I’ve been trying to go paperless this semester. Homework is done in the form of “blog posts” on Blackboard (I know, I know, lay off. Baby steps). Papers are submitted electronically. Free writes have been replaced with discussion board questions. I’ve embraced (or at least I’ve tried to embrace) electronic interaction.
I’ve had motivation on my mind, in part because of Wednesday’s #FYCchat. But a chance conversation on Twitter really started the wheels in my head turning.
We want to master certain skills, like guitar (which, by the way, I never was able to. At all). And, one way or another, we award ourselves unofficial badges, based on which songs we can play. Anyone who plays an instrument knows which songs they aspire to play, and once they play those songs (and often for an audience) they move on to harder songs. I used to swim. I loved swimming for so many reasons, but I also aspired to achieve certain standards set by a external body. In any sport we practice, the idea is to improve, and we know much of the time who is better than we are and aspire to approach or surpass them.
As kids, we always knew who was good, better, and best at anything and everything, from spelling to handwriting to video games to running to everything. Kids know, as Cathy Davidson points out. Taking grades, or badges, or ranking, or anything else isn’t going to change. The trick is to then offer kids recognition for what they can do. As much as the people who put together Wikipedia did so for free they also knew that people would read their work, use their work, recognize their work. Super-contributers receive recognition for their contribution, even in a minor way. We might be self-motivated, but it always feels good to receive recognition.
Take my blogging. I started blogging because I love to write and talking about teaching, writing, and higher education. But I’ll tell you, I always had an audience in mind, and it feels good that I’m receiving recognition for what I already love to do. Maybe this is because I’ve been “trained” to want rewards. I don’t know, but I spent 13 years swimming competitively even though for the last half, I knew there wasn’t any chance of making the Olympics. So, where was my motivation? My rewards were smaller, but no less significant to me. Each of use has looks to be rewarded in different ways.
I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s #FYCchat because these questions don’t have any easy answers.
As a follow up to my last post on encouraging play, and the subsequent #FYCchat, I’m thinking about the groups in my peer-driven learning class that have been the most “creative” in their project ideas. One of the worries that was expressed during the chat on Wednesday was that when we encourage creativity and play, it looks too much to the outside observer that we’re not “doing” or accomplishing anything. Or, that we’re wasting time.
Today, with my Peer-Driven Learning class that is less self-motivated than the other, we went to the library. The class decided that we were going to get our “required essay” out of the way first. The required essay needs to be “an analytical essay that connects multiple texts across disciplines” (to quote our Gen. Ed. Student Learning Outcomes requirement). We are still working on the broad topic of “Wealth, Poverty, and Social Class” and we’ve been brainstorming ideas as to what to write about. But, the essay requires multiple sources from across disciplines, and I knew that this wasn’t going to happen without some help.
This week, one of my peer-driven classes was finishing up their project proposals. They will be responsible for teaching two classes, which includes presenting a project that they will then hand in (this is a writing class, so they have to hand in something that is written). As I was going around the class, listening as their brainstorms were beginning to coalesce into a more solid proposal, I kept hearing something that troubled me: powerpoint. Four our of the five groups were planning to use powerpoint in their lessons.
- The Johnny Cash Project, recently featured in a Google Chrome commercial, but originating from SXSW.
- NFB Interactive, from the National Film Board of Canada. Innovative and interactive visual projects. Welcome to Pine Point, about a Canadian mining town that no longer exists is stunning and moving.
- Kyra D. Gaunt is a TED Fellow and in one of her classes, the students put together a book on race and race relations. She has written extensively about how higher education needs to change and that students need to take ownership of their educations.
- Here is a completely mind-blowing model for how to teach college writing by David Perry.
I’m going off my blogging schedule. This might turn into a longer, more developed post for uvenus or elsewhere, but I need to write this and put this out there right now. While I’m angry. And reeling.
As someone who writes about literature (and pop-culture!), I know the value of re-reading (and re-reading and re-reading again). I’ve always been this way; any book or tv episode or movie that I love are often revisited time and time again. Sometimes it’s because they provide comfort or familiarity during a time of crisis or volatility (hello, Muppet Movie, Star Wars, or Almost Famous!) or because they are so rich that they demand more than one kick at the can. But even now, I can still be surprised by what I have missed in works that I thought I was thoroughly familiar with.
As I was writing the essay (after having read the story at least fifty times), I noticed something I hadn’t picked up before in all my other readings: the body that the protagonist buys is called a “Diana” type. Why had I not ever seen this before? Diana? Princess Diana? The remnants of the monarchy? The fairy-tale princess? In a story involving not one, but two Commonwealth countries in a postcolonial setting? Really? How did I not see this before? Suddenly, I was researching the image of Princess Di, how she is interpreted, etc (there was a Journal of British Studies issue devoted to her, among the hundreds of other peer-reviewed articles dealing with her image, legacy, etc). And now I had a whole new avenue to write about in this essay (which meant I had to sacrifice some of the other things I had planned to write about).
