Followup on Public Teaching Evaluations

My previous post about making my teaching evaluations public generated some thoughtful commentary, both here and elsewhere. Brian Coxall’s post on Prof. Hacker and the ensuing comments raised some key questions, and I’ve briefly responded there, saying:

[Regarding who owns the rights to the evaluations] …in my case I think that answer is easy: it’s the Commonwealth of Virginia, who has already made the quantitative part of the evaluations public (but very hard to actually access). As I mentioned in my original post, many other aspects of my job (including my salary) are already public information, so it makes since that my evals, upon which my salary is somewhat based, are too. Also, because the anonymous written comments are given back to me with no further instructions, I consider it a kind of “fair use” to make them public.

The possibility of degrading comments gaining a wider audience is something I hadn’t considered. I’ve been lucky that most of the comments I receive actually do pertain to my teaching (I’ve received the more personal comments about looks or clothing on RateMyProfessor). Still, an occasional personal attack is something I can live with and I don’t believe the public airing of it would give any legitimacy to the offensive remark. On the contrary, I’d see it as something to address in the reflective scaffolding I aim to build up around the teaching evaluations.

Meanwhile Julie Meloni writes about making her own evals public, from the perspective of a graduate student (who doesn’t want to be remembered as “that grad student doing weird stuff with her evals”). I’d hazard to say that regardless of one’s position — graduate student, visiting professor, adjunct professor, assistant, associate or full professor — there’s some risk involved with making your evals public. If your evals are outstanding, you might look like a self-serving braggart. If they’re awful, then everyone will know. But regardless of the actual scores, some of your colleagues are likely to be, at best, bemused, and at worst, threatened. My only response is that I don’t teach for my colleagues, I teach for my students. I realize that not everyone is in a department where my seemingly cavalier attitude (coming from a junior faculty member no less) would be tolerated, but luckily, I am.

Finally, in response to my question of how teaching evaluations could be remixed, George Mason IT and English student Aram Zucker-Scharff proposes turning the evals into more graphical visual representations of data. It’s a great idea and one I’d like to pursue as my dataset grows deeper.

Reading List for ENGL 493: Graphic Novels (Fall 2009)

I’ve finalized the reading list for my Fall 2009 course on graphic novels. This is the same super-sized class that I’ll be teaching with technologies that may help me preserve my student-centered pedagogy. The syllabus was especially hard to settle on, as there are so many compelling graphic novels worthy of inclusion. I had to make some tough choices: Neil Gaiman didn’t make it on, nor did Kyle Baker, Jessica Abel, Charles Burns, Rutu Modan, and a host of other possibilities.  But what I’ve got is some great stuff, spanning genres, styles, and mood.

And here’s a more appropriately visual presentation of the same required texts, complete with pricing information.

Teaching Technologies for Large Classes

Faced with the prospect of teaching larger classes, I’ve been thinking about how technology might help me preserve what I value most about small class sizes—and perhaps even bring added value to those large classes. But first some background.

There’s probably not a humanities program in the country that hasn’t received a memo from its dean that begins something like Due to the ongoing economic downturn and ends with bad news. Friends at other universities have been put on furlough, have had their benefits frozen, and have even been banned from making photocopies. Things aren’t that apocalyptic at George Mason, but we have had to slash our department budget, including reducing the number of courses we teach by six percent. That figure may not sound like much, but in a department our size it means cutting 18 sections for Fall 2009 and 16 sections for Spring 2010. In other words, in the next academic year we have to teach the same number of students as before, but with 34 fewer classes.

In addition to eliminating under-enrolled sections (forcing students to fill remaining sections to their maximum capacity), our department’s solution to this mathematical problem is to increase the size of a few key classes that are sure to fill, no matter what the cap is. I am the lucky professor of one of these newly designated “extra-large” classes. My Fall 2009 upper-division graphic novel class, once capped at 27 students, is now fully enrolled at 40 students, an increase of 50 percent.

How should my pedagogy change to meet this new teaching context? Or should it?

My classes are student-centered and discussion-oriented, and I rarely hold forth in any kind of lecture mode. It’s unusual for me to talk more than five minutes at once (a legacy of Doc Fuller, my undergrad mentor at Miami University of Ohio, who promised me his ghost would piss down my neck if I ever lectured more than ten minutes).

