their drafts, they get evaluated on the quality of their feedback.

Heather: … what level?

Allison: Like a 5% grade. Yeah, I think it’s 2% you turned in a draft and then, after that, I have a sheet, I was doing it not graded, just sort of the participation points and I would get feedback that was like, “I really liked what you did here.” And I was like, “No.”

Heather: No.

Allison: “This is not going to work for me,” and so, changed it to where there’s an actual rubric for me to evaluate the feedback that they provide each other, and that has gotten students to give much more direct feedback to many students.

John: That was something I was just going to ask, have you used rubrics, and what do you see as the advantage of using a rubric for assessment?

Heather: Because we have writing-specific classes, and then, we have ones that aren’t but frankly, all of mine would qualify for the W overlay just because of the percentages. Teaching, I really care about writing, so that’s a simple part of the course but not all of them are Ws and if there are Ws, they have lower numbers of students and I can’t offer only Ws for curriculum reasons. And so, generally, all my classes are really heavy on writing, and so, I’ve moved more and more towards pretty specific rubrics where I basically highlight and bold stuff, and then, have a relatively short comment section. And I’ve just switched to a new rubric this semester and I actually think I like it.

Heather: I tend to over comment on their papers when I’m not constraint by a rubric and constraint by space, frankly. And so, for me, I’m a big fan, right? “This is what an A paper looks like,” “Here are four different categories that I’m assessing you on,” “This is what a B paper looks like,” “Here are four different categories for that as well.” And so, I’m tentatively enthusiastic about pretty specific rubrics.

Allison: I like very specific rubrics for intro classes. I have a hard time using very specific rubrics in a lot of my advanced classes, and I think it’s because I struggle to write rubrics that I think are balanced, aligned on being detailed enough to be a value but broad enough to where students can really sort of flex their muscles when it’s an open research question.

Allison: And then, a lot of my advanced classes, it’s an open question. And so, then, I find I have a rubric but it ends up being like on these criteria, would you be rated as excellent, good, fair, weak, poor. And so, it tells them where they are and then, with comments, but it’s nowhere near the level of sort of fine green value of the rubric that my intro classes have where everyone’s writing on the exact same question.

Rebecca: You are both hinting at differences in the role that a faculty member might play in different levels of courses between intro, intermediate and advanced. Can you explicitly address that and what the faculty member’s role is in each of those kinds of levels?

Heather: Yeah. I think I do something similar to what Allison does with my upper division classes, which I just taught at senior seminar. I have them do essentially two kind of shorter papers that are kind of lit reviewee where I’m asking them of pretty specific question about some segment of the course reading. And then, I have a big where like, you tell me what your research question is and then, they go through a proposal, an annotated bibliography, a draft with a clear pieces and then, a final draft. And that starts basically from the fall … the first one of those is the proposal was basically due at the beginning of November and the final paper isn’t due until the middle of December.

Heather: And so, I’m also a really big fan of if you don’t like the topics I wrote, then, you write one and tell me what you would like to write on, in part, because I think we say this in the paper, I actually am really interested in reading interesting papers. I would much rather read a paper that incorporates the material from the class in a way that you find compelling and that you want to write about, than I would read your [wrote 00:18:40] response to my question that you found really stupid. And so, I do give them that freedom but with a caveat that they do have to come talk to me. And I give students actually that freedom for intro, all the way up to seniors and my most advanced classes. But I do think it’s different when I’ve got a cinema major versus when I’ve got Political Science majors. I talk about writing and use examples in different ways across those levels.

Allison: Yeah. And I think that I, in the same way that you wouldn’t deliver the same content from intro to American government to an advanced American government class, I think it’s the same in terms of writing skills. And so, I tend to focus more in the intro class on these statements. Trying to lay bare some of the relatively, I would think in some ways, rudimentary, the thesis statements are deeply complicated space focusing on the building blocks of being in the discipline. These expectations of writing and then, in the more advanced levels, focusing on the types of writing that I think are in different forms more likely to be both of interest to them, but then, also, let them test skills that are more likely to be relevant.

Allison: So, for instance, I don’t have any full papers in my advanced classes usually outside of the big papers that are due during finals week, but for every book we read in the class, I have them do a critical analysis. It’s essentially a book review, but I found that if I call it a book review, I get book reports, which is not what I want so I call it a critical analysis. And the guidelines are I want no more than a half page of summary and then, up to two and a half pages of analysis. I don’t read anything over page three, with the idea of you need to be concise. I don’t want it to be summary and I give a set of prompts about what you can … here’s some places you might want to go but they’re very open in terms of talking about the content you know from your broadcast communication class that I haven’t read or how does this book help you think differently about some event that happened on campus or is happening in the news.

Allison: Where I think that that type of analytical skills sort of more what I want my advanced students to start being able to do, this thing I read in the classroom connects to some broader literature in political science or literature from another discipline or just the way I interpret the words. And that’s where I see the writing in the advanced classes outside of the research papers as more my responsibility.

Heather: I was just going to follow up with I’m teaching seniors again and they’re on the job market themselves and trying to figure out why they just did a major in Political Science and trying to actually have them answer a question that is meaningful to them as opposed to like I need to know that you know how to read a book and find a piece of statement. And so, really, trying to create space for more advanced students to do more advanced interesting things.

John: In the classes where you use rubric, do you share the rubrics with students? Because I would think that would give them a little bit more scaffolding in letting them know what you think is important and helping them determine how to structure the papers and things.

Allison: Yeah. I would say sometimes I do, and sometimes, I don’t. In introductory classes where I have students that are already very concerned about doing things “right”, I actually tend not to because I find that they then hew to the rubric in ways that are actually really counter-productive. I’ll give them more of what I would consider the left-hand column of the rubric. So, I’ll take into account, when I’m grading, your citations will be 10%. Your grammar and style will be up to 10%. Your thesis is going to be worth 20% so that they know how points are distributed. But I don’t actually like to give the specific boxes that are sort of it’s going to be an excellent if there are x criteria, because I found that that tends to lead to really I think counter-productive conversations about well, how do I meet the standard of that box, as opposed to what makes a good analytical argument.

Heather: I don’t put percentages on my rubrics. I’m a big fan of the visual rubric where I’m like there’s a lot of things in the C columns and what’s a C. There are a few things in the A column but there’s mostly things in the B column, that’s a B+. I’m a political theorist, we don’t really do quantitative things particularly well. I’m a big fan of not sharing that because I don’t actually know how to do that. Some rubrics, I share with them. I share rubrics about their participation with them, like here’s what I expect a good participant in this class to be able to do, and I assess them on that, but I just started using this new rubric so I didn’t share that with them at the beginning of this term, but now, I think maybe I should have. I don’t know if I think it would help them or hurt them, I wonder.

Rebecca: I have detailed rubrics that I use for grading and I just started using our learning management system to use the rubrics and I found that that actually can be really challenging because when they do that on paper, I sometimes circle the line between things.

Heather: Yes, right. Me to. Me to.

Rebecca: And then, you have to pick one …

John: But if you’re doing it in Blackboard or some other learning management system, you can always override the …

Rebecca: Yeah. Well, I was just going to …

John: … if someone works outside the box.

Rebecca: … which I have done. Yeah. And I sometimes will make a comment if I put it in the C column, the comment is to why it’s there if it wasn’t one of the criteria I had originally come up with, and so, it’s very clear. So, I’ve been experimenting with that a little bit. I tend to share the rubric, but I also find that students tend not to look at the rubric.

Heather: Until it comes back with a letter grade on it, and then, they’re like, “But why? What happened?”

Allison: Yeah. I will say that I use the point rubric in Blackboard for classes where the size or the amount of papers … and so, it’s basically just for intro where it speeds grading.

Heather: Yeah.

Allison: Right? That’s when I do a points rubric in Blackboard, but even then, the idea that Blackboard defaults you to having three categories and that I always go in and have like no, I definitely need a couple of more point variations, yeah.

John: I usually have four or five on that in mind.

Allison: [inaudible 00:24:20] Yeah, yeah. I have to go in and sort of add because I tried doing it with three ones, and I was like, “Why is everyone getting a 30?” It’s like …

John: Well, you can pick whatever categories or …

Allison: Yeah. Yes, and so, I had to go in. That was my first experience using it last year and I was like, “Well, that’s wrong.” Let’s go back and then, regrade it, and that changed all the rubrics. But okay now, yeah, it takes a little learning.

John: But it can be an iterative process …

Allison: Yes.

John: … where if there’s some work, you can modify it.

Rebecca: Yeah. That’s also why I often don’t put percentages for the categories upfront is because I sometimes see what I get back to see if I need to adjust what I thought the weights were going to be to make it more fair.

Heather: I struggle with the percentages because writing is hard to do in any sort of objective fashion and I worry about the kind of thesis is a percentage, because sometimes they write a not so great thesis and have a brilliant paper, right? And so, then, you’re like, “Well, okay. So, you got 75% on the way there on your thesis,” but your argument at the end was actually really good and so, my feedback is write a clearer thesis because your argument’s really interesting, but it’s hard for me to figure out how to do that.

Rebecca: One of the things that I think we haven’t addressed but hinted at a little bit is not only is there disciplinary ways of approaching writing but there’s cultural ways of approaching writing too. And so, when you’re talking, Allison, about needing to write really concisely, that’s something that’s popular in design as well.

John: And in economics.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: Like economical writing.

Rebecca: Right. But I often have students who want to write with very flowery language or think the academic writing looks a particular way, and usually, it’s very convoluted, very complicated sentences that don’t make any sense.

Allison: Yeah. Yeah.

John: I wonder where they get that.

Allison: Often, I train political science but I always, in my intro classes and occasionally, in my advanced classes, depending on how many students it would be a repeat for pass out a piece called How Texas Teaches History from, I believe Ellen Rockmore. It was an op ed in the New York Times a couple of years ago about the high school textbooks that had gone out in Texas where all of the “benefits” of a slave-holding society, which is a deeply-problematic framing. Masters taught slaves Christianity has an active phrasing, and then, all of the brutalities of slavery are framed in passive ways. Slaves were beaten, slaves were assaulted. And so, you excuse any actors, and I passed that out to students before we do, sort of when I complained about your grammar, when I correct grammar, I’m not doing it because this is a pedantic exercise and I just want you to meet these standards. I do it because in political science, it is incredibly important that we are accountable for who the agents are that act, and the only way that I know who your agents are is when you tell me who the agents are.

Allison: And I think that sometimes, that tends to help ground at least conversations to about flowery language where it’s a slightly different point, but I can often say, “What you’re doing here is actually obscuring for me who is acting and what they’re doing,” and the most important thing that I need to know is who’s acting and why they’re acting and why it matters. And so, I found that piece actually really hit students in a way, it’s like I never thought about it before, I never thought about why it mattered before, and I found that to be really helpful.

