Peer-Driven Learning: The Challenges of Letting Go of Control

Tomorrow is my first day of crowdsourcing my course, or, perhaps more accurately, working with my students to create a peer-driven course. We had our first class(es) on Monday, where I introduced the concept and we went through the syllabus, such as it was. I assigned two posts from Cathy Davidson’s HASTAC blog, as well as the Paulo Freire essay on the banking concept of education included in their reader, in an attempt to inspire and challenge them, to help them see things a little differently. 

First, the good news. One of my classes seemed really excited about the possibilities. I could see them smiling and nodding their heads and wheels starting to turn. One of the students (he took me for both of his English classes last year) has already emailed me about “contract grading” and if we could do something like that in the class (my response, after shrieks of joy, was to say that it was up to the class and if he thought it was something we should do, then make the argument). Tomorrow, I’m going to use a text messaging instant survey service to gage my students’ attitudes and see where we stand on some general issues in the course. I am very excited about this. No one has seemed to have dropped my course (yet).
Now, the less good news. My other class showed little enthusiasm and looked more terrified than invigorated by the possibility of deciding the direction of the course. I feel unmoored by this experience; usually, I’d have my first two weeks of classes down cold and I could skate through the first few weeks on my charm and well-practiced lectures and exercises. Now, I’m completely without a rudder. And, apparently, relying on heavy-handed, cliched symbolism. I have a plan, but I don’t want to have too much of a plan, in case I fall back on my well-trained habit of lecturing and steering the course where I think or would want it to go. 
And I, too, am terrified. There are few places in my life where I feel completely and totally comfortable; one of those places is the pool, another is in front of the classroom. When I stepped in front of a class for the first time to really teach, it didn’t take long for the nerves to disappear and for me to feel like I was right where I was supposed to be, right where I wanted to be. In the same way I had always felt “right” in the pool, I felt “right” while teaching in front of the class. This is a rare feeling for me. I’ve always felt slightly awkward, slightly out of place. Even in academia, I don’t quite fit (that’s one of the things that Bad Female Academic has been about). But put me in front of a group of students and tell me to teach them…
Maybe it’s because I was in a position of authority and (relative) control; so much of my life growing up felt outside of my control that it was nice to finally be somewhere where people respected me, listened to me, and (dare I say it) had to do what I said. Don’t get me wrong, I never took that for granted or took advantage of my position of authority, and I work hard to make sure that I deserve my students’ respect. But that power, the feeling of being in control, it’s something that I am already worried about missing. 
I know this will make me a better teacher. But will that be as personally fulfilling to me? This is a selfish, selfish question to ask, but I think it’s a question we need to ask ourselves as educators because this could be one of the reasons we are so resistant to radically changing how we teach. There is a sense of fulfillment and pride in seeing our students learn and succeed. But, if we’re really honest with ourselves, there are other reasons why we teach, more personal, more selfish reasons. Those reasons often remain hidden, unexamined. 
I am giving up a large portion of the control in my class. I am re-learning how to assert my authority in ways that don’t involve dictating what my students need to do and when. And it’s really, really hard and really, really scary. 
I must be doing something right, then. 

Now You See It: Get This Book. Right Now.

I finally finished Cathy Davidson’s new book Now You See It. It comes out today (August 18th). I am so glad that I decided to adopt this book for my Freshman Writing class on “The Future.” I am excited and invigorated by the hopeful and optimistic tone that the book takes. This is a book that everyone should read. 

