Teaching Failure and Recording My Own Failures

One of my classes this semester focuses on helping peer writing center consultants frame their tutoring experience in job and grad school application materials and interviews. With COVID-19 looming over everything this semester, making job markets and grad school prospects even more uncertain than usual, and my students extremely anxious about the future, I ended up changing the plan for the last class meeting. Normally, students deliver Pecha Kucha talks about how their writing center experience helped prepare them for the future. This semester, that seemed like a fantastical exercise, so we focused on failure instead.

That may sound really grim, but in fact, students and I left class feeling much lighter. Talking about our failures and what we learned from them, admitting that some failures aren’t really learning experiences, and acknowledging failure as a normal part of any person’s life felt very affirming for us.

I’ve been a fan of normalizing failure for years, including failure as a topic in the textbook I co-authored with Amy Braziller and posting on social media about rejections. I’ve had students read and write CVs of failure (also called shadow CVs). But I’ve never gotten around to writing my own CV of failure, and at this point, I’ve had so many failures that I can’t remember them all.

So I’ll do the next best thing. I’ll start recording my failures here today. Expect this page to be updated regularly.

Failures beginning May 2020

(the list is empty only temporarily, I promise!)

What place does grading rigor have during COVID-19?

My own grading practices have shifted quite a bit over the past few years toward what seems to be now called “compassionate grading,” which aims to eliminate less important assignments, allow students flexible deadlines, and provide more support for students to meet learning outcomes. I’ve seen “compassionate grading” recommended as a response to the sudden shift to online learning, but I wonder why anyone would practice non-compassionate grading, regardless of whether we are experiencing a pandemic. How is a lack of compassion equal to rigor? Is lack of compassion a teaching strategy?

When my classes suddenly became online courses in March, I emailed all my students and told them that if they were already passing the class, even if they didn’t turn in anything else for the whole semester, they would pass the class. I wondered how many students would simply stop submitting work, especially as many of them now had children at home with then 24/7, loved ones diagnosed with and dying from COVID-19, drastically reduced or increased work hours, and other intense stressors.

I also told them that my standards for what constituted a better-than-passing grade had just become more flexible.

With one week left in the semester, I can report an astonishing statistic: less than 5% of my students stopped turning in work, and the few who did all contacted me on their own accord to apologize and promise that work would be turned in before the end of the semester. That means more than 95% of my students, when told they would pass a class even if they turned in nothing more, continued to turn in work.

I’m halfway through reading their final projects, and damn, they’re good. As good as final projects from any other semester. This means that even with me announcing that it would be easier to get a B or an A, my students have not turned in work that is of lower quality than what I typically see. This seems like compelling evidence for more compassionate grading overall.

I think a lot of talk about grading rigor is code for enforcing white ableist standards of what academic success looks like, and it often goes way beyond evaluating the quality of work turned in. If you’re really looking at the quality of work turned in, why take off a point for every “error” (lots of research indicates that what we recognize as an error is often connected to our perception of whether the writer is white or not)? Why factor in whether the assignment was turned in on your timeline? Why penalize students who don’t know what office hours are for? Why dictate the genre an assignment must be written in? Why give extra credit for going to the writing center?

Grading is my least favorite aspect of teaching. I can read and respond to student work all day long, but having to assign a grade to it seems so counter to everything my pedagogy is based on. I believe all grading is flawed in some way. A traditional grading system evaluates how much access to resources (time, energy, etc.) a student has as much as it measures how much a student has learned. Labor-based grade contracts and portfolios, which I have embraced, are better, but not perfect. There’s still no way that I’ve found to really control for differences in resource distribution.

But at the end of the teaching day, evaluating how much my students learned isn’t the most important part of my job. On some level, I have to blindly trust that they learned the important stuff, and if the semester ends with us on good terms, then even if they didn’t learn it, they’ll know they can reach out to me in the future, perhaps when they are in a better place to do that learning. (Yes, that has happened.) This is always true, but particularly now.

The Naylor Report on Undergraduate Research in Writing Studies is here!

I got my copy of The Naylor Report on Undergraduate Research in Writing Studies last week. A group of 43 UR mentors authored the text in less than a year and the resulting book is, I think, simultaneously visionary and pragmatic. I hope WPAs, writing center directors, English and writing department chairs, UR directors, and others in academia will read it, debate it, and use it to further their engagement with UR in writing studies.

My work as a mentor of students engaged in UR has been some of the most rewarding of my career. In this work, I usually begin by working side-by-side with an undergraduate, working collaboratively with them to formulate research questions, decide on research methods and methodologies, and go through the IRB process. I step back as they collect data, and then I teach them how to code and interpret the data. I act mostly as a sounding board as they work to make sense of their data. I then typically find myself in the audience as they present their work at a conference, joining along with others to recognize their achievement as scholars and knowledge contributors. Work done by undergraduates I have mentored has, in turn, influenced my own work as a scholar, teacher, and writing center director. For example, research conducted by Aubrey Baucum, Rachel Livingston, Harrison Murray, and Sierra Rakes about microaggressions in the MSU Denver Writing Center pushed me toward understanding the Writing Center I direct as a brave space rather than a safe one. Research conducted by Mateo Candelaria on power hierarchies in writing centers continues to inform my pedagogy and raise my awareness of my own performances of power at work.

