I just got back from day one of a three-day teaching institute, run jointly by the graduate teaching center and a center for teaching and new media. I mostly applied for it because my department doesn't offer enough (what I am I saying, it doesn't offer any) teacher training, and I really care about teaching, so I want as many opportunities as possible to get involved in larger conversations about pedagogy and what, exactly, happens in the classroom. However, since it's being co-run by this center for new media teaching, the focus is very much on how we can make use of technology (which almost always seems to mean preexisting internet-based platform) to enrich students' classroom experience.
The problem that I have with this, off the bat, is that this is not how the institute was pitched to me. It was pitched as an institute for creating and polishing "innovative assignments" that institute participants could implement in their future courses. Unfortunately, I assumed that they really meant "innovative" and not strictly "technological." I can think of a lot of important and innovative assignments that I want to run in my classrooms that actually require no additional tech; what's innovative about them is how they are structured or how they engage the assumptions of the class, department, and discipline. And yet what I am expected to produce by the end of Day 3 of this institute is a plan for a technologically-involved assignment -- not just an innovative one.
Don't get me wrong, I think there are a number of ways that technology can fundamentally improve the ways we teach. I love the idea of having online discussion forums to encourage student participation, of posting reports online so that all students can have access to the information their peers discover in their research, etc. But I also don't really think that counts as "innovative," and in fact a lot of the things I want to do that actually feel more innovative require less high-tech material. (I'm thinking specifically about the Jane Austen class I want to teach, in which I want to offer students the option to write their own Austen adaptation in order to let them discover firsthand that adaptation is an act of interpretation; merely arguing that creative responses ARE critical responses is radical, much less assigning a creative response as the final project for an entire class!) It also doesn't help that the class I'm going to be teaching next fall isn't one in which I have a lot of leeway in terms of assignment structures -- I am only allowed to grade final drafts of student essays, none of their homework and none of their in-class participation -- and I feel bad about trying to integrate something that will take more time and effort from myself as well as my students if I'm literally not allowed to grade them on it.
I have to write up a much shorter formal response about what I learned today, but before I get to that, I just want to write up some of the things I found particularly interesting or annoying or revelatory in a less formal manner, just to get things down on paper.
---> Just because I'm not quite sure how I can effectively use tech in the classroom I'll be inhabiting next fall doesn't mean that this institute has been unhelpful regarding ways to consider tech in the classroom. I really liked the idea, suggested by one group, that the problem with the media/technology/online platforms most of our students use is that they conceive of them as being primarily private, personal spaces; we need to teach them how to view things like discussion forums, blog posts, and who knows what else as public, academic spaces. I'm fannish so it doesn't seem like a stretch for me at all to conceive of the internet as a tool for creating and enhancing intellectually rigorous debate, but most of my students won't be (and even some of them who are will operate on the Tumblr model of fandom as opposed to the LJ/DW model, which is the problem -- I think all that I want from my students is to make use of discussion forums for the class the way I make use of LJ/DW, where long posts are responded to with thoughtful commentary, but I don't know how to make them understand this model if they aren't fannish). In my mind, technology serves educators best as an extension of the classroom, but I don't know how students are going to respond to that expectation.
---> Technology doesn't belong everywhere. I don't believe in laptops being used during seminars, because if we're at a small table together I want to see your face instead of a computer screen. I understand and agree with the use of computers in lectures because they're just better for note-taking for many people, but I also understand the drawbacks of allowing kids to use them if they're just going to let themselves be distracted. Where this is really an issue for me is in preparation for my future Undergraduate Writing (UW) class. It's standard protocol to provide students with your assigned texts as PDFs that they are then expected to print out and bring to class with them. The last time I was in a class where all readings were PDFs, I used my iPad and GoodReader to do all my course reading because it saved money, time, and somewhere down the line probably a few trees. Especially with undergraduates, I worry that I may end up with a scenario where no one has the text because they haven't printed it out; however, also especially with undergraduates, I worry that those who read on screens instead of in hard copy won't mark up their texts sufficiently. One suggestion a classmate of mine had for alleviating this issue was to give students an annotation assignment -- forcing them to turn in their hard copy or e-copy and reading over the ways they take notes -- but while I like this in a lot of ways, I also realize that it only keeps students accountable for the particular text you've attached this assignment to. I have no way of measuring whether they will actually mark up their future readings this closely.
