Thoughts on next year’s zombie class

Dead Snow
Dead Snow would fit as Nazi, Fast, Humor, Meta, and Cabin in the Woods

I’m wondering how the course would work if I re-worked it next year as a series of Zombie subgenres (Hollywood, Vodou, Cyborg, Alien-slug, Fast/Virus, Philosophical, Nazi) and we approached the material from that perspective.  This would make the experience of the course way different from what it is now, and give me some variety in film selection and approaches.  Other kinds of zombie films to think about:

  • Cabins in the woods
  • Splatterhorror
  • Meta
  • Humor

I think I will probably re-organize the class under this new structure next year, to get a bit of variety into the experience for myself, and try out a different order of films, etc.  Plus, then we can include the Thing.


Are You Ready for a Zombie Attack?

Today marks the end of the first week of my annual horror j-session class, Zombies in Popular Media.  A few thoughts:

  • This year brings another good mix of students with varying experience in zombie media.  As far as I can tell, though, I have no zombie fanatics.  Most years I’ve had at least one person who’s already seen nearly everything we’re going to watch — not this year.
  • The cold weather has kept things a little subdued — at least on Wednesday it did — a third of the class wasn’t able to lurch in that first day of the cold snap.
  • I’m using a new academic book that’s presenting some different takes on the genre, and a new collection (as always).  But right now, I’m holding to the screening list from last year.  After eight years, it’s been honed to a fine point, so any alterations need to really be better than the thing they’re replacing, and so far I’ve not found any. BOOM.
  • An an indicator of just how broad the genre has gotten, I had NO overlap in the requests for presentation choices this year — everybody had different things they wanted to present on.  Huzzah!
  • Once again, Carnival of Souls provides surprisingly rich fodder for class discussion.  Today is our discussion of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and screening of Dawn of the Dead.  So that will be awesome.

And we lurch into the weekend!

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: End of the semester grading

Note: I’ll be taking a break from the Dispatches from the Age of Electracy series until after the new year.

An interesting conversation opened up on Facebook last week about grading.  The OP asked “Hypothetically, what should I say to a student who’s unhappy about getting 91/100?”

Grading Conversation Original Post
(click ‘read more’ below to see the full conversation)

The comments were varied and interesting, from snarky answers that few teachers would actually say aloud to serious answers about how to assuage or rebuff the student’s concerns.  But while the two tones seem strikingly different, I would suggest most instructors fall in the middle regarding their attitude about students, grading, and the nuances of it.

  • Frustration with minor grievances – it’s really frustrating when students fixate on small grade grievances.  Boy howdy, I know it is.  But where we see ‘just one assignment,’ some students put a lot of stock or interest or faith.  Plus, they only see one of the assignment, rather than the 20 (or 80) we have.
  • Grading is a weird piece of job performance because it’s very subjective (CAVEAT: I’m writing here about subjectively graded assignments, judgments of quality rather than accuracy.).  Teachers build an instinctual “I know it when I see it” meter that allows us to assess quality of projects quickly, but then we have to, you know, explain the grades.  It’s the gap between the assessment and the explanation that’s at discussion here.  And when the difference between two projects comes down to “good but not great,” that’s a hard line to explain or help a student understand how to improve.
  • That said, even adding in a helping of excuse for the caustic space of the Internet, I find the dismissive tone of some of these comments pretty harsh.  It’s easy, as a teacher, to lose empathy for the student and their efforts to understand grades and grading.  And as instructors, we sometimes forget the power this evaluative tool has for our students, and the weight with which the hammer comes down.

And, I think, many of these effects are amplified by Electracy.  The shifting nature of knowledge acquisition and learning means many of the values and relationships between teacher and student are changing, have changed, and will change; these changes manifest, in some ways, on the grading page.  A few thoughts about this:

  • The shift from “Sage on the Stage” to “Guide on the Side” models of teaching recognize that the modern teacher’s role is to facilitate exploration of the subject as an expert.  I’ve written before that what we’re selling in modern higher education is not knowledge, it’s time with someone who understands the field and is good at explaining it.  The grade itself becomes less important because we’re less important as arbiters of correctness or validity alone.  Instead, it’s our ability to explain why the student’s work earned a particular grade that makes us more valuable than Wikipedia.
  • The flattening of hierarchies urges us to be more approachable and urges students to see us that way.  This alteration of relationship (admittedly, this may be a very subjective point) makes it easier for students to discuss and question their grades than they might have before.  The open lines of communication between student and instructor also facilitate this kind of conversation.  I suspect the professor who decided she’d no longer accept emails was, in part, motivated by the idea that if the problem isn’t big enough to come in to discuss, it’s not important enough to discuss at all.  I’d interpret things a different way.
  • Electronic grading also opens up the system, making it visible to students in ways it just wasn’t when grades were kept entirely on paper.  In the past, students couldn’t really “keep track” of their grade.  The professor could do so, but wasn’t really accountable to students if they didn’t.  Now, with electronic grade books, students expect that grades will be updated and up-to-date, and professors have a reasonable obligation to maintain that visibility.  At the same time, students acquire an obligation to manage their own grade.  If something is a surprise, it’s not our fault.

In these contexts, we’ve come to see a more nuanced idea of grading.  It’s not an arbiter of quality alone, it’s an assessment of achievement.  We use rubrics to communicate our expectations and we evaluate using those guidelines.  There’s still plenty of fuzzy subjectivity in our grading, but the onus is on us to explain ourselves, and then on the students to take more responsibility for the process.


Continue reading Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: End of the semester grading

The Stair Method…

Classes are done.  Now it’s just grading.

and grading.

and did I mention grading?

The only time I dislike using all electronic project and paper submission is that it doesn’t give me this way out:

Stair Method of Grading
Photo cc-licensed by Sage Ross

See the Stair Method for more on this precise and detailed grading model.


Thoughts on the first week of class

We got new directory portraits taken last week.

photo by Jacob Boll courtesy of Columbia College Chicago

I have two classes this semester: The Rhetoric of Digital Media and Literary Genres: Detective Fiction.  Here are a few thoughts on the first week:

  • My opening spiel for the Digital Media class had to be tuned somewhat, since I used to start the class (formerly called “Writing for New Media”) by saying “This course would be better called “The Rhetoric of New Media.”  Instead, I just apologized in advance for any time I forget to use its new name.
  • Of the fifteen or sixteen people in the Digital Media class, only five had Twitter accounts (or would admit that they did).  So we probably won’t use Twitter much.
  • The Detective Fiction class had a great variety of students interested in Detective stories from many angles.  We spent a long time in the introductions phase of the first day, but I managed to organically introduce elements of the course orientation that would otherwise have been delivered as a lecture later.  Hoo-rah.
  • We also already got into a discussion of the genre vs literary fiction divide, as one of the students commented that the mass-market paperback I ordered looked like something he’d see in a grocery store at the checkout.  “It probably is, was my reply.”
  • In each class, I have at least one student whom I’ve had in previous classes.  This is always fun, as it suggests my classes are good enough to try taking another one. YAY.

Off to a good start.  The ride begins again!

The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century

Best American Mystery StoriesThe Best American Mystery Stories of the Century
Edited by Tony Hillerman and Otto Penzler

I don’t envy anyone tasked with assembling a book like this.  You’d want to be original, but you couldn’t skip the best things.  You’d need to hit many of the major figures while not ignoring minor gems.  You’d want to hit every flavor and node.

Hillerman and Penzler did a fine job, selecting many moving and startling stories for the collection.  Several made me laugh, some made me shiver, some stayed with me for days.  At the same time, some seem out of place for tone, others for content.  Rather than discuss every story (there are 46, after all), I’ll list my five favorite and the five most out of place.

Let’s start with the out-of-place ones:

  • “The Comforts of Home”  – Flannery O’Connor is a stark story, but isn’t strictly a mystery, nor is it pleasant
  • “Do with Me What You Will” by Joyce Carol Oates feels too ham-handed– a story about something instead of being a story that makes you think about something
  • “First Offense” by Evan Hunter has the same problem — it’s too “on the nose”
  • “An Error in Chemistry” by William Faulkner – tries to be a clever mystery but falls flat. It’s also written in a confusing way, revealing details in the wrong order.
  • “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather feels like a rambling story that isn’t really a mystery at all.