Everyone. 
But, here’s a list of the most important people who should read the book, and why.
1) Educators: This book outline where education reform needs to go, and for those educators who are already there (or desperately trying to get there) who face opposition or derision from administrators or parents, this book is your justification. We love “science” and Davidson makes sure that she has enough science to back up her claims about the benefits of things like social media, video games, and collaboration, to convince even the hardest skeptic. Teachers should assign it to students, it should be adopted as the campus-wide book assigned to students and faculty to read and discuss. 
2) Parents: All of that hang-wringing about how we’re raising our kids? It ends here. It might depress you to know that your child’s school is nowhere near as relevant as it could or should be in order to prepare them for whatever the future economy is going to look like, but at the same time the message (or one of the messages) that I take away is that it’s never too late. I’m making it sound like Davidson advocates a truly laissez-faire style of parenting, but what she explains is that those habits that we chide or don’t understand in this technological age are not to be feared, but embraced. That, and that we should learn from our children about those things that we don’t understand. Not what we want them to tell us, but what they are really saying.
This book is all about getting us to pay attention, to disrupt our perception of the world so we can learn something new and truly change and (to a certain extent) evolve. There was a passage towards the end of the book that brought tears to my eyes:

To believe that the new totally and positively puts an end to the old is a mistaken idea that gets us nowhere, neither out of old habits nor finding new ones better suited to the demands of that which has changed. John Seely Brown calls the apocalyptic view of change endism. Endism overstates what is gone…When I talk to my students about the way we select the worlds we see in our everyday life, they often ask how they can possibly possibly change the way they see. It’s easy, I always answer. I’ll assign you the task of seeing differently. And you will. That’s what learning is.

I needed to read that tonight, staring down the reality of trying to teach my course differently, in order to get the students to see things differently. I’ll be writing a more detailed review later, but I wanted a chance to be emotional, a little hyperbolic, and effusive in my praise for this book.

Buy this book. It will change your life because it does exactly what Davidson does with her students. She assigns you the task of seeing things differently in this book. It is a book that demands to be re-read, reflected on, and discussed. I hope you buy it, share it, talk about it, and have the courage to allow it to change you.

And remember, if you’re on Twitter talking about it, use the tag #NowUCit.

 

In-Class Distractions Are Nothing New

Or, why you should allow your students to have their phones, laptops, and whatever else they want in class.
(This post originally appeared on So Educated.)

A student who is unengaged will find something better to do if they have technology in front of them or not. When I was in school, I wrote. I wrote notes to my friends, I wrote poetry, I wrote love letters to the object of my affection that I never gave them, I wrote short stories, I wrote anything and everything except what the teacher was saying. I had other friends who drew. Still others stared out the window and daydreamed.

We all clearly recognize that banning pens, pencils, and paper in the classroom isn’t a good idea (or, maybe it is – what if the students couldn’t do anything except sit and listen, or the teacher couldn’t just rely on the students to “take notes” in order to learn). And yet, just because a student is writing (or looks like they are writing) doesn’t mean they are paying attention. In the same way, just because the student doesn’t look like they’re taking notes doesn’t mean they aren’t paying attention.

Read this about Maria Klawe, the President of Harvey Mudd College in California:
If one walked by an all-day meeting in progress and just spotted Klawe, it might appear to be a class in watercolor painting. Only a closer room scan would reveal that Klawe is the lone paintbrush-in-hand participant. Besides any meeting notes, surrounding her are some brushes, paint tubes, a small mixing tray, and a watercolor block.
“I’m a better participant when I’m painting,” she contends. “I’m listening to everything but it keeps me quieter. Usually in a meeting I want to say something about everything. If I’m painting, it brings me down to a much more normal level.” Those who have been in both types of meetings with her have agreed. 
What if the student who doesn’t appear to be paying attention is actually listening more effectively because they are also doing something with their hands?

There is something to be said about quiet, intense focus on one single task. But is sitting in a classroom, listening to a lecture the best way to encourage this type of engagement in students? There has been a great deal of work done recently showing that cell phones can be a very effective tool in actively engaging students in the classroom, helping them stay focused. In the writing classes that I teach, it would be ideal (both financially and environmentally) for all of my students to have their laptops or netbooks in order to be able to immediately and actively edit their writing, share their work, and engage in research activities. And for me, the benefit of these devices in the classroom far outweigh the reality that the students will probably also be doing something else instead.

It’s the same reason I don’t ban pens and paper in my classroom, either.