This week, in my FYC class, we are talking about the great dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. I wrote my MA thesis on dystopias, so I’ve been reading (and rereading) this book for over ten years. I’ve taught it in various classes at least ten times. And this week, during our discussion about the book and why the world Bradbury creates I realized something I never had before; Bradbury wasn’t just making a point about books and education (the three things we need are things that have depth, time to think about them, and the right to act on what we’ve learned), but it is also about how society has fragmented, with people cut off from each other. Montag finds the strength to act when he connects first with Clarisse, then with Faber, and finally with Granger and the band of nomads. How had I not seen this before?
Of course, I didn’t call attention to my revelation, simply including it as part of the discussion. Maybe I should have. Anyone who teaches knows that it’s almost impossible to get students to read, let alone re-read anything we assign. The worst is when students ask me if they have to read something because they read it in high school already. I think I was afraid to say, hey, I just noticed this, because it might appear like I wasn’t prepared or I didn’t know what I was talking about. I could have let me students see my own learning process, a process that didn’t end…ever. So many students, heck, people now decide on something (for whatever reason) and desperately cling to those conclusions. I need to remember to show my students that I am open to noticing and learning new things, that I am often wrong and that’s ok.
As a young, non-tenure-track female faculty member, I often feel the pressure to make sure that my authority and expertise are unquestionable. But, they aren’t. I’m often wrong, and I am open to learning from my mistakes, open to sudden epiphanies, open to changing my mind. That I was afraid to share those moments with my students when they happen isn’t something I am proud of. This is one area where I need to work on being the baddest Bed Female Academic I can be.
I received an interesting set of questions in the comments on my last peer-learning post:
I’ve read Cathy’s piece in the Chronicle of HE. I hate to be a bit of a wet blanket but having had some experience of designing, leading and being part of peer driven teaching and having been an early member of the so-called ‘anti-university’ set up in London in the late ’60s– I have a few questions that I’d need to know in order to determine if this is an idea that can be realistically applied and allow students to graduate with some kind of marketable qualification (however and whoever determines the ‘market’).The type of class isn’t clear. Are they postgrads/post-experience/mature/straight from secondary school? Are they doing an elective or is it a compulsory class?Will their grade make a difference to their degree and does the degree have to meet any institutional or external (eg professional/regulatory body accreditation criteria)?In fact, what does the grade signify? Is it simply a metaphorical ‘fig leaf’ to cover your back or is it a rigorous measure of the learning and self-instruction?
I’ve been wanting to do a post since the beginning outlining all of the ways my peer-driven class is different from Cathy Davidson’s classes. I could point “anonymous” to my previous posts on my peer-driven classes that outline more carefully what the purpose of the class is, etc. But, just to reiterate, the class that I am reformulating as being peer-driven in ENG 200 or Writing II. This is a required course for all students, regardless of major. They have already taken ENG 100 or traditional freshman composition. Our student learning outcomes are essentially to have students read primary sources from across disciplines, discuss, and write about them. We have a choice of two almost identical textbooks to assign to them, and a list of required assignments, both large and small. At the end of the day, if the students are using the textbook as a guide, they will be fulfilling the requirements of the course. Most of my colleagues that I’ve told that I am letting the students decide what they want to read from the textbook have shrugged their shoulders; any readings from the book will be challenging and stimulating.
There are some very important differences, of course, between my course and Cathy Davidson’s course. While Cathy Davidson seems to have had a weekly schedule that students followed (more or less), my class has been shaped exclusively by my textbook, which we would never be able to get all the way through. Both my classes are completely different in terms of our assignments and week-to-week layout. One class is much more “traditional”; the students have picked the readings, but we are working on them together, as a class. The other class has broken off into groups and will be teaching their own two-class unit, complete with a project based on their readings/lesson. It’s early, but each class is having some good results.
My students didn’t “chose” to take me, specifically, for this course. Sure, there are a handful who had me last year, but most of the students selected my sections of ENG 200 because it fit their schedule. They certainly had no idea that I was going to turn the tables on them. I have a higher cap in my class (18 students sounds like a dream) and no TA. I don’t have tenure, and I am teaching three other classes on top of the two peer-driven courses. Our college has a high number of first-generation college students, as well as a poor graduation rate and low ACT scores for incoming freshmen. The majority come from our service area, which is largely poor and rural. If one of my classes is less ready to embrace peer-driven learning, I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. Actually, that one of the classes so readily embraced the format is perhaps more surprising.
I don’t have a ton of experience being an “innovative educator” nor does what I write about or do in my classroom cause our PR office to have palpitations. Thanks to Cathy Davidson, turning your class over to your students isn’t met with hang-wringing and fainting (seriously, read the first chapter of Now You See It to see how much negative national press Cathy Davidson has inspired). Or, thanks to the fact that I toil away at an out-of-the-way university insulates me from any notice. I’d say it’s a bit of both. I help create one of the most exciting and innovative (to me at least) academic programs/organizations (HASTAC), so I’m starting from behind, so to speak, compared to Cathy Davidson. I’m still learning to let go and embrace all of this.