The five best stories. I’d like to be clear — there are many great stories in this collection.  I’d have no trouble assembling a list of 10 instead of five.  But five will do:

  • “The Dark Snow” by Brendan DuBois seethes with the daily torments of modern life, and challenges the reader to rethink easy dichotomies of good and evil.
  • “The Terrapin” by Patricia Highsmith is perhaps the most horrifying story of the book, followed in a close second by Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”
  • “The Catbird Seat” by James Thurber still holds as one of my favorite stories ever. A tale of petty bureaucracy and orderliness.
  • “A Jury of her Peers” by Susan Glaspell brings the early 20th century feminism into bright relief, and works wonderfully.
  • “The Moment of Decision” by Stanley Ellin prods our conscience, asking how we’d act if a harrowing moment presented itself.

Overall, a very good read.  The anthology takes a pretty broad view of what a “mystery” is, but it can be forgiving since this broad definition yielded so many gems.
Get your own copy from Amazon.

Six points for a blogging class

Friday Cat Blogging
Friday Cat Blogging, Hurry (by cobalt123)

I’m speaking in a class about blogging today, and feeling a bit out of my depth.  Sure, I’m a blogger. Sure, I’ve been keeping this blog for nearly a decade.  But I don’t make a living at it.  And if you’re a regular reader, you know that my ability to update regularly is spotty at best.  That said, here are my five bullet points to present to today:

1. Tie in your social media – use your blog as an archive (see below)

1.b. – Self promotion is okay, esp if you acknowledge the awkwardness of it

2. Remember the long tail – a well-crafted post can keep bringing back people

2.b. – consider ancillary visits

2.c – Targeted titles for specific purposes – a good title will bring in the nerds

3. Use regular features to spur your content making – for me: book reviews, movie doubles, comics/music roundups, book covers

4. Ebb and Flow – if this isn’t your primary thing, a natural ebb and flow in content will occur.  Don’t let an ebb become a death.

5. Good ethos via good IP practices – quote excerpts, use images you have permission to use, etc etc

We’re surrounded!: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 4

This is the fourth in a four-part blog series taking a snapshot of the current economic, political, and grammatological situation facing the modern American university system.  In part one, I provided a preface for this discussion.  Parts two, three, and four focus specifically on pressures from different quarters challenging us to re-imagine what it is we do.


In Parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series, I reflected on the challenges facing the institution of university education in the Age of Electracy.  Like the industries I explored in part 1, the University must reconceive its project if it is to survive in the new era, and more importantly, if it is to remain valuable to the students it educates.

What we are not:

One thing we need to consider is the way Electracy has changed what we do.  In the era of high literacy, we offered access to knowledge, both physically (with our tremendous storehouses of information) and mentally (by teaching the skills and offering pathways through that knowledge).  While the second half still holds somewhat, the first half has become increasingly irrelevant.  While our function as a museum might still hold in some way, that’s very different from being an institution of learning.  We are not a repository of knowledge.

In the past fifty years since the G.I. bill sent so many middle- and lower-middle class men to college, we have seen a significant rise in our credentialing function.  The past few decades have seen a cultural shift in which these degrees are, more than ever, gateways to basic middle class job opportunities.  As such, we’ve gotten into the business of authorizing entry into that class, but the value we purport to guarantee has not stayed consistent in the public’s mind.  More and more people see the degree not as an assemblage of learning but as a piece of paper that lets them apply for jobs.  As such, alternate (less expensive) forms of credentialing have emerged in place of our expensive credentialing.  We are not a credential granting body.

What we should do:

Those of us who value university learning understand that a good education means more than that piece of paper, it represents an array of skills and problem-solving abilities hard-won over the course of several years of study.  More and more, it’s crucial that we focus on providing students with those skills and helping them understand the skillsets they maintain.  As a professor in the humanities, this challenges me because our skill tools are difficult to measure and slow to emerge.  We hear from students how the work they do with us comes back in a year or two to augment their later work with others.  But we need to think about how to frame the education we do through the public utilitarian lens.  I’m not suggesting that we move toward quantifying our output, but that an articulated sense of the practical results students gain from working with us is valuable and important.