Postscript: There are some legitimate arguments against laptops in the classroom (see here), but I think, especially as I read Cathy Davidson’s new book, that the trick is to actively engage students using their laptops. 


Time for a Change: Integrating Peer-Driven Learning

After a summer of research (four articles submitted, two book proposals ready to go), I’ve turned my attention back to preparing to teach. And this year, I’m finally putting my money where my mouth is; I’m making my 200-level Writing II class entirely peer-driven, student-driven, and crowdsourced (and by crowd, I mean the class). I’ve taken my inspiration from the great Cathy Davidson and we will spend the first four week of the course shaping the final thirteen. 

Why have I done this? I think my students are capable and should be encouraged to take ownership of their educations, as well as learn to work collectively. I also think that it’s about time that I learn, I mean really learn, what it is that they know and react accordingly, rather than assuming up front and correcting my teaching. 
Why I am only doing this in my 200-level class? Mostly because these are student who (in theory) have already learned the “basics” in their 100-level Freshman Writing class. I am hoping that the extra experience will help them feel more comfortable with the arrangement. I also hope that this means we can focus on what we are writing about versus how we are supposed to write about it.
If you would like to see my syllabus and offer comments, please do so below, rather than directly in the document. Please remember that this is a first draft of the document and I will be continually refining it and reworking it right up until the semester starts on the 19th. I hope to receive some good feedback here so that this class is as successful as possible.
I am also going to be using Cathy Davidson’s new book Now You See It, which is excellent (more detailed review to come) in my 100-level class, where the theme will “The Future.” After we read the book (which will take up about the first third to half of the semester), I will turn the class over to the students and we will read/watch/write works of their choosing based on the theme. At least, that’s the plan. 
I have to say, I am at once terrified and exhilarated. I am looking forward to the challenge and I am optimistic that this will work. But I am also terrified that it will fail horribly, either due to my inability to let go or my students’ unwillingness to break free of the way they have been conditioned to learn throughout their educations. I guess I have a little less than two week to chicken out and revert back to my usual dictatorial style. 
Please feel free to offer words of encouragement in either direction.

Where is the Intellectual and Creative Capital?

I know I’ve had two reposts this week, but I’m up to my eyeballs in my more “academic” writing and research. Next week, I’ll be back to my normal schedule. At least until school starts.

This post originally appeared on So Educated.

This TED video is powerful reminder of how one man with a vision can fundamentally change a school or school district. But it is also a sobering reminder of the importance intellectual and creative capital is in that change. How do we attract talented and motivated individuals to more rural and isolated areas? How can we improve rural education when there has been years of brain drain?
I think videos like the one I link to above are important to show otherwise urban (or suburban) bound professionals the potential of working in smaller, rural communities. There are opportunities for real, meaningful change. There is space to work, to create, to think. And there is untapped potential in the people who live there. And, cheaper real estate.
There is also the danger of being distrusted as an outside who will come in, try to change the world, get discouraged, then leave. The blogger, workprogesslife, writes about how she has been seen as an outsider in her small community as a urban transplant. Until my husband and I announced that we were buying a house nearby, we weren’t readily embraced by our neighbors. There is an attitude that people from outside of the community either aren’t in it for the long haul or are only there to impose their ideas and values.
But I also think there is more work to be done in teaching and training those people who do stay and who choose to get an education and go back to their small communities. I do not think that we, in higher education, do a good enough job preparing future teachers for the unique challenges that rural schools, communities, and students face. Why can’t we awaken the potential in these local future (and current) teachers in order to develop and nurture the talent that is already present, but untapped?
We have to be willing and open to working together in order to improve and inspire these rural communities, respecting their local culture but helping them thrive in 21st Century.

Getting Sucked In or Putting Myself Out There?

I’ve written about this issue before; that I’m a Bad Female Academic for having administrative ambition, but also how it’s a difficult position to put myself in because I am not on the tenure-track, thus it doesn’t “count”, nor am I afforded the same protections. Nonetheless, and despite being warned, I volunteered to be an “Early College Mentor.” What does this mean? Well, our college offers early college credit courses in the high schools and I will be mentoring the teachers in the high schools who are teaching these classes. 

