Reformatting: Summer School Edition

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I teach summer school a lot, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like it. Students who take a summer school course mean business. Most of the time, they’ve either failed the course (or something similar and need the credit to graduate) or are fast-tracking their program. Either way, they’re hungry for the grade and will do just about anything to pass the course. After all, you have to have a good reason to show up regularly to learn about the humanities when the sun is shining, it’s 30 degrees outside and, especially in Montreal, there are a million beautiful patios where one could be sitting and sipping sangria instead of slogging through scholarly literature and listening to what can sometimes be rather abstract lectures.

So yeah, whenever I get the chance to teach summer school I jump at it. But every time I do this, I mistakenly think it will be “easy” to prepare for. It’s usually a course I’ve taught before, so there’s no prep, right? RIGHT?!?!? Wrong! Alas, it doesn’t seem to matter what format you were teaching in during the year – three 50-minute lectures, two 80-minute lectures, or a three-hour block – it never fits neatly into the summer format. Last time I taught summer school at university, I went from two 80-minute lectures per week to a summer school format that was 2.5 hours per day. Now, in CEGEP, I’m moving from a 75 minute format to one where I teach 2 hours and 5 minutes per day.

No matter how you try to slice those numbers, you’re never going to move seamlessly from a regular-term format to summer school without substantial revisions. This means trimming some lectures, expanding others, and probably outright ditching a few more – at least if you’re on the 4-week format, which is popular in Quebec. I tend to do this mostly based on my own sense of how important a topic is or isn’t (although I take the informal exit surveys that I give my students into account too). For example, if I can spot two topics that I want to discuss, but which I feel can be trimmed down, I do a little cutting and glue them together. But if there’s something that felt too constrained in the original format, I simply expand the talk. When teaching Western Civilization, I devoted a full 2.5 hours to different themes in the Industrial Revolution(s), adding a full 60 minutes to my original lecture. This summer, I will be doing the same thing when we discuss gender issues in Media Ethics.

This takes time, and for whatever reason, the job of reformatting never seems to get completely finished before you start teaching. Which brings me to the other thing that one always has to consider when reformatting for summer school: marking. Let’s assume that you – like me – are a mere mortal and you didn’t finish your lecture revisions in time. Don’t forget, that in summer school, you’re also likely to have assignments due or tests coming in every week or two, depending on whether you are on the 4-week or the 6-week schedule. This means you need to leave yourself time to mark all of these papers and exams, and revise your lectures and, of course, prep them before delivery.

The moral of the story? You’re going to have to reformat your assignment structure – and maybe the assignments themselves – as well. Remember, it’s not just that you need time to mark the stuff, but your students also need time to produce it, while still (ideally) keeping up with the readings. For a university history course, this often means stripping the course of its research paper component. This isn’t ideal, but the likelihood of students being able to produce a good research proposal and submit an A paper is not high. There’s simply too much going on and not enough time, even if they are only taking one course. Thus, when I teach history in summer school I assign a short primary document analysis followed by what I call a “researched book review” instead. The latter assignment requires that students read 2 articles related to the subject of the book in order to prepare their reviews.

This summer, since CEGEP assignments tend to be shorter and more numerous than university-level papers, I have simply removed one of the reflection pieces from the syllabus instead of altering the assignments. On top of this, however, I have still had to reduce the readings. In regular term, I only met with students twice a week, and they were assigned a mix of scholarly articles and newspaper articles. Since I meet them daily this summer, and we only have 4 weeks, I’ve had to remove about half of that literature. Some of it will reappear as in-class reading, but I was forced to part ways with one journal article altogether.

All this is to say that although I love summer school, it’s always a bit of a wild ride. So, to quote Jurassic Park: “Hold onto your butts, ‘cause here we go.”

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In-Class Reading: The Round-Robin

Ok, so this is a Moorhen and not a Robin, but I'm strangely obsessed with the weirdness of these birds

 This is a Moorhen and not a Robin, but I’m strangely obsessed with the weirdness of these birds

Ok, so I promised to talk about my favourite variation on in-class reading. Here it is: the Round-Robin. I’ve done this with a class of 150 (although there were probably only 130 or so in attendance that day), and classes of 35. In both cases it worked really well, so I’m pretty sure that you can adapt it to whatever class size you’re working with. The trick is to make sure that your groups are no larger than 8 or 9 people each… and, of course, that you have the photocopy budget for all the copies.