We need to continue jettisoning the antiquated idea of the professor as distant lecturer/expert or imparter-of-sacred-knowledge.  The aspect of our work that does not scale up is the personal, the individual attention to personal learning and guidance with an expert.  It’s in this guise that I think we offer the best learning to our students and the means by which we transition toward an Electrate model of education.

Finally, we need to reconsider how we take advantage of intrinsic motivation across the whole of the student experience.  It’s cliche to say we need to revise the very basic premises on which we educate students in this country, but as an instructor I feel strongly that we must do just that.

We have a long way to go, but I think the fact that so many smart people are already thinking about this stuff (see part 1 for my inspirations/ sources/ informants) is a very encouraging situation.

It will never get harder to copy things: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 3

This is the third in a four-part blog series taking a snapshot of the current economic, political, and grammatological situation facing the modern American university system.  In part one, I provided a preface for this discussion.  Parts two, three, and four focus specifically on pressures from different quarters challenging us to re-imagine what it is we do.


Monkey with glasses
I couldn’t think of a good image to accompany this post, so here’s a monkey with glasses.

In Part 1 of this series, I offered as object lessons service industries that saw significant upheaval in the Age of Electracy.  In Part 2, I suggested that universities face significant challenges from “above” because of the changing shape of public opinion.  These factors don’t correlate very closely with what happened to travel agents or stock brokers.  By contrast, the rising forces of competition certainly analogize closely.

At its heart, the University faces the same problem Travel Agents and Stock Brokers faced — a shift from information scarcity to information abundance and the emergence of technologies that automate (or scale, at least) key parts of our business model.  I’ll write a bit about three pressures we face, each of which has emerged significantly because of the digital age and each of which challenges our conception of who we are and what we do for students.

1. Lectures, information, and syllabi

For many subjects and much of the history of university study, college professors imparted knowledge to students via what Paolo Freire famously called the “banking model.”  We dispense knowledge via lectures and books, the students store that knowledge in their memory, and deposit it back on tests.  Hopefully some of it sticks.  This model worked for many reasons — first, knowledge itself was relatively rare, and the means to sort it were difficult to find and not easily copied.  Second, the expert who understands and can dispense that knowledge was even more rare, and he (or she, but usually he) could only be reached via classrooms and visits to musty offices.

The internet has, I’m afraid, disrupted that scarcity.  Information is no longer rare.  It’s getting easier to find and index every moment, and smart agents, search engines, and widely available tools mean that less and less do professors hold monopolies on what information is best nor do we limit how it can be accessed.  On top of that, with easy-to-distribute digital recordings, our dispensation of that knowledge need not be rare either.  A lecture given once is no longer ephemeral, but can be captured and placed online where it can be viewed in perpetuity.

As a result, the lecture model of instruction in face-to-face classrooms has dropped out of favor as professors and students alike come to recognize that such one-way interaction does not necessarily make the best use of synchronous classroom time.  For professors rooted in the older culture, though, this challenges us to think about what we ought to be doing.

2. Convenience

It’s become very clear to nearly every professional working in higher education that students want more online offerings available for their study.  They like the convenience, the flexible schedule, and perhaps the ability to thrive under their own intrinsic motivations.

Marginal outfits and for profit schools like Phoenix University colonized a lot of this landscape early, and many traditional universities were slow to join the bandwagon.  And when they do, they often misunderstand such offerings as an economic boon, a way to eschew the ghastly overhead that makes face-to-face classes expensive to offer.

But as brick and mortar universities work to understand the role online offerings should take in their larger environment, many students are opting for those other institutions, and suddenly there’s competition in the marketplace from these venues.

3. Credentialling

The one place traditional universities still hold a strong lead is in credentialling, the purpose for which much of the external world understands us to exist.  By giving someone a degree, we certify that they know what they’re doing, and our reputation as an educational institution (as well as our certification from the credentialling bodies) means that employers and other interested parties can quickly grasp the value of our offerings and our graduates.