Heather: We both teach in political science and I think that this is particularly true in politics. Instead of the something must be done, well, what needs to be done and who needs to do it, right? And in politics, I think that’s a pressing question in ways that it may be less pressing in other’s field of study.

Rebecca: I find that one of the comments that I read a lot for design students is like you haven’t said anything actually. “There’s only one sentence here that says anything and the rest can go.”

Heather: I do spend a fair bit of time talking about my own writing practice actually in class where when they’re working on the first drafts of their paper, I will tell the story of my first published article, I was like all done and, “Oh, yay, I’m about to send it out,” and then, I realized that the word count was 4,000 words less than the words that I had, so I needed to cut 4,000 words from my manuscript in order to send it in.

Allison: Oops.

Heather: Exactly. Geez, it was the first ignorance. And then, I tell them I got rid of all of the adjectives and all of the adverbs and I cut several paragraphs/pages in total and it made it better. You read the draft that I thought was finished and the draft that was submitted and the second one is way better because I had to be economical with my language, I had to be really clear, I had to be direct, I had to say what I wanted to say and move on as opposed of lingering, loving over the words because they are so pretty. Which is what we as people who write as a part of our job eventually realize that, but they haven’t had that drilled into them in the same way and like, “That’s my job.”

Allison: Yeah.

Heather: It’s like, “You kill your word babies.”

Allison: I definitely am a fan of showing students my writing process. So, for instance, when I teach the annotated bibliography, Heather, you may not know this, I actually showed the part of the annotated bibliography I sent you for the Bletchley Circle paper.

Heather: Oh, my God, that’s awesome.

Allison: When I was in charge of doing the lit review for a piece that we co-authored, what I showed to students on how to do a lit review is like, “So here’s the thing I sent to my co-writer. This is when I was doing work with someone else, this is how you do it,” so I showed that. I’ve actually taken to showing my annotated readings in class.

Heather: Me too.

Allison: So, in classes where I want students to annotate, I actually just put my work up on the dot cam, instead of doing like, “Everybody, to page 57,” and then, I just can only see my book. I want them to see that part of writing is also the annotating. So, getting as transparent in some ways about my process as possible I have increasingly done.

Heather: One of the first pieces I assigned in my intro class, it’s a four-page piece. I think his name is Lee Braver. It’s in the journal or the teaching journal of the American Philosophical Association or something, that’s how I mark up texts, right, how I mark up philosophy texts. And so, part of it is just getting them to pay attention to how they’re reading, and in many ways, that gets them to pay more attention to how they’re writing and to how … when they read a text, that they leave thinking, “Oh, I understood that,” it’s usually because the writing is really clear and you want everyone to leave, to finish reading your paper in the same way and have that sense of like, “Oh, I know how it was argued.” And if they don’t have that, then, it’s your job to actually fix it. In the same way that we can read authors and say, “Gosh, I wish Thomas Hobbes [used to 00:30:44] do our words.” But he’s dead, you’re not. You can do better.

Rebecca: What are some tips that you have for faculty who are running their … assignments for the semester or getting ready to write ones for the fall?

Heather: Right. Yeah. We’re definitely working …

Allison: Yeah.

Heather: … on our fall prompts. I think it’s really helpful to have other people look at them. I actually think it’s really helpful to have people map in your field and not even in your sub field, look at them, so I will occasionally ask my partner to read prompts and she knows how to do what I do. I’ve definitely sent assignments to Allison to just be, “Does this makes sense?” “Do you understand what I’m asking?”

Heather: I’ve had former students read prompts as well to see if it’s clear what I’m asking them to do. I think a huge part of it is time, like not writing it right before you hand it out, and then, getting other people’s eyes on it who you …

Allison: Yeah. So definitely, yeah, Heather and I send prompts back and forth before the semester starts. I’m also a huge fan of having all of my assignments done before the semester starts. I have everything loaded in Blackboard in the assignments, every assignment is in before the semester begins. And that helps me know, partially, it’s for me with planning a syllabus. If this is what I expect students to be able to do, where do I have to be. What do they actually have to have in order to do this assignment. So, for me, it’s just part of the planning process.

Allison: I also increasingly have a sort of stable rotation of assignments that I like, that I figured out packages for, and I, particularly in the advanced classes where it’s that more sort of open, I want them to be able to do what they want to do. I think figuring out assignment structures that get refined overtime and work well, and then, if they’re open enough, you can reuse them pretty frequently. And the thing I like about that a lot is that, then, the students start interpreting it for one another. It helps them become teachers for each other.

Allison: So, for instance, with those critical analysis assignments, occasionally, when it’s students that I’ve had for the first time, they’ll ask a question. I’ll try to answer it and then, another student will raise their hands and be like, “Dr. Rank, I got it,” and they’ll be like, “So, the thing she wants from you is this,” I’m like, “Great. Thank you for that.”

Heather: I’ve also have taken to, as I’m doing the grading, particularly at this point, for my intro class, I give them two or three options for which topic they want to answer and I will switch generally one of those topics each time because I’ve realized that it’s not actually asking something that’s important for them to think about for the course or it’s really poorly phrase or it’s not directing them to actually answer what I want. And so, if you’ve got something that’s worked relatively well, tweaking it as you’re grading it, you get your first five papers, and you’re like, “Oh, nobody answered the … I thought they were …” it may be me. Like maybe it’s not my students that are … maybe I misstated what I actually wanted.

Heather: And so, I will, as I am finishing grading something, if I realized that I wrote it wrong or that I wrote it unclearly, I immediately go in and fix it because I know I won’t actually remember the next time I use this that I did it badly.

Rebecca: Heather, I’ve also found that to be a really good procrastination technique during finals week.

Allison: Oh, my God. Oh, yeah.

Rebecca: So during finals week, I do so much planning for the following semester.

Allison: Oh, that’s when many assignments get written to go in Blackboard for the next semester, let’s be honest.

Heather: That’s true.

John: Going back to the thing about having a portfolio of assignments that you can rotate in, how do you deal with things like Chegg and Course Hero and other sites where students upload those materials?

Allison: Sure. I think because or what I’m talking about, the prompts are so broad that honestly, if students have my assignment for how to write an annotated bibliography ahead of time, bully for you. I’m really excited that you’re reading this annotated bibliography guideline …

John: Well, what I’m more concerned is …

Allison: … prior to being in my class.

John: … for the final projects and so forth, what prevents students from submitting mildly revised version of something that someone submitted two or three years ago?

Allison: I think that becomes about how often you teach the same class and using the same package for the same class. So, I’d say I have probably three packages of assignments that are scaffolded, that work for different types of classes. And I tend to not use the same package the second time I teach a class. So, you’re getting a good chunk of time between assignments, and again, I don’t teach large enough classes where I’m super concerned about not noticing, if that makes sense. Because they have to give me a research, for most of these, they require what your research topic going to be and then, I’m going to give you some feedback, and then, you’re going to turn in an annotated bibliography and I’m going to give you some feedback.

Allison: So, to some degree, if those are all coming back and you’re pulling them out of something like Chegg, I feel relatively-confident that I’d be able to tell.

John: You’ll recognize it.

Allison: Yeah.

John: Okay.

Heather: And I also, even for the classes that I recycle topics for regularly, I will often realize between iteration two and three that I asked for three sources from the course and actually, that was the un-doable and so, I lessen it to two. And I actually caught somebody who used the three sources prompt for the two sources assignment that I had given them, and then, I switched the readings out as well. And so, previously, it had been the full book and this time, it was an excerpt, and I don’t think you read all of [Espinoza 00:35:47] to write this paper.

Heather: And so, those minor adjustments that you’re making to your syllabus, it’s relatively easy to catch, and I’m not teaching 250 students a semester. I have maybe 50 or 60 or 70, and so, it’s relatively easy for me to catch the minor variations that I’ve made in my assignments or that I’ve made in the syllabus that they might not think I’ll catch.

Rebecca: What response have you gotten from students about your assignments in the way that your assignments are structured?

Allison: I’m not sure if this is about how the assignments are structured, though in the advanced classes, it might be. I get a lot of feedback from students that my classes are where they get the most feedback on their writing. That they never get as much feedback on writing as they get from my assignments. And I think that is partially because I think … I’m sure this is true for Heather too. If you’re a professor who cares a lot about writing, you give more feedback on writing. But I think it’s also because of that, so many of my assignments are staged. That I feel a real obligation to give a lot of feedback, and then, to give do overs in some ways, right, where it’s just the lower stake stuff first, and then, you can fix it.

Allison: And so, I hear a lot from students about appreciating the amount of feedback. I also hear a lot about appreciating the variable points that I assign for certain assignments. So, I have assignments that are structured so that if you improve more than more than one-letter grade between the two assignments, the point value of the second one goes up and the point value of the first one goes down, and students also talk about really appreciating that.

Heather: I certainly have students who say in my evaluations and I also ask them to do a final portfolio that reflects on their learning as a writer, what are your greatest strengths as a writer, what are your greatest weaknesses, or I don’t say that, I say what are your areas to work on improvement. And so, I ask them at multiple points throughout the semester to do that kind of metacognitive reflective stuff because I actually think it makes them better learners, which means they become better writers. And so, my experience as an undergrad was I got a lot of papers that had a letter grade and like the occasional “Good” or “What?” in the comments, and that was pretty much it. I had no idea what I needed to do to get an A and I wanted to get an A.

Heather: And no one actually took the time to tell me the steps that I needed to take and so, I try really hard to say, “Here are the four things you did really well on this paper,” like, “Oh my goodness, you used those sources really well. Great. Clear possible interpretations of the authors. You have a beautiful writing voice. Your citations were perfect,” and then, follow up with this sort of areas of growth and improvement.” And I also end up always being a cheerleader that I’m like, “You have one more of this,” “You can totally crush it.” And so, students, even if they get a grade that they’re not particularly excited about, I am on their side. I want them to succeed and they know that and they also know that because I didn’t just give them a letter grade.

Heather: The drawback, of course, is this is incredibly time-consuming, and I’m not sure how sustainable it is and I hope it is because I really care about it and it’s one of the places that I find the most satisfaction when I’ve had a student in two or three classes and I look at their first paper that they ever wrote for me and I look at the last paper that they wrote for me and there’s much difference, and I value that so much. But it also just takes so much time, and that’s why I rubrics, obviously. As I’m moving more towards rubrics that have less space for me to write, that becomes a little more feasible.

Allison: I feel like one of the things that I really like about and keep in my brain from the paper that we wrote is to always give that sort of a big question that lets students …

Heather: Yeah, yeah, it’s true.

Allison: … the difference between a prompt and sub prompts. So the prompt is the question that you could write a dissertation on, and then, the sub prompts are the space where you tell students, “To get a good grade on this paper, I’m going to need you to do the following three things. I need you to summarize the framer’s argument or justifications for x component of the constitution. I need you to analyze the differences between the interpretation of the constitution when it was put in place by the framers and the interpretation of it in the wake of the new deal. And I need you to interpret changes and who is allowed to be a citizen or considered to be a citizen in the United States.

