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Dear WSU Teaching

Dear WSU Teaching

Dear WSU Teaching,
What can you do when you are behind on returning work, and you have students asking you every class when they will receive their grades? Is there anything more helpful than saying “soon,” or reminding them that you’ve put grading paper X on the back burner so they can get feedback on the much more relevant rough draft Y first?
– Tardy in Trenton

–To begin, I am going to step away from that moment in the classroom to tell you how I try to keep from experiencing it.

It takes time to figure out what works for you in terms of grading, but, after several years, I realized that I wasn’t good at balancing reading more than one big project at a time (who is?), so my schedule reflects this. I leave two weeks between collecting drafts and having final papers due. I take one week to read drafts (for three sections), which gives me a couple of days of leeway in case something takes longer than expected. I am also up front with my students about how long it takes me to work through them—about 15 minutes per draft. If I am honest with them about how long they should spend on an assignment, how they should manage their time between reading and writing, I can also let them know how reading and responding fits into my weekly calendar. I hope this cultivates some level of patience in them.

Another way to give them a little feedback on the draft so you can focus on grading, would be to respond to initial discovery drafts of paper Y with quick, framing questions so they can keep working and you can focus on grading paper X. Let’s say Paper X was due Monday night and you want a full draft of Paper Y the following Monday. Having an initial discovery draft due to the blog, say Wednesday (and yes, these days are totally arbitrary) gives you time Thursday to respond to blog posts with quick questions so they can keep working on Paper Y (with some feedback from you) and you can keep grading Paper X. This gives you time into the next week to finish paper X (while you let their drafts sit for an extra day or two), have more confidence in their drafts before you’ve read them, and stay on track. Giving in class feedback to discovery drafts can accomplish the same thing.

Honestly, though, buckle down and finish grading. If you have set a timeline for your students, set one for yourself as well. Like I said, be honest with yourself when you set up your schedule about what you can handle grading in a certain amount of time. If you think the schedule you’ve made at the beginning of the semester isn’t shaking out, revise it, discussing the reasons for your changes with students. (AJ)

–Dear Tardy in Trenton,
I think the most important thing is to avoid painting yourself into a corner and putting yourself in a position where you’re breaking multiple promises. In my experience, students don’t mind if you say that you’re running a bit behind. What’s bad is when you make a promise and then break it and then break it again. That’s annoying. I would also strongly advise against describing why you’re running behind or apologizing. As a tip, pick return dates not just based on your syllabus, but in consultation with your own calendar so you can avoid other deadlines and commitments. Finally, don’t try and convince yourself that you’re going to grade papers during The Walking Dead. You’re already infected. (TT)

Dear WSU Teaching,
Typically, I like to group “stronger” writers with “weaker” ones during peer review – this way I feel like weaker writers can get good feedback. However, I feel like I’m putting the stronger writers at a disadvantage. One particular “strong” writer in my class was dissatisfied with peer review because she felt like she wasn’t getting enough out of it. So, how do we solve the “strong writer/weak writer” dilemma in peer review?
– Conflicted in Clawson

–Dear Conflicted in Clawson,
One method I’ve used is to arrange groups of three to five writers of mixed ability in which the papers go around in a circle and are read by multiple readers. With this method, writers get feedback from multiple readers across the spectrum AND readers get to see feedback styles from the other reviewers. If you feel this adds too much time to your peer review sessions, consider reviewing just a section of the paper or assigning different parts of the paper to different group members. (TT)

–Dear Conflicted,
If you feel like you’re putting the stronger writer at a disadvantage, feel again: at best she’s getting a lesson in responding to shitty drafts, which could help her in the long run.

On the other hand, it sounds like the “experienced” writer is looking for criticism or affirmation on her own writing. So, what might a “struggling” writer, teach an “experienced” writer? How might training “struggling” writers to ask the right questions during peer review help revisionary purposes?