Rather than looking at this shift from a smaller class to an oversized class as a hardship or an obstacle to my teaching philosophy, I see it as a challenge: How do I continue to engage students on a dialogic plane when they, my department, and institutional momentum all expect me to lecture as the most efficient means of delivering content?

There is no single answer, but I have begun thinking about tactics I might employ that allow me to maintain a student-centered classroom while taking into account the larger class size. Not surprisingly, some of these tactics exploit technology that my students are already familiar with, but in different contexts.

Here are four I’ve been thinking about, followed by more detailed explanations of each:

  1. Blogging
  2. Wiki
  3. Twitter
  4. Pecha Kucha

Blogging

I routinely have my undergraduate and graduate students contribute to a class blog. The advantages are many: it’s a public space that requires students to consider questions of accountability and audience; students begin to see themselves as participating in an ongoing conversation about culture; and participation jump-starts class discussion so that I already have an idea of what students are thinking and wondering about before I even enter the classroom. In smaller classes I read and evaluate every post (according to this rubric) and generally comment throughout the semester on at least two posts by every student.

The problem with 40 students is that there is no way to read (much less comment upon) every post if every student is posting every week. I am toying then with a rotation model (inspired by Randy Bass),  in which students are divided into five groups of  eight students, cycling through these five roles:

  • Role 1 – Students are “first readers,” posting initial questions and insights about the reading to the class blog by Monday morning
  • Role 2 – Students are “respondents,” building upon, disagreeing with, or clarifying the first readers’ posts by class time on Tuesday
  • Role 3 – Students are “synthesizers,” mediating and synthesizing the dialogue between first readers and respondents by Thursday
  • Role 4 – Students are responsible for the week’s class notes (see next section on Wikis)
  • Role  5 – Students have this week “off” in terms of blogging and the wiki

I like the rotation model because each group of students is reading for and reacting to something different. The shifting positionality affords them greater traction, offers greater variety, and guarantees a dialogue without comments from myself.

Wiki

Students in Role 4 will be responsible the week’s class notes, written collaboratively by the group on the class wiki. I am indebted to Brian Croxall’s Wiki Class Notes assignment for this idea. I haven’t thought through all of the specifics, but essentially these students will capture what happens in the classroom—synthesizing the discussion, referencing the visuals, highlighting moments of confusion and understanding—and then archive it and make it available for the entire class. I would even encourage students to document each session with their cell cameras and incorporate annotated versions of this “evidence” into the wiki. The notetaking students can also use the Twitter backchannel (see the next section) as another source for their notes.

Twitter

A number of professors and instructors have begun using Twitter in their classrooms (see the Ultimate Twitter Teacher Resource for some ideas aggregated from across the web). I am most interested in Twitter as a backchannel, in which students use hashtags to create a stream of realtime on-task chatter about the class, which we can refer to at key moments during classtime. Outside of class, Twitter can be a microblogging-lite platform as well, for students to share quick notes and inquiries whenever they come across something in their daily lives relevant to the course material. This is the kind of use that David Parry writes about on Academhack.

Pecha Kucha

The most exotic sounding of all these tools, Pecha Kucha (pronounced “pe-chak-cha” ) is in fact the simplest idea: student presentations of 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide, adding up to a total time of 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

This rigid format sounds like it might lead to manic presentations, but I see it as the perfect solution to the usual crop of undisciplined, unfocused student presentations, especially when we have 40 of them to get through in a semester. There is no way to do a timed presentation without practice, and no way a student can get through one of these presentations simply by reading aloud the text the audience can read for themselves on the screen. Think of pecha kucha as Ouilipo for PowerPoint. The formal constraints paradoxically unleash creativity.

A Note About Grading

Taken together, these four digital pedagogies will add up to quite a bit of writing for my students—writing that will replace several of the major assignments I’d normally require. Eventually such dialogic, community-based writing might encompass the entire grade for a class. (At Leheigh University, for example, Ed Gallagher has successfully experimented with online discussion comprising 100% of a student’s grade; read his thoughtful reflection at Academic Commons.) For now, though, I’ll still have at least one paper, and I’ll also require a meta-reflection two-thirds of the way into the semester (similar to my blogging about blogging assignment).

What Else?

