Archive for category Higher Ed

Director’s Corner (NeMLA Blog Post #21)

Greetings from Chicago!

The start of the fall semester is fast approaching and while I will miss the more relaxed schedule of my summer days, I am looking forward to meeting the incoming class of first year students at UIC.  I often forget how unique my experience is on campus as I look out at a group of students who are truly diverse in terms of ethnicity, race, gender, and religion.  These students teach me about what “America” is actually like and what it can be in the years to come even as I help teach them the literacy skills they will need to succeed.

Fall is always the busiest semester for me and this fall is no exception.  I’ll be teaching four sections of Academic Writing I, the first class in the First Year Writing sequence, with a total of 96 students.  This year I’ve decided to focus that class primarily on genre so that we can consider how the forms we choose to write in signal to our readers what we intend and shape the ways we use language.  I also plan to consider how our language choices as writers can shift the ways in which readers understand a genre.  Stay tuned as the semester progresses to hear more on how my writing classes are going.

In this month’s blog post, I’d like to consider the role of classroom design in the way that faculty teach.  For those of us who read Inside Higher Education or The Chronicle of Higher Education, articles on the death of the lecture and the need for more active forms of student learning are commonplace.  There has also been a resurgence lately in these publications of articles on the pros and cons of using technology in the classroom.  What gets missed in most of these articles, however, is any real discussion of the actual classroom.  How is it designed?

As with most form’s of infrastructure, the physical reality of the classroom is taken for granted.  A board, some desks, a few square feet of floor space sufficient to cover max enrollment.  Maybe a TV or projector system.  But if colleges and universities want to change the way they teach, there needs to be greater emphasis on the spatial design of the classroom.

Traditional lecture halls were designed with a sloping or step down tier system.  There also tends to be a curvature to these lecture halls.  Students eyes are thus directed downward towards a common focal point–a lectern, chalkboard, whiteboard, or projector screen.  Aside from the access issues these rooms present for physically disabled students, who might not want to sit all the way in the back or right up in the front, this traditional design sends a clear message about who is in charge and how knowledge gets distributed.  Some faculty might try to counter this trend by using the room in a unique way, but the design can’t help but frustrate that intent.  Group work and peer to peer discussion will always lead back to the focal point down below.

Rooms designed for a lecture/discussion format or a lab are a little better in terms of floor design.  The floor space is flat and holds a smaller number of students.  Some have fixed desks while others have movable desk and chair combos.  Often, however, the square footage of the room prohibits a great deal of movement of these desks.  It also takes considerable time and effort for faculty and students to rearrange desks for small group activities and discussion.  The path of least resistance, therefore, is to leave them pointed towards the lectern, chalkboard, whiteboard, or projector.  Student vision is distributed in a straight line but is still directed towards the professor.  Thus turning the classroom on most days into a smaller lecture hall with a flat floor.

Of the two existing options in classroom design, the spaces allocated for lecture/discussion classes have the greatest potential for adaptability.  They often, however, have too many students in them to make movement practicable on a regular basis.  One solution, certainly controversial, is to reduce the number of students placed in these classrooms or at the very least to revisit how max occupancy standards are arrived at.  On my campus, the Fire Marshall is the main factor determining this rather than pedagogical research.  There is definitely a need for more research on the optimal number of students that should be in a room for a certain type of teaching method to succeed.  This would give student advocates and faculty interested in changing to more active learning strategies some data to make their case for much needed changes.  Right now, much of the discussion on this topic remains anecdotal and (therefore) gets ignored by campus administrators.

For those campuses lucky enough to have the money to build new classroom facilities, the issue is a different one.  Should new lecture halls be built to create spaces for an evolved version of a venerable teaching method?  Or should all new class space follow the call for more active learning (sometimes called a flipped classroom)?  I’m of the opinion that new construction should contain spaces for all types of educational method currently applied  such as lecture and lecture/discussion.  New experimental spaces should also be constructed that allow for project based learning–small group activities and discussions.  These spaces should imagine such active learning as on-going and not simply one method of using a lecture/discussion space.

This fall one of my first year writing courses will be held in an experimental classroom.  It is a traditional lecture/discussion classroom that is being fitted with new desk and chair combos as well as touch screen monitors assigned to various clusters of desks.  These monitors are supposed to allow students to work in small groups on assigned activities easier as well as discuss readings.  The monitors are connected by a wireless system to the podium at the front of the room, which will allow me (should I choose to do so) to project what each group is working on up on the main projector screen for the entire class to see.  I’m sanguine about what I’ll be able to accomplish in this set up with that group of writing students.  As I get a better sense of what is different, I’ll let you know since I’m also teaching in three more traditionally designed lecture/discussion classrooms.