But it would be a mistake to imagine that this monopoly will hold for much longer.  As offerings diversify, credentialling will do so as well.  Already, formal networks like LinkedIn allow for users to certify other users, a practice that doesn’t carry much weight now but could easily do so in the future.  Programs like Badges (the idea of earning a mini-certification in a specific skill based on free or open coursework) and initiatives like MOOCs mean that more and more, people will seek alternate means to certify their competence in many fields of endeavor.

These three factors all heavily influence the reasons students choose (or choose NOT) to attend our institutions.  As the costs continue to rise (which they will inevitably do), information abundance, online offerings, and diversified credential schemes will hack away at the underbelly of academia, a surface made weak by our centuries-old monopoly on the training of the middle and upper classes.

In part four, I will explore a bit about what I think we need to do, as educators concerned with the future of higher education, to transition our institutions to meet the needs of the Electrate public.

Read more: We’re surrounded!: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 4

Death from Above: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 2

Battletech mech jumping on another mech
“Battletech Stompin” image borrowed from Operation Bulldog

This is the second in a four-part blog series taking a snapshot of the current economic, political, and grammatological situation facing the modern American university system.  In part one, I provided a preface for this discussion.  Parts two, three, and four focus specifically on pressures from different quarters challenging us to re-imagine what it is we do.



Part 2

Lessons learned from big jumping robots

When I was in high school, my pals and I enjoyed a brief stint playing the tabletop roleplaying game Battletech, a game whose plot involved large, heavily-weaponed robots (“mechs”) shooting at one another.  I became particularly enamored of a maneuver in the rulebook called “Death from Above,” in which a player’s mech jumps on another player’s mech, rendering lots of damage to the head and shoulders of the victim and simultaneously receiving lots of damage to the attacker’s legs.

It’s a tricky move to pull off in the mechanics of the game, and generally not very productive for the attacker.  But despite the Pyrrhic aspect of the attack, it was darn satisfying to perform.  There was delight for my teenage self in the image of my robot jumping through the air and stomping on another robot.  My own security be damned.


David Anderegg’s book makes a cogent case that the way our society talks about smart people damages children.  At the core of his argument is the American anti-intellectual streak, which he traces all the way back to Washington Irving and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  Sleepy Hollow is, at its core, a story about teaching nerds to mind their place in the pecking order.

One of the more obvious ways this translates to modern American attitudes is a contempt for education as a public entity.  The last fifty years have seen us resting on our laurels regarding our educational apparatus, funding it at barely-breathing levels in poor districts and eroding funding for higher ed as the rhetoric has shifted from “let’s all pitch in to beat the Russians” to “college will help individuals get better jobs.”  Individuals ought not get government handouts.

My feelings about education are that we need much, much more spending.  Sam from The West Wing put it this way in the season one, ep ‘Six Meetings Before Lunch’:

Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six figure salaries. Schools should be extremely expensive for governments and absolutely free of charge for its citizens just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured how to do it yet.

But this series isn’t about how the forces assailing universities ought to change, it’s just meant to set the stage for understanding those forces, as I see them.

Research or die

The failing funding from above drives universities toward certain kinds of money: grants and donations.  Donations drive the uneconomic support of large scale sports programs, while grants encourage a rapacious fever for grant money that rarely returns focus to the students to whom we purportedly owe our purpose.

Alas, there aren’t a lot of things colleges and universities can do to stop the pressure/hemorrhage from above.  Barring a shocking change in the American attitude toward higher ed, we’re unlikely to see public support for college increasing any time soon, so colleges best re-think how they do business with the same attitude that most workers of my generation have about social security–it’s a nice idea, but we doubt it will be there for us.

Death from Above

Accusatory monkey
Accusatory monkey

My initial discussion was apt, I think, because it highlights the particularly gruesome aspect that our failing funding for education on all levels (including higher ed) presents for us.  For the people that disdain public funding of anything, and for the people who rail against universities for all their drinking at the “Big Government” teat, the reduced funding and failing systems feel like victory.  “See,” they snarl, pointing like that monkey in Family Guy, “education is screwed! We’d best jump ship now.”  But like the robot jumping on another robot, they ignore the damage they do to themselves.  In this case, they don’t see the society around them, where our lead or even our competitiveness are fast falling behind the other first-world countries and rising countries from other parts of the world.  And instead of crying that we’ve got a national emergency and pumping money into the education system in massive boluses, they bemoan its death and revel in their own victory, inured to the leg-armor falling to the ground all around them.