Allison: So, there’s a really big question at the top that you could write a dissertation on and then, there are these cues that help students understand what are the important parts of answering that question. Because I often think that’s where students have a hard time distinguishing. They could give you lots of answers for the big question but those of us who are in the field would be like, “That is the least important thing you could say,” like, “That’s the least relevant way you can answer that question,” but it’s an answer to the question. And so, it’s maybe not fair to hold them accountable for that.

Allison: And so, giving the sub prompts helps cue them to really pay attention to the particular things that matter in a way that they might not have before. And then, again, having that ahead of time helps me, as the professor, know what I need to make sure they’re hitting in class. If they’re not bringing those things up on their own, I need to make sure I do it with them so that when the paper comes out, it’s not a surprise.

Rebecca: Sounds like there’s focus on scope and a focus …

Allison: Yes.

Rebecca: … on values.

Heather: Yeah. I think that’s absolutely right. That is one of the things that I continue to do when I’m writing assignments is that … The paper that just came in from my intro class was why is political obligation important for a community. That’s a huge topic and then, I’m like, “According to Socrates, you need to tell me what Socrates says and you need to tell me what Hobbes says and then, you need to make them talk to each other and then, you need to make an argument for why one is better than the other.” And that’s what those sub prompts do that I think is really helpful.

John: I guess our next question is for each of you, what are you going to do next?

Allison: Heather.

Heather: I will take that one. I’m really interested in writing a piece on what analysis is because I feel like we tell them all the time more analysis but we don’t actually clarify what we mean when we say analysis, and I don’t think they have any idea of what they mean when they say analysis. And so, I’ve started including an appendix in my ridiculously-wrong syllabus that is like what is analysis. At some point, I just need to write that up because I think most of us struggle with communicating to our students what we mean when we say that word, and I think being a little more clear about what we mean would actually help them learn to do it better.

Allison: In terms of teaching, the project that I am hoping to work on right now is something that I started maybe two years ago after I went to the Digital Humanities Summer Institute on using annotate with students as a way to help them with the group annotation. I’m trying to work through those annotating skills moving towards better writing. And so, that’s for my American politics classes that I am hoping to get better at. I get frustrated by the tech quickly, and then, drop it.

Allison: So, that’s one of the projects I’m hoping to work on this summer and I’m hoping to do some comparisons in different classes with how students do with group annotations versus annotating on their own.

Heather: Can you explain that? When you say group annotations, they’re all reading the same PDF and then, marking on it?

Allison: Yeah. So, it’s essentially, you load the PDF online and then, you can assign small groups of students to all work in the same version of the PDF.

Heather: Interesting.

Allison: And so, they actually can go through and put comments on each other’s annotations and say, “You could find someone else’s interpretation and let them either deepen it, disagree with it, link it to some other part of the text where they can start flagging for each other and having a conversation that is deeply in a relatively small section of a text.” Heather, I’m thinking about this for American political thought, an African-American political thought.

Heather: That’s wonderful. I love that idea.

Allison: Where it’s like beyond, I get some value out of collecting their annotations which I also do in American political thought where I show them how to annotate. I give them that same piece from Braver, and then, for the first couple of weeks, I actually collect their annotated readings and hand them back, and then, I’d like to start trying this group annotation as a way for them to start thinking of reading and working through texts is more of a collective exercise in conversation.

John: What was the software you use for that?

Allison: I believe it’s called Annotate.

Heather: Is it iAnnotate?

John: iAnnotate is an iOS app or an Android app, but is it-

Allison: It’s not an app. It’s a…

John: Web tool?

Allison: … a web tool.

John: Might be hypothesis.

Allison: Maybe it’s that.

John: I know a lot of people use that for …

Allison: Yeah.

John: We’ll check on that.

Allison: Yes.

John: We’ll add that to the notes.

Allison: Yes. You should. I found it very interesting to use and then, the one time I tried teaching it, students had all sorts of questions and I basically was at the front of the room like, “I don’t know,” and so, then, I scrapped it and just need some amount of time to go back in and play with it and anticipate more of what the questions would be.

Rebecca: Well, what you did was gather the questions.

Allison: Yes. Let’s …

Heather: That’s right.

Allison: … call it an …

John: A research exhibition.

Allison: Yes. Yes. Exactly.

Heather: Because it turns our much of teaching is not being successful.

Allison: Right.

Heather: Trying things that didn’t work very well, you’ll do it differently next time.

Allison: Yeah.

Rebecca: It’s an iterative process.

Heather: It’s exactly right. Exactly right.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for the insights that both of you have provided. I think that gives a lot of faculty food for thought.

Heather: Thanks so much for having me. I’m honored to be a part of the SUNY Oswego crew.

Allison: Yes, I was excited to be back.

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and you may review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

8. Creating an open textbook

Over the last few decades, textbook prices have been increasing 3-4 times faster than the overall price level. Responding to this, many students choose to either not buy textbooks or delay purchasing them until the semester is well underway. In response, a growing number of faculty, departments, colleges, and universities have begun to create and use open educational resources that are freely available to students and faculty.

In this episode, we discuss the process of creating an open textbook with Kristen Munger, who, along with several collaborators, created Steps to Success: Crossing the Bridge Between Literacy Research and Practice, as part of the SUNY Open Textbook project. We also discuss how and why faculty may wish to consider adopting or creating open educational resources.

Kristen Munger is an Associate Dean in the School of Education at SUNY-Oswego. Prior to becoming Associate Dean, she was a faculty member in the Counseling and Psychological Services department at SUNY-Oswego. Before beginning her doctoral work at Syracuse University, she practiced as a school psychologist in New York state schools for twelve years.

Show Notes

  • CENGAGE OER – CENGAGE’s OER initiative
  • Lepionka, M. E. (2008). Writing and developing your college textbook: a comprehensive guide to textbook authorship and higher education publishing. Atlantic Path Publishing.
  • Intellus Learning – MacMillan Publishing’s OER spinoff that bundles OER resources with ancillary materials
  • Lumen Learning – A site that bundles OER textbooks with ancillary materials and testing software.
  • Merlot II – The website of the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching
  • Munger, K., Crandall, B. R., Cullen, K. A., Duffy, M. A., Dussling, T. M., Lewis, E., … & Stevens, E. Y. (2016). Steps to Success: Crossing the Bridge Between Literacy Research and Practice. Open SUNY Textbooks at the State University of New York College at Geneseo.
  • OER Commons – A website that provides assistance in creating and locating OER materials
  • Open Educational Resources in SUNY – A website containing information about the SUNY Open textbooks project and other related programs.
  • OpenStax – A collection of OER textbooks
  • SUNY-Oswego Library’s OER guide – A guide to OER resources, provided by Laura Harris at SUNY-Oswego

Transcript

John:Today our guest is Kristen Munger, an Associate Dean in the School of Education at SUNY-Oswego. Prior to becoming Associate Dean, she was a faculty member in the Counseling and Psychological Services department at SUNY-Oswego. Before beginning her doctoral work at Syracuse University, she practiced as a school psychologist in New York state schools for twelve years. Welcome, Kristen

Kristen: Thanks, John.

Rebecca: Today our teas are:

John:Pineapple ginger green tea

Kristen: Peach Tranquility

Rebecca: That sounds good. Afternoon tea.

John:So we invited you here to talk a little bit about your participation in the SUNY Open Textbook Project. Could you tell us a little bit about that project in a very broad sense.

Kristen: In 2014, there was a grant funded opportunity, a call for proposals for authors who might be interested in creating an open textbook, so the OpenSUNY, and it was a multi campus effort with SUNY libraries where people’s proposals were accepted then they would be provided with like copy editing services, consultation with instructional designers, and graphic design support. So I was interested and proposals came in, and then I happened to be one where the proposal was selected.

Rebecca: So what does it mean to be an open textbook?

Kristen: An open textbook is a textbook that conforms to different open criteria, and so maybe I should bring up right now the idea of the five Rs, which is a good signal of openness, and so the five R’s are a way of looking at permissions for how people are allowed to use materials and what they can do with that. Truly open or maximally open means users can retain, reuse, revise, remix or redistribute the learning materials. Open does not necessarily mean free, and free does not necessarily mean open. So an example of an open textbook would be a textbook where all of the materials would conform to those five Rs that I discussed. Something that’s free for example, if a faculty member made a course reader, or posted things in a learning management system, where the students didn’t have to pay for the materials but could access them for free. It wouldn’t necessarily be open, because the person wouldn’t be able to retain copies, redistribute them, or remix them, etc. An open text book conforms to those five R’s and includes the ability for people to remix, redistribute, all of those things that define openness.

Rebecca: So it sounds to me like an open textbook in this context, in the way that you’re talking about it, means that you kind of retain a copyright to it but you’re providing this open license for people to use in these ways.

Kristen: That’s exactly right, Rebecca.

John: And that’s a form of creative commons license, right?

Kristen: It’s actually for the OpenSUNY Textbook Project, the licenses that were used were Creative Commons sharealike, non commercial, means that other people can’t make money on it, but otherwise it can be shared at the same level.

John:What types of materials are created under this notion of the five Rs.

Kristen: Some examples of learning materials could include textbooks, like the textbook that I did, open source software or labs, open media, and even entire open courses like MOOCs or college courses that use openly licensed materials, even if they’re not open to the public to take, and then those materials address issues that we really have concerns about, when it comes to accessibility, and overpriced materials, and it also addresses the problem of restricted access to learning materials based on financial resources. Students may not purchase textbooks and they may not get access codes to be able to use the study guides that are included. So that can be a real problem of students… or just renting or borrowing things and they can’t keep them. It almost creates like an expiration date for the materials and we know that that’s not necessarily good pedagogical practice to have the knowledge come and then be inaccessible again.

Rebecca: Another way the faculty can contribute is, a lot of professional associations have education wings where they might be collecting materials, like assignments and things too that could be released in the same way. So, I would add to your list to provide the opportunity. I know that I’ve had the opportunity that a couple of times and it’s a nice low stakes way to get involved without it really being a lot of time commitment, but there’s no reason why I wasn’t willing to share some of the work that I had done.

Kristen: What a great contribution that would be.

John:So what is the name of your textbook?

Kristen: The textbook is titled Steps to Success: Crossing the Bridge Between Literacy Research and Practice. It’s available. It’s free and available on the OpenSUNY textbook and OER websites or you can just Google “steps to success: crossing” and it will be the first hit that comes up, and according to the website, it’s been downloaded so far over seven thousand times, but if half of the people downloading would have needed to purchase the book then the total cost savings would be over two hundred thousand dollars, considering maybe it would be a sixty dollars book.

John:And this was released about a year and a half ago, right?

Kristen: It was in 2016, yeah.

John:So that’s a remarkable savings just with that one project.