What I can say before I even get started in using the space, is that I’m afraid classroom designers (and some faculty) focus too much on technology (projectors and screens) as well as desks.  The real focus (in my opinion) should be on square footage, focal points, and lighting.  There should also be some consideration on storage for backpacks and winter coats as well as access to electrical outlets.  For the experimental classroom I’m teaching in, I believe that racks will be installed under the chairs.  We’ll see how that works.  The electrical outlet set up will remain the same.  Temperature of the room and wall color are also important.  And, just as important, the room should make disability access seamless.  Too often, the design of a classroom makes it feel like disabled students are being accommodated.  They should be allowed to feel like the other students attending the class.

I hope that you all enjoy the waning days of summer.

Until Next Time…

John Casey

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NEMLA Call for Sessions 2018

NEMLA CALL FOR SESSIONS 2018

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #18)

Greetings From Chicago!

After an amazing NEMLA 2017 conference in Baltimore, MD, I am back in cold, damp, and drizzly Chicago getting ready for the school week ahead.  Special thanks to NEMLA Executive Director Carine Mardorossian and her staff for ensuring that everything ran smoothly.  I think I can say without exaggeration that this is the best convention of the organization I have attended.

My live tweeting skills are non-existent, but I did manage to tweet after the fact some highlights from the sessions I attended.  In my blog post for this month, I intend to do something similar, giving a recap of my convention experience and the conversations I was privileged to have with scholars during sessions but also out in the hallways and at the networking tables set up in the exhibit hall.

Thursday was spent on board related issues and a bit of sight seeing in the afternoon.  Former NEMLA President Ben Railton and I enjoyed the exhibits at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.  I can’t speak for Ben (if you’re reading this feel free to make a comment) but I enjoyed the “living history” aspect of the museum as it tried to demonstrate the ways in which the past shaped the present culture of Maryland’s African-American population in positive and not just negative ways.  Walking through these exhibits was like being invited to a sift through a family’s private collection of heirlooms.  Many thanks to the staff at the museum for being so welcoming.  I really enjoyed the artifacts related to Frederick Douglass’s life and time in Baltimore.

After the museum, I went to see the Baltimore maritime museum.  I especially enjoyed my visit the USS Constellation, which dovetailed nicely with the Lewis museum’s exhibit on ship caulking (Douglass’s job in the Baltimore shipyards).  The staff on the ship were highly knowledgeable in matters of 19th century nautical history and explained to me how a ship like the USS Constellation was built and maintained.  Walking through the sailor’s quarters in the berthing deck gave me a greater appreciation for Melville’s fiction, especially his great but hardly ever read novel White Jacket.  Being a sailor was (and in many ways still is) a hard life.

On Friday I began my day with a panel on poetry and had the pleasure of meeting Ron Ben-Tovim from the University of Haifa.  Our paths crossed several times on Friday and Saturday as we went to many of the same sessions.  He raised some very interesting questions about War Literature and the ways in which we as readers should respond to veteran’s writing.  In particular, he brought up the issue of whether veterans got what they were looking for by enlisting.  This, of course, raises the prior issue of what exactly they were looking for and whether their quest was directed into the appropriate channel. He also brought up the valid point that some people enjoy killing others and find liberation in the suspension of norms that is allowed by war.  In addition, he reiterated a point made by Paul Fussell in his discussion of his own service in WWII that war can be both terrifying and exhilirating at the same time.  It’s more complicated that being simply good or bad.

Many of these issues came up in conversation with attendees of the roundtable session I chaired and presented at on the issue of Teaching War Literature Since 9/11.  Special thanks to Brittany Hirth and Lea Williams for joining me on that panel.  For those who were unable to attend, my slides are available in the Writing Sample section of this website.

I also attended a session on Friday about Death and Dying (kind of a morbid subject I know) but gained a useful insight from Courtney Adams of Texas A&M University on Fight Club, a book and author that I have always had trouble connecting with.  The self-destructive hero trope she analyzed says a lot about the status of masculinity in the contemporary culture of the United States today and the need to reimagine what it means to be a man.

I also had the opportunity on Friday to chair a panel Agriculture as a theme in US fiction.  There were four amazing papers on very divergent topics and authors.  I was left at the end of this session with a curious thought about the connection between Deep Ecology and Nativism.  If you are “transplanted” to a different soil (metaphor for the immigrant’s experience) and fail to thrive, whose fault is it?  That of the soil or is it your own?

I finished off my day by attending the Keynote Address by Ilan Stavans on the problem of Monolingualism.  Two issues he brought up stayed with me for several days.  So much so that I was speaking with strangers about it on the plane ride home.  The first is the perfectionism that many of us bring to our attempts to study language.  This often stops people (myself included) from learning one language let alone many because I want to be fluent instead of functional.  It is a way to ensure that we stay monolingual.  The second was his observation that being multilingual isn’t simply about knowing how to speak and write in another language.  It is about being able to interact with another culture, often radically different from your own, but still relatable to your experience.  I though of this when I took a cab ride to the airport and had an amazing conversation with the driver, a recent immigrant from Ethiopia who wants the same things for his family that I want for mine.  Thank you Ilan Stavans for staying with me all the way from BWI to MDW and shaping my conversations with strangers.  And bravo for being able to speak to us for so long without notes or slides.  Something I aspire to.