Read more: It will never get harder to copy things: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 3


The Ghosts of Travel Agents: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 1

The Ghost of Industries Past
The Ghost of Industries Past

This is the first in a four-part blog series taking a snapshot of the current economic, political, and grammatological situation facing the modern American university system.  In parts two, three, and four, I will focus specifically on pressures from different quarters challenging us to re-imagine what it is we do.  This part serves as a preface and setup for the following posts (which will probably appear once a week).

A note on influences, citations, ideas

Instead of trying to tease out the who, where, and how I got some of the ideas in this piece, I will up-front acknowledge that this is a melange of thoughts from my reading and from around the web, influenced by the following (among others): Clay Shirky, Steven Johnson, Marshall McLuhan, Lawrence Lessig, Donald Norman, Greg Ulmer, Katherine Hayles, Jeff Rice, Steve Krause, Alex Reid, Bradley Dilger, and BoingBoing. Apologies up-front to those I’ve borrowed from but not cited here.

Setting the stage

If you aren’t a regular reader of my blog (or you show up just for the monthly music round ups), you may want to peruse the following posts to set your personal stage for the coming discussion:

The Ghosts of Travel Agents Past

“I am here tonight to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate.  A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.”

“You were always a good friend to me.  Thank’ee!”

“You will be haunted by Three Spirits.”

“Is that the chance and hope you mentioned, Jacob? I — I think I’d rather not.”

“Without their visits, you cannot hope to shun the path I tread.  Expect the first to-morrow night, when the bell tolls One.  Expect the second on the next night at the same hour.  The third, upon the next night, when the last stroke of Twelve has ceased to vibrate.  Look to see me no more; and look that, for your own sake, you remember what has passed between us!”

It walked backward from him; and at every Step it took, the window raised itself a little, so that, when the apparition reached it, it was wide open.

Scrooge closed the window, and examined the door by which the Ghost had entered.  It was double-locked, as he had locked it with his own hands, and the bolts were undisturbed.  Scrooge tried to say, “Humbug!” but stopped at the first syllable.  And being, from the emotion he had undergone, or the fatigues of the day, or his glimpse of the invisible world, or the dull conversation of the Ghost, or the lateness of the hour, much in need of repose, he went straight to bed, without undressing, and fell asleep on the instant.

How will the rising age of Electracy affect the university? We inhabit a system built on models of learning and information exchange as practiced in the Literate era.  While we like to imagine ourselves as exploring and building on the lessons of contemporary media, we come up very short, to my mind.  As we develop more and more rigorous ways to digitize pieces of our former workload, universities must re-examine what it is we do and how we understand our relationship to the economies of knowledge and MONEY.  Consider these spirits from the past:

  • Travel agents – This used to be a profession built on booking plane tickets for people.  The Internet destroyed it.  The individuals who survived the Internet Tsunami did so as vacation planners, demonstrating their ability to sort from among vacation choices and providing value by doing that sorting work for people.
  • Stock brokers – This used to be a profession built on registering trades for people.  The Internet destroyed it.  The individuals who survived the Internet Tsunami did so as financial planners, demonstrating their ability to sort from among investment choices and providing value by doing that sorting work for people.
  • Real Estate Agents – This used to be a profession built on listing and finding homes for people.  The Internet destroyed it.  The individuals who survived the Internet Tsunami did so as “full service realtors,” demonstrating their ability to make homes saleable through staging, clever marketing, and aggressive foot leather, then doing that work for people.

How does this scenario translate for the university?

  • University – This used to be a profession built on credentialing and providing information to people.*  The Internet will destroy it.  The institutions who survive the Internet Tsunami will do so as what? We need to demonstrate our ability to help people become effective economic participants in the 21st century economy, able to wield modern information systems skillfully and do that work for people.

Electracy demands a different kind of student, a different kind of educator, and a different institution to house them.  Let’s hope we build find it before the water gets too high.

Read more: Death from Above: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 2



Pile of papers and books
“What a mess” by pst (cc licensed)

Grading grading grading grading

grading grading grading.

Grading grading.



Grading grading grading.