So, here’s what to do. Take 4 different documents, each of which approaches the theme for that day’s class in a completely different way. I usually try to create a mix of primary and secondary sources and I choose excerpts that do not exceed about 1.5 pages. Students then get broken into their groups at random. In the small classes, I only create 1 group per document. But in bigger classes, it’s sometimes necessary to double or triple the groups – that is, to have 2 or 3 groups reading the same document. Make sure there is at least 1 strong student in each group, but otherwise, a random distribution of butts in seats seems to work just fine.

Once everyone is in their groups, hand out the readings. I give students 15 minutes to read, and faster readers often start talking amongst themselves as they finish. Students who take longer to read can either finish reading once we enter the discussion period, or stop where they are and try to glean more information from the discussion. After the reading period is finished, students get another 15 minutes to talk the document out in their groups. At this point, depending on how advanced your students are, you might want to give them some guiding questions. For example, when I did this in my History of the British Empire course, I asked them how each document “characterized the east.” When my Media Ethics class did the same exercise as part of our discussion about privacy on the Internet, we looked at a series of documents and asked: “what does it mean to be seen?”

Once everyone seems comfortable with their document, having become an “expert” on the literature they were assigned, mix up the groups – hence why I call it a Round-Robin. If you want, you can try to create some sort of elaborate rules about how people should circulate around the room. Since, however, this exercise is as much about team work and peer-to-peer learning as it is a lesson about the subject matter at hand, I actually don’t give them instructions. Instead, I tell my students that the new groups must be roughly the same size and contain at least one person who knows about each document. This creates temporary chaos, but within 5 minutes they have usually – and quite impressively – sorted themselves in the appropriate manner. Sometimes there will be a group here or there that is missing an “expert” on 1 of the 4 documents, but that’s easily fixed by asking a group that has multiples to send someone over to the group in need.

At this point, the new groups get another 15 minutes to talk through the same question. Again, depending on how long you’ve been working with these students, you might want to give them instructions about how to proceed, or you might not. When I did it with the large group I explained that “experts” should present their document to the group before they began informal discussion, so that everyone was on the same page. This was because a class of 150 students, by its very nature, won’t have much experience with group work and will need some extra direction. In my smaller classes, my students intuitively knew what to do since they’d had a lot of practice, and they began explaining what they had read to one another without any prompting.

It's probably best not to give them anything in original format -- for example, this -- but otherwise, you're pretty free

It’s probably best not to give them anything in original format — for example, this — but otherwise, you’re pretty free

But it’s this last phase where things really get interesting! If you’ve chosen your documents well, and asked interesting questions, students are often keen to compare notes. They ask questions of one another, and some groups end up Googling things in order to find more information. Some settle into consensus fairly quickly, and others fight it out (in my experience, such disagreements have always been respectful, but that does not mean that they haven’t also been heated). At this point, it’s essential that you circulate through the room. I tend to do this for the duration of the class, but at this point it’s even more important because some groups will require a little prodding, while you might want to throw some cold water on the more aggressive ones.

When the majority of the groups have finished their discussion – don’t feel bad about cutting some discussions short, because some of these debates could go on forever – call the class back together and go over the topic one last time. This might seem repetitive but it’s actually quite useful because it evens out the overall experience and ensures that your students have at least some common information despite all the simultaneous (and not necessarily parallel) discussions going on in the room up to this point. It also allows students to fill in their notes. Because the exercise itself is very “hands-on,” almost none of your students will have had the time or the forethought to jot down more than a few cursory thoughts while they are chatting with their peers, and they will appreciate the time to get this information down in an orderly fashion.