The question is, why? 
I have often written about the “exploitation” of contingent labor in academia. And I am acutely aware of my own position, trying to make sure I don’t put myself in (or get sucked into) a position where I will either be taken advantage of or made a scapegoat out of (or both). But this mentorship role seems to me to be a relatively safe compromise. 
For one thing, I’m doing it for the money. The mentors are getting a significant amount of professional development money for every teacher we mentor. I can use the money on conferences, books, research trips, whatever. This is not an insignificant reward for me because I am an instructor and therefore don’t have the same level of support for these activities as those on the tenure-track or have tenure. 
I’m also doing it because I like the idea of mentoring teachers and creating a community. It’s one of the reasons I co-founded #FYCchat on Twitter. We should be more active in helping one another be better teachers, for ourselves and for our students. I really am hoping to facilitate a learning community for the teachers I will be mentoring using social media. I also hope to encourage (inspire?) these teachers to use social media in their teaching. 
Our university’s service area is largely (exclusively) rural and mostly poor. Many of these students come to our college underprepared and have a lot of difficulty completing a college degree. If I can help high school teachers better prepare students for college, then I think I am doing a great public service. These students are just as deserving of a good education as anyone else. This is a concrete way that I can help. 
And I look like a good university citizen. Hopefully not too good, however. I am only supposed to be mentoring five teachers, but it looks like I’ll have at least three times that many. I am also scheduled to teach five classes in the fall. Something has to give, so I am not afraid to stand my ground to make sure that my students don’t get short-changed, either. Or my family, for that matter, and my research. I’ve been warned by those who have participated in this program in a similar capacity in the past that the university is all too willing to keep pushing the number of responsibilities. I’ll push back. 
Or, I’ll just walk away. If I have to chose between a conference or my sanity and dignity, I know which one I will chose. 

Being a More Efficient, Productive Academic II: Thinking About References

I talked in a recent post about adapting our writing for not just different audiences, but different modes and mediums of communicating our research and thinking. What this means, however, is that we as academics need to start re-evaluating how and what we use as sources. In other words, what is acceptable to use as sources and how do we integrate them into our work? 

As I was working on adapting some of my blog posts into a longer piece of a more “formal” publication. In my blog posts, I link to other blog posts (written by experts), press releases (from legitimate faculty organizations in higher education), and news stories. I started feeling nervous once I actually started to transfer links into footnotes. Are these sources good enough? Should I be hitting the databases or Google Scholar to essentially pad my essay with more legitimate sources?
Truth be told, I don’t have time. Between my “actual” research and writing, my blogging, my teaching, and my life (yes, I have one of those, too; my family insists on it), I just don’t have time to become a true “expert” in all of the fields that I write about. Again, this is the danger and argued shortcoming of being a “generalist” but I wonder if that’s really fair. I never claimed to be an expert, and through careful online research, I’m able to find what I need to inform my arguments and make my point. 
I’m not saying that this essay (if published) should necessarily count towards tenure (not that I’m on the tenure-track), but it does show that I’m engaging in larger discussion about the field and the profession. But, again, as we change how we share our research and thinking, we are going to be forced to really figure out how to integrate these new sources into our own work. And so on and so forth. I keep thinking back to a student’s essay that linked to a number of digital recordings of old blues songs that informed her argument about the book we read. It only worked if I could click on the links she provided. She conceived her paper to be read while listening to the pieces. Except I required that it be handed in as a hard copy. 
These are questions I am starting to ask myself as I conceive not only my own research and writing, but assignments for my students. We still prioritize the journal article and the research monograph, but for my students, that isn’t the case. And, really, am I any different? I read journal articles because I believe that is where the best thinking is. I don’t necessarily think that this is going to be true for much longer. If we teach our students to think critically and more broadly about what they use, then why do we necessarily always lead our students to the conclusion that peer-reviewed journal articles are best? 
I’m interested in knowing what readers thing: where are “references” going in the future?

