“Flexible and Diverse Approaches”: The Contingent Nature of Equity-Mindedness
“Flexible and Diverse Approaches”: The Contingent Nature of Equity-Mindedness avatar

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?

Equity—For whom?

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.

To Collaborate, or not to Collaborate–What was the question?
To Collaborate, or not to Collaborate–What was the question? avatar

Excuse my goofy title, Megen’s was so clever I tried to compete

Group work has become increasingly important to my courses and, like Janette (thanks for the great video!), the day where I don’t implement a group component to my course is becoming rare. (I used to teach under the quarter system, where class periods were about an hour each time, so group work was a less frequent aspect of my pedagogical training–so the function of it within my classroom is evolving).

Collaborating Digitally – Some BImage result for group work memeenefits

Before getting into specifics about a collaborative assignment I do, I want to throw in a few thoughts I’ve been having that sort of reverses the conversation present in the bibliography for this week. The bibliography, and even Warnock to some degree, seems to focus on how online collaboration creates unique challenges not present in the class and that, really, in-class collaboration is potentially easier. I’m not sure how I feel about that overall, having not taught online, but I do think there are two points where online collaboration creates unique opportunities that rectify some of the difficulties of in-class groups.

  1. Group work is often difficult in classes because student friend-groups have already been established, are often brought into the class, and often make students reluctant to work with others. I’m experimenting in my f2f classes with how to work around this, but online group assignments really don’t need to take this into consideration as much. Of course, I’m sure certain people won’t work well with each other, but that’s something that evolves over time rather than, usually, something brought in on the first day. (I find it interesting, though, that Janette actually cites issues of personality online as a difficulty–I’m perhaps just dealing with an especially difficult set of f2f personalities right now!).
  2. Based on what Warnock says about the textual basis of online teaching, group work online allows for students themselves to create a conversation and introduce texts–rather than me introducing an object of analysis, students could post something to their group, and then have the group respond. This is of course possible f2f as well, but then the student introducing the text needs a new task. The asynchronous nature of online classes eliminates that problem.
  3. Online group work is meditative, rather than temporally bound. What I mean by this is, rather than having a task to accomplish within a set boundary, class, online discussion boards or google docs allow students to put ideas and images, walk away and think, and come back later after reflection.

Collaborative Assignments in my ENGL 100s

Before I get into specifics, here’s a sampling of group-based activities I have done f2f:

  • Have groups create, on paper, a game together that makes an argument about a topic
  • Have groups do the same as above, but use Twine to actualize the game
  • Have groups create an advertisement for a product using magazine clippings
  • Have groups analyze a website together (I often use the NRA and BlackLivesMatter websites)
  • The common activity of having students move around the room together answering questions on topics (last semester I taught on ENGL 100 based on gender that included questions like “Should all genders be integrated in sports?”)
  • Have students create short presentations about book chapters

I’ll focus the rest of the past on the first in my sampler platter: having students create games together.

I do this usually in a section of my class dedicated to rhetoric. We go through multiple forms of rhetoric and eventually end with procedural rhetoric, definitions below.

Image result for procedural rhetoric

We play a variety of games in class (this is also done as collaborative activities), on a variety of topics: immigration (Papers, Please), gender transition (dys4ia and Mainichi), bullying (Lim), economic inequality (Spent and Cart Life). (Usually I teach two or three of Image result for dys4iathese games per semester). Then, at the end of this unit, I have students work together to design a game, in writing, which does one of the following: 1) Makes an argument about some important topic to them or 2) Addresses a group that is usually underrepresented in the gaming community (we brainstorm about who is underrepresented.

The activity usually goes well: students tend to like it; they find it creative and interesting and thought provoking. I am often not as satisfied with it, though, because it always seems rushed. It always seemed like something that, in the bounded space of the classroom, had to be quick and simple rather than something that spanned more time. I feel like all of that would potentially change if I brought this activity online.

Through the asynchronous, unbounded, and meditative possibilities of online communication, I could turn this activity into a longer project.

  • A google doc could transform into a place not to just put thoughts, but also to draw and put images of characters, to find conceptual images, to link to potential music etc. I feel like this is all possible in-class, but that the urgency to do this now may siphon some of the creativity and exploration that less rigid time constraints will allow.
  • I could help groups use the polling features on Canvas to get marketing data, essentially, from the rest of the class: what type of character would you prefer? How should our game end? Etc.
  • I could have students record their own thoughts on their games and designs, explaining how they contributed to the group, as a way of assessing the activity.
  • Discussion boards could operate as spaces to test ideas, to see what other groups or doing, to collaborate between groups, to share existing games that students think might be good models.

There are a lot of possibilities here with an online class. All of this, again, could be done in a f2f class (and now that I’ve written it all, I am excited to potentially try it next semester–I like this idea now much better for a f2f class than I did when I originally thought of it, so think you blog sounding board), but online it seems like it would be so much more fluid and experimental.