Kristen: What could students do with an additional two hundred thousand dollars?

John:So what prompted you to participate in the open textbooks project?

Kristen: The most obvious prompt was, when I received the call for proposals and that prompted me to start thinking about it. I hadn’t authored a textbook or a book yet. I had done some book chapters, so the request for proposals that came out was the initial prompt. I also was interested just because I had been worrying about the high cost of textbooks for my students, and other students and I began to read about the open movement and I just became very intrigued about the idea of authoring a textbook. I hadn’t authored a textbook or any book at that point in my professional career, and so it was also a milestone, the idea of being able to put together an entire book, rather than just book chapters, that was something professionally that I wanted to accomplish.

John:How did you find partners to work on this, because you do have number of collaborators.

Kristen: I ended up inviting ten co-authors to join in the book project with me, and these were all scholars who had been at Syracuse University with me. I knew their work. I knew them personally. I knew how they had contributed to both research and practice in education pertaining to literacy. I contacted them. I either wrote to them or called them, and said, there’s this really great opportunity and they were very excited. When I informed them about the openness of it, every one of them was as motivated as I was, and being able to contribute.

John:And it probably helped that you knew them in advance and you had worked with them before in some form.

Kristen: Yes. Yup.

John, I should also mention that three of my co-authors are from SUNY-Oswego in the Curriculum and Instruction Department. Dr. Michelle Duffy, Dr. Maria Murray, and Dr. Joanne O’Toole. Their contributions, along with the contributions of other co-authors were really essential in the success of this book.

Initially I had looked through the different topics that I thought would be most pertinent to include in a research to practice literacy textbook and I matched up the topics with some of the folks I had gone to Syracuse with, and they were all relatively beginning scholars in the field, maybe some recently tenured or pre-tenured faculty and they really were the keepers of the most recent scholarly knowledge and literacy, because of having just completed dissertations, where they had completely exhausted knowledge on certain topics, so they would be great informants and authors. I had a really good bunch of people working with me.

Rebecca: How did you organize that collaboration. I mean, it can be a challenge to juggle a lot of different personalities, and different areas of expertise.

Kristen: That is correct. It was challenging, just because there were ten people and me, to try to pull together and I ended up doing a lot of work trying to teach myself about the editing process, and effective collaboration. At the time, I was working with another co-author on a chapter that was going to be released pretty recently, and it was in a commercially available textbook, and I ended up talking to an editor who was working on the chapter with me, and I just peppered her with questions about being an editor and pulling things together. I tried to get as much knowledge from her as I could. I also asked the SUNY-Oswego library to get a copy of a book called Writing and Developing Your College Textbook by Mary Ellen Lepionka, and that provided me with a lot of information about effective collaboration, and in some of the things that I was reading, I learned about a concept called a meta-voice. And so in a textbook or any kind of publication where there’s multiple authors, to ensure that there’s an overall structure and voice threaded throughout it. The concept of a meta-voice helped give me something concrete that I could try to achieve with the other co-authors. When it came to some of the structure, and getting people to work together, and pull everything together… I mean… the overused quip about herding cats might apply and not because there were any particular difficulties, but it was more my co-authors curiosity and independence, rather than any kind of negative cat behaviors. But pulling everyone together, keeping us on target, meeting deadlines, adhering to our timeline, those were all challenges, but those are the challenges that come with any effort like this.

John:We’ll share the citation for anything you share, such as that book, in the show notes. So that will be available afterwards.

Kristen: Great.

John:How did you actually manage that meta-voice? Was one person in charge of rewriting to match or was it a shared endeavor, where everyone strove to smooth out the edges so that it seemed like one voice?

Kristen: The answer is both, but it turns out that that’s an editor’s responsibility for sure, and being able to pull that together, but one of the things that I did, first structure both with meta-voice and to have consistency across the chapters, I created some different templates and guidelines, things like if we’re using a word that is sometimes hyphenated and sometimes not. We need to make sure that we picked a team, and then we’re consistent across chapters. We also… like one of the things that I did, as an editor was to make sure that the way we were defining terms was consistent across the chapter. Or if for some reason, we deviated from those terms, there was an explanation as to why.

John:Now you were using PressBooks I believe, right?

Kristen: That’s correct.

John:Ok. How did that work? Were people able to see what the other people were doing or was it done individually and then combined or – I’ve never worked with that… so….

Kristen: Ok, it became released on PressBooks but that was the end product. That wasn’t something…

John:So it was developed separately.

Kristen: Exactly. But what we ended up doing is we looked across each other’s chapters and did a lot of peer editing. We had two external reviewers, who also provided some really good suggestions for improving the quality of the chapters and making sure that there was consistency. One of the reviewers was really good at pointing out where there were inconsistencies or where we were losing that metavoice and it gave us a great opportunity to then weave it back together and make it stronger in that respect. PressBooks was the end product. We actually worked in Microsoft and –

John:Ok…. So it was written in Word and was uploaded into…

Kristen: Yeah. Where we overlapped in terms of scholarship, I shared chapters between authors. They shared with each other. We sometimes met, and through email we managed to pull everything together. We went through a lot of revisions and review and it really was to make sure that we were having the most current knowledge and that we were putting out a really high quality product.

Rebecca: So after spending some time editing, would you do that again?

Kristen: You know… I would… because it is in line with the kinds of problems I like to solve. I think when you’re doing work where it’s the kind of problems you like to solve, that even when it’s really difficult then you’re definitely willing to do it. So I have thought about additional projects like this, and also the idea of when would it make sense to revisit the work as it is and perhaps do a more thorough revision. One of the really nice things about open text books and particularly in PressBooks, which was what you were mentioning, John, it keeps the document alive. Changes can be made at any point. So your students don’t have to wait for a grand revision. If there’s an error in it or some bit of knowledge that needs to be added that’s critical, it can be done right away.

John:Now as I understand PressBooks, it’s based on the WordPress platform but it adds formatting capability and it also provides accessibility from pretty much any type of device. Is that correct?

Kristen: That’s correct.

John:So that it can be read in different formats easily.

Kristen: Um-hm.

John:OK. I believe you can also upload to Kindles. Or to export it into Kindle or other formats as well, if people want to read it on their own devices.

Kristen: I haven’t experimented with that, but it’s good for me to know.

John:At a cost. My understanding at least is that, if you pay for that, it’s a one time fee for each conversion, it will do conversion to other formats.

Rebecca: So you started mentioning the idea that students can get the most up to date version of the content, because the content is alive. Can you talk a little bit more about the benefits for students?

Kristen: There’s many benefits to students when it comes to accessing open educational resources, and not just open textbooks. This really does apply more broadly. The most obvious thing is the financial savings to them, which I think is a really important consideration. We know the stresses and the financial concerns that students have, so the idea that we’re trying to relieve some of that burden, I think is definitely to their benefit. It’s interesting that some community colleges are offering pathways to degree, using all open materials, so that there’s no additional cost to students at all, maybe a small fee to help pay for the services needed to make OER available, but that’s a really interesting pathway.

John:And community colleges often serve lower income households than are served by 4-year colleges and universities, and so that’s particularly important. My recollection is that the rate of increase of textbook prices is over twice a rate of inflation for prices overall.

Kristen: Maybe even more so in some discipline, yes.

John:Especially technical fields.

Kristen: Definitely. So another benefit to students is that open educational resources can be accessed because they’re publicly available before a course begins. So students don’t have to wait for the course to have things posted. They can have the resources before a course even begins. There’s no waiting for shipping. There’s no waiting to get paid… waiting for financial aid.

John:Exactly.

Kristen: So just let that sink in for a moment. That they have what they need, right at the start of the course and perhaps even before that. So for open educational resources, the availability is a huge advantage.

John:Because a lot of students were either not buying books, or waiting until they got some financial aid check to come in, or they were waiting until they were sure they actually needed it, and the people who were often waiting the longest were the students who sometimes had the weakest backgrounds, and most needed the resources available. So it can help I think to improve equity somewhat too, right?

Kristen: Definitely. Open educational resources, there’s a value system that underlies it and it does have to do with equity, inclusion, access and some other value systems that… it’s not just about the materials, it’s really about the movement and what we’re trying to do on a more global scale. I’d like to mention a couple other benefits to students, if I can do that from a humanistic side, I think it’s really good when faculty can show that they understand some of the stresses that students face and so by offering open educational resources, you’re showing that you have an understanding and an awareness of the stresses they face financially, being able to access materials, and I think that’s a really positive message to share with students. I think that more scholars are going to join in to the open educational resource movement, and that will probably make it so that higher and higher quality resources become available… more people will be contributing. I expect over time that our students will be involved in creating and helping with the distribution of open educational resources, and when there’s a pipeline of quality resources I also suspect that students will begin asking their instructors whether it’s an option, and so it’s going to put pressure on publishers to have to change some of the things that they may be doing also to be additive in a marketplace where we can often find what we need, perhaps without them.

John:And we’ve already seen that a bit, where both MacMillan and CENGAGE have started bundling open educational resources with some add ons, at a fairly nominal cost, which isn’t much different from the costs that Lumen Learning and other distributors of OER materials is providing already for materials plus some ancillary resource.

Kristen: Yes. So some publishing companies are trying to get in on where they can add to what’s happening, and that that’s probably a good place for people to be thinking of what to do.

Rebecca: How would you recommend faculty get started in using these open resources for teaching.

Kristen: For faculty to contribute, if this is something that they’re interested in, the series of things I would want them to think about, include first looking to see if there are fully open materials that are already available that will help meet course objectives, and meet quality standards for use. So to me that’s the first priority. What’s out there and actually taking a look. If no open educational resources are available for a course, then you would potentially consider free or low-cost options; that would be a second priority. If neither exist, then if faculty can go with the best commercially available materials for the least cost, then that would be the last priority. If faculty members find that there are no open resources, then I would like them to consider creating some, because that really shows that there’s a gap. There’s a place where their knowledge could fit in, and then they could share that with a Creative Commons license and give people access all over the world to the knowledge that they have. I think that does have to do with the value system underlying open educational resources – the idea of sharing knowledge, working together to make knowledge accessible in ways that are of minimal or no cost to others. That’s kind of the big picture. Another part of the value system that I think about is, let’s say that there’s dozens and dozens of open textbooks in a particular discipline, then it doesn’t make sense to me to create competition there and just author dozens and dozens more. It might be better to look at what kind of resources, perhaps ancillary resources or tests banks or other things that could be done to help those resources that are already in existence become better, rather than just continue to saturate the market.

Rebecca: So to kind follow up on the value system, I think creating with these values, you know, certainly there’s a history to this throughout education, but also in other disciplines but academic institutions haven’t always treated open materials the same as other sort of published materials, if you’re thinking about tenure and review and that sort of thing and so I’m wondering if you’re seeing – you sit an administration role, are you seeing a change in and that perception at all?