---> Having increasing access to data is not the same as knowing how to access data, or to filter it to best meet your needs. My sister's utter inability to use quotations to delimit a basic internet search are a symptom of a much larger problem, one that only grows when you hit academia and need to learn about all kinds of specialized search and research tools and databases.
---> I care a lot more about teaching skills than content, though I don't think you can actually teach any skills without content. When I look back on my undergraduate English experience, it seems like the most important things I learned weren't names or dates or figures but how to write essays (and I don't just mean thesis statements, topic sentences, evidence analysis, etc. -- I mean the whole process of writing, from concept to product). Especially in UW, I feel like my job is to provide students with content that engages them so that they will be more likely to care about the skills I'm teaching them to allow them to engage that content more deeply.
A few innovative assignments proposed by other people that I really liked:
-- Impress upon students the importance of close-reading by taking a famous phrase or saying and changing a single word to a synonym. How does it change the saying? Move on to working with sentences from the assigned text. What words can be changed without radically changing the meaning? Which ones need to stay the same? What does the original word do that the new word doesn't? (This assignment has the added benefit of providing reasons why your students shouldn't just replace words willy nilly with Word's thesaurus tool.)
-- For an art history class: curate an exhibit choosing 10 works and writing up a curator's statement plus the wall text for individual works. (Pick a certain portion of works beforehand that MUST have been works explicitly discussed by the class, as opposed to works that the student finds on her own.)
-- Construct an alternative syllabus for this class. Which texts and assignments would you keep? Which would you change? How would your syllabus represent a different take on the same topic?
-- Ongoing student response blogs in which students are required to reference each other's arguments in subsequent blog postings
A few innovative assignments I've done as a student and really liked:
-- Create an edition of a poem (closely related to my adviser J's final paper option to provide your own footnotes for a span of pages in a text that we read as a class but which was very sparsely footnoted)
-- Write a creative response to the text. This can be an additional chapter, an imitation of the author's style but touching on a different subject, an adaptation or a proposal for an adaptation. This particular kind of assignment forces students to take creativity seriously, allowing them to see their adaptations, additions, and imitations as interpretive acts in their own right.
-- Ask students to generate the material that will be discussed during a particular class period. The romanticism prof A, for whom I TA'd last semester, asked students throughout the semester to contribute to a shared folder anything that they thought related to the themes and interests of the course, and she based her penultimate lecture around the content they generated.
A few innovative assignment proposals I'm contemplating as potential outgrowths of this institute:
-- UW wikispace. This includes a lot of potential components:
- Group lexicon building. As we learn new terms or develop terms in class to talk about the essay, students volunteer to write up the definitions we've agreed upon and post them online. Students can then link and group related terms. This could also be used to record difficult terms and concepts we come across in our readings (not necessarily terms related to talking about essays).
- Class recaps. Assign 1-2 students per class to be "course reporters," responsible for posting at the end of class their summary of the 3-5 most important pieces of information that we learned today. They would be able to link to previous lessons and to concepts in the dictionary. Students would then have a growing online narrative of the course to complement the connections made by the teacher at the beginning of each course. As part of this project, "course reporters" might also be responsible for opening the subsequent class by reminding us what just happened.
- Shared hyper-text mark-up of key passages, possibly entire texts. These would include both the essays assigned as readings for the progressions and some sample essays for each progression.
- Summaries of additional/outside resources and material. These could range from reviews of style handbooks to links to important databases or research locations. Instead of merely bringing them into class as the teacher, I would in advance provide a sign-up sheet to students, who would be responsible for sharing one resource per day and talking in class about how that resource is relevant to the day that they have been assigned. (Resources might include physical things like the Writing Center, or digital resources like the OED...? I'm less sure about this idea than I am about the previous ones; I think it would work better as a way of creating an annotated bibliography in a class where more critical material exists. Possibly save this notion for After Austen.)
(Heh, it figures that this last part is the hardest, since it's only the thing I'm actually being required to do here...)