Or, you could mix it up a bit. Group by interest, or discipline, link “experienced” writers and “struggling” writers together (with some guidelines) and observe what happens. (LF)

Dear WSU Teaching,
What can I do to “spice up” a lecture? I feel like if I talk for longer than 20 minutes the students seem to fall asleep or get fidgety (which is understandable). Should I simply shorten my lectures, or find another way to engage students through lecture?
– Boring in Bloomfield Hills

–20 minutes is a good guideline. On days when there is a need to lecture for longer periods – especially earlier in the semester – I usually work in as much as four different types of interaction between the class, myself, and the screen. I have several lectures than run long, but as soon as I breach 15 minutes I’m either consciously (or sometimes intuitively) looking for ways to break it up, either soliciting questions (recently in Jeopardy style… thanks to R.C.), modeling examples of invention strategies at work or analytical tools, turning to video examples (often that offer short arguments, claims, or persuasive strategies that we can quickly analyze or respond to), or having them read (or re-read) a paragraph or two (sometimes while I quickly deconstruct it while they’re reading, highlighting segments or using Word’s comment boxes to point out features– which is something I’ve done more this year and which seems to bridge more explicit instructions with certain exercises quite well).

Also, I’m not afraid to start (rather than just end) with our legendary Moments of Zen just to focus attention and segue into a lecture. Colbert does this so often in my class that he now has distinct 1020 ethos by the end of most of my semesters – hopefully enhancing his appeal as a rhetor of sorts. My students know I love how exemplifies fallacies, the ways evaluations can be framed incorrectly (his response to Geraldo’s problem with hoodies), the uses of synecdoche as he connects parts to the whole in “The Word”, or the ways he finagles definitions of ‘marriage’ as ‘manrriage’ in his “Better Know a Lobby” segment.

So obviously humor is an important part of maintaining a suitable ‘spice’ in many of my classes. On the other hand, I muster (a sometime sickly amount of) enthusiasm for the seriousness of their written work by repeatedly connecting it to an evolving and general thinking ability that improves over the semester – pointing out more impressive writing skills, drafts and the potential therein. I got away from it this semester, but in the Fall I often started a class with student presentation of what was accomplished in recent exercises (allowing me to have a brief look between classes to comment on what worked well and to contextualize it in the course objectives). I would often suggest that everyone be ready to present at the beginning of next class, but then select only a couple groups to do so. I could use these to set up some of the more humdrum lectures focused on introducing the instructions for a project – noting that we’d already done some of the practice work in definitions, or in narrowing the scope of an evaluation. This works with debates too. (JG)

–Boring, Darling~
I applaud you for wanting to spice up your routine and engage your students! We all have the challenge of communicating a hefty amount of content in a limited amount of time, but who wants to pour energy into preparing a lecture that students are going to sleep through?

When I sit down to prepare for teaching a class, I first consider the rhetorical situation: who is my audience? Usually, it is a group of 18-19 year olds (read: attention spans slightly greater than gnats). Then, there is the weird and kind of cool thing that happens when they get grouped together in classes–each class has its own “personality.” So, depending on the personality of a given class, teachers can adjust for more or less lecture. Next, I consider my own teacher-ethos: the rapport I craft with each class serves as safe, healthy environment that nurtures open discussions, freely-asked questions (by students and myself), genial group-work and lots of laughter. I have been known to make fun of myself, crack jokes, sing, dance, and just this Monday, I quoted Mel Gibson’s final line from Braveheart–at full volume–to illustrate an important point about finals. 🙂 Knowing and being comfortable with your own teacher-ethos helps tremendously in connecting with students and keeping them engaged. Also, I consider my purpose: what knowledge needs to be disseminated here? And–what are ways to accomplish that? Usually, there are many more options available to me than lecturing alone. I normally conceive of “class” as more of a workshop/discussion space, with chunks of explicit instruction mixed in as needed. When I do “lecture,” I call it a “mini-lesson” (via Nancie Atwell) and plan for discussions and activities that surround it and become built-in. Can I get ______ concept across through Socratic discussion? Using a video clip and a conversation about it? Through a series of strategic activities? I try to engage students with as many participatory elements as I can. That might mean pausing at every new idea to allow students to freewrite about it. I sometimes do a “pair and share,” an activity totally pilfered from ProfHacker, where I ask students to sit in silence for 1-2 minutes, thinking about an idea that’s just been presented. Then, they turn to a partner and for 2-3 minutes, share what it was they just thought. I might build some invention writing or a group activity into a mini-lesson, and then also have some “deliverables” that students must turn in to me at the end. Or, if there is no way around it and I must just speak at them, I always instruct them to pull out “something to write with and something to write on.” I then pause every so often at key ideas, and explicitly tell them to “write this down” or “if you take notes on nothing else, take notes on this!” and then wait while they do. Or, I might ask questions during the lecture that students need to respond to before I move on (being silent in these moments is a teacher’s big challenge! Counting in your head or watching the clock both help). Overall, I try to be transparent about why I’m asking them to think/write/share/listen to concepts, no matter what. Teaching, and learning, are collaborative activities. I do my part in the collaboration by preparing, honing my expertise, and strategically thinking through the rhetorical situation of each class. But I cannot neglect my students’ part in the collaboration, and I must honor that (which sometimes means plan for, wait for, give directions for…), and generally expect a level of participation from my students that is equal to my own. More often than not, students will rise to the level of our expectations. (NGV)