There will always be a range in the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of the group discussions; however, I guarantee you that working with the documents in this way will make the material much more memorable than a traditional lecture or reading a set of texts at home ever could. Moreover, if you choose the documents well and your students are excited about the topic, more than a few will want copies of the other 3 documents that they didn’t read. This is why I always make everything available on the online forum right after the class.

My one word of caution about this exercise is that, much like when you plan a seminar, you really do have to choose your readings wisely and this takes time. The in-class period will be less labour-intensive for you as an instructor than a lecture, but the preparatory time will be roughly the same. That having been said, even though it won’t save you much work time, the change of pace is often a welcome one and in-class reading exercises like this have saved my sanity on more than a few occasions. Both my students and I sometimes need of change of pace, and this is an effective way of breaking the monotony while still making sure that students are actively engaged in the learning process.

Things My Students Have Reminded Me Of

Term is finished and I had my students fill in another anonymous (and voluntary) survey. Therefore, I’ve decided to talk about that, and come back to in-class reading assignments next time. Don’t worry, this will be short and sweet, I promise.

So what did my students have to say? The results of the survey weren’t surprising, but they did remind me of a few important things. In no particular order:

  1. The things which show up under “things I liked best” are often the same things that show up under “things I liked least.” This year, it was the lecture of the public sphere and our discussion of sports media that peppered both the best and worst lists.
  2. Peer-to-peer learning and well-conceived group work are always popular.
  3. No matter how much or how little reading you assign, it is always “too much.”
  4. I still speak too fast.
  5. How much information one does or does not put on the PowerPoint slides is constantly in need of negotiation.
  6. Students appreciate being treated like adults, even when that means you ask more of them.
  7. You can actually convince students to read and think about something that is bloody hard to understand, but they will not enjoy it. Sometimes learning is a lot like Buckley’s: it tastes awful, but it works.
  8. Enthusiasm matters in a classroom, and students will be more tolerant of your occasional errors when they can tell you’re really trying and that you really care.
  9. People like it when you’re topical (this was easy to do when teaching media ethics, but is slightly more challenging when teaching Tudor/Stuart Britain).
  10. Sometimes, you need to leave space for silence. Real learning requires space and time to digest information and, occasionally,  it’s helpful to pause.

That’s all for now. But next time, I really will talk about my favourite in-class reading assignment.

In-Class Reading

Some of you will recall my piece on the need to teach critical reading alongside analytic writing. There is a difference between reading something literally and reading that same piece critically. It often takes students a very long time to understand what the difference is and how to become a critical reader. Although critical reading is a hard skill to teach, there is a general sense that practice is a must. That having been said, we all know that getting students to actually do their readings is a hard, even at the best of times. So how do you make sure they’re getting the practice they need, especially when it comes to the really dense or difficult texts? You know the readings I mean. Anything post-colonial is a good example.

Things you might want to make sure you read literally

Things you might want to make sure you read literally

It’s true, giving students a reason to do the readings is a great way to ensure that they do their work. I have colleagues at the CEGEP level who give pop quizzes on reading material for this reason. My personal strategy is to choose my readings carefully – that is to try to pick enough material that is written in an engaging and accessible manner and place it alongside the things which are really hard. I also vary my approach to discussing those readings when it comes time for class, and my students do all sorts of different group work, engineering questions about the readings which they can then ask their peers, doing think-pair-share exercises, and sometimes even having a formal debate.

But I’m a realist, and even my most heroic efforts to make the learning process exciting and genuinely appealing sometimes just aren’t enough. This is particularly true at the start of the semester – when students are still deciding whether I’m good crazy or bad crazy – and at the end of term – when they are flat-out exhausted and over-burdened with other work. And so, I’ve started doing more in-class reading.

In-class reading has several advantages. First of all, if you want to introduce students to a really difficult text and make sure that they actually try to get all the way through it – instead of just giving up and waiting for the “answer” to come in class – this is pretty much the only way to ensure the work gets done. By setting aside time in class, you remove the temptation to give up and watch TV. Moreover, you create a built-in support system. Students see that everyone is struggling, and they are given the space and time to commiserate with their peers. But after some initial venting, they are also able to work with their fellow students to try to put things together and recreate the argument in laymen’s terms. In most cases, different students will be able to decipher different bits of the text, and they can then work together to recreate the argument in the same way that a group of friends might assemble a jigsaw puzzle together.

