Posts Tagged Teaching

My Spring 2018 Courses

ENGL 161 

CRN 14458 – TR 9:30-10:45
CRN 14460 – TR 3:30-4:45

Everything By Design: Writing About Chicago’s Infrastructure

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Infrastructure is all around you. The roads you drive to work or school, the water that comes out of the faucet in your home, the lights you turn on when it gets dark, and even the schools you have attended are all examples of infrastructure. These intricately designed systems for organizing space are fundamental parts of our lives that we often take for granted until they malfunction. But what is the logic behind the systems that make up infrastructure and how were those systems created? What is the future for infrastructure, particularly in the Chicago area? These are just a few of the questions we will explore in this class as we use the subject of infrastructure to learn some basic skills of academic research and writing.

 

 

ENGL 109

CRN 24547 / 24548 – TR 11:00-12:15

You Were Never Here: Author’s Writing In And About Chicago

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What comes to mind when you hear the word Chicago?  For some it’s stockyards and steel mills, but these have been gone from the city’s landscape for nearly three generations.  For others it’s the stories of violent crime, but Al Capone is a distant memory and many neighborhoods are not touched by the gang activity on the evening news.  Some see the city as a patchwork of neighborhoods with different ethnic backgrounds at their core, but rising rents and mortgage prices have turned many ethnic neighborhoods into urban shopping malls. The Chicago that seems ‘real’ to you depends on what you already believe before picking up the book.  In this class, we will examine the strong emotions that readers have about Chicago and the narratives that either seem real or fake to those reading them.  Readings for the class will include classic novels such as Sister Carrie and Native Son alongside more recent works by local authors such as  The Old Neighborhood.  We will also read poems by Carl Sandburg, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Louder Than a Bomb youth poetry slam founder Kevin Koval’s recent collection A People’s History of Chicago.  

 

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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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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #5)

I hope that you all had a Happy Thanksgiving and are on track for a successful end to your fall semester.  After getting back from a visit with my in-laws in Springfield, Illinois, I find myself swimming furiously in a sea of student papers, articles and manuscripts in need of peer review, and revision of my own writing.  There’s also the constant rush of students in and out of my office now that they’ve discovered (belatedly) the location of my office as well as my posted office hours.  Ah, the glamorous life of the academic.  ; )

In my last blog post, I focused on the use of Twitter for academic purposes. This month I’d like to discuss the use of electronic texts in the classroom.  Among my colleagues at UIC, there is a robust debate over whether it is appropriate at all to invite the use of electronic devices in the undergraduate classroom.  Some faculty choose to prohibit phones, tablets, and laptops from their classrooms and require students to purchase hard copies of books and print out articles for discussion in class.  Other faculty on campus only use electronic texts, print sources than have been scanned or coded into an electronic format or sources that only exist electronically.

My approach is a hybrid of these two poles.  Certain books I prefer to have students buy in hard copy or print out.  These are typically sources that we will be reading closely or analyzing multiple times.  Other resources, mostly contextual in nature, I prefer students to access electronically as needed.  The rationale behind this decision does have some research to back it up, but is based largely on my teaching experience as well as feedback I have received from students.  “Close reading,” “Analytical Reading,” “Hermeneutics,” call it what you will, depends upon a form of deep concentration that it is hard for us to achieve when we are scrolling up and down a computer screen.  True (as Franco Moretti points out) readers have been engaged in superficial readings of texts for as long as humans have been writing language down.  However, it is just too easy for me to shift to Facebook, Twitter, or another document when reading an electronic text or skim rapidly across the words on the screen without registering much beyond the “gist” of what I have read.  With a  book or article in hand, I feel pressure to go back over text my eyes have lazily gazed over and highlight/annotate the parts of the text that seem significant.

Students in my courses have generally agreed with this assessment.  Contra Cathy Davidson whose most recent book, Now You See It, champions the benefits of distraction, students on the UIC campus have complained to me about how hard it is to focus with their phones buzzing and pinging with updates and notifications from various apps.  They have also found the technological limits of wifi, software compatibility, and device battery life a challenge.  We joked in my Introduction to Literary Criticism and Theory course several semester’s ago that the main vulnerabilities of the codex as interface are water and fire.  Other than that, as long as you don’t lose the book or print article, you’re good to go.

These significant drawbacks to the electronic text have often left me skeptical about the best way to use them (if at all).  As I mentioned earlier, the main ways in which I have found electronic texts useful have been contextual in nature. This includes bringing historical documents such as newspaper articles, letters, photographs, and maps into the classroom.  These supplementary texts help us better understand the social background of the writings we are analyzing.  Another effective use of electronic texts has been when a work is otherwise unavailable in print for students to read.  Most of the authors I teach and research are now part of the public domain, making their work freely accessible for all to distribute in whatever way they see fit.  What better way to appreciate the literary context that influenced an author’s aesthetic than to read the works of his or her contemporaries for comparison.

Perhaps the greatest source of influence in my decision on whether or not to assign an electronic text, however, has not been pedagogical at all.  Instead it has been driven by the rising cost of student textbooks.  The anthology I used in my Introduction to Literary Criticism and Theory cost students on average $115 to buy.  Renting the book lowered the cost to around $70.  This might not seem like much in comparison to texts in other courses that can cost significantly more or software programs that students are required to buy for majors in the architecture and the sciences.  Yet the cost adds up over time.  Whenever I assign a print book or article, I make sure that we are in fact going to read the text exhaustively.  That it is in ever sense a “required” text for the course.  Anything that might even be vaguely considered supplemental, reference oriented, or “recommended” is assigned in an electronic format to save costs.