Kristen: Some of the conferences and workshops and work groups that I’ve been a part of at the SUNY level, here at SUNY-Oswego, it seems like that often comes up where people are wondering how that fits into the idea of scholarship. I think that if faculty are interested in joining the open movement and contributing, it is possible to highlight scholarly and creative activities here. My advice to people would be to educate people who review your work about your accomplishments related to open educational resources, for all the ways that these efforts have value academically, economically and socially. So people may not know how to value your work in this context if they don’t understand the true scope of what you’re doing. If you can remember yourself and also help others remember that open educational resources, aren’t just about scholarly contributions, but also about equity and accessibility.

John:On a related note, this is a little tangential, but there’s also an open journal movement out there for open scholarly research. One finding that people have noted is that when articles are published in open resources, they end up with far more citations because people are much more likely to find them and they’re more likely to cite resources that are available freely, so they don’t have to go through a paywall. So there are some advantages even in terms of more formal scholarly work of engaging in open scholarship, because there are still peer review systems for most of these journals as well, and in terms of textbook publication you could cite the number of adoptions and reviews of the work, in the same way you could with anything else.

Kristen: Yes, those are really good indexes for those contributions.

Rebecca: There is other platforms to you where openness has come out, you know I come from a field where open source is the jam, right? [laughter] So, you know there’s certainly tools and resources that are available to make those things out there, and then you can watch downloads and shares and variations of the things that have been released, so I think that it’s – I mean I certainly buy into the value system, but I think it’s always been a struggle to have to always educate the people around you about what you’re doing, because not everyone necessarily understands… especially if you’re outside of a discipline where it’s not as common, you know, especially if you’re the one that’s identified like there’s not that open resource and maybe I could make it, then there’s a lot of education that has to go around to the people around you, and that can feel a little burdensome. Especially if you are not getting compensated for the things too, so I think finding a way to balance that and juggle that in academia is an interesting thing that’s starting to evolve.

John:Going back just a little bit, how can faculty find resources in the field. One advantage that publishers have is they come to your door, give you brochures and they work very hard to sell you on these books, and they’ll send you emails and sometimes they’ll pay stipends for you to attend workshops at conferences, and focus groups. OER providers tend not to do that, so it does put a little more burden on the faculty to actually actively seek this material. What are good places to start looking for these resource?

Kristen: I think that this is evolving and it is one of the frustrations as the field widens and more resources become available. There’s the challenge of indexing them and making sure that everything is able to be found with relative ease. Right now, there are many sites where resources can be found, and there’s tricks to finding them, based on what you’re seeking – so it may depend on what your discipline is or what you’re seeking. At SUNY-Oswego we’ve actually put in a lot of effort to help faculty find open educational resources, and so there’s a SUNY-Oswego open educational resource page and that allows people to browse by subjects and it’s at libraryguides.oswego.edu/oer. There are links to external sites and you can go directly to external sites, like OpenStax, MERLOT, Lumen Learning and OER Commons just to name a few. I think an important thing in higher education is to try to identify local champions, and we have some local champions at SUNY-Oswego who are motivated, just like textbook publishers but in a different way, to help faculty with OER adoption. So, Laura Harris, a librarian here at SUNY-Oswego… she’s an online learning librarian at Pe nfield and she is very motivated to amass and share resources to help faculty find what they need. Like at other SUNYs, we have some grant money to provide incentives and compensation for faculty who want to propose ways that they will create, adopte, adapt to open educational resources for their courses, so that’s another way to get involved. It creates a community, a learning community and a scholarly community, where when we start to look at where our work is featured, we start to look more broadly and more widely, then we also become resources for faculty and others about how to find the best stuff.

John:You mention OpenStax and they have a pretty large collection of open textbooks and then you mention Lumen Learning. What does Lumen Learning provide, since they rely mostly on the OpenStax textbook, that’s not available from that textbook itself?

Kristen: That’s a great question. And I’m not sure that I know the answer. I know of Lumen Learning and the platforms they’re creating, but I can’t describe them in any kind of detail, but John, would you like to talk about some of the differences between Openstax and Lumen Learning and what they’re featuring?

John:Lumen Learning bundles open textbooks with some ancillary materials. They provide a testing interface. It’s available as Blackboard and Canvas and other plug in modules, so they provide a lot of the ancillary resources that publishers do. On a much smaller scale than publishers, but at least it’s a start in that direction, because one of the concerns that many of us have had about adopting OER materials is that we know that low-stakes testing is really helpful, and we know that pretty much any tests that have been used end up on the Web really quickly and one problem is if you’re using materials, let’s say in a class of several hundred students, they’re going to be Googling those answers and with many of the textbooks that provide some small test banks, all the questions and all the answers are there, and Lumen Learning at least is providing a platform that provides some variety, so that students can do some retrieval practice with repeated testing in a way that doesn’t require the instructor to create thousands of new questions every semester, but on the other hand they generally only provide a limited number of questions per chapter, at this point. But they’re building the libraries. If I recall correctly they also provide PowerPoints and some notes on presentations and other materials of the same sort that instructors are getting used to using from the publishers, and they charge a fee that varies a little bit depending on the mix of services they provide.

Kristen: That’s a really good point, because of the idea of “open” meaning “free.” It’s a good example of where would these efforts by like Lumen Learning an even CENGAGE that you have mentioned, that there’s going to be some sort of fee attached for students that will be well below some of the high-cost textbooks, but if we don’t create an infrastructure to provide what’s needed to make all those materials, then it won’t be sustainable.

John:The usual quote, in terms of both open source software and OER materials is that they’re free as in…

Kristen: Puppies.

John:Exactly.

Kristen: Or kittens.

John:Either way, yes. So there are some support costs and there’s some maintenance and infrastructure cost. One of the topic that you mentioned, that it might be worth going back to just a little bit is having students work in creating materials. I know we’ve had a few projects here, but could you talk a little bit about how students perhaps might be involved in creating materials or archives that become OER?

Kristen: This notion first came to me when I attended an open education conference, and there were some presenters that were talking about using ideas where students would be involved in adapting or revising some of the resources that others had produced and one of the people who was presenting talked about, over the course of different semesters, having students make the resources better and better until it reached a certain point in which the resources could be released and the students could also be involved, and having attribution as co-authors or co-producers of some of the resources. And the idea of authentic learning, I mean that’s part of the School of Education here at SUNY-Oswego. The idea of authentic learning really underlying so much of what we do. Having students contribute in that way, rather than having assignments just get done and put away or saved on a jump drive, but having assignments that include the production and review of open educational resources. I mean that’s pretty exciting, and I think students would be excited by that as well.

Rebecca: I think we’ve had other episodes where we’ve talked about when something’s going to live in the world, how much more motivating that is for students and that they buy in a lot more quickly and they get more excited about the topic and material too. So I see how that would be a great motivator and something that students would love to jump in on.

John:An example is Episode 7 which was released in the middle of December, where we talked about a project involving student podcasts and working with other classes to create a project that is then shared publicly.

Kristen: See that’s great. So the idea of setting knowledge free, that’s another thing that’s connected, I think, with the open educational resources movement. That really knowledge is exceeding the normal boundaries because of financial or accessibility issues, and that’s really exciting. I mean that’s why I’m involved and that’s why I would love SUNY-Oswego to really be on the forefront of some of these efforts.

Rebecca: Is open education resources something that you talk to your students in education about? Given that they’re going to be teachers in K-12, are those things we’re trying to motivate and motivate those people to do too?

Kristen: I talk to everyone about open educational resources. [laughter]

John:Which is how you got invited for this podcast

Kristen: There we go. So I mean I’m an associate dean now, so I’m not currently teaching, but any opportunity that I have to talk to students, I give presentations that the students attend. I’ve done presentations related to writing and I’ve been asked to speak in other classes so this is something that I love to bring up, because I think it’s something people should be aware of and be prepared to contribute to.

John:Kristen is on a steering committee for OER here on campus and helped initiate a grant request for OER funding on campus just this past year.

Kristen: These are exciting times.

John:Another interesting approach for OER materials is, just yesterday I was talking to a historian friend who was thinking about using a Wikipedia education project for her classes and in that projects they have a process for creating class accounts, where students can create materials and subject to peer review and then it’s all published, which is another form of… not sure if it’s quite OER materials but… is it still OER?

Rebecca: I know that Wikimedia uses the Creative Commons licenses but I’m not sure about the Wikipedia portion of it.

John:Ok. That’s another way of doing it, if you have some topic you want your students to develop materials on and they do have a nice editing platform. It’s good for collaborative editing and review.

Kristen: What you were saying, John, it reminds me of just how with this kind of movement, it brings forth a lot of creativity and a lot of expansive thinking, which is really great when a different disciplines start to get jiggled around to think more creatively, about how we teach, looking at pedagogy and content and this is a really interesting way of jiggling things around a little bit.

John:The textbook had been around in its current form for several centuries and it was seen as this fixed document that just delivered to students, and that was mostly because of technological constraints. Those constraints are disappearing, and it opens up a lot more possibility to remix things and recombine things to make them more valuable.

Well, thank you Kristen.

Rebecca: Yeah, it was really great to hear about your book and about the work that you’ve been doing, and I’m glad that you’re our evangelist.

Kristen: Thanks. I really enjoyed sharing my experiences.

7. Student writing

Writing can be a struggle for students, especially when they do not see the value or relevance of the writing assignments. This perception is a barrier faculty often face in writing-intensive courses, including first-year English composition. In this episode we will explore how project-based writing can motivate students to want to write and revise in a writing-intensive course.

Stephanie Pritchard is a faculty member in the English and Creative Writing Department and Co-Director of the Creativity Lab. She is also the Writing Fellow for the School of Communication, Media, and the Arts at the State University of New York at Oswego. Stephanie was the recipient of the 2016 SUNY-Oswego Provost’s Award for Teaching Excellence.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Our guest today is Stephanie Pritchard, a faculty member in the English and Creative Writing Department and Co-Director of the Creativity Lab. She is also the Writing Fellow for the School of Communication, Media, and the Arts at the State University of New York at Oswego. Stephanie was the recipient of the SUNY-Oswego Provost’s Award for Teaching Excellence. Welcome, Stephanie.

Stephanie: Hi, John. Hi, Rebecca.

Rebecca: Hi.
Today’s teas are:

John: Black raspberry green tea.

Stephanie: Earl Grey tea.

Rebecca: Jasmine green tea.

John: So let’s talk a little bit about your role here. You’ve worked for a while with the Writing Across the Curriculum program. Could you tell us a little bit about that program at Oswego?

Stephanie: Sure. Basically the idea behind it is to encourage students to be writing all across campus, so regardless of your major whether you’re a math major or an English major, graphic design, business, you are going to be writing in your major, and then every major on campus has five writing intensive classes that students have to take to hopefully help them develop their writing skills from their freshman year all the way up to their senior year when they graduate.