Even though everyone reads at a different pace, students who finish early can begin to speak quietly while their peers finish the text. As more and more people complete the reading, groups of 5-8 students can be formed. This brings me to the second advantage of in-class reading: it makes each student’s initial reaction to the text useful, and builds on gut reactions instead of letting those first impressions fizzle and die, breeding complacency and disinterest. Conversation about in-class readings usually starts with students asking one another what they thought about the text. The result is that different opinions about the same text can then be used as an entry point to discuss things like significance or methodology, which might otherwise seem too difficult or abstract. The process encourages the students to think about how the texts work and not just what they say.

Finally, even if your class ends up universally hating the reading in question, they will likely resent the process less than if they had been asked to do the reading at home. At least this way, the offending literature hasn’t taken up any of their flex time. At the same time, doing a reading in the classroom – no matter how hard the text might be – allows you to break away from a lecture format, and vary the presentation of course material. The change of pace is often welcome to both teacher and students alike.

I have tried projecting smaller excerpts on my PowerPoint and reading them aloud (or having a student volunteer do so). In these scenarios, I usually follow the excerpt with a brief think-pair-share exercise, wherein students have a moment to think on their own and then discuss with their neighbor. When that is done, we discuss the excerpt in greater detail as a class. This has been successful, especially in the really big classes; however, it is very limited in terms of what it can accomplish. Thus, I tend only to take this approach when trying to illustrate the mood of a historical period, or a single concept.

Things that perhaps the marketing team should have read more critically

Things that perhaps the marketing team should have read more critically

If you want to actually get into critical reading, you have to give them photocopies, although it is important to stick to relatively short excerpts here as well. Remember, your students have not been to grad school, and they haven’t yet mastered the art of either speed reading or skimming. And many of them aren’t accustomed to reading anything longer than your average blog. Even a lengthy op-ed can be too much for them, and I never give more than 1-2 pages at a time. Even then, students still need roughly 15 minutes to be able to do it, and some of them will really struggle to make it to the end.

Regardless of what reading you choose, students will need some guiding questions. When I’ve done this in history courses, I’ve assigned things like Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, and asked students what Fukuyama thinks the end of history looks like. From there, we move into bigger questions, such as “is it possible for history to end,” and “what types of categories should we use to think about how history progresses?” In this particular case, I was using the reading to introduce 150 students to the content of my modern European History course – and we circled back to the same material at the very end of the course – but I have also used in-class readings in my ethics classes, which are much smaller.

In ethics, we read Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill on two separate occasions. Ultimately, the goal was to compare their moral philosophies. Later in the course, we also read about Ubuntuism, which I’m pleased to report was shockingly successful. In each case, students were asked what defines right versus wrong – according to the author in question – and then how the reading compared to other thinkers that we had examined. They were also asked whether or not they felt like the text in question was useful when discussing the modern media, since ultimately the course is an applied ethics course that focusses on the media and the public sphere.

I won’t lie, the first few minutes the first time I do this exercise in any given class tends to result in palpable annoyance and some very loud grumbling. But as students ease into it, on the whole, they seem to enjoy the exercise. What’s even better, their ability to dissect a text is notably improved by the second time we go through the process. And while they might still all complain about the difficulty of some of the readings when we get to the end of the course, I feel like they understand things like Fukuyama or Kant in a way that they wouldn’t have if I had simply lectured on the topic or told them to read it at home.

That’s it for now, but next week I want to continue this discussion by writing about one of my favourite ways of adapting this exercise. Until next time!

Position Papers and In-Class Debates

I'm not sure if this is an example of the best or worst kind of debating.

I’m not sure if this is an example of the best or worst kind of debating.

I know, I know. Your classes have over 100 students in them and there’s no way you can run a debate at the university level! Point taken. That is, of course, unless you have seminars, tutorials, conferences, or whatever the hell they call them at your school (aside: I don’t know why, but there seems to be no standard terminology for this phenomenon). If you have even a few of these smaller meetings wherein you get to talk about documents that the students have read in advance, I highly recommend you give this a try. No really, I’ve done it with groups as large as 35 and I swear to you that it works. It just requires some careful planning.

I’m a big fan of debates because they let the students get their hands dirty with the material. The process of planning and then arguing provides a space for those mired in the learning process to work through their ideas and it makes the material meaningful in a way that normal discussions do not. It also forcefully reminds students that the knowledge we impart in the classroom our interpretation of the evidence, not some sort of objective “truth.” In a debate setting, there is no escaping the reality that the same subject matter can be interpreted in radically different ways. Moreover, the act of arguing teaches the importance of articulating one’s ideas clearly, and with supporting evidence.

And so, for several years now, I’ve tried to incorporate at least one debate into each of my courses. This doesn’t always work, as I don’t always have the resources – but when I can make it work, I run with it. Students come prepared, having done the readings, but they do not get to choose which position they have to argue. Instead, I divvy up the class, attempting to divide the talkative ones and the creative thinkers evenly so that neither team is at a disadvantage. Sometimes they have the debate question in advance, sometimes they don’t. It depends on the course. Each side then gets 30 minutes to prepare under the guidance of a designated team leader. This individual is responsible for moderating their team, choosing who gets to speak when, and making sure that no one speaks out of turn.

Students always love this, and several of them always tell me that it was the best part of the class at the end of term. The thing is, despite all of the good things that come of out debates, they often look like a complete disaster to the teacher sitting at the front of the room. Students remain respectful and are clearly engaged, that much is true. But they sometimes have trouble articulating the point that they are really trying to make and there is a marked tendency to veer off topic. There are always numerous missed opportunities, especially when it comes to rebuttals. Then there are the groups that don’t connect; when this happens, it’s like watching two different monologues being recited on opposite sides of a stage. The sloppiness of it all has never sat well with me.

This is why I decided to take a risk, and this year I asked students to write a position paper that was due several days before the debate itself. In their papers, students had to use the same readings to answer the same question they will have to argue in class in class. I worried that either they would find the process condescending, or that the repetition involved would cause them to get bored. But since there was, indeed, method to my madness, I pressed on. I was sincerely interested to see how the process of debating affected their original views and what it taught them about crafting an argument – especially since even the best students tend to have trouble identifying and undermining the antithesis when writing a paper. The tactic also had the added bonus of forcing students to have to read critically – and not casually – in advance of the debate.

Judgment day came. I held my breath, and I waited to see what would happen. I’m a cynic, so I expected a bunch of angsty teenagers, ready to rebel at my antiquated ways. Instead, they were bursting at the seams, eager to tell their peers what they thought about the topic. As always, students were assigned to their teams, but instead of griping about getting the “wrong side,” the groups self-organized and used the dissenters among their ranks to help them prepare for counter-arguments. Some students had done extra research for their papers, and obligingly shared their knowledge with the group. Even some of the more quiet students got involved, feeling more confident because they’d had time to work through their ideas more thoroughly in advance.

No really, it was like the day I discovered I could make Nutella bread. OMG, this actually works!

No really, it was like the day I discovered I could make Nutella bread. OMG, this actually works!

Currently, my classes have 33-35 students each. And yet, each time I did this, the debate was orderly and well planned. Sometimes it took a bit longer for them to get into it, but once discussion got going, there was a firestorm of exchange, and arguments really started to connect as the two sides went back and forth. I sat in awe, and let students try to convince one another until just before the end of class. When we wrapped up, and I asked them if any of them had changed their minds, or at the very least, would change the way they would argue if they could write their papers again. At least 10 students in each class put up their hands. When I asked them to elaborate, some had completely changed their minds; others told me that they had originally provided an opinion and that now they wanted to construct an argument, with better supporting evidence. A few maintained their original positions, but had become either more or less self-assured that they were, in fact, in the right.