My contribution to the book, “Undergraduate Research and Labor Practices in Writing Studies,” focuses on how many current models for UR in writing studies depend upon exploited labor, which limits both the experiences available to students engaging in UR and knowledge production in writing studies.

 

“storing my grain in the belly of my neighbor” as citizen, tenured faculty, & writing center director

I watched Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk, “It’s OK to Feel Overwhelmed. Here’s What to Do Next” this past weekend and found many useful reframings of the current situation and inspiring thoughts and advice. At the same time, I was troubled by how white it was, by virtue of it being the thoughts of a wealthy white woman, sitting in her beautiful home without having to worry about paying rent or entertaining/homeschooling children. Gilbert explicitly acknowledges her privilege, pointing out that she’s in a lucky position. I am not taking issue with her at all, or even with any of her advice; I’m just acknowledging that yeah, she is a privileged white woman giving advice that resonated with me, in part because, I, too, am a privileged white woman, and that I’m very uncomfortable with that.

And I think that acknowledging my privilege must also mean living with that discomfort, taking it on actively, inviting it to live in the foreground of my thinking rather than allowing it to recede into the background. This is different from feeling bad about it. Feeling bad about it doesn’t help anyone. Inviting it in lets me use it to guide my decision-making in a deliberate way. Here’s what that looked like today.

I begin each morning by reading that day’s entry in the Dalai Lama’s The Path to Tranquility: Daily Wisdom. The entry for today is

All the problems that every individual meets with in everyday life—famine, unemployment, delinquency, insecurity, psychological deviancy, various epidemics, drugs, madness, despair, terrorism—all that is bound up with the widening gap between people, which, needless to say, can also be found inside the rich countries.

Our ancient experience confirms it at every instant: everything is linked together, everything is inseparable. Consequently the gap has to be reduced.

With Gilbert’s talk on my mind, this entry reminded me of an Indian saying she highlights: “I store my grain in the belly of my neighbor.” Gilbert explains

Western, capitalistic society has taught and trained us to hoard long before this, long before this happened and people were hoarding toilet paper and canned goods. Advertising and the whole capitalist model has taught us scarcity, it’s taught us that you have to be surrounded by abundance in order to safe. The disconnect between those who have and those who have not has never been bigger, and never in my lifetime, and probably in any of our lifetimes, has there been an invitation, again, to release the stranglehold on your hoarding. This is not the time for hoarding. This is the time to store your grain in the belly of your neighbor, in a way that is emotionally sober and accurate to what you can give, and to look at that in a really honest way, to not put your own family in danger, to not put yourself in crisis, but to be able to say, “What can I offer in the immediacy?” And then, in the longer term, a conversation about redistribution of resources, and why do so few have so much and why do so many have so little?

As a financially secure citizen, “storing my grain in the belly of my neighbor” at this moment means making a donation to MSU Denver’s Student Emergency Fund, which is available to undocumented students, something very important to me given that Betsy DeVos has specified that undocumented students cannot get federal emergency aid.

As a tenured full professor with white privilege, it means advocating for colleagues in contingent positions. Today specifically it meant emailing one adjunct instructor to ask how they are doing and how I can support them. In the longer term it means continuing to speak out against inequitable labor conditions and exploring funding a professional development program for first year writing instructors on my campus.

As a writing center director, it means forming collaborations with other offices on campus to pool funding rather than compete for funding. Gilbert mentions “unleash[ing] the white-knuckled grip that I have on what’s mine and make sure that I’m going into the world with an open hand.” The next fiscal year is predicted to be quite grim, and I suspect I will want to cling to whatever bit of funding the writing center gets. I want to resist that urge and look for ways to share our funding with other campus offices.

 

Creating a Default Schedule

scheduleOne of the keys to my productivity (and avoiding procrastination) is to schedule things during a time of day when I have an appropriate amount of energy. I try to do things that require a high amount of concentration in the morning, when I have more energy and am naturally more focused, and things that require less concentration in afternoon, when I seem to naturally want to take a nap. I also work out in the morning, because that gives me the energy I need to get through the day.

The tricky part is working around things that I don’t have control over the scheduling of. My ideal schedule would have me get up, work out, write for an hour, read for an hour, work on whatever my most important task is (aside from writing) for 30-60 minutes, then shower and go to work. The reality is that I would have to get up at 2:30 in the morning to make that happen.