Saturday I began my day with a panel on F.O. Matthiessen.  Who knew that people still read and/or talked about him?  I remembered his text American Renaissance from my undergraduate days, but just assumed that in our Critical Theory heavy environment that Matthiessen’s work would be passe.  What I took away from this talk was a greater appreciation for the New Critics and what they were trying to achieve.  In the contemporary narrative, Cleanth Brooks and his colleagues in the New Critical approach to teaching literature are often viewed as Ivy-league elitists when the reality is that Brooks taught at LSU Baton Rouge, hardly a bastion of elitism, and was trying to democratize the reading of fiction, making it easier for non-specialist readers to encounter.  Whether they achieved their intent or not and if they had the best approach to that goal are both open to dispute.  But democratizing literature still seems a worthy goal.  I also found myself wondering as I left that session when did we as literary scholars come to hate or distrust the thing we teach?  And if we don’t love the literature we teach, why should our students?

The capstone of my day on Saturday was the Area Special Event which my fellow Director Lisa Perdigao made possible.  Brian Norman came to speak to members of the American/Anglophone and Cultural Studies/Media Studies Areas on his new project examining “posthumous autobiographies.”  These are works that purport to narrate the authentic life of key figures in the Civil Rights Era that are written/edited by another author after their death.  Malcolm X’s autobiography was one of the key examples given.  There is some question over how much control Alex Haley had over the text and if he was simply an editor or perhaps an author of the text, subtly shaping the way we see Malcolm X and his legacy.  These questions are especially poignant as the Civil Rights movement gradually moves out of living memory with participants gradually passing away.  Soon all we will have to know these figures and their historical moment are the texts and monuments left behind.

Fittingly, my conference experience ended with a panel on African-American literary traditions in Baltimore, chaired by Lena Ampadu, a scholar whose essay on Paul Dunbar’s poetry was crucial in the fifth chapter of my book.  I was surprised to learn in this session as well as in the one on Saturday on Literary Maryland how crucial a role William Watkins played in the life of so many African-American authors and yet how little we know about him.  The world of African-American activist fiction was much more interconnected than I thought it was.  There is a clear intellectual history that develops from these personal connections that really needs a book to outline if.  If that book already exists, let me know.  It is an area that I only have limited knowledge in, mostly related to Frederick Douglass and Francis E.W. Harper.

After that session, I had the pleasure of reconnecting with an old friend from UIC grad school days and meeting her husband and son (NEMLA is a family friendly conference).  Then it was off to BWI and back to Chicago to prepare for next year’s conference in Pittsburg.

If you have a session that you would like to propose for NEMLA 2018, you can find a link to propose that session here:  https://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention/session.html.  Sessions should be on a topic that you feel might be of interest to a wide range of scholars. Try not to be too specific in your abstract or too broad.  A few topics that I would like to see represented in Pittsburg include:  Women at Work, Class Issues in US fiction, Representations of Disability, Immigrant Narratives in US fiction, Bilingual Authors and Texts in US literature, and Native American Fiction in the US.  Other topics, of course, are welcome.  If you’re not sure how or if your abstract will work, email me directly and we can discuss it.  The deadline for session proposals is APRIL 29.  Once the sessions have been vetted, a CFP will go out for papers and presentations.  Usually this happens in mid to late May.

Thank you to all who attended NEMLA.  Our members are what make this organization great.  Please join us Pittsburg.  Our new president Maria DiFrancesco has an amazing conference planned.

Until Next Time….

John Casey

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #17)

Greetings from Chicago!

Today looks and feels a lot more like you would expect of March in the upper Midwest.  Lake effect snow is spreading out over the city leaving some neighborhoods buried while others see nothing but flurries.  I left the apartment this morning in a white out and arrived to a very snowbound and icy UIC campus.  Treacherous walking between buildings.  I guess it’s true what they say about the weather.  If you don’t like it, just wait a minute.  Hopefully the weather is better wherever you are.  And if not, that you’re inside watching the storm with a warm beverage.

The NEMLA 2017 Conference is just around the corner.  We’ll be meeting this year in Baltimore, MD from March 23-26.  Here is the main page for this year’s conference with links to the full program:  https://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention.html. I look forward to meeting some of you there.  This year NEMLA is setting tables aside for networking with other scholars in between sessions during the day, at the Saturday evening reception, and also at the closing brunch on Sunday.  I plan to be at the table devoted to the area I represent (Anglophone/American) meeting conference attendees and presenters.  Thanks to Claire Sommers, our NEMLA promotions fellow, for arranging this new initiative.  I’d love the opportunity to hear more about the research and teaching conducting by our members and your suggestions for the Pittsburg convention in 2018.  So please stop by!