Admittedly, I am currently teaching some unusually gifted students. They are a ridiculously bright lot of young people who have made it into a very competitive school. However, even if you take this into consideration, the difference between debates with and without a position paper attached was staggering. The debate itself became more orderly and meaningful, and the lessons it was meant to impart came into much more clearly focus for the students. Thus, I think it’s an exercise worth repeating. Again, pulling this off is dependent upon your resources (how many students you have in your class versus how many hours you have in a day… or, at the very least, how many TAs you have). But if you can make it work, combining a written component with an oral debate has been highly successful for me. This is one of those things where, even after marking 103 position papers, I can still say that it was worth it. And that, my friends, was a lot of papers to read on the same damn thing.

I’d be curious to know if anyone else out there is doing this type of thing and, if so, how it’s been working for them. As always, I encourage people to share their expertise below. The best thing about this blog is that I get to hear great ideas from readers all the time, so keep it coming!

Asking the Right Questions

There are so many reasons that I want to talk about this, but I’ll stick to two. First of all, as many of you already know, I run an interactive classroom and I’m always tossing out questions for my students to think about. Whether it’s in a small classroom of 30 students, or in a large lecture hall that seats 150, I’m involved in a constant exchange of information and never simply monologue for the full period. The types of question I ask vary based on the subject matter and class size, but I like to pause and see what students can tell me every now and again instead of just yammering away at them. I’m a huge fan of peer-to-peer learning, but I’m not above admitting that I take breaks where I can get them as well.

In order to facilitate a conversation effectively, I come prepared with a set of questions that I want to ask my class. In a large lecture setting, these tend to be fact-based questions, which allow students who have a personal interest in the subject matter a chance to shine. Now, I know what you’re going to say: I can’t expect people to always know what a word means, or to have heard of “the Other.” Don’t worry, I don’t, and my students are told at the beginning of every semester that they are not expected to know this information in advance. Rather, I acknowledge that some of them will already know things from other classes or from personal reading, and explain that class is more interesting if they’re allowed to share their knowledge than if I simple continue to talk at people.

Fact-based questions break up my lecture into more manageable pieces, and tend to be peppered throughout the class. When I ask my lecture classes about the “big picture,” I wait until the end of class, or sometimes pause in the middle. Again, I have 1 or 2 carefully thought-out questions, which I include as part of my slide show; students get 5-10 minutes to discuss these issues, and if I’ve managed to grab their attention during lecture, the conversation can be quite interesting. If not, well, let’s just say I can tell and I try to revise my lecture accordingly.

In seminars, the goal is to construct a meaningful narrative from a series of unique documents, each of which views the topic through a particular lens. Part of this process means discussing the methodology used in secondary sources – what works and what doesn’t – and the goals, limitations, and subject position of the authors who wrote the primary sources. If the class is going to achieve its goal and make sense of all of this information, my individual questions need to be properly conceived. More importantly, however, they need to be ordered correctly. Therefore, sometimes I start with the details and build towards the general, and sometimes I start from the general and work towards the precise – but I always have a plan.

All of this works very nicely since students receive and react to my questions in real time, and we work through the material as a group. This gives me the opportunity to adapt to the needs of each class, and to rephrase a particular question or rethink my line of approach if need be. Let’s face it, if the ups and downs of my academic career have taught me anything, it’s how to think on my feet. And so, at least half of the time, I feel like asking the right questions is a skill that I most definitely possess.

And yet, I’m not always as successful as I would like to be when posing questions. And this brings me to the other reason that I really wanted to write about this topic: sometimes I suck at asking essay questions, particularly when I’m teaching a course for the first time. One memorable disaster of an assignment resulted in this end-of-term evaluation gem: “Assignment 2 was evil! DO YOU HEAR ME?!?! F*cking Evil!!!” Yeah… I hear you. In fact, you didn’t even have to tell me (although I genuinely empathize with your need to scream it to the hilltops), since I’d already figured that out on my own. Assignment 2 – of which I will spare you the details – was based on a poorly conceived question, and I have nothing left to say to my former students other than: “I am so, so very sorry.”