My extra-large class is three months away, so I have plenty of time to rethink these strategies or add more to my arsenal. I welcome suggestions, both lofty untested ideas and proven, practical techniques. The class will be an experiment in pedagogy, and even if it fails it will have failed successfully.

Zen Scavenger Essay Writing

Lately I’ve been wondering how to use Jane McGonigal’s Zen Scavenger Hunt idea in my teaching. A Zen Scavenger Hunt is essentially a reversed-engineered scavenger hunt. The hunters go out and find ten or or so items and only afterward do they receive the list of the items they’re supposed to be scavenging for. The participants have to improvise a series of hacks and demonstrations to prove that their items perfectly match the list.

The most faithful pedagogical analog to a Zen Scavenger Hunt might be having students write about anything using any format or style, and then give them the question they were supposed to be answering. The students next have to persuade me (and their classmates) that their essays do indeed answer the question, perhaps via footnotes or annotations.

The bulk of creative and critical work on the students’ part comes in at the second, performative level, in the rhetorical act of proving by whatever means necessary that their essays match — and in fact have always matched — my question.

A less faithful, though perhaps more intriguing possibility for introducing the same kind of backwards-modding into student work might involve using Wordle. I can imagine students writing (though I am pedagogically opposed to overreliance on such writing) a typical essay, say an analysis of the failure of cognitive mapping in Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange. They feed their essay into Wordle, and then other students must recreate the argument of the original student essay based on the Wordle-produced word cloud.

Or, in a variation of this assignment, the professor creates a Wordle cloud out of a scholarly essay, and the students work collaboratively to reconstruct the original publication. So, here’s a word cloud generated from Rachel Adam’s essay in Twentieth Century Literature 53.3 (2007) on Tropic of Orange, “The Ends of American, the Ends of Postmodernism” (larger version):

Rachel Adams on "Tropic of Orange"

Could a group of students reconstruct an essay out of this word cloud? And then persuade me and their classmates, through an overlay of textual and spoken improvisation, that their new essay is in fact a faithful recreation of the original?

We’re in Borges territory here, but it’s someplace I think students need to spend more time.

Writing is a Concentrated Form of Thinking

One of my friends from grad school, Tim Carmody, blogged a nice response to my recent posts on critical thinking and writing, and it got me thinking that I need to clarify one thing: I am not anti-writing.

As I wrote in my comment on Tim’s blog (and am copying here), I want to emphasize that I don’t think I’m any less committed to writing than anybody else in the humanities. After all, I do study literature, and somebody had to write that literature.

In fact, I would argue that writing should take precedent over reading. Don DeLillo, who is a touchstone for me in most areas of culture, has said that he writes to “learn how to think.” DeLillo goes on to say that “writing is a concentrated form of thinking. I don’t know what I think about certain subjects, even today, until I sit down and try to write about them” (Paris Review 128, Fall 1993, p. 277).

Writing comes before reading, and it even comes before critical thinking.

Cognitively, developmentally, artistically, this is true: we learn to write before we learn to read. I want to recover that dynamic in my teaching. I’m simply advocating that we broaden what counts as “writing.”

What’s Wrong With Writing Essays

A few days ago I mentioned that as a professor invested in critical thinking — that is, in difficult thinking — I have become increasingly disillusioned with the traditional student paper. Just as the only thing a standardized test measures is how well you can take a standardized test, the only thing a student essay measures is how well a student can conform to the rigid thesis/defense model that (surprise!) eliminates complexity, ambiguity, and most traces of critical thinking.

I don’t believe that my mission as a professor is to turn my students into miniature versions of myself or of any other professor.  Yet that is the only function that the traditional student essay serves. And even if I did want to churn out little professors, the essay fails exceedingly well at this. Somehow the student essay has come to stand in for all the research, dialogue, revision, and work that professional scholars engage in.

It doesn’t.

The student essay is a twitch in a void. A compressed outpouring of energy (if we’re lucky) that means nothing to no one. My friend and occasional collaborator Randy Bass has said that nowhere but school would we ask somebody to write something that nobody will ever read.

This is the primary reason I’ve integrated more and more public writing into my classes. I strive to instill in my students the sense that what they think and what they say and what they write matters — to me, to them, to their classmates, and through open access blogs and wikis, to the world.