Being a More Efficient, Productive Academic while Thinking Differently About What We Produce

There has been a lot of discussion, as we gear up for conference season and meeting our summer research/writing goals, about how to be more efficient or productive. Digiwonk asks if it is, indeed, ok to reuse and recycle your work in higher education. In response, Jo Van Every writes that recycling is, in fact, a wonderful thing, especially if you keep your audience in mind (hmmm…that sounds suspiciously like advice I’ve given my undergrads…). Digiwonk continues with her great advice by showing how much you can accomplish with just 30 minutes of (really focused) time


But much of the focus on adapting or recycling is based off of more traditional means of communicating our research: changing the conference presentation into an article, public lecture, book chapter, etc… This, unfortunately, doesn’t help me very much, as I no longer write my conference presentation. Yes, that’s right, I don’t try to cram everything I have to say into 8-10 pages for a 20 minutes presentation. I have an idea of what I want to say, some speaking notes, a few important quotes written down, and that’s it. While these presentations are intended to eventually become an article, it’s not as easy to convert a few notes and quotes as it is a more polished conference presentation. But this again has to do with audience; I’m thinking of them sitting through my presentation, not of me later trying to hack out an article.

But I also think that focusing on primarily adapting our conference presentations (or seminar papers or carving up our dissertations or Master’s thesis for articles) doesn’t encompass the rich and varied nature of what many academics produce and write today.  For example, I just adapted some of my blog posts for a call for submissions on the state of higher education today. The tone clearly called for a style that was less formal and more conversational, making it an easy (or easier) transition. Again, this may work against me and reflect my (destructive) generalist tendencies, but I’ve worked hard on these blog posts and I’m still old-school, so I get a kick out of seeing my writing in print. 

But it goes beyond that. Failed grant applications become the basis for the next grant application which becomes a book proposal. Abstracts that weren’t accepted become the basis for the next project or a place to hold ideas. Today I submitted a book proposal for that project. It was remarkably similar to the “research narrative” I submitted to earn my summer research fellowship. But again, this isn’t old news. And it still relies on old/traditional means of sharing our work and research.


Websites and blogs become incubators and collective spaces for working through problems and ideas. As I work through my Dany Laferrière project, I record my progress and process on my (other) blog. I’m not sure what it will turn into, but I know that it allows me to record my thoughts, observations, and stray ideas as they happen, but it also serves as a way to share not just my research, but the process behind the production of my final project. Maybe it stems from my dissertation research, dealing not only with archival research, but the creative process and collaborative forces participating therein that I am aware of how mysterious the process of creating a piece of work appears to be. But I am also aware of how enriched the process becomes the more people who are involved. 


Why not have a blog that reflects our process, our progress, and our questions as it relates to our academic work? Why must we keep thinking in terms of the seminary/presentation/paper/monograph? Check out Sample Reality’s post examining the same ideas: It’s about sharing.

Memories: Old-School Social Media

I was just in Sherbrooke where I did my undergraduate and Master’s degree. I started (wait for it) 15 years ago this fall. 