John: And they’re structured in levels from introductory ones to capstone type level, right?

Stephanie: Absolutely, yes. So they’ll be taking these writing intensive classes throughout their whole time at Oswego.

Rebecca: And this is how many Writing Across the Curriculum programs are structured at many different universities. We have found over time right, the faculty who might not be in a writing specific discipline like English for example, sometimes they’re a little tentative about wanting to teach writing, so our university – we started this writing fellow program, which Stephanie is one of our writing fellows, and happens to be the writer fellow for the School of Communication, Media and the Arts, which I’m in. So Stephanie and I have had the opportunity to work closely together in her role. Can you talk a little bit about what you do as a writing fellow?

Stephanie: Sure. I’ve been doing the writing fellows program for several years now. There are a few faculty members who act as writing fellows, as Rebecca mentioned I’m the fellow for the school of Communications, Media and the Arts or SCMA we also have two writing fellows for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, their names are Tony Kupuna and Ken Nichols we have one writing fellow for the School of Education, her name is Judith Belt and writing fellow for the School of Business and that is Melissa Web, and all of us work with faculty across campus in our different schools or in our different areas and we do a lot of different things. Through my work as a writing fellow, I happen to give a lot of in-class presentations to faculty, so that means I visit their classes and I’ll perhaps give a lesson on how to write an effective outline or I’ll talk a lot about things like MLA, APA style, how to use citations effectively, how to write thesis statements or how to develop effective arguments or more real-world writing experience, like writing or crafting email, writing thank-you notes, things like that. I also work with faculty one-on-one to help them create or revise different writing assignments that they’re using in their classes or just to help them brainstorm ideas about writing assignments that they could give their students. I like to talk to students a lot about writing resources that are available on campus to them that they may or may not know about. So for example I do get asked by faculty to visit their classes to talk about the Writing Center, which is a resource that not everyone on campus knows about and I think is really important, as well as the Write Way Series, which is a really, really wonderful series of writing related workshops that’s run by Steve Smith from the Office of Learning Services and basically the Write Way Series are different workshops that are every Friday afternoon throughout the entire semester and faculty from all across campus come in and give different presentations about writing and it’s a really wonderful way for students to come in and really get some first-hand information about writing skills that they are looking to develop.

John: Now just a minute ago, Rebecca mentioned that you work together quite a bit. Could you talk a little bit about how you’ve collaborated?

Stephanie: Absolutely. So in the Graphic Design Department especially, I’ve worked one-on-one with Rebecca quite a bit. We’ve done a couple of different exercises for her students at the three and four hundred level mostly. We have focused on professionalism quite often, so I visited her classes and we talked about email communication especially, we spent time talking about how to create effective thank-you notes and I gave a workshop on thank you note writing. We also did a workshop that was about… your other one, remember?

Rebecca: Yeah, we did a project about audience and really thinking about writing for different audiences and having multiple collaborative writers write together. So designers often have to write reports, where they might evaluate design and things for a client and so, Stephanie was so gracious to help us develop an exercise that was fun that got students thinking about how to write in a single voice.

Stephanie: It’s – I think it’s especially important when I visit classes to talk about writing, a lot of people have this perception that writing has to be tedious, or that writing has to be boring, or that it’s a lot of work, but when I try to visit classes I really make the attempt to make writing as fun as possible. Every time that I visit Rebecca’s classes I try really hard to bring some kind of creative spin to whatever it is we’re doing to make the assignments seem more tangible to students, which makes them more engaged and more interested. So for the collaborative writing example, I actually created four different short stories and then encouraged the students in small groups to continue writing the short stories that I had already begun, but the catch was they had to follow the same tone and style – if it was written in first second or third person, if I was using slang, if it was formal or informal, they had to continue to mimic that with a group of other people to try to get them to work on thinking collaboratively about a piece of writing.

John: And since most students will be doing some work in the future where they will be collaborating on projects that’s a really useful skill.

Stephanie: I think they really got a lot out of it and they did realize too, that while it is very, very difficult to write collaboratively, it’s a skill that they absolutely need. And this is something too that Rebecca and I have spoken to them about she and I have actually collaborated on a project together. We went and presented at a graphic design conference last year in Toronto about preparing students to write collaboratively and also preparing students to write for their future career, to think about writing as a professional skill that they really need to have before they leave school.

Rebecca: And thinking about really writing about what they’re doing to a non-expert audience, I know we spend a lot of time in our classes trying to get students to practice the vocabulary associated with the field, but don’t always practice how to communicate that to people outside of the field. So, I think that the exercises that we’ve developed together have really helped. So I would say that having access to a writing fellow has been such a blessing in a lot of ways because I knew that the students were struggling with a lot of these writing things and I was building a lot of writing into my classes, but Stephanie was able to come into the class and really show me some different ways of teaching some of those things. And so some of those exercises Stephanie still comes in regularly to kind of do with my students, but then there’s others that after having seen her execute that a few times I have a good model for it and I can do when she’s not available, I can do on my own, and so it really helped me actually build some confidence in that area where I wasn’t quite sure how to approach certain things and she was able to model it for me.

Stephanie: So kind of piggybacking off of what Rebecca just said as my work as a writing fellow for the School of Communication, Media and the Arts, it’s really opened my eyes to all of the different kinds of writing that happens on campus, especially professional writing and working to develop yourself professionally. So one of the things that I’ve done is based off of my visit to her class, I now regularly give a professional email communication workshop as part of the Write Way Series that’s attended by faculty, staff and students to kind of talk about why it’s important to use specific language in your emails and how you can really help yourself be professional, or seem professional.

John: Excellent, now let’s talk a little bit about what you do in your own classes that you teach, English Composition could you talk a little bit about the types of assignments you give and how you approach those courses?

Stephanie: Sure, so I’ve actually for the last couple of semesters, I had been doing much more creative writing so I teach poetry writing – and I’ve been really focused on that for the last couple of semesters. But this fall for the first time in a little while, I got a section of English 102 again and I was really excited to teach English 102 and to revisit that class.

John: And English 102 is the basic introductory freshman writing class?

Stephanie: Yes, yep that’s correct. Sometimes you don’t always get just freshmen in this class, sometimes you get a mix of students and my section this semester was entirely made up of freshmen. So what I wanted to do was really look at our English Composition class and look at the assignments that I could give these students and I really wanted to try to make this as practical of a writing experience for them as I possibly could. So typically, in an English Composition class, students will get a series of papers that may may not be related to each other, right? But we’re as teachers that soon as we go in the English department we have to give them four or five papers that they are required to write over the course of the semester, four or five writing assignments. They need to have opportunities to revise those writing assignments and there also needs to be some kind of digital component to the English Composition experience. So, before the semester started I really wanted to move away from that model a little bit and experiment more with like a project-based English Composition class, and that’s where I ended up going with this and now at the end of the semester my first time doing this, I can say that I’ve been really really happy with the results of it and I think the students have had a really positive writing experience. So instead of dividing up the semester into a series of unrelated papers, instead I divided up the semester into two projects, and each project was composed of a series of small writing assignments that really helped students develop their skills and build their skills throughout each project. The first project that I did was a podcast project. So that was important for English Composition because of the digital literacy requirement that we have to meet when we teach that class, as well as all of the different kinds of writing, very practical writing, that students worked on doing throughout the whole thing. So I can break down some of the different components of the project if that’s something that you’d like?

John: Yeah, tell us more about the project.

Stephanie: Okay, so before the semester started I was actually approached by Rebecca and a few other faculty members to find out if I would be interested in working with them on a collaborative interdisciplinary project. And this project would involve students from Rebecca’s web class, as well as Kelly Georgio’s publication class, Peter Cardones photography class, and my English Composition class. So there would be students from all these different courses working together. We also work closely with Ben Parker who is the coordinator for our veteran services on campus and we created a project called the Voices of Oswego Veterans. This was based on an exhibition that was in Tyler Art Gallery this semester that was called the Veterans Book Project- Objects for Deployment, which students from I think all of the classes who were involved in this project went to go see and experience, and the project is based off of a bunch of books that were authored by people who have had some kind of first-hand experience of or about war, and what that does. So, what our Voices of Oswego Veteran’s project was going to do, we wanted to work with student veterans who are connected to SUNY Oswego, and the idea behind this project was that we wanted to help those student veterans share their stories. Whatever their stories were. They didn’t necessarily have to be connected to their experiences in combat, or their experiences abroad, or their experiences even related to being a veteran directly if they didn’t want to.

Rebecca: And most of them didn’t really want to, like they explored a lot more about being a student in that transition.

Stephanie: Absolutely, absolutely. So anyway, we had all of these different classes who were working with this group of veterans who volunteered to do this project with us, and my English Composition students created a series of podcast episodes based on the voices of Oswego Veterans Project. Most of the students in my English Composition class, when I asked them if they knew what a podcast was or if they had listened to podcasts really had not, they really didn’t have any idea which I thought was really interesting.

Rebecca: I had the same experience! I’m teaching advanced web students and they didn’t know what a podcast was either, so we’ve introduced them all to a whole genre of work that they had never experienced.

Stephanie: It’s true, it’s true.

John: So what, did each of the classes do podcasts?

Rebecca: No, what we ended up doing was, Stephanie’s students did the podcasts, and then Peter students did environmental portraits, so they did photos of the veterans right in an environment that represented who they were, and then Kelly Dorizio’s class did a publication that took some of the images and some of the text from the transcripts from the podcasts to make a publication, and then my web students put it together to make a podcast website that has the transcripts, show notes, and what have you, together.

John: So it was truly a collaborative project where each class was developing skills relevant to their major.

Rebecca: Yeah, exactly.

Stephanie: The really cool thing too is that next semester a lot of this work is going to be on display in Penfield Library, so people can walk through and look at the photographs, look at some of the published material that Kelly’s class made, and look at excerpts from the podcasts that my students created, and then like Rebecca said they can also go online and check out the website that’s associated with the project.

John: And so each of the podcasts involved interviews with veterans?

Stephanie: So my goal was to have the entire thing wrapped up start to finish in about eight weeks. So we had a lot of work to do from introducing what a podcast is to students, and spending time really kind of exploring that whole genre, right? Because they weren’t terribly familiar with it. And then when you sit a bunch of students down and tell them, okay you’re going to go meet with someone you’ve never met before, and then you’re going to interview that person, and you’re gonna really talk to them and get to know them, it can be kind of intimidating to think about going to meet somebody who you’ve never met before. So this whole project was really working on getting students to be comfortable talking to other people who they didn’t know and quite frankly I mean, to people who they thought were quite different from themselves, right? Because even though everyone in this project was a student they all had very different experiences and they were all, they were all bringing different things to the table. So early on in the project after we established what a podcast was and spent some time talking about that, we worked on doing email. That was the first writing assignment that my students had to do, which was something that was directly based off of my experiences with Rebecca’s students in the past. So we talked about what it means to make a good email, they had to send two emails to their assigned veterans, my students were put into groups of two and each group worked with one student veteran on campus. So the first writing assignment was to compose an email, they got a chance to revise that assignment, they also had to have two separate meetings with their assigned student veteran, so before their first meeting we worked on creating skills like how to make good small talk, how to ask good interview questions,

John: We should have taken that course
[Laughter]

Stephanie: Spend time talking about things like body language, and like what that means, how people perceive you and how you can present yourself in a professional manner, we talked about what would be a good thing like a good wardrobe decisions to make before you have a meeting like that, you know when you’re meeting somebody for the first time who you don’t know. So a lot of it was really focused on establishing this repertoire with another person. And I think that that’s really important because a lot of people are losing those skills, in my opinion.