Dear WSU Teaching,
This is kind of specific, but how do you respond to an older student who feels that she is above the class and takes issue with the way the class is run? This student is not overtly rude or disrespectful but does talk down to classmates and the instructor at times, and it is evident that she does not want to participate in workshops and group work because she feels she is “far beyond” other students (and really, in this case, the student is more advanced than her peers). Specifically, this student provides good feedback fro students during the workshop, but in a condescending way,and often tries to separate herself from the class.
– Frustrated in Ferndale

–Dear Frustrated~
I can relate to your dilemma—it’s happened to me a time or three. In your case, there are a lot of positive things happening: the student gives helpful feedback, and really is as advanced as she feels she is (not always the case!). Even if the student wasn’t “all that,” I would likely start handling the situation the same way: “king” your student. If you’ve ever played checkers, you know the move. You want to capitalize on the student’s ambition and energy. If a student seems to be asserting, or trying to assert authority, I usually strike swiftly to co-opt that drive for my own pedagogical purposes. I’d take the student aside, either asking her to stay after class, or to come to my office for a chat. I’d begin by talking about the great things I noticed (as above), and then—the kicker—I’d ask for her help. Maybe I’d give her a specific task, such as “I’ve noticed that Student A and Student B really respond well to you, and they need extra support in their writing anyway, I wonder if you’d help me ‘look out’ for them…” or maybe even give her a more official role, as someone who can speak about X writing situation and how she strategizes/handles it, in class one day. Maybe I’d just ask her to be my “wingman” during workshop and/or group time, and have her circulate, as I do, to help answer questions. The help the student can give probably depends on the rapport you can create, and the level of the student’s abilities. Either way, I’d work to pull her into my confidence rather than opposing her. It will likely diffuse her by affirming the skills, knowledge and experience she has—and it might even turn into a situation where I could mentor her in her own writing! Also, don’t forget that you are the expert here, not the student. You are the one who is making a career out of the content of the class, and teaching in general. From this place of confidence and strength, you can assert your authority in a very strategic way, and the student will think it is her idea. Good luck! 😉 (NGV)

–Dear Frustrated,
What you should do depends upon to what degree you want to address this student, and whether or not other students in the classroom are affected by this student’s behavior.

Having a classroom of students who want to be there and feel they have something to learn or contribute makes for a positive learning environment. This is something I might share with the entire class (when this student is in attendance of course). Or, go to her directly, and find a polite way to say: “You’re being an @$$hole and I’d like it to stop because it’s affecting other student’s ability to learn.” (LF)

Dear WSU Teaching,
A major technological breakdown occurs on a day when my lesson plan depends on being able to access the wiki and/or the Internet, period. Improvise and try to do the lesson sans-technology? (Maybe giving the class a quick bathroom break while you mentally regroup?) Troop everyone over the library, and hope there are enough computers open? Call it a snow day and let everyone go early?
– Panicked in Pontiac

–Dear Panicked:
It depends on the lesson. If you’re only relying on the media to set up a lesson, try regrouping for a minute and extending any in-class work significantly. I try and be pragmatic and optimistic about how we can achieve the same goals in a different way – noting that this will involve much more conversation about what they want from the class (but secretly keeping all my objectives in place as much as possible).