Here’s how I have figured out my fall daily schedule. I’ve listed everything I want or need to do on a regular basis that I control the scheduling of or at least have some input on. I’ve then indicated how much energy/concentration that task requires of me and then ranked everything by importance, with 1 being the most important and 11 being the least important. Finally, I’ve taken the energy/concentration level needed and importance level into account to determine when that task would ideally be scheduled. (I’ll write at some point in the future about assigning importance levels–I always want to give everything a 1 or 2 in the first round of doing this.)

task Energy/concentration level needed Importance level Ideal Schedule
Activism Low 7 P.M.
Bureaucratic stuff Low 11 P.M.
Email Low 9 P.M.
Meditate Low 8 P.M.
Meetings Medium 10 P.M.
Most Important Task High 3 A.M.
PT/doctor’s appointments Low 5 P.M.
Read (work-related) Very High 4 A.M.
Teaching prep Medium 6 P.M.
Work out Medium 1 A.M.
Write Very High 2 A.M.

So my ideal day would look like this:

A.M. – work out, write, read, most important task (MIT)
P.M. – meditate, teaching prep, meetings, bureaucratic stuff, activism, email, PT/doctor’s appointments

It’s unlikely that I would need to do all these things on any single day, so I can sketch out a daily schedule that combines some tasks so I can do whichever one most needs to be done on a particular day. Notice that I only do this for tasks that have lower importance levels or that I know don’t happen very often.  

A.M. Work out
A.M. Write
A.M. Read
A.M. MIT
P.M. Email
P.M. Meditate
P.M. Teaching prep or bureaucratic stuff
P.M. Activism
P.M. Meetings or PT/doctor’s appointments

Then I can come up with time allowances for each one. The concept of a time allowance is that you work on the assigned task for the amount of time allotted rather than until the task is completed. If the task isn’t done when the time is up, you just come back to that task the next time you have time allotted for it.

A.M. One hour Work out
A.M. One hour Write
A.M. 45 minutes Read
A.M. One hour MIT
P.M. 30 minutes Email
P.M. 15 minutes Meditate
P.M. One hour Teaching prep or bureaucratic stuff
P.M. 30 minutes Activism
P.M. 90 minutes Meetings or PT/doctor’s appointments

Then, using the schedule I sketched out above, I can plug in things like a commute, a shower, lunch, etc. and start figuring out what time things need to happen to accomodate the things that don’t have flexible times.

4:45 Wake up, make lunches
5:15 One hour Work out
6:15 One hour Write
7:15 Wake up daughter, walk dog
7:45 Take daughter to school
8:30 Shower, clean house
9:30 45 minutes Read
10:15 Commute
11:15 Get settled in at work
11:30 One hour MIT
12:30 30 minutes Email
1:00 15 minutes Meditate
1:15. One hour Teaching prep or bureaucratic stuff
2:15 30 minutes Activism
2:45 90 minutes Meetings or PT/doctor’s appointments or office hours
4:15 Commute or office hours
5:30 Get settled in at home or teach
6:00 Make dinner or teach
7 Dinner/family time or teach
8 Family time or teach
8:30 Family time or commute
9:30 Get ready for bed

This is now my default schedule. On days that I have something that isn’t a regular engagement, like going to hear a visiting speaker or working intensely on a bureaucratic report that has a tight deadline, I will deviate from this schedule, but 80% of the time, this is the schedule I’ll follow through the fall semester.

Use Your Energy Patterns to Be More Productive

lightbulbsOne of the biggest light bulb moments I’ve had in terms of scholarly productivity is that when I work on writing when I’m energized, things go better. This probably sounds obvious, but for years–ahem, I mean more than a decade–I tried to do my writing in the afternoon, the time recognized as nap time, coffee time, and slump time by most everyone, including me. Despite my strong daily desire to take a nap in the afternoon, I thought it made sense to plan to write in the afternoon. My reasoning was that by then I would have gotten all of my tasks for the day done and I’d have this delicious open period before me.

But most days, by the time 2 or 3 pm came, I did not have all of my tasks done, so I was grouchy, slumpy, nappy, and stressed out about being behind. I would then spend my “writing time” trying to catch up. Why did I not catch on to this insidious pattern after it had repeated itself thousands of times? Sigh. I don’t know for sure.

But one magical day, after my usual morning workout, which leaves me full of optimism and energy, instead of going straight to the shower, I sat down at my computer, and something amazing happened: I wrote for an hour straight with no trouble. I fell into the “zone” in which you lose track of time and just revel in your current activity. After this happened a few times in a row, I came up with a theory–if you write when you are energized, things will go well, and if you write when you are not energized, things will go not so well–and I decided to test it by keeping a log of my writing times and productivity for a few weeks, sometimes writing in the morning and sometimes writing (or attempting writing) in the afternoon. You can guess what my log revealed: yes, it was no fluke–when I wrote in the morning, when I was energized, I wrote more and it felt less like a chore; when I wrote in the afternoon, when I was not energized, I wrote very little and it felