Six changes to my teaching approach this semester

I’m trying to finish my dissertation this semester (again), so I did a sort of audit of my teaching practices during the summer semester to see what I am spending the most time on. I thought it would be helpful work out some changes to my approach here:

  1. I’m quitting Blackboard again. I thought Blackboard would save me tons of time, but it actually manufactures more work and worse assignments. Posting just about anything and setting up the assignment reminders and submission deadlines is just busy work. Part of learning as a student should be organizing your own schedule and learning to manage your own time with your own tools. No one puts stuff in my calendar or to-do list, so why am I spending all this time setting one up for my students? We’re going to have a WordPress site for each class and the information will be in the syllabus. Instead of early dismissal on the first day, I’m thinking we will talk personal information management and how to get stuff done in college.

  2. Assessments are happening during class from now on. I started using the exam feature on Blackboard last spring to give my students quizzes. I always thought quizzes were a waste of time. I figured I should instead design assignments where students needed to incorporate what they learned from readings/discussions, but students invariably ignore those requirements and often view the grade deductions as a cost of doing business. When I started giving quizzes, the number of students that read and could discuss the readings dramatically increased. I thought I was pretty smart, but it only made a new problem. By pushing assessments to outside of class, I was creating a bunch more time that I had to fill up with more discussion, which meant I was adding more readings. Those extra readings, while worthwhile, were non-essential, and students would invariably only read one of the two pieces. From now on, quizzes and exams are taking place during designated class time.

  3. Email responses will now be 24-48 hours, minimum. When I started teaching, I promised a response to student emails within 24 hours. Over the years, my policy has regressed dramatically. Over the summer, I had a student send me an email at 10pm, and then resend it at midnight with the implication that “maybe he didn’t get the first one, and that’s why I don’t have a response yet.” Worse yet, I actually responded to the damn thing that night. I’m sending emails out in the afternoon, once per day. If I get an email after I’ve already sent emails for that day, it’s getting dumped in a folder until the following day.

  4. Bad questions are getting one-line replies. There is such a thing as a bad question: it’s a factual question that I already answered. Many of the emails I respond to are because students didn’t carefully read or couldn’t be bothered to check the syllabus, assignment descriptions, or a past email. In those instances, I’m sending one-line replies referring them to the document instead of answering their questions. Past me would have thought that a dickish move, but present me just sees it as practical. If I invest the time to write a structured document, I should expect that students invest the time to extract the information they need.

  5. One mandatory draft read per course. I’ve always thought that drafts were where it’s at in terms of learning because I was taught that making students complete iterative revisions is how one teaches writing. Upon reflection, mandatory drafts just encourage lazy, incomplete documents. Last time I taught technical writing I reviewed two individual project drafts from each student, and one draft of each deliverable for group projects. That’s 52 drafts, at a conservative 350 words of feedback per draft. That’s 18,200 words just on draft feedback, a.k.a. one (large) dissertation chapter. I’ll still read drafts when students ask me to do so, but I’m only requiring it for the first major assignment.

  6. One assignment, one grading session on one day. Speaking of those drafts, they used to take up the better part of two days of reading, rereading, and commenting. Then I would do it all over again on the final submission. I have slowly moved to the one assignment, one grading session model, and this semester I’m going to execute it fully. When I sit down to grade, I am defining a set amount of hours for the task, and the session won’t stop until every submission is graded.

I don’t think things were necessarily better back in the day (e.g. white-knuckling it to the department office to slap a printed copy of your term paper in a mailbox before 5pm); however, I do remember being held accountable more often than I hold my students accountable. I also think students asked more questions in class and actually came to office hours because professors didn’t carry around a distraction device that connected them to their email accounts 24/7.

These are my modest goals for this semester. I’ve been told before to be selfish with my time, but I don’t think these fit into that mold. I want my students to become more empowered to handle stuff on their own, and less dependent on me to clear everything up for them. They might even (gasp!) contact a classmate before asking me. Before emails and constant contact with professors, this was pretty much how it was done.

Bizarre TiVo advertizement

TiVo sent me the following ad via email. It’s framed as a first-person letter to me from my TiVo unit telling me that [he, she, it] is too old and needs to be replaced. It’s almost like a break-up email, but then it starts referencing weird things like “cousin” machines that are a “better match” for me.

I’ve been receiving ads for years to upgrade to a “better” unit that can record, I don’t know, six shows at once or something. The thing is, I genuinely don’t want that. I don’t have time to watch most of the stuff I record now, let alone watch more.

This is the classic Hail Mary pass of communication: you’ve exhausted every type of rhetorical mode, so someone decides to get inventive and fires off something that really should have been scrapped on the drawing board. Most of the time these things are either too high concept, or just tacky. I’ve posted the message in its entirety below:

Andrew ,

It’s me, your TiVo(R) DVR.

I’m writing this letter with a heavy heart, but I’m doing it for the both of us. I think you’re perfect in every way, but I feel like I’m no longer the one for you.

It’s been many years since we first connected and, let’s face it, we just don’t communicate like we used to. Look, it’s nothing you did wrong; I’ll take all the blame. I looked in the mirror the other day and realized that, even if you knocked the dust off my back, it wouldn’t change the fact that I’m just so damn old. I know I’m only slowing you down.

Of course, I’d like to always be here for you, but I think my cousin Roamio would be a better match. TiVo Roamio can serve you in ways I can only dream of. You deserve the best, and if you call TiVo now you two can get together. I know you’ll hit it off.

The cool thing is, I’ve already told my friends in TiVo Customer Service about you and they’re ready to hook you up with Roamio right now! Call them at 877-289-8486 and receive an exclusive offer(1):

The paper memo: a genre of the (future?) technological apocalypse

I don’t really even bother to teach my technical communication students the format of a traditional paper memo. It typically includes the quaint “MEMORANDUM” as the first line, which strongly reminds me of the equally quaint “FACSIMILE COVER SHEET” on faxes I used to send to the U.S. armed services in a past life.

Email and scanning technology have made the memo mostly obsolete. Distribution lists are about as common as the secretaries who used them to calculate the number of Xeroxes they had to make. Then, in a Vanity Fair piece on the Sony Hack, I read this:

Suddenly it was a pre-Digital Age at Sony. Whoever hacked the company had not only stolen its internal data; they had wiped out everything in their wake. Sony’s e-mail system was down and out, so employees were forced to communicate by paper memos, texts, phone calls from their personal cell phones, and temporary e-mail addresses. The studio’s executives were reduced to using BlackBerrys unearthed from the basement of the Thalberg building.

Perhaps there is some value to teaching the old ways, a kind of “duck-and-cover” digital rhetoric that prepares students for technological apocalypses. Maybe one day I’ll even bring in a typewriter reminiscent of the antique I used to painstaking peck out my middle-school reports (it had an LCD display of your column number!!). A unit on cursive penmanship might also come in handy, though my long string of penmanship “D” grades would necessitate a guest lecturer on that particular topic.