The problem I have in these situations is not that the idea at the heart of the question is flawed, but rather that the question itself has come out garbled in some way. Choose one wrong word – or omit one – and you’ve created the conditions for the perfect storm. When teaching a lesson, things always go relatively well because I have a chance to react, reformulate, or explain. But when asking a question that I wish the students to answer on their own time, that opportunity is taken away from me. In essence, I lose control of the question, and that has a tendency to burn me if I haven’t had the chance to try it out on real, living, breathing, human beings before.

My most recent failure occurred in my Media Ethics class when I asked students to write a position paper based on newspaper articles about Edward Snowden and the NSA scandal. What I really meant to say was: “Was it right for the mainstream news media to publish the materials Edward Snowden gave to them, exposing the NSA’s bulk collection and storage of personal metadata? Discuss with reference to journalism ethics, the need for community safety, and the place of individual rights.” What I actually wrote was: “Should the media expose all government actions in order to keep that government honest and to ensure the protection of individual rights and freedoms; or, should information be censored to protect the community as a whole? Discuss with reference to the readings in your Course Pack.”

In this instance, aside from the obvious awkwardness in the way that the question was phrased, it was the “all” that got me. Despite the fact that I had clearly asked them to answer with reference to the NSA – since the readings in the Course Pack had to do with Snowden’s revelations – students focused on the word “all.” It wasn’t their fault, and I realized my error the moment I marked the first paper. But it was too late. Instead of being able head off trouble as it began, I was left regretting my word choice and faced with the fait accompli of a mountain of papers arguing that military secrets of various sorts need to be carefully guarded and kept out of the public sphere. The bulk-capturing of metadata faded away into the background.

In the end, I wrote clarifying remarks in the margins of all the papers that wandered away from the mainstream news media, Snowden and the NSA, but I had no choice other than to evaluate them with reference to the question that I had actually set, as opposed to the one I wish I’d assigned. As long as students made some reference to materials in their Course Pack, I had to accept submissions that focused more on Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks – albeit usually in vague terms – as legitimate. I therefore assessed each argument based on its internal coherence or lack thereof, and not on its proximity to the question that I really wanted them to discuss.

As I mentioned above, this is not the first time things have gone wrong, and I’ve tried a number of tactics to avoid poorly worded questions. I always have someone outside my field read over my assignment sheets before I release them at the start of term; however, the education gap between my “test subjects” and my actual students tends to show on judgment day. Like all of my peers, I also introduce the assignments and the questions that they pose on the first day of class. Moreover, we talk about these things briefly throughout the semester, and I always hope that students will ask for clarification. Alas, since they do not know what I wanted to ask – as opposed to what I did ask – they have no idea that something is wrong and tend take the question as it stands and run with it. Finally, if students who start early show up to my office with questions, I have taken to sending out emails that attempt to clarify the assignment guidelines. The problem with doing this is that I often can’t see where the real confusion lies until I have seen at least one completed paper.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that while I feel like I know what I’m doing half of the time, the other half, I really sympathize with my colleagues who have confessed to struggling with this part of their pedagogy. Asking questions is bloody hard, and every time I think I’ve figured it out, the universe reminds me not to be so damn cocky. I’m going to continue experimenting with how to avoid the “poorly worded question” scenario – I think my next move will be to ask former students to look over new assignments instead of my friend in law school – but I suspect there are more train wrecks ahead. Thus, I might also ask students to paraphrase assignments back to me when we go over everything on the first day of class, but I worry that such a strategy would be condescending. As always, I welcome ideas in the comments thread below. If you’ve got solutions, I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to hear them.

Extensions

It’s that time of year. Canadian universities are done, but the CEGEPs and universities in some other regions march on, while teachers and students alike battle to make it through to the bitter end. Everyone’s tired, everything is due, and the result is an awful lot of extension requests. Some students have 3 tests in one week, others have 3 papers due the same day. “Could you possible give me just a few extra days,” they ask, one by one, as they fall into the empty chair beside my desk. Make an exception for one of them, and you have to make an exception for all. So what do you do?