Speaking of Pittsburg, if you are already thinking ahead to next year’s convention and have a session you’d like to propose, here is a link to the session proposal page for the 2018 conference.  http://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention/session.html.  As a reminder, there are six types of sessions: Seminar, Panel, Roundtable, Creative Session, Workshop, and Poster Session.  Descriptions for each type of session can be found here: https://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention/session/sessions.html.

I’ve had questions from potential session proposers about the difference between a Panel and a Roundtable.  Panels are good if you have a piece of writing that is not quite ready for publication review and is still in need of conceptual revisions.  Roundtables are good if you have concepts you want to discuss with an audience and are not anticipating publishing the records of that discussion.  If your paper is generally ready for publication but still needs some feedback, you might consider a Seminar rather than a Panel.  Seminars involve circulating papers ahead of time among session presenters and generally provide greater depth of commentary.

I don’t have a lot to say this month.  My workload has been pretty heavy as we pass the midterm mark on campus.  There is plenty of grading to do in my First Year Writing courses as well as my Survey of American Literature.  This has made any sustained thought  pretty difficult.  I seem to keep swimming from task to task, much like my students.  I couldn’t help but think of this when I read Department of Education Secretary Betsey DeVos’s comments on faculty telling students what to say and what to think.  That made me laugh.  (https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/02/24/education-secretary-criticizes-professors-telling-students-what-think)  If I could tell my students what’s on my mind right now, it would be that I need a long vacation and a lifetime ban on emails and committee meetings.  I’ve already spent about two hours today answering emails, mostly from students who missed class today due to the weather.  Not much propagandizing going on here.  Just good old logistics.  I’ll have to work on building up my elitist, liberal, professor agenda.  : )

Speaking of agendas, I’ve decided to tweet my work week for the rest of the semester so the world can see what an NTT professor of English such as myself does with his time on the job.  You can follow my posts on Twitter at #facultylife.  Feel free to post your own updates on the work you do at that hashtag.  Let the world know that what we do is real work, most of it supremely unglamorous.

In my next post, I’ll be sharing some highlights from this year’s NEMLA convention in Baltimore.

Until next time…

John Casey

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #15)

Greetings from Chicago!

Christmas music is now on the radio and stores are all decorated for the holiday season, but it’s 55 degrees fahrenheit outside.  From my office window up on the 18th floor, I can see students sitting on the Quad in between classes enjoying their lunch and getting ready for final exams as well as a few students practicing their skateboard skills. This is the last week of class on the UIC campus.  Next week begins exam week and a massive grading crunch for faculty as they scramble to get student work evaluated before leaving campus to celebrate the holidays with their families.  I have a particularly busy December this year as my brother in law is getting married this weekend.  After a whirlwind trip to Missouri to celebrate his nuptials, I’ll be back on campus to collect student writing and begin calculating final grades for my courses.  Then I’m only in Chicago for a few weeks before heading off to Vermont to visit my family.

For this month’s blog post, I’d like to take a moment to consider the concept of the “public intellectual.” Public Intellectual is one of those terms that generates highly polarized responses.  Some people see the term as reflecting a healthy engagement between faculty and the general public.  Others see it as patronizing, an attempt by elitists generally sheltered from society, to meddle in the affairs of people they don’t understand.  These polarized responses to the public intellectual indicate two things to me.  First, academics are bad at communicating with people outside their areas of specialization, justifying the charge of being patronizing.  Second, academics don’t have a clear sense of the social value of their work.

Let’s start with the issue of communication.  Last semester I had the privilege of teaching ENGL 240, a course in literary criticism and critical theory designed to prepare English Majors for upper level surveys and seminars.  One of the frequent topics of conversation between me and the students in that class involved the density of the language in the texts we were reading.  Many of these texts used jargon from disciplines outside of English such as philosophy, economics, and sociology.  They were also often poorly translated from their original languages (typically French and German).  When students would complain about the difficulty of something we were reading for that class, I would point out to them that sometimes a text is complicated to read because the concepts examined are complicated.  However, sometimes complexity of language is an attempt to make something simple sound complex.  In my teaching, I instinctively gravitate towards making complexity understandable for novices just learning how to read and write about literature.  Yet when I write, I feel compelled to mimic the structure and tone of the experts in the field that I assume will be reading and critiquing my work.  Often this means adopted the tortured syntax and vocabulary of “theory.”