I am realizing this post is becoming a monster, so I am going to end there (I want to jump away and start designing a prompt for this collaborative project now).

I hope the semester is going well for everyone and not like the meme below–

Image result for group work meme

Assessment in Advance: Fostering Anti-Authoritarian Feedback
Assessment in Advance: Fostering Anti-Authoritarian Feedback avatar

Reading through Chapters 11 and 12 of Teaching Writing Online has made me realize how much my pedagogy already reflects many online teaching methods, even though I’ve not yet taught an online course. (It’s funny, this week, one of my student asked me to walk her through our Canvas site because she was still confused. Afterwards, she thanked me for helping her because “I haven’t taken an online class before.” The comment seemed bizarre to me, and she didn’t qualify it in any way. Reading the chapter helped me better understand what she meant, though. I take for granted a lot of the tools in my on-site classes that, really, are also suited for online teaching.)

Commenting through Canvas

Overall, my main form of assessment and feedback have been via Canvas’s built-in commenting functions (SpeedGrader, is it called?). I use the comment and highlighting aspects of it. Before I transitioned to Canvas last year, I used Blackboard’s similar function for a couple of years (whatever that one was called). Before that, I was handwriting comments on paper copies. I have found that I do end up putting a lot more feedback on the digital versions, mostly because I type faster and find it easier to think when I’m at a computer (oddly enough). I do think I have a tendency to overwhelm students, so would like to find new ways to approach commenting. 

I also allow students to email me versions of their essay in advance for me to comment on, which somewhat minimizes my commenting on the final draft. I prefer, too, to get trough drafts digitally to office hours, which I feel is a bit taboo, but I think the feedback is better and that I don’t actually have to sacrifice a lot of the conversation. 

However, I also try to build in a lot of assessment and feedback before essays are even submitted.

Assessing in Advance

Digital tools (and specifically Canvas, in this case) have been really useful to me when it comes to making sure students can assess their own writing without too much intervention from me (similar to what Warnock says: “good teachers can facilitate discussions onside or online that feature students prominently, but at times, students need your guiding hand” (125)). I’m a big fan of learning through example, which I’ve built into my classes by simply having students put their essay drafts on Canvas discussion boards. This allows them to explore in a way unanchored from hard draft peer review (and from peer review in general, which students often find a drag–though I still do it, since it allows me to also hold informal office hours during class time). 

I’m skeptical of concepts of standards, because they are so top-down; using forums and discussions available digitally, however, create bottom-up “standards” that students can engage with. Students, then, absorb organizational structure, citing conventions, and other expectations simply by having a digital portfolio of student writing available to them. They see what is available to their writing, rather than being told (since the latter rarely ever works, at least for me).

Along with minimizing my own role as a figure of authority in favor to student-to-student learning, I also like Warnock’s idea of seeing my role as one of engaging in conversation than simply bestowing summative comments. I use digital tools to do this to some degree as well; I assign “reading responses” that are also posted on public discussion boards. These reading responses usually address aspects of the essay or attempt to develop skills relevant to the essay (without mentioning “the essay”); especially for about the first half of the semester, I respond at length to these posts, focusing on encouraging student ideas and avoiding too much “fixing” grammar or critiquing ideas. Many of the ideas ultimately end up in the essay and, therefore, I have already added my assessments in ahead of time. This is of course all possible in paper copies, but the conversation is then much less public and the record of the conversation disappears to quickly, for both me and my students.

This has also made me think of how I could use audiovisual means to further support this conversation, making it more of a “f2f” type of conversation rather than “textual” in the way Warnock describes (although, his definition of “text-based” is both fascinating to me and also a bit limiting). I am a little wary of audiovisual means of communication; they seem too performative and awkward to me, but if more natural conversations could be facilitated, I’d want to adopt more of those means (maybe through Skype or something like that, but overall I’ve mostly rejected tools like that. I have used Google hangouts when I worked at a graduate writing center, but it just felt so clunky and unnatural).

A lot of my strategies are, then, preemptive rather than tied to a particular moment of “assessment.”

In terms of reflecting a bit on the future (though the future is scattered throughout everything I’ve written already), I would like to figure out a way to use tools to better assess one of the more important aspects of student writing to me, close reading. Things like comments (whether voice, video, or traditional) and quizzes don’t seem to be particularly useful for getting students to really understand how to better close read. Often, when my students revise their essays, the close reading still remains lacking. This is one area I’m still at a loss to figure out, and Warnock doesn’t have many answer I like (comment banks and macros are rather frightening possibilities to me–they are so impersonal).

The theme in this post seems to be that I strive for a form of assessment that feels natural, decenters my authority, and is personal rather than mechanized.