Shudder.
When I started at Sherbrooke, I moved into residence and two important improvements had been made over the summer: networked telephones and high-speed internet access in each room. Previously, if you wanted a phone or internet in your room, you had to pay to get a phone line put in and pay for dial-up access. But our university was known for its engineering and computer programming degrees at the undergraduate and graduate level, and many of the students lived in res. It just made sense. 
Keep in mind that at this point, no one owned a cell phone or had high-speed internet access at home. Few people had email addresses, and the internet was in its infancy. My father, in an attempt to entice my brother and I to spend more time at his place, had had dial-up internet access (through AOL) for a few years. He found these things called BBS‘s. I didn’t understand any of it, but he totally geeked out over them. 
When I arrived in Sherbrooke, I was assigned an email address (at first, my student ID number – so much for privacy). My friends back home, as well as my mom, all had email addresses through school or work. It was amazing. We could “talk” with one another almost instantaneously. We forwarded endless joke messages to each other and just generally kept in touch with what was going on in our lives. Most of us remember the sound our computer made when we would get email; the university gave us Eudora. Da-da-dum-da-dum.
And then, we discovered ICQ
The little green flower in the bottom right-hand toolbar that would squeal “Ah-Oh!” when you got a new message and flashed yellow. You knew instantly when one of your friends was online and you could talk to them in real time. Eventually, everyone moved to Windows Messenger (why? Why did we do that? Oh, right, because we all got hotmail accounts), but I won’t ever forget the excitement I felt when I heard the two noises indicating that someone had wanted to “talk” to me through the miracle of the internet. 
The network phone (you called one number and each room had its own extension) was coupled with the drastic drop in long distance costs. By my second year, we paid $20 a month for unlimited long distance within Canada. And our phones had a little red light that flashed when you had a message. It didn’t matter what time I came home (and in what condition I was in), I would check for that red light, then check my email and ICQ to see who had said what. 
During my degree, I took a course in basic web design, worked on an government intranet newsletter, wrote for a blog before it was called blogging (it started as a listserv newsletter), and had a professor who tried to integrate online discussion boards into his graduate course on Canadian drama. I learned how to first use physical indexes, then CD-ROMs, then online databases to do my research. While I didn’t have the most technical education when it came to social media and learning about how to use the internet, but I was exposed, and exposed myself, to many of the early social media tools.
I was reminded of all this when I stayed in residence while in Sherbrooke this past year. The phones were still there, although probably used much less now that everyone has a cell phone (although you still have things like roaming and long-distance in Canada). Strangely enough, even though there was wireless internet access all over campus, we were limited to a hard line connection in residence. I had brought an iPad, meaning I couldn’t access the internet once I got to my room.
It was actually kinda nice. After spending five years in a res room tethered to my computer (a massive black tower and monitor, then a seemingly 10 pound ThinkPad with a 10 minute battery life), I liked that once I got to my room, it was time to either read a book or go to sleep. I guess I’m just getting old. 

Lesson Learned: Using Corkboard.me and Letting Go of Lecturing

My 100-level students are currently reading and writing about the future. I’ve been depressing them with apocalyptic and dystopic visions of our world, starting with Fahrenheit 451 and ending with the short films at http://futurestates.tv/. Don’t worry, there were some essays in between, like if Google is making us stupidwhy we love robots, or how living longer impacts our morality. Yup, it’s been a real happy time over the past two months, culminating in the creation of a persuasive essay on their vision of the future.


Taking comPOSITION’s advice, I used corkboard.me for brainstorming ideas about the essay and then about how they thought they could best persuade their audience about their vision for the future. I have to say, I was blown away by the results (which you can see here). They all not only had clear ideas about the future, but they also had clear ideas about how to write their essay. I had nothing to add. Class dismissed.


If I had done the same thing in the classroom, I know I wouldn’t have received half the answers that are now living on corkboard. Because it is anonymous and spontaneous, students were free to try, fail, and post again. Usually I write their answers on the board, but they have to be willing to share them. Usually, they just wait for me to give them the answer. And, seeing as how I can’t stand silences, I’ll answer the question myself. But this experience has really forced me to realize that I don’t need to lecture as much as I do, and in fact I am potentially wasting my students’ (and my) time by telling them things they already know. 


This is not a minor revelation. I’ve now realized that over the summer I need to find a way to more fully incorporate corkboard, twitter, blogs, and other social media tools in order to not just engage my students, but get an accurate snapshot of what they know so I can spend my time on things they don’t. It allows me to finally turn my classroom into a more dynamic space of give and take between myself and the students. The challenge becomes when I don’t have regular or consistent access to a computer lab in order to use these technologies. 


Thankfully, I have all summer to figure this out. And while I knew I lectured too much, I don’t think the practical reality of that knowledge really influenced how I approached teaching. So, thank you corkboard.me for making me reexamine my teaching and ultimately improving my approach to the classroom. 

I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks after all.