John: And we don’t provide a lot of formal training on that.

Rebecca: How did the students respond to like that time in class talking about these things that might seem like minutia, that might – maybe they don’t initially think is really relevant?

Stephanie: It was really interesting, it also served as a kind of a good series of icebreakers for them to get to know each other because we did some interacting in class where I had them after we spent some time – I mean because you can talk all day about how to do something, but until you actually have to go do it then that’s when things really start to change. So of course we spent time in class talking about how to make small talk and how to get to know somebody, but then I had them all stand up and go meet somebody who they didn’t know and this was like the second week of school, so they knew no one in class, and they had to make small talk with each other for five minutes and I timed it and I walked around and listened to their conversations and it was really intriguing because they really took it to heart, they were really talking to each other. It wasn’t any of that like nonsense “so what do you think about the weather today?” kind of thing, they really did a good job and they took it seriously.

John: So they didn’t see it as a meaningless icebreaker, they saw it as actually developing a skill that they could use.

Stephanie: Certainly, and then they were able to take those skills to their meetings with their student veterans and then when I asked them how their meetings went, I mean we had this huge discussion in class about what it was like to meet somebody who they had never met before and how maybe it was a little bit awkward at first, but how they remembered some of the things we had talked about in class like making eye contact and smiling and not having their phones out and all of those sorts of things, and I thought it was it was a really interesting experience for them. After they had the meetings and we talked about them, we then had to work together to develop a set of interview questions that my students would be asking their student veterans. And this was something else that we had to spend a lot of time talking about, we actually had Ben Parker come into our class to talk with my students about our population of student veterans, and he really helped prepare them to think about asking good questions and you know talk to them about what questions are and are not perhaps appropriate to ask other people. And we try to make this discussion more broad also right like if you take the student veteran component out of the question, what sorts of things, what kinds of questions are my students asked that might make them uncomfortable, and why are why is it important to ask good questions.

John: Some really good communication skills in general being developed there.

Stephanie: Sure. So after Ben’s visit to my English Composition class where he really helps students talk about some of the stereotypes especially, that our student veterans experience either on or off campus, we had a really wonderful class discussion about those sorts of stereotypes because this was really leading up to the interview questions that my students were going to be composing to ask their student veterans, and we wanted to make sure that they weren’t asking any questions that would be offensive which is really important. So anyway, after Ben left we had a really wonderful class discussion about how several of our students had a tendency to look at a student veteran as a veteran first, and perhaps not as a student first. And we then spent some time talking about well why it’s important, these are students at SUNY Oswego just like you, right? So like they’re majoring in something, they’re going to classes, they might be in your classes, they might have the same teachers you have, or have taken a subject that you’re thinking about exploring for the first time, and to really keep that information in mind which is interestingly enough, one of the things that our student veterans really spoke about a lot in the podcast was their learning experiences here and what they’re passionate about learning here, which I thought was really intriguing. So my students really had a they took a lot away from Ben’s presentation in his visit, and I think Rebecca students had a similar experience in class discussion.

Rebecca: Yeah, all of the faculty involved took our classes to that exhibition that was at Tyler Art Gallery at the beginning of the semester, and so students look through books that were written in part by veterans and also people affected by war. So that kind of primed them a little bit, we did that earlier before our piece of the project started so Stephanie’s class had to complete their part of the project before my students could start working on the web component. So we worked it on the last part of the semester. So there was some space between the exhibition and us starting the project. So when we started the project, I had everyone fill out a little worksheet that asked them what do you know about veterans? How do you know what you know? What questions do you have? And they all filled it out and then we shared back what it was so it was really interesting is that they had read these books that dispelled a lot of myths and stereotypes about veterans in general but they still held on to those stereotypes when they filled out this little worksheet, and so we talked about that. So what’s funny is that you people think about war, they think about older males, right, they think World War II, you know they don’t even think, they don’t even think about like contemporary experience at all. So they did that, and then I had all of them listen to the content of the website. So they had to listen to all the podcasts and then of course we had a quiz on it, so made sure everyone listened to it and then I asked some questions again about how your perceptions change and they were shocked, right, like the things that really stood out was one of the podcasts was about you know being a mother and also a student, and that transition. Or one that really wanted to be a writer, which really kind of dispelled many of these stereotypes that they came, or the baggage they came to the project with. And so because they had that experience that they found quite transformative, they’ve really held tight on to the idea that they want to make sure that people who visit the site and listen to the podcast upfront, the visuals that are provided do not re-emphasize or repeat the stereotypes.

John: So it forced them to confront their stereotypes.

Rebecca: Yeah, yeah. And I think the key thing was we talked a lot about when they were trying to figure out what kinds of, what kind of imagery would go on the front page of the website, their first inclination was to put a military picture up, and my immediate response was they’re not in the military anymore, they’re retired from the military. And then you could just see them go right, and then trying to figure out like what they wanted to communicate and having to really probe. So that has been actually the most stressful part of that project for them, is they really, really want to do a good job with that moment.

Stephanie: And I think connecting to that just a little bit, when we were prepping for the assignment before my students had even met with their student veteran for the first time and we were talking about small talk, some of them expressed this fear right. And they said well I’ve never met a veteran, before I don’t really know anything about what veterans do, etc. right, and I reiterated that same point which was but you are working you’re talking to another student right, what questions will you ask another student. And that really for them kind of helped this light bulb go off when they were as they kept thinking about that. After we had that conversation then they created this big list of questions that they were wanted to ask their student veterans and then they submitted those and then they had an opportunity to revise those based on my feedback. They also had to write some short biographies, so they had to write a 150 word bio about their student veteran. They also had to write 150 word bios in the third person about themselves, which was also a very interesting experience. So we spent time talking about what information should or should not be included in a biography, if you haven’t accomplished a whole lot at this point in your life, what information should you include right, to get to that 150 words because they all had to be about the same length to look uniform on the website. So that was important. So then we started to really move into the meat and potatoes part of the actual podcast, so I had them all create podcast outlines sort of like a very rough script about what their podcasts would look like, what their episodes would look like, which were then workshopped in class and the students really took that very seriously and gave each other a lot of good feedback about that.

Rebecca: I know in many times we’ve had a lot of conversations from someone that’s not in English and creative writing I never knew what like workshopping a writing was until we had talked quite a bit, so can you share what you mean by workshopping that?

Stephanie: Yeah, absolutely. You can do it quite differently in lots of different, in lots of classes, but the way that I generally like to do it is had all of the students submit an outline beforehand, and we had a schedule as to which groups would be workshopped on which day. Basically what it means is students came to class having read, let’s say four different outlines that had been determined ahead of time, they made some notes on the outlines and then we sat in class, we sat in a circle and students talked to each other about the different outlines and they came with a set list of questions that they had for each other, they came with a set list of comments that they had for each other, and basically the whole purpose of a workshop in a writing class is for students to get good feedback from each other, because they got plenty of feedback from just me, but I mean I’m only one person, and when you get 19 different people in a room who have 19 different perspectives and 19 different ideas, you can generate a lot more discussion based on a piece of writing. So I did the work shopping for the podcast outlines as a whole class, which meant we all talked about the same outline for a couple minutes and then I collected all of the students notes from that experience and looked them over and that’s how they got participation points, by actively annotating and making some notes on the outlines that they use to fuel their discussion in class.

Rebecca: So before they actually executed their podcast, you know they’ve gone through these different series of kind of professional writing opportunities or professional communication opportunities. I’m curious about how they’re responding at this moment in this semester? How did they respond when you gave the syllabus to them? And then how do they respond about this moment halfway through the project?

John: When they’re doing their peer review

Rebecca: Yeah, yeah. It’s kind of like, now we’re getting ready to actually like execute the thing what was kind of the temperament?

Stephanie: At the beginning of the semester on the syllabus, I didn’t give them a whole lot of details about what the two projects were. I just said we’re gonna be doing these two big projects and each project is broken down into a series of components. They knew that we were going to be participating in the voices of Oswego veterans project on Friday the first week of school because we had to get started right away. When I first told them what the project was I got a lot of deer in the headlights looks.

John: So did you wait until after the drop date to tell them?

Stephanie: No, this was still before the drop day. But this is a big project and like when I’ve taught English Composition in the past, I have always started out with something small. Right, like a 2-page more informal writing assignment to try to get students comfortable with me and with the writing process etc. and this time I really decided that I just kind of wanted to jump in headfirst, right? I mean it’s a writing course, so we might as well just do it. So I think that they were because their experience in writing classes before hand had been structured, like I just said, you know much more these smaller assignments that they looked at as much more manageable, like write a process paper. Write an experiential paper about something that you did over the summer, like what have you, right? But this was like a big thing that they had to work with another person on, as well as a person who they had never met before outside of their class, but at this point about halfway through the semester all of the writing assignments that we had done were still relatively small. There were just a lot more of them, right and they had revised every single writing assignment that they had done for me at this point, which was something very different from how I had taught English Composition in the past. So at this point they had gotten into this rhythm of ‘oh, okay. I have my podcast outline due. This is worth 10% of my overall grade for this project. I’m gonna submit it, then I’m going to revise it’, and then that will be the 10% and even that grade seemed more manageable to them then the bigger greater than are associated with those other might.

John: So you have a lot of low stakes work there, with a practice the process of revision and they can learn from their mistakes and they can improve the work and that’s a really useful thing for students to learn because they haven’t all realized that that’s an important part of any job.

Rebecca: And is really setting up a culture of revision and iteration, and I think that a lot of us struggle in our classes to get students to embrace the idea of revision, but if you just set it up that like everything’s revised and that’s how it is, and that’s how it is from the beginning then that’s just that’s the culture of the space and that’s the expectation.

Stephanie: The way that I like to do revision, also because I think it’s important for them to put effort in the first time around, right, which is sometimes something they won’t do so much, if you talk to them about revision and what that means basically they submit the first draft of something, it gets graded, then it gets returned to them. If they choose to revise it, which for this podcast project they all chose to revise everything, because they knew that all of this information was gonna be going online.

Rebecca: The stakes were high.