 

Everyone has a different policy. Some of my colleagues flat out refuse to grant extensions, except in cases of medical or family emergencies that come complete with the requisite paperwork. There is something to be said for this approach since it follows the rules that most of us lay out in our syllabi. That said, many other teachers are willing to make exceptions, and they create a secondary list of criteria for granting extensions. Some people only grant extensions to the class as a whole, forcing students to lobby their peers and reach a consensus about what is fair and what is not. Then there are the people who grant individual extensions and evaluate the situation on a case-by-case basis – workload, stress, or how long a student has waited all become factors in this scenario.

 

Personally, I’ve tried a variety of approaches. When I first started teaching I tried being a hard-ass. I swore that I would only grant extensions if they had documentation proving that they needed it. But then that first student came to see me, and I discovered that I am – in actual fact – a marshmallow. As long as you come to see me more than 24 hours before the assignment it due, your odds are pretty damn good that you’ll get what you want (the exception being if you’ve already asked for another extension earlier in the semester).

 

My memory is not usually that good, but one thing I can vividly remember is the only two times I ever asked for an extension. Both times it was because of workload, and both times I was denied. I was always an over-achiever as an undergrad, so I would dutifully map out all my due dates into my day planner at the start of every year. A couple of times I quickly realized that I was headed for trouble, despite my best efforts to make do. So I went to see my professors to plead my case. The response that greeted me was the standard: “I don’t give extensions,” and “if it’s about workload, why are you coming to see me and not going to see someone else?”

 

Now that I’m a teacher myself, I understand all too well why these professors didn’t want to give me the extension. But if I think hard enough, I can also remember the hot-red rage caused by being denied – something that happened more than a decade ago now. As I said, I tended to be a good student and these were not last-minute requests or requests that resulted from poor time management. They were the result of a full-time course load, working 30 hours a week, and being absolutely belligerent about my desire both to sleep and to produce good written material. Some students are poor planners, yes; but not all of them are. Sometimes, the workload of a college or university level student is simply too much. So every time someone asks me for an extension, my memory of these exchanges comes back, and I say “nnnnnn-OK.”

 

I know some students use and abuse my tendency to grant extensions, but I try to look at it like the justice system: better a guilty person go free than send an innocent one to jail. I also just can’t buy into the “out there in the real world” ideology that dictates students should learn to deal with the occasional shitstorm that the world will throw their way, preferably sooner rather than later, because life has been “too damn cushy” for them up until now. For starters, I work in the same institution in which these kids are studying, so if they don’t live in the “real world,” neither do I. I’m not convinced that’s the case. More importantly, when the inevitable clusterf*ck does occur in one’s “grown-up life,” there are always people that have your back. Sure, no one’s going to change your deadlines when work is piling up, you have to move, and you and your significant other just broke up – but most of the time, no one’s going to tell you to suck it up and just deal with it either. More likely, a friend or colleague is going to help you move, cook you some food, or at the very least, buy you some booze. And since no one is going to give these kids a bottle of whiskey any time soon, I tend to throw them a bone and just give them the extension when the crisis hits.

 

Don’t get me wrong, for the most part, I respect the different approaches that my colleagues take when it comes to this issue – as long as they are consistent and avoid being condescending. My sense of things is that students are fine with whatever you do, so long as the rules are clear and things are fair. Sally will take the late penalty, or stay up all night getting the paper done, so long as Jonny has to do the same thing. And today’s students even take the “real world” comments a lot better than I ever did.

 

In my classroom, however, I suspect I’m going to keep giving individual extensions, even when – as was the case this past week – it means that I only get half of the papers in on time. I like the opportunity for learning that the one-on-one extension-request meetings produce. These conversations force my students to articulate what went wrong and help teach them that sometimes you need to ask for help – and ask in such a way that it acknowledges you are asking for a favour and not making a demand. They also give me a space to help students figure out how to avoid similar problems in the future or, at the very least, teach them that they have to seek assistance earlier in the term. When I have this kind of a meeting with a student, it tends to open up a dialogue, and I hear from them more regularly because they do start coming to me for study tactics, help with essay outlines, or questions they had about course material.

 

I’m not sure there is a “right” way to deal with extension requests. But I’d love to hear what others are up to and what people think of my particular approach. As always, feel free to leave comments below and let me know!