Adapting your writing to meet the needs of a specific audience is not a bad thing.  I teach students in my rhetoric courses to always keep audience expectations in mind as well as pay attention to the rules of genre.  But it’s not always easy to shed the jargon, lengthy sentences, and analytical backflips so common in academic journals and books when speaking to non-academics or even to faculty outside of your own field.  I remember a History professor telling me once that the worst books he had ever read where written by English faculty who seemed to think that complex syntax and jargon could substitute for critical insight.  Although I tend to agree with that critique and write in all my work as directly as I can, the issue of “code-switching” seems more relevant to me.  Often applied to multi-lingual speakers, code-switching describes the ways in which we adjust our language to meet the expectations of our audience.  It also recognizes the relationship between language use and membership in a wide variety of social groups.  Lecturing is not just a technique.  It is a tone of voice.  To have a conversation with the general public, some genuine code-switching is in order.  Speak to people in a tone that doesn’t deny your status as an expert but that also doesn’t deny the expertise of those to whom you are speaking.  Everyone is an expert in something.  Share that expertise.

Moving on now to the issue of the social value of academic work, the problem varies from discipline to discipline.  In my own field of English studies, the problem has arisen that no one is clear anymore on what counts as literature, why we should read it, and how we should talk about it after it is read.  It is kind of a paradox that our abundance of creative writing is paired today with the lack of an audience.  Particularly an audience that knows what to do with creative expression.  My approach to the problem has been to contextualize creative expression in the classroom and in my publications.  I try to help students see the factors that went into the production of a piece of literature, including the cost of printing and purchasing a book, and also to consider the responses of prior audiences when they read a work of literature.  We then discuss why we believe that a book remains a subject of discussion as a way of answering the “literary question.”  I also engage in the thorny issue of evaluation (i.e. Is the book really any good?).  In my publications, I also contextualize the works I examine but I tend to assume the “literariness” of the material I analyze.  Since I’m writing for experts, I assume that they will see the works I examine as worthy of examination.  Particularly since other scholars have already written on the authors I am analyzing.

None of this addresses the problem, however, of how to convince the general public to see the value of your scholarship.  For me the essence of the problem is how to create the kind of spaces outside the classroom that mimic some of the elements of what I do in the classroom.  Public lectures like those held by Emerson and Twain in the 19th century are rare today.  As are book clubs.  Thus far, my only answer to this dilemma has been to blog. My blog posts serve as a quasi-lecture series for the general public.  I’ve also offered book reviews on occasion in my blog for academic works related to my field hoping that some non-experts might be tempted to read those works.  Obviously, however, this is not enough.  What is needed is a recommitment to the concept of lifelong learning.  Faculty need to become more engaged in what remains of their campus extension programs and courses for adult learners who are auditing courses rather than pursuing a degree.  Improve what is there and expand it.  We also need to become more comfortable on television, radio, and other forms of media not commonly used by experts to speak to other experts.  Who among us is brave enough to be the Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson of the humanities?

I think I’ve said enough for this month’s post.  But a long post is in order since I won’t be writing to you this December.  I’m taking the month off to celebrate Christmas and New Years.  I hope whatever holidays you celebrate are enjoyable, spent with family and friends.  I look forward to continuing my communication with you, my readers, in January.

Until next time…

John Casey

 

 

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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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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #11)

Greetings from Chicago!  The long hot days of summer are here in the city.  Normally I’m an outdoors person, but the heat has kept me in the air conditioned confines of my apartment the past few weeks, reading through the giant stack of books gathered during the past academic year.  I’ve also been working on a few writing projects and tidying up my living space before heading off to Vermont to visit my parents.

My thoughts in the past few months have turned in a few different directions.  Foremost on my mind have been the violent events going on throughout the world.  Some faculty (the most vocal of which is Stanley Fish) would have us bar the doors to current events and personal experience and make the classroom a sacred space, a true ivory tower.  We all know that this isn’t possible.  Students and faculty live in a less than ideal world where the walls of the ivory tower are already so full of holes that using those walls for protection is absurd.  The struggle for me is thus not whether or not to bring these “outside matters” into the classroom but how to do so in a meaningful way.  Every teacher has a slightly different way of addressing this issue.  Here is my approach.  First, I ask myself what events most lend themselves to the skills I am teaching within my discipline (English) and within my course.  Then I consider what impact these issues will have on student interaction in the classroom.

The first set of questions is pedagogical in nature and forces me to reflect on the nature of what I think I’m doing in the classroom.  What are my goals for students at each stage of the course I’m teaching?  I haven’t taught a literature class in quite some time so my general list of goals is typically matched to the curriculum for a first year writing course, the predominant class that I teach at UIC.  During the fall, I will be teaching a research paper course so my general goals for students are: to understand why research is important, to learn what constitutes research, to create steps for constructing and managing a research project, and to understand how to integrate research into your own writing.  Nearly any set of current events or personal interests could be matched to these general goals.  However, I wanted to meet my students half-way and create a course focused on themes related to their academic (and perhaps personal) interests.  Since UIC’s students predominantly choose to major in engineering, business, and medicine, I selected “infrastructure” as the focus of my course.

