Posts Tagged English
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….
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…..
October 4th, 2013
ENG 240 — 36394
A Millennial’s Response to the Digital Humanities
As a millennial, I feel as if I have a naturally engrained desire to see Digital Humanities succeed. Throughout my entire educational career, the importance of computer literacy has been stressed via numerous typing and computer-aided research courses. Despite sitting through painfully tedious lectures on the “home row” typing technique, I feel as if for the first time, the threat of “pay attention because you’ll be using this for the rest of your life” has—and will continue to—come true. While I haven’t written in cursive in almost ten years and I can’t remember the last time I did manual long division, I use computers and the internet as a vessel for academic research almost every day of my life.
“Digitial Humanities” is defined as “a field of research, teaching, and invention…
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Our examination in class of the Digital Humanities has shown the difference between visions of what this movement might mean to the Discipline of English. The makers of digital tools, the old guard of Humanities Computing, still provide a compelling case for the need to actually create something in order to consider yourself a Digital Humanist. Users of existing digital tools show how reading and scholarship are rapidly shifting due to technological advances. And Critics, well, they are struggling to catch up. What would a critical theory of the Digital Humanities look like and is it needed?
Although there are many objections to the Digital Humanities as a field of study, I think one major point of contention is the rapidity with which digital projects come and go. To the less technically inclined this seems a waste of scarce resources of both time and money. Why go to such great…
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Just when you thought it was over, rejection letter season kicks back into high gear. Or in this case, rejection emails. For those of you who have been on the Academic job market at least once, you know exactly what I am talking about. Those mysterious letters or emails from schools you applied to over six months ago that inform you of your rejection for a job that you long gave up on.
My favorite so far came in yesterday. I’ve pasted the text here with the school and position ID information deleted:
Thank you for your recent application for the Assistant Professor of English with the University of [Blank].
Your application has been carefully examined to evaluate your combination of education and experience in relationship to the specific requirements of this position. After a thorough review of all the applications we have selected another candidate who we feel best meets the needs of both this position and our department.
We appreciate your interest in finding employment with [Blank], and we wish you success in your efforts to find a rewarding position.
Do not reply to this email. This is an automated email account which is not checked. Questions should be directed to the hiring official of English.
Is it just me or does this letter sound like it was generated by a spambot? Come on people. If you’re going to require a writing sample from me, the least you can do is craft a well-written rejection letter. One will do. Then you can cut and paste my name and yours into the template.
Have a good rejection story to share? Feel free to post it as a reply.
A Reuter’s report describes recent efforts to create computer software that could scan and grade common errors in student essays. Mark Shermis, Dean of the College of Education at the University of Akron, is supervising a contest created by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation that would award $100,000 to the programmer who creates an effective automated grading software.
Shermis argues that if teachers weren’t swamped by so many student papers in need of grading, they would assign more writing and student’s would greatly improve their written communication skills. He sees this new technology as an aide to the overworked writing teacher rather than a potential replacement.
Steve Graham, a Professor at Vanderbilt who has conducted research on essay grading techniques, argues, in contrast, that the replacement of writing teachers by grading software is not only “inevitable” but also desirable as “the reality is humans aren’t very good at doing this.”
As the writer of the Reuter’s article notes, talk about paper grading software is not new. It began in the 1960s. Now, however, technology has reached a level where such grading is not only possible but also probable. But the question still remains: Is it a good idea?
Leaving aside for a moment the question of faculty employment, machine grading sidesteps a more important question than how to get students to write more and grade that writing effectively. Namely–what is writing and who is responsible for teaching it.
In too many schools writing is viewed as the “problem” of the English department. Students are sent to writing classes to learn essay structure, research techniques, and grammar. Only the last of these is universal. The other two skill sets are discipline specific. I guess that explains why to my students everything they read is a novel and every paper a literary analysis. They’ve been taught after all that writing equals English.
If we really want students to learn not just writing but effective communication, parents, teachers, and administrators need to spread the responsibility for this instruction across the curriculum. Some schools already do this but most are content to leave communication training to literary scholars. Machines won’t change this. They will be programmed to evaluate whatever curriculum is currently in place. Until the curriculum is changed, the machine will not only replicate the error but multiply it.
Moving on to the issue of employment, part of my unease with a machine that grades papers is it would most likely put me out of a job. I have 48 student essays in need of grading that are staring at me right now as I pen this post. Of course, the curricular changes I suggest would more than likely have the same effect, with or without machine assistance. The way to counter this, however, is to lower class sizes.
This is the other aspect of the issue that is completely ignored by most research. If class sizes are lessened, not only will more teachers have employment but writing will become a less onerous task to teach and evaluate. It could also then be meaningfully integrated into the entire curriculum and not remain the purview of the English Department.
Would such changes cost a lot of money? Yes. But it is a good investment. Far better than the money we’ve wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan and the even larger sums of money we spend incarcerating drug offenders. It’s even better, dare I say, than the cost of a certain software currently being designed to solve all my problems.