My job, as I understand it, is to help students become better writers but also more independent learners. I want them to becomes 4-year-olds again, where the world was exciting and new and they wanted to learn about everything. I want them to learn how to create a community, to support one another in their education, and just think differently about anything I can. I want to help them think more critically about their world and how they fit into it. These are my goals regardless of how I teach, but I think teaching this way will be more successful. Even if the rest of their educations are “by the book” both literally and figuratively, I hope they will take what they have learning in my class beyond university.
Is it sustainable for every single program on campus? I don’t know. I’m not as optimistic as Cathy Davidson, although I’m getting there. I’ve said time and time again that it’s my own failure of imagination that I cannot think about how to do my class or university differently. But I know I am doing something right as my class buzzes with excitement and begin to come up with their own innovative and creative ways of looking at their readings and the issues they bring up. I can’t measure that.
I’m not sure if I want to.
As any reader of this blog knows, I teach Developmental Writing (some excellent posts from my archives linked right there, folks). These are, studies have shown, some of the most vulnerable students in higher education; the statistics show that these students typically drop out and never finish a degree of any kind. I work at an institution that has dismal completion rates. With public pressure mounting, we are becoming more and more aware of the issue of retention. More and more, the pressure to “retain” students is trickling down to the individual instructors.
This week in my peer-driven classes was amazing. We finally put in concrete terms what was going to be expected of them during the semester. We decided what our major and minor assignments would be and how much of their final grade each part would be worth (yes, we decided to go with good, old-fashioned grades, awarded by me. One class pointed out that they didn’t want the responsibility and the other saw it as too time consuming).
Each class is going to be completely different. The first class (the class that is less self-motivated and less vocal) will run in a much more conventional way. We decided to get our “required” paper (the essay that all students must write) out of the way first. In preparation, we will read the section of our textbook on “Wealth, Poverty, and Social Class.” We will decide collectively which readings we will do for homework and what sort of discussion questions we should address. Homework in this class will be worth 50% of their final grade, as an incentive to stay on task. Once we have completed this section and the required paper, we will move towards being a little more non-traditional in preparation for a final “project,” which can be done in groups.
The other class more closely to what Cathy Davidson imagines for her next peer-driven class. The students are already in groups (with one exception; the class decided that they wouldn’t force anyone to be in a group, so there is one student working solo), working on different sections of the textbook that they found the most interesting. Each group will come up with a proposal for a two-class lesson plan and project on their section. Once the proposals are approved, they will work on their lesson plan and project. Each group gets two classes to teach/present, with the rest of the class expected to read and participate. Once that is done, we will move on to working on our “required” paper, our final task. This class also decided to put together a rather draconian attendance policy because, as one student put it, how can this class be peer-driven if you’re not here?
I was so proud of my students. They recognized their strengths and their weaknesses, developing a class that met their needs. One class wanted more from me as their instructor, the other class, not so much. While they were intrigued by the idea of contract grading, at the end of the day, this class as a concept was radical enough; it seemed they wanted the familiar comfort of grades, as something to hold on to. I can’t say that I minded; it gives me something to hold on to as well, some remnants of “control.”
I realized that we hadn’t discussed a rubric or “scoring” guide in my second class. This worked out well, as we were going to be discussing rubrics during our weekly #FYCchat. As the chat progressed (check out the archive here), it became clear that we were of two very different minds about rubrics; some of us swore by them, while others shunned them as one more way we limit students’ creativity. I panicked; what had I done? I communicated with the students that we might want to develop a rubric. But clearly this wasn’t a concern of theirs. What if they were going to do one just because I had suggested it? Was I in the process of messing with a good thing?
And then the concept of badges (again from Cathy Davidson) did the rounds on Twitter. Why wasn’t my class using badges? Why were we using grades at all? My panic increased. The students decided, I said, but what if the students really didn’t decide, and they were just doing what was comfortable, or worse, what they thought I wanted them to do. Did I not present the concept well enough for them to feel comfortable with it? Am I still being too traditional, conventional? Was I failing my students? I’m not requiring them to put together a digital project or use social media. Should I? Am I doing enough to push my students outside of their comfort zones?
I could no longer see the success of my class, only all of the ways it could (already) be interpreted as a failure.
My students were able to accept where they were in terms of their comfort level with a peer-driven learning environment. One class needs more guidance than the other. I need to accept that my own level with peer-driven learning as their teacher is also evolving. I need to accept where I am just as much as they have accepted where they are. This is a learning process for all of us. In the same way that I try to provide positive support, encouragement, and patience to my students, I need to do the same for myself.
This will not be perfect. There will always be thing that get left out, left behind, and things that could be done differently. In a peer-driven learning environment, I have to trust that the direction my students have chosen to take is the right one. I also have to trust that I am doing my best as well.
Another way that this class is the most challenging thing I have ever done.