Most people think of roads and bridges when they hear the term infrastructure.  They also might wonder what these structures have to do with current events at all.  My approach to infrastructure, however, goes beyond considering the physical environment.  I tell students in the first few weeks of class that infrastructure is best understood as any element of our community that if it were removed would make the community cease functioning properly.  This definition clearly includes elements of physical infrastructure but it also includes specialized workers and types of knowledge needed to keep a community operational as well as shifts needed in that knowledge base to meet changing times.  Using this expanded definition, it is possible for us to examine infrastructure in terms of our political system and also to scrutinize the role of race in determining how communities are built and maintained.  Flint, Michigan’s water supply problems provided me an excellent teaching tool last semester.  This coming academic year policing and crime will more than likely play a prominent role.  It’s no accident that violent crime in Chicago takes place predominantly in neighborhoods that have long been neglected by the city for infrastructure improvement.

Of course, my plans for the fall semester will be shaped by the students I teach and I won’t meet them for several more weeks.  In some semesters, I have students who live in the situations we are discussing in class.  They may or may not want to talk about the environment they experience day to day.  Embarrassment is just as powerful a motivator for what to talk or not talk about as trauma or fear.  Other semesters, I have students who live worlds away from urban neglect in well-tended suburbs hours distant from the city.  These students present a different challenge as they often hold the attitude that “Well, my parents succeeded.  Why can’t they?”  My task as I design my course is to find a way to reach both groups of students.  Those for whom the issues we discuss might be “too real” and those for whom it is just another segment in the news.

In all these instances, I try to be aware of the power dynamic present in the classroom.  This is why I am a cautious practitioner of using current events and personal experience in the classroom.  As their professor, I hold the ability to pass or fail these students.  My evaluation is always in the back of their minds.  No student should ever feel pressured to think or act the way I do.  If that is what they take away from my class, I’ve failed.  I want them to feel comfortable enough to disagree with me while at the same time learning to articulate in a reasonable way why they disagree.  Or, at the very least, to examine an angle of the issues discussed that didn’t originally occur to me.  Students often agree with the general framework of the course, but look at the details in a radically different way from me.  This turn of events makes me happy, provided their point of view is backed up with reasons and evidence.

I’m now reaching the end of this month’s blog post and will just share with you briefly one last thought that has been on my mind.  I’ve long felt self-conscious about my poor abilities in foreign languages so I’ve decided to do something about it this summer.  I’m studying French, a language that I first encountered in elementary and middle school and have studied on and off for years.  I’m using an app called Duolingo to get started.  I’ll let you know how the process is going in my next post and discuss the relationship of foreign languages and literatures to the study of English.

Until next time…..

John Casey

 

 

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #6)

Greetings from Chicago!  It’s cloudy and cold outside today as I sit and write this blog post but unlike the east coast there’s no snow on the ground here.  Perhaps I’m crazy, but I kind of miss the snow cover.  Haven’t had a chance to drag out my cross country skis at all this year.

My last blog post was written before Christmas.  I hope you’ll forgive me for taking the month of December off as I was focused on visiting my family and trying to wrap up a bunch of projects that had collected on my desk over the fall semester.  In that November post I examined the use of electronic texts.  This post will cover the topic of Educational Technology.

I first became aware of the term “Educational Technology” through Twitter, specifically the tweets of Audrey Waters.  Before reading some of her posts on Hack Education, I had never heard of the term but I was well aware of the programs and services the term described.  Most familiar to me is Blackboard, the Course Management System (CMS) used at UIC.  I was also familiar with the various products such as MyWritingLab that Pearson had long been promoting amongst writing faculty on campus.  Apparently they have a version of this My(fill in the blanks here)Lab for every discipline taught on campus.

Most faculty entering the market for Educational Technology are either lost in a field of options made more confusing by technical jargon or are simply content to accept whatever technological tools are provided to them by their employer.  Few of us have the time or inclination to ask what types of technology are cost effective and, more importantly, what tools will actually enhance what we do in the classroom.

I experimented with several different types of educational technology in my First Year Writing classroom during the Fall semester of 2012.  The course I was teaching (ENGL 160) is designed to teach students short genres of writing such as the argumentative essay and proposal writing.  At the time, the course was balanced between academic and non-academic genres.  You can find a link to the syllabus under the Teaching Materials tab of my website.  It’s called “First Year Writing:Genre and Argument.”

I chose the Profile genre as well as that of the Manifesto to help students practice writing in a public context.  Since many of these non-academic genres are published online, I decided to have them work on the text of their assignments in Microsoft Word but then import that content into Google Sites for the Profile and Tumblr for the Manifesto.  Neither of these tools are typically considered educational technology, but that is part of my point.  Marketers have software and services that they claim are designed with your classroom in mind.  But any technology can become educational technology if you provide the proper pedagogical context for it.