In addition to making student writing public, I’ve also begun taking the words out of writing. Why must writing, especially writing that captures critical thinking, be composed of words? Why not images? Why not sound? Why not objects? The word text, after all, derives from the Latin textus, meaning that which is woven, strands of different material intertwined together. Let the warp be words and the weft be something else entirely.

With this in mind, I am moving away from asking students to write toward asking them to weave. To build, to fabricate, to design. I don’t want my students to become miniature scholars. I want them to be aspiring Rauschenbergs, assembling mixed media combines, all the while through their engagement with seemingly incongruous materials, developing a critical thinking practice about the process and the product.

Sid Meier's Pirates Mapped in 3D
Sid Meier’s Pirates Mapped in 3D (Click image for a larger version)

In my next post I’ll describe in more detail some “writing” assignments that have very little to do with traditional writing. I’ll include some sample student work then, but I’ll conclude today’s post by highlighting one project here.

I asked students to design an abstract visualization of an NES videogame, a kind of model that would capture some of the game’s complexity and reveal underlying patterns to the way actions, space, and time unfold in the game. One student “mapped” Sid Meier’s Pirates! (1991) onto a piece of driftwood (larger image). This “captain’s log,” covered with screenshots and overlayed with axes measuring time and action, evokes the static nature of the game more than words ever can. Like Meier’s Civilization, much of Pirates! is given over to configurations, selecting from menus, and other non-diegetic actions. Pitched battles on the high seas, what would seem to be the highlight of any game about pirates, are rare, and though a flat photograph of the log doesn’t do justice to the actual object in all its physicality, you can see some of that absence of action here, where the top of the log is full of blank wood.

I will talk more about about this assignment and others — and where the critical thinking comes into play — in my next post.

What is Critical Thinking?

I’ve been a teacher of one sort or another for nearly 15 years, first as a high school teacher and now, after the grueling experience of graduate school, a university professor.

Should I admit that most of this time I had no philosophy guiding my teaching? It’s not that I thought that I didn’t need one. It’s that teaching came easy and the idea of a teaching philosophy simply hadn’t occurred to me. I was charismatic, demanding but fair, with outstanding student evaluations. If anybody asked, I said a few words about critical thinking and went on my way.

And then I had a problem. A crisis. One day I realized my university students were simply not picking up on key recurring images in The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel.

I was puzzled and frustrated. I had intelligent, articulate, sensitive students in my class. Why was I seeing these patterns and my students were not? And how long had this been going on?

I now know the reason was because my students, however bright, were novice learners of literature, whereas I was an expert. The gap between novice and expert learners is vast, but substantial research demonstrates there are several essential differences: expert learners notice meaningful information overlooked by novices; experts organize their knowledge associatively rather than sequentially; and experts recognize that the applicability of their skills and knowledge depends on circumstances, while novices bluntly apply their smaller skill set to every problem, even when profoundly inappropriate.

Of course, I didn’t know all of this back in the spring of 2000, when my crisis occurred. What I did know, though, was that I had to do something I had never done before: consciously design an assignment to address a particular problem in my students’ learning habits.

Since that day I have become much more reflective and intentional in my teaching — all with the goal of fostering that most talismanic of buzzwords, critical thinking.

I have read reams of studies about critical thinking, participated in research groups on the subject, and of course, feigned enough expertise to judge the critical thinking of others. But I have to admit that I still do not know exactly what counts as critical thinking.

I believe, however, that critical thinking stands in opposition to facile thinking. Critical thinking is difficult thinking. Critical thinking is being comfortable with difficulty. And this is something else that separates the expert learner from the novice learner: experts are at ease with uncertainty, while novices are uncomfortable with what they don’t understand, and they struggle to come up with answers — and quickly come up with answers — that eliminate complexity and ambiguity. The historian and cognitive psychologist Samuel Wineburg calls this tendency to seek answers over questions “schoolish” behavior, because it is exactly the kind of behavior most schools reward.

I want my students to break out of this schoolish mode of behavior. Instead of thinking like students — like novices, I want them to think more like experts, and I must coach them to do so. It requires intellectual risk-taking on their part, and on my part, it requires mindfulness, patience, and risk-taking as well.

The next few posts to Sample Reality will elaborate upon these thoughts, and I will begin in a few days describing how, much to the chagrin of my English Department colleagues, I am moving increasingly away from the traditional student essay as a means for evaluating (much less fostering) critical thinking.