Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #14)

Greetings from Chicago!

The leaves are starting to change color on campus and there is a chill in the air.  Fall is slowly coming here to the windy city.  We’re now more than half way through the semester at UIC and it shows on the faces of students and faculty.  Everyone is ready for a break.  If nothing else, it will get us away from the constant noise of construction that follows us from one space on campus to another.  In the meantime, we press on.

My last blog post focused on my research.  This one will be a bit of a grab bag.  One of the major downsides to being a Full-Time Nontenured Faculty member is the lack of time for research.  This semester I’m teaching four First Year Composition classes and its hard to find time in between course prep, grading, and meeting with students to read the sources I’ve collected from the library for my second book project.  Right now, I’m slogging my way through an economic history of farming written by Willard W. Cochrane.  His text is giving me a useful overview of the shift in farming practices over the course of US history. Careful notes are helping me remember where I left off each time I set the book down to counsel a student on the best way to format a literature review.  I recognize, of course, that having any time at all to research is an oddity for most NTT Faculty, especially those who teach part-time.  My situation as a Lecturer is far from ideal, but it is certainly an improvement to the days when I was paid by the course and had to travel in between campuses.

As with most things in life, the academic profession is a series of pluses and minuses.  The minuses for me are the stagnant pay and lack of research opportunities.  The pluses are the security of a yearly contract, benefits, course schedule, and now an increasing recognition of my past research on campus.  It might not seem like much to outsiders, but my being assigned to teach a section of the Sophomore level American Literature survey (ENGL 243) is a major advancement not just for me but a sign of how work conditions are improving for NTT faculty in our department.  I’ve also been invited to a faculty author’s reception hosted by the UIC Chancellor’s office to celebrate the publication of my first book (New Men) last year.  This also is a major advancement in NTT conditions on campus since I was not recognized for a long time as a faculty member.  Finally, there’s the fact that I am writing this blog as part of my duties as Director of American Literature for NEMLA, a position that has traditionally been held by TT faculty.  So life is not all gloom and doom for those off the tenure track.  Progress, I often have to remind myself, is incremental and not necessarily linear.  I continue to advocate for NTT faculty and for nontraditional students on campus, planting seeds for trees I will probably never see fully grown.

Part of what has helped me become more integrated into my campus is hutzpah.  If there’s something I’m interested in, I find a way to get involved.  This was the case with a recent event discussing the construction plans for a new classroom building on the UIC campus.  I saw the faculty massmail advertising the event and showed up, the only English faculty member and probably the only NTT faculty member in the room.  The usual types were well-represented, of course, various Vice-Chancellors and diverse Deans of subject areas few can adequately comprehend.  There were also a few TT faculty from Math and Chemistry as well as Engineering and Social Sciences.  During this session, the designers explained the overall goal of their plan.  They want to design a classroom that encourages “student-centered” learning.  Normally phrases like that give me the creeps.  They have this “edu-speak” ring to them that is common amongst folks who talk a lot about education but have never stepped into a classroom.  This presentation, however, held my attention because it focused on how the physical design of a classroom might change (in a positive way) how faculty teach.

Physical design of classroom space at UIC is a frequent topic of conversation among our faculty.  Usually in the form of complaints about how a classroom’s designs prohibit us from doing the type of teaching we would like to do.  For years I’ve wanted to experiment with multi-modal composition in my writing classrooms but have been stymied by the lack of a good computer and projector to exhibit projects, poor wi-fi reliability, and classrooms that are too small for students to move around in comfortably to work.  Our buildings at UIC were designed for an era when the lecture was king.  In spite of our best efforts to increase the discussion/activity functions in teaching, the rooms often lead us back to the lecture because it’s easier to do so.  So what would a class that makes lecturing hard if not impossible look like?  I saw a few examples of this in the presenter’s mock up drawings.

The example most relevant to the size of the courses I teach (18-25 students) was a room that could hold a maximum of 35 students.  That room had a white board in the front, a fixed computer podium, projector and interactive screen (i.e. a screen you can write on with dry erase markers).  Students sat at square tables made from joining together two rectangular ones.  Four students to a table.  These were arranged throughout the room.  On the side walls were touch screen televisions that could be used by students for break out sessions.  Each television was connected to the main projector in the room as well as to the internet.

The whiteboard, podium, and projector set up still make it possible for a faculty member to lecture, but it is harder for students to see the material.  They need to move around because they don’t sit in fixed rows oriented towards the front board.  The room is also longer than it is wide, making it difficult to project your voice from front to back.  Consequently, this room discourages faculty from talking to the class as a whole and encourages them to move away from the podium to walk among their students and check in with individual groups.  This is something that I already try to do in my composition classes.  The square footprint of our classrooms, however, make it harder for me to do this.  The room fits exactly 24 students (according to fire code) and that is the number I have.  Add backpacks and winter coats and it soon becomes impossible for anyone to move about in the room.  A 35 person room with 24 students in it would be like heaven.  Adding technology to the room and more natural light would simply be a bonus.  I can imagine providing students in a classroom such as this with a task to complete in a set period of time.  I would then check in with each group as they work and show the entire class particularly unique methods to addressing the task.

Of course, there are obvious drawbacks to the design proposals I saw.  One is the assumption that all our students have laptops or tablets that function like laptops.  The digital divide is real on our campus and is only slowly being addressed.  You can’t complete homework assignments on a  smartphone even though many students try to do this.  Another is maintenance.  Lincoln Hall is currently one of the most advanced classroom buildings on our campus and its technology is fast becoming outdated and very beat up through heavy use.  I’m constantly having to reconnect or jiggle loose cables and find adaptors to connect new devices that no longer have VGA or standard sized HDMI ports.  Finally, design alone cannot drive pedagogy.  It can force us to think more carefully about how we teach, but only faculty meeting with other faculty can hash out what the role of the lecture should be in each course and discipline and how it should relate to more active learning techniques.

All of this brings me to my conclusion for this post, which is a question.  What does your ideal classroom look like?  Mine would be large enough to have zones for distinct modes of learning.  One zone would have a circle of desk/chair combos near a white board for lecture/discussion.  Another zone would have tables and chairs for writing and research.  And yet another would have comfortable chairs for students to sit and read, thinking through their understanding of a concept.  Students could move freely through this space depending on what task they needed to accomplish.  My syllabus would reflect this.  Each day would emphasize a certain mode of learning and blend them together as needed.  At least one wall would provide natural light that could be filtered or blocked to allow showing films and videos.  There would also be ample storage for student backpacks and coats so that they don’t have to be placed on the floor.

Multiple focal points in a room.  Multiple modes of learning in a syllabus.  These are my goals.  We’ll see if the new classroom building UIC constructs makes this possible.  In the meantime, we make do with the tools at hand.

Until next time….

John Casey

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