I’ve trooped over to the Library on two occasions. WARNING. The second floor as you know is pretty loud, but the third floor’s designation of ‘silent study’ can cause floor monitors to treat you like a 12 year old if you can’t keep your class extremely quiet (we were working very quietly on peer reviews), or may, in extreme cases, cause unstable library patrons to suddenly snap and yell at your barely audible students. This true story involved a sudden three F-Bomb outburst directed at my most timid group of students, followed by 22 heads down and quiet giggling, followed by a deep-voice from a great distance making a subsequent appeal for the irate patron to simply ‘take a chill-pill b!@#$’.(JG)

–Dear Panicked in Pontiac,
My dad always says, “You gotta have a plan!” and I would add, “You gotta have a back up plan!” Even without relying on technology, any class plan can go awry (class discussion doesn’t take off, no one has done the reading, drafts don’t arrive when they should). I have experienced this moment a few times this semester, when the computers in 337 don’t want to play nice, and my typical reaction, after making awkward jokes, mumbling at the computer, and telling my students I need a moment to think, is to rely on my students to run the show.

It’s really not so scary.

For example, if my plan was to work through some tutorials on using the library databases, I might instead have my students work through a KWL on research (What do you know? What do you want to know? What did you learn?). As a whole class, we might do a KWL for one students’ project. On the board, I would write two columns: What do you know about (student topic)? What do you want to know about (student topic)? I would give students some time to think through and jot down ideas about the one topic. Then we would share ideas and collaborate on a list. From there, we could generate questions about the topic. Then, I would ask the individual student which questions seem most valuable for his/her project. After identifying those, we’d talk through potential sources and how to find these sources. This could segue us back into how to examine the library databases, as we would have identified some keywords in our discussion. From there, students could work in pairs to do the same thing on their own topics, and, for suggested homework, could attempt a database search and report back, or could be ready to conduct one the next time the classroom technology wanted to play.

In short, my response is, when all else fails, access students’ prior knowledge. See what they have to say about the topic. See what questions they have. Guide them to think about how this prior knowledge may apply to their current project. If you think you don’t have time to do the tech-based lesson in the next class meeting, you can follow up on the impromptu class discussion with helpful links, sources, etc. on the wiki, blog, or Blackboard. (AJ)

LaToya Faulk received her MA in Rhetoric and Writing Michigan State University in 2009. She joined the department as a lecturer in 2011 and is currently teaching ENG 1020.

Jared Grogan is a PhD Candidate in the Department and joined the faculty as a lecturer in Fall 2011. His research interests include Rhetorical Theory, Ecology and Sustainability, Eco-Composition, and Pedagogy. He currently teaches English 1020.

Nicole Guinot Varty received her MA in Written Communication and the Teaching of Writing from Eastern Michigan University in 2009. She joined the department as a lecturer in 2011 and is currently teaching ENG 1020.

Adrienne Jankens is a Ph.D. candidate and lecturer teaching ENG 1020. She is interested in inquiry pedagogy and collaborative research practices.

Thomas Trimble is a Senior Lecturer in the English Department. He is also a recent Ph.D. graduate of the department, whose dissertation “Rhetorical Outcomes: A Genre Analysis of Student Service-Learning Writing” used genre theory to theorize writing assessment issues in service-learning courses. Thomas is currently teaching ENG 1020, and has taught ENG 1010 and ENG 3010 previously.



2 thoughts on “Dear WSU Teaching

  1. Dear WSU Teaching, Terrific feedback! Which isn’t surprsing, given your–what?–40+ years of collective teachinge experience. I’m planning to incorporate many of your good ideas.

    Posted by gwengorzelsky | April 25, 2012, 9:06 am
  2. Dear WSU Teaching, Terrific feedback! I’m planning to incorporate your good ideas; thanks.

    Posted by gwengorzelsky | April 25, 2012, 9:06 am

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