Now at this point it is worth acknowledging the hidden and often not so hidden cost of e-texts.  Publishers come by my office on a near constant basis around this time of the year, particularly Pearson.  They are more than eager to sell my students access to proprietary websites that mediate between them and the things they will be reading.  One example is MyReadingLab.  The allure of such technology is that it lessens my workload in and out of the classroom.  But is it worth the cost?  To me, at least, it isn’t.  I would rather find online resources that are either free or more affordable and link students to them via our course management site, Blackboard.  There is also the transfer of costs to students in printing fees, my xerox budget has been cut dramatically by my department, as well as the cost of buying a device to read electronic texts on.  Sure, a sizable number of our students have smartphones today, but who wants to read a novel on a iPhone?  Even youthful eyes are strained reading that tiny print.

The only honest way to conclude a discussion of electronic texts in the classroom is to admit that the data is mixed.  Their are numerous disadvantages to moving away from print texts but there are also many benefits.  I hope to have a fruitful discussion on both during my round table presentation in Hartford on “required texts” and “authoritative” editions of literary works.  In the meantime, if you have been using electronic texts successfully or unsuccessfully in the literature classroom, let me know.  If you haven’t tried using them at all, experiment with a few this spring.  Teaching and scholarship after all are a great adventure.  Why else would we keep slogging along through the seemingly endless writings by students and colleagues that call for our attention on an almost daily basis?

In my next blog post, I intend to revisit my comments on Pearson and other educational resource providers (including Blackboard).  What should scholars know when they enter the market for educational technology?  How can we choose the tools that make sense for our pedagogy when we are limited by lack of knowledge, money, and sometimes institutional bureaucracy?

Until next time….

John Casey

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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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Revisiting the Digital Divide

Much of the research on the “digital divide” focuses on individual users and demographic groups that have traditionally had limited access to technology. A recent study by the Pew Research Center continues this trend. Their findings indicate that thanks to mobile technology, specifically the smart phone, internet use among all social groups is increasing. Fear of technology is also fading as once excluded groups learn digital literacy.

Although these studies are heartening to read, indicating gradual progress towards greater access to technology for all citizens, they fail to take into account the digital divide that exists within educational institutions. While television, radio, and internet news providers have been busy bashing the teacher’s unions and tearing apart the educational policies of “No Child Left Behind,” precious little has been said about the uneven technological infrastructure of our nation’s schools.

For every school with access to i Pads and state of the art computer labs, there are hundreds with only a handful of aging computers (usually in the library) that are available on a first come first served basis for internet research and word processing. This problem is endemic throughout the current educational system, reaching as far as the ranks of higher education.

Right now I am writing this blog post at home on my personal laptop. Partially this decision was made voluntarily, as I wanted to write during the evening in the comfort of my home and not use work resources for non-work related activities. Even if I had wanted to write this post earlier at work, however, I could not.

I share an office at my institution with four other Non-Tenure Track Faculty (NTT as we’re calling them these days). At one point, we had a desktop computer that was five years old. Not surprisingly given the CPU intensive nature of WEB 2.0, this machine died during the summer semester.

In its place, next to the CRT monitor (i.e. the kind that looks like an old TV), mouse, and keyboard of the old computer, sits a seven-year old laptop–a PowerBook G4. This machine was wrangled from the department after over a month of hectoring our IT guy. I had never even heard of this particular brand of Apple laptop so I took the time to search for information about the system on Wikipedia. It turns out that the “new” computer in my office is the precursor to the now ubiquitous Mac Book.

With its limited CPU power and an outdated browser, the most I can do with this laptop is check my email and read websites that aren’t overly graphics heavy or interactive. On most days I go upstairs to the computer lab and wait to use one of the three computers in our departmental computer lab. I also have the option (unlike most of my colleagues) of using the computer in my other office where I serve as an undergraduate studies program assistant.

Added to these frustrations is the lack of wireless internet access in either of my offices, which prohibits me from bringing my personal i Pad to work and getting around the technological limitations of my work space. At one point, I was able to “hack” my way into the network by plugging the internet cable in my teaching office into my own laptop, but as of today our internet connection there is down. This also makes it impossible to use the telephone in that room as my institution switched a few years ago from regular phone service to VOIP (voice over internet protocol).

If we move from my early twentieth century office into the classrooms where I teach, the situation is only slightly better. In a course I designed to teach digital literacy and multi-modal writing to my students, the most advanced technology in any of my three classrooms is a flat screen monitor with a VGA cable that allows me to plug in my own laptop and display its screen on a 25″ television. Wireless access is available in all three rooms, but that assumes that my students can afford to bring their own technology to class as I have.

“Plug and Play” is better than nothing in a world where technological access is no longer a luxury but a precondition for education to take place. Yet it places the burden of technology’s cost on the students and educators. Not only is this unfair, it also sends a strange message to our students: “You need to be educated for the jobs of the 21st century, but we will not provide the tools.” No wonder self-learning is coming back into fashion. Why pay for school when you can buy a laptop and let the internet teach you the skills needed to survive in a tech-driven world?

Now I should perhaps qualify my statement/rant above by reiterating the fact that I am a NTT faculty member. I’m also an English Professor. Perhaps things are different for the TT faculty in my department or are significantly better in other programs at my institution. My suspicion, however, is that while the technological infrastructure might be less antiquated than what I described above it is still inadequate to meet student needs.

When we talk about the digital divide, we need to remember that surfing the internet is a skill easily learned alone at home. Using the web to your advantage, however, is a skill that should be learned collectively in the classroom. Regrettably, this can’t happen when many educators work in an environment designed to teach Baby Boomers to fight the Red Menace.

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Quality Over Quantity–Computer Assisted Grading Revisited

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.

 

 

 

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