Contingencies and Relevance
What strikes me most about the material for this week, both the video and the Conference for College Communication and Composition’s guidelines, is how much it talks about contingent and reflective teaching: much of the advice is incredibly context and situation dependent, modes of intervention that make sure that students don’t feel discouraged and, therefore, fall too far behind. This is always something I’m struggling with and attempting to improve. I ask myself frequently—when and how often should I email students missing class? Missing assignments? Having trouble paying attention or participating in class? Are these behaviors dependent on confusing course design and issues of access? It’s the contingencies that are the most difficult, but often most important. In an online classroom, many of these questions are emphasized by a course design that is in itself contingent and primarily asynchronous.
To address these contingencies, I find that two of the most important tools I employ are what Dr. Wood calls “being relational” and “being relevant.” Woods discusses being relational as providing a lot of contextualized and personalized feedback (and I want to emphasize personalized, since to me another aspect of relationality is the persona with which we engage with students). I do a lot of personalized, 98% encouraging feedback on Canvas discussion board posts and try to bring student posts into my lectures and into our discussions. I want to facilitate an idea of learning as conversational (and textual, thinking about online classes), demonstrating that really they aren’t just posting as busy work—they are starting conversations in an academic setting.
In terms of relevance, I frequently allow students to bring their own interests and expertise into the classroom and assign a wide range of materials inclusive of many communities (including people of color, LGBTQIA+ students, students with disabilities, socioeconomically disadvantaged students, etc.—and I add to being race conscious, “being sexuality conscious,” “being disability conscious,” “being gender conscious,” etc.). I am especially interested in the intersection of a students’ own interests and their tendency to want to find safety and insulation within those interests. I include a rhetoric of music unit in ENGL 202 meant to address the intersection of those two areas. Students tend to want to wade in safe waters when it comes to music, and getting them outside of their comfort zone often becomes contentious. Initial reactions are generally “I don’t like this music/know anything about it, so why bother?”, which prompts a number of important conversations about openness, empathy, and engaging with ideas outside of what we usually engage with. (I used my daughter as an example this semester, who loves consuming all music: Imagine Dragons, Cardi B, Bjork, she finds delight in it all).
The unit, then, is just as much about rhetoric as it is about facilitating academic conversations about popular culture and reveling in, and intervening in, how even music can prompt contentious feelings (and us versus them ideologies). These conversations arise organically f2f, but now I wonder how they would emerge within a purely online space: would it be possible to get students to have these conversations as directly on Canvas? Would I need some other platform to demonstrate the need to engage with interests outside of what we often find comfortable? Though, one practice a fully online space is making me think about is the possibility of having students explore music posted by their peers—I have the most trouble in the f2f class getting students to share musical interests.
Speaking of Canvas…
Equity and Canvas
A lot of what I read from the Conference for College Communication and Composition’s guidelines made me think of Canvas, especially from the perspective of student complaints about Canvas. Accessibility and equity are difficult goals when using Canvas–it doesn’t work the same way on phones and computers and has a much less intuitive organizational structure (I personally feel) than Blackboard. I never had very much confusion about Blackboard–Canvas still perplexes students when we are halfway through the semester. The many options Canvas gives us also seem to be a point of contention for students: I’ve heard many unable to understand why instructors don’t universally use Canvas in the same ways. I try to adapt Canvas as I go, but I am also increasingly aware of the need to decenter Canvas as a hub and to also try to integrate other platforms into the mix (Google docs often serves this function, though maybe in too fluid of a way). But, then, does this just make access more confusing?
This is where I let myself dip into grayer areas.
The balance between the positives and negatives of Canvas also has me thinking about another aspect of equity that has been especially difficult as I try to remain aware and conscious of student lives and experiences while designing courses: sometimes the promotion of equity passes over some students. For instance, one way I try to promote equity is through the course materials I assign. I steer completely clear of textbooks, and mostly try to do zero textbook cost classes (my ENGL 202 is free of anything to buy; I usually assign one relatively cheap print book in ENGL 100). I feel at that level I am promoting equity when it comes to issues of access and socioeconomic barriers. On the other hand, this creates a complex situation that may not be benefiting students who are not digital natives or who otherwise struggle with reading digital materials as opposed to print. An online class, even more digitally textual, compounds this.
I appreciate, then, the Conference for College Communication and Composition’s call to employ “flexible and diverse approaches to the teaching of reading and writing to ensure pedagogical as well as physical access.” I agree with the spirit of what this says, but also (as I often am) find myself frustrated with the vagueness, or even the difficulty of thinking what this could mean when we are too tied to a particular platform (Canvas) or medium (essay-writing).
(This second difficulty, being tied to assessing writing, is also why I laud Dr. Wood’s suggestion that allowing “male students of color…[to] submit a power point, a poem, a written paper, or produce a video demonstrating their learning outcomes” gives them the “opportunity to choose how they best demonstrate what they understand and learn best, often empowering them to produce knowledge,” while also worrying that this choice (for most disciplines, including writing) is not realistic when it comes to the type of writing we might want to encourage as English instructors. This has always seemed to be a dilemma to me, since I’d love to unanchor my classes from “traditional writing” and maybe integrate hypertext novels or poetry, but then poetry is not what students are writing as they go into their transfer institutions and careers, usually)
In other words: moving a class to an online space, I agree, definitely compounds issues of equity and refocuses the need for equity and accessibility, which are important to think about in course design, thinking about materials, and how we interact with students. Achieving consciousness (of a wide spectrum of underrepresented students) may not, I fear, be as simple as slogans like “be relational” and “technological equality.” All of these are excellent, important goals to work towards—but they are also heavily contingent and must be sought contextually and constantly by an instructor willing to adapt, innovate, and de-innovate as necessary, especially when aware of the technological barriers of online spaces.