In the case of the Profile, Google Sites was chosen as a simple web design tool that would allow students to craft an online Profile for the person they interviewed.  This person was someone on campus at UIC that they felt others should know. My favorite example was the student project that focused on a custodian in her dorm complex.  The hope with this writing assignment was that students would not only learn basic rhetorical techniques associated with the Profile genre since its creation but also would learn how to translate those analog skills into a digital environment.  It worked generally OK.  My one frustration was with my choice of platform.  Google Sites proved easy to me, but not my students who struggled to figure out its design interface.  Tumblr was a different story.  Most of my students had already used Tumblr before and some had profiles on the site.  They also like the photographic emphasis of the platform as opposed to the text heavy set up of Google Sites.  They used Tumblr effectively to create a Fashion Manifesto (based on the popular Sartorialist blog) that was designed to teach UIC students how to be fashion savvy on campus.

This academic year our program has begun shifting to primarily academic forms of short writing.  I haven’t taught this particular course in a while so I’m not sure how that would shift my choice of educational technology.  One thing is for sure, however, I like choosing and shaping the tool I want to use rather than simply taking something given to me by an educational technology designer.  This saves students money but is also gives me flexibility as an instructor to shift from platform to platform as I see fit rather than being locked into a deal with a major publisher or software developer whose staff don’t fully understand the needs of my class. The downside to this approach, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, is that it does take a bit of time to create your own context.  Perhaps that’s why I’ve stepped back from the process of platform selection in the last few semesters to more traditional pedagogical tools.  I’ve even tried, Lord help me!, to make Blackboard work to my advantage.  No luck on that yet.  It still serves mainly for me as a clunky version of Dropbox.

Faculty on campuses around the world are doing some excellent work with their students creating their own educational technology.  Two that come to mind are Chuck Rybak at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay and Jeff McClurken at the University of Mary Washington.  There are many more.  What these faculty have in common is a desire to learn the logic behind technological tools and create a context for them in the work they do in the classroom.  Again, this takes time.  It also takes money and at the very least a minimal amount of institutional support.  Unfortunately, at my institution security concerns and legal liability issues trump the desire for experimentation.  As I often joke with colleagues, the answer to any question asked of our university computing center is “Blackboard.”

For anyone reading this post who’s interested in delving into the world of educational technology I recommend first finding a partner to work with.  This could be either another faculty member in your department who shares some of your interests, a colleague in a department such as computer science who would be interested in collaborating with a humanities scholar, or a librarian willing to help you create your own educational tool.  Not only will this save you time, but it will address the issue of funding, which is always a concern with new projects.  Free online tools are abundant but not always easy to find.  Adapting these tools might also cost you some money for things like hosting fees and access to advanced editing tools.

What I don’t recommend is simply taking the tools offered by educational companies and using them in your classroom.  Blackboard is useful.  Especially the announcements, file sharing, and grade book.  But using it teaches me nothing.  Nor does it teach my students.  All it does is deliver content.  The point of educational technology should be more than content delivery.  It should be the act of learning how to deliver content through an electronic medium (a.k.a. digital literacy).  

I hope you all find the tool that works best for you and don’t get distracted by technology that you don’t need.  If you are a faculty member and have some tools that you particularly like or educational technology projects you’re proud of and would like to share with my readers, feel free to comment on this post.

My next post is going to shift from pedagogy to research.  I’ll be sharing with you some of the themes associated with my next book project.  A work very much “in progress.”

Until next time…

John Casey

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REMINDER: NeMLA 2016 (Hartford)-Call for Papers available online! (Abstracts Due Sept. 30)

2016 Call for Papers

Northeast Modern Language Association

47th Annual Convention

Hartford, Connecticut

March 17-20, 2016

Hosted by the University of Connecticut

Abstract Deadline: September 30, 2015

In spring 2016, the Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA) will meet in Hartford, Connecticut, for its 47th Annual Convention. Every year, this event affords NeMLA’s principal opportunity to carry on a tradition of lively research and pedagogical exchange in language and literature. The convention will include a full array of sessions, workshops, literary readings, film screenings, and guest speakers.

Hartford features some of the most significant historic and cultural sites in New England: the adjacent and interconnected Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe Houses; the artistic and cultural collections at the Wadsworth Atheneum; classic and contemporary performances at the Hartford Stage, Theater Works, and the Bushnell Center for Performing Arts; archives and research opportunities at the Connecticut Historical Society and Connecticut State Library and State Archives; unique and offbeat museums for kids and families such as the Connecticut Science Center and the CRRA Trash Museum; and much more. Both Adriaen’s Landing (the newly completed area around the convention center) and the historic downtown feature a variety of restaurants, shops, and parks. 

Please join us for this convention, which will feature approximately 400 sessions, dynamic speakers and cultural events. Interested participants may submit abstracts to more than one NeMLA session; however, panelists can only present one paper (panel or seminar). Convention participants may present a paper at a panel and also present at a creative session or participate in a roundtable.