Stephanie: They were much higher, right. So they got a grade on the first draft then they could revise it. They get graded on their revision and then basically what I do is average the draft grade and the revision grade together and then round up a little bit, to give them an incentive for having chosen to revise. So that means that their first draft is still, it’s still significant right, so you can’t just completely blow off the first draft of something, right you like you still have to put in a lot of effort to get a manageable grade on each of the assignments.

John: The workshop process though not only helps each student improve their work, it also helps them develop skills of critically analyzing their work in the work of others, which is something that they don’t always do in introductory writing classes. I think many of our classes do now, but that wasn’t always a norm. It probably wasn’t something they experienced that much before, where they typically write something give it to the teacher they’d get it back and then they’d forget about it. Here they’re building something that’s much more meaningful and they’re learning more about this process of revising and working to improve things

Stephanie: I’ve wanted them to learn how to talk to each other throughout this semester, and I think that they have really moved in that direction, you know, especially when you get a group of freshmen, sometimes they can be so quiet because they’re in college and it’s really overwhelming and whatever else. I wanted this to be an opportunity for them to really grow, not only as writers but also as people who can communicate with each other.

Rebecca: I’m wondering too at this moment, so it’s not before they do the podcast yet, but they know that like they’re doing the podcast, right. They’ve got all these components together, they think the stakes are high cause it’s gonna be online and they’re interacting with this third person that like isn’t getting a grade but like you’re totally interacting with them right, and your grade somewhat depends on how well you interact with this person. Do you think that that kind of community component influenced how much they got engaged in the project?

Stephanie: It was huge, absolutely. The fact that I was consistently telling them, remember this is for the website right, and the fact that I could also tell them, it gave me a way to, this sounds kind of bad but almost validate the importance of every assignment, right. There was no question of, ‘well, why are we writing third person biographies’, well, they knew, right and they knew that they were writing these third person bios to go on the website so people who had no idea who they were could learn about them a little bit, and understand why that was important so because there was this bigger picture that we were all working toward, there was never any question of relevance of each assignment.

John: And when students know that the work is going to be publicly visible, it gives some much more incentive to do a good job because they don’t want to look bad in public.

Stephanie: Absolutely, absolutely, so there were a couple other components of the project – I did try to keep everything like I said pretty practical. We did a whole thank you note writing workshop where students wrote thank-you notes to give to their student veterans, they were handwritten notes and we talked about why that’s important and why you should do that. They had to create a whole draft of their actual transcripts for their podcast episodes, which meant that they had to transcribe their recording, word-for-word

John: Oh, they did they did that manually?

Stephanie: They did, they did.

John: We’ve been doing that ourselves and it’s a bit of work. Now we automate it, We upload to YouTube and then we download the captions from YouTube, but then there’s still a lot of work put into it.

Rebecca: It doesn’t have any punctuation.

John: it doesn’t have punctuation or capitalization, and it doesn’t identify who is speaking at the time so.

Stephanie: They manually went through and then wrote down and their pod their podcast episodes were eight minutes long, maximum. So they were between six and eight minutes.

John: So it was a bit more manageable.

Stephanie: But it was still quite a bit, I mean they came in like, kind of when they were due, the students came in wide-eyed and they were like, ‘Stephanie, you have no idea how many times we listened to this one part’.

John: Well, just so you get a better feel for that, we’ll let you do the transcript for this one.
[Laughter]

Stephanie: Sure, yeah.

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about how they did this. Did they use their phones? Did they use, did they borrow recording devices? Did they use microphones?

Stephanie: That’s an excellent question. So I wanted them to be as prepared as possible so I booked a couple of days in the library and we worked with Sharona Ginsberg, who is absolutely wonderful I’ve worked with her on some digital literacy projects in the past. So we went in and she sat them down and taught them how to use audacity, which is the recording software that’s on all of the computers in the library and on campus. It’s also free to download pretty easy to use once you get used to it, so she gave them kind of the rundown on how to use it most of them decided to use audacity. So that meant that the library actually, our Penfield library has two multi media rooms on the second floor. So and students can book those and use them and their rooms are soundproof, they have good microphones in there and the computer already has audacity so the vast majority of my students booked the multimedia rooms met their student veterans in Penfield and then just went upstairs and did the whole recording session up there . Their student veterans had to interview questions beforehand, so they already knew what the questions were going to be so they could be prepared and then students did it all right there. I had one or two groups decide to use iMovie instead of audacity, which was fine, to do the recording.

John: iMovie or GarageBand?

Stephanie: That, they said they used iMovie.

Rebecca: Hm, it’s odd.

John: You can.

Stephanie: Yeah, but for the most part almost everything. I don’t think any group use their phone to record we did have a conversation in class two about background noise, and about environment and all of those sorts of things. So most of them use the multimedia rooms in the library so Sharona was really able to help prepare them, for the more technical aspects of the project.

John: Now did the library provide microphones or was it just the ones built into the computer?

Stephanie: Nope, you can check out microphones from the library also which is super helpful and you can you can check them out and plug them into your own personal laptop or you can bring them to one of the computers in the library. They also have small handheld digital recorders so that you can use those also, if you don’t want to use one of the mics in the library. So we went there and that really helped them it was a couple of days but that really helped prepare them for like the more technical aspects of the project.

John: Now when they did the recording, did they include intros and outros or was it just a straightforward recording?

Stephanie: Oh yeah, we did like the whole thing. I gave them all like a rough outline and that’s when we had workshop their outlines in class, I had told them to come in with several sections already prepped and ready to go. So that meant they all had to do an introduction they all had to do a conclusion most of them chose to include some of the third-person biography information that they had written about their veterans to give some context for their veteran. They all had to come in because even though all of these episodes were connected they were all part of the voices of a Oswego of veterans project every student group took a different spin on the assignment. So I mean every student group decided that they wanted their episode to be about something specific. So they had to come in with a set list of things already planned out, so that our episodes would appear to be part of a whole series, but distinctly different because they were all focused on a different subject.

Rebecca: Yeah and then ultimately what happened was that those podcasts and transcripts were turned over to my students, and my students are currently working on the website which will be launched early next semester. So it includes the transcripts it includes the podcasts, and you can listen right on the website or what have you so it was a learning experience for my students as well, because oftentimes in design classes they end up generating a lot of their own content. So having to handle content that was coming from different places or things that weren’t quite in the right format and then what do you do, is a great learning experience for design students, so you know a couple of the photographs weren’t quite the specs that we had asked, like one of the podcasts wasn’t in the right file format, so part of it was just like learning how to transform those things which, you know instead of the students saying well the person didn’t do whatever. It’s like okay well you can do it you could fix it, and so kind of giving them the skills to kind of troubleshoot those situations. I found to be really helpful for my students.

Stephanie: Yeah, it was definitely a great opportunity for them to learn how to do a project in pieces, and several of them mentioned at the end of the whole experience that the fact that this was broken up into manageable sections, that all of the due dates were known at the very beginning of the project, that’s what made the really the big difference for them, because they couldn’t procrastinate. If you give students a large writing assignment or a large project and then don’t always follow up with them about it, sometimes they’ll wait until the night before it’s due or whatnot to complete it this really forced them to plan out every single piece of the whole project, and then at the end when everything was done they each had to write like a reflective essay about their experience, and we also spent a lot of time in class talking about how to write a reflective essay because they didn’t know how to do that, right. So and that was an important discussion to have.

John: That practice of reflection is a really important encouraging long-term learning and it’s a good skill to have them start developing. Could you tell us a little bit about their reactions? How did they view the project compared to reactions you’ve had in earlier classes with more traditional projects?

Stephanie: So for this one the feedback that I got was almost all positive. Most of the students really really enjoyed it. I had a few students say things like, it was really really helpful to learn real-life writing skills, which was the point for them to really see how to go through something from start to finish and get this kind of practical writing experience, that they might not be getting in other places. Oh and then they even, we sat down like with the drafts of their scripts. I did conferences with the individual groups to really talk them through where they could improve. So they they got a mixture of feedback from the entire class, feedback from me, verbal feedback from me and then just working with another partner, they really enjoyed. They broke up the work between the two of them, but for the most part the feedback was very positive like I said, the biggest thing that they seemed to take away was, we learned something. We learned how to write. We learned how to do this kind of writing, and I know I’m gonna be doing this kind of writing again. Not necessarily writing another podcast episode, but the email thing, the interview questions, you know, doing the outlines, doing the thank-you notes which is such a small thing but I never got taught how to write a thank-you note, right, and then just going through the process of revision – so I think it was it was largely positive.

Rebecca: I’ve had similar experiences in the writing intensive classes that I’ve taught, that when the writing assignments make a clear direct connection to things that they might do as a professional, the students buy into the writing a lot more readily. So in that presentation that you and I gave at that conference, that’s really what we focused on, was what kinds of writing do graphic designers do professionally, and how can you incorporate those into kind of the workflow in a classroom setting, and I think that overall students have really responded to that kind of work that really without your help I wouldn’t have been able to infuse into my own classes.

Stephanie: Yeah, well, I could say the same for you. So and with the nice thing is that, we had this whole first project and then when it was done, they were immediately saying, ‘okay, Stephanie, whats project two?’ right, and they knew that it was gonna be set up in a very similar fashion. A whole project made of these individual assignments in manageable sections for them to work through, so it really helps structure the semester that way.

John: And my guess is that students probably don’t remember a lot of the small writing assignments, they’ve done more than a semester or to pass a class, but this is something that I suspect they’re gonna remember for years.

Stephanie: As we prepped for their final four their reflection for their reflective essay, you know after we talked about what a reflective essay should be, and what an experiential reflection should really look like, because it’s quite different right from an analytical reflection or from a reading reflection or something like that. We made a list on the board and I asked them okay, what have you learned, and we broke it down and the board was full, and they kept giving me more and more and more suggestions, more things that they got out of this project so to step back and look at this whiteboard full of all their comments, was really really rewarding.

Rebecca: So will you do something like this again, or do you have any plans for assessment to see how to change this kind of a project?

Stephanie: Absolutely, I think now having done more of a project-based English Composition class, I don’t know if I can see myself going back to doing it the way that I was doing it, and like I said this kind of format really worked well for them also because they knew there were no questions, right there were no questions about what was expected of them, there was never a question about an opportunity for revision or for making their grade better. I think they really responded to that you won’t revise everything you write. You won’t get it the chance to in all your other classes, but the fact that they really took the revision process seriously, shows me that perhaps they’re ready to start thinking about revision as part of the process instead of something that you just do after you get the grade.

Rebecca: Great, I mean it I can’t wait to find out what kind of projects you’re gonna do next.

Stephanie: Yeah, me neither.

John: So maybe our next episode should be, now that we’ve done a podcast on podcasting maybe we can do a podcast together on creating a podcast on podcasting, and move it to a middle level. Ok, but thank you.

Stephanie: Thank you.

John: It was a fascinating project, thank you.

Rebecca: Thanks.