Teaching as extreme improvisation

RadioLab’s recent short, TJ and Dave, focuses on two actors whose show consists of a 50-minute improvisation with no groundwork set to start it.  Here’s the story, in case you think it sounds neat.

As they talked about the experience, the actors discuss the joy of being in the place, of letting the work guide them and following their instincts about what to say.  As I listened, it occurred to me that their method is, for better or worse, a big part of how I teach.I prepare each class with a set of discussion ideas and objectives, usually more than we would have time to cover, with the idea that we will do as much as we can.  But I’ve also become attuned to the interplay of ideas that flows when interested people get together and share ideas.  As a result, it’s not uncommon for me to have one or two classes per course that use roughly half their time on something outside what was on the syllabus for the day. Part of me cringes when I reflect back on those days, as the rule-following responsible guy says we didn’t do much to advance the course-specific learning goals at that time.  But another part of me believes strongly in the larger intellectual and philosophical goals at the heart of liberal arts education — thoughtful inquiry and shared exploration of ideas.  I also love letting curiosity run wild, of seeing where interest takes us and what topics will emerge.I wonder what a general course built around the TJ and Dave model would look like.  It might be an interesting thing to explore.


How to email about a problem

The Suitcase Letters by whistlepunch
The Suitcase Letters by whistlepunch

I’ve seen this from both sides within the last few days.  I’ll use my own example as the “questioner” and let you extrapolate.

When you email someone about a problem to be solved, you should include enough information that an additional exchange of emails is not necessary.  Here’s my example:

After Avery’s Girl Scout cookie order sheets had already been turned in, she had two more folks email us with orders.  I wanted to see if we could still get them added to her sheet.  Here’s the email I composed:

Hello [Cookie Mom],

We just had two more orders come in.  Is it too late to add them to Avery’s order sheet?


Fortunately, I reread the email before I sent it.  Do you see what the error is there?  If it is NOT too late to add them, the best Cookie Mom can do is email me back and ask for the orders to add.  This means we need to exchange at least two more messages to solve the problem.  So on noticing this, I rewrote:

Hello [Cookie Mom],

We just had two more orders come in.  Is it too late to add them to Avery’s order sheet?

John Doe – 3 boxes Thin Mints
Jane Doe – 2 boxes Trefoils


See the difference?  By including the info Cookie Mom would have needed to solve the problem I was inquiring about, I saved us a lot of time.

So when you write an email to ask about a problem, think about what responses the person might give, and anticipate what information they will need to move the issue forward as far as possible based on your single email.

Thus ends the lesson.

Highlights from the first day of class

Robin on a branch
Sure Sign of Spring by blmiers2

The first day of Spring semester went well.  I think I managed to bring the right level of enthusiasm and interest to the class while simultaneously doing enough intellectual work on the first day to develop an idea for the students of what we’ll do in the course.   A few words about my teaching persona:

  • I tell students that I see the first day of a course as a kind of audition–I’m auditioning to be their instructor.  This helps remind them of the essential ownership they must have of their education.  It’s not a given that they will take my class, even at this late date.  They must decide to take it, to engage with the work I’m giving them to do.
  • I use meta-teaching language a lot.  I don’t just tell them what we’re doing, I tell them why we’re doing it.  For instance, we play a silly get-to-know-you game in each of my classes, and I explain to them exactly why we play it — the idea is to start developing community so that later, when I’m asking them to read and comment on one-anothers’ writing, they know and feel comfortable with one another.
  • I also have every class I teach do a ten minute focused free write on some topic.  Often this provides the starting point from which we launch our first discussion, but it also gives me a chance to spend ten minutes learning their names.  While they write, I go round and round the room, pointing at people and saying their names in my head.  I use mnemonics when necessary, but usually I just try to focus on their faces and associate them with the names.

I start each semester worried that perhaps I’ve lost it, that I’m too old now and what was hip before has become pathetic reaching for a cheap laugh.  This hasn’t come to be true yet, but could any year.  Fortunately, I’ve managed to fool them one more time.  Mwa ha ha.

Oh, I suppose you’d like to know: this semester I’m teaching “Writing for New Media” and “Honors Writing and Rhetoric 2.”