Full information regarding the 2016 Call for Papers may be found on our website:

https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/cfp

 

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #2)

Here on the UIC campus it’s now week two and I’m already starting to fall behind. I’m sure that many of you reading this post can relate. Navigating my course schedule for the new semester, attending committee meetings, working on various writing projects, the to do list goes on. With a few spare moments in the schedule, I wanted to continue my conversation with you (the NEMLA membership) on issues relating to the research and teaching of American Literature. This month I’d like to consider what connection (if any) our research has on what takes place inside the classroom.

To start this discussion, I’ll share a bit of my own experience. My position at UIC is classified as teaching intensive.  As a full time non-tenure eligible “Lecturer,” I teach a 3-3 course load on a one year contract. Of course, this year’s unexpectedly large enrollment of first year students means that most Lecturers in my department are actually teaching 4 courses with the additional class considered an “over-comp” (i.e. pay in addition to faculty base salary).

Evaluation of Lecturers is based solely on teaching and teaching related activities.  What this means in practice is that student evaluations, syllabi, and faculty observations (by both TT and NTT colleagues) serve as the basis for hiring, retention, and promotion to Senior Lecturer.  Research (unless it relates directly to teaching) is not considered relevant in the assessment of UIC’s fairly sizable teaching intensive faculty pool.

Course assignments for Lecturers in the UIC English Department are determined primarily by the needs of its First Year Writing Program.  Nearly all of our department’s Lecturers can expect to each at least one first year writing course in a semester. On occasion, as enrollment allows, NTT faculty in the department might also be assigned to teach General Education or introductory level courses for the English Major.  Some of our NTT faculty in Creative Writing also teach upper level writing workshops.

You might very well ask yourself at this point why I’m focusing on what might properly be considered “human resources” issues.  These issues, however, are at the heart of the question of how research relates to teaching in my department. For Tenure Track faculty, research is the main focus of their job description with teaching assumed to follow in a holistic way from that research.  NTT Lecturers, hired solely on the basis of their teaching ability, face a different situation with research considered an outside interest that runs parallel to their duties for the university.  In essence, for a Lecturer at UIC, there is not (in most cases) a connection between their research and teaching, nor does the university expect such a connection to exist.

That said, many of my NTT colleagues persist in conducting research in a wide variety of fields and find ways to “smuggle” their interests into first year writing and general education literature courses. This might include course readings that either analyze an area of research interest for faculty or represent a concept crucial to their studies as scholars.  Our first year writing program also encourages faculty to have topics for their courses, and a casual glance at those topics will quickly give an outsider a sense of what the research interests are of Lecturers in the UIC English Department.

So far so good, but what about my research interests?  If you’ve taken a chance to read through my CV and skim through some of the writing samples on my website, you can see that my central research interest is in veterans of the United States Civil War and the cultural legacy associated with them in the late nineteenth-century.  How exactly that might be turned into a first year writing course still escapes me, so I haven’t tried to create one with that as its course topic (yet).  Nor have I had a chance to shape a lower level literature course to fit that topic since I haven’t (Oprah moment here) taught a literature course since 2011 (Introduction to American Literature and Culture).

The main venue through which my research has managed to cross over into my teaching has been in my methodology, which relies upon archival research. Each semester that I’ve taught the research paper course at UIC (ENGL 161), this method has managed to find its way into my syllabus and influences the topics that my students select.  It also influenced the way I taught many of the units in my Introduction to Critical Theory and Literary Criticism course (ENGL 240), especially the one on Digital Humanities.  Another way that my research has found its way into my teaching is the emphasis that I put on place and community in all my courses. Both of these themes were central to what it meant to be a veteran in the late nineteenth-century United States. Feeling out of place or in the wrong community is a feeling that shows up in many of the narratives examined in my book New Men.  

Never in my life have I been good at conclusions. Even though I’m an introvert by nature, I love to talk and talk and talk and talk.  Especially if the topic is one in which I have an interest. Yet even a blog post needs an ending and this is where I’d like to leave you all this month.  Teaching has become for me a place to test ideas and find new interests that might not develop if I were sitting at home with a stack of books working alone on my next article or book chapter. The constraints of my working conditions also serve a purpose as they teach me that good ideas need skilled pitchmen and women to make their way out into the world. Rhetoric, I have swiftly learned, is not just a departmental staffing need but the mother discipline, especially in these times of budget cuts for the humanities.

In my next blog post, I’d like to share some of your experiences teaching and researching on American Literature.  How do you understand the relationship between teaching and research?  What types of classes do you tend to teach and how do you find ways to emphasize your interest/understanding of American Literature in those classes?  You can send your thoughts on this topic to me directly via email (jcasey3@uic.edu) with the subject line NEMLA Blog Post #3.  I’ll share selections of those emails with you all in my next post.

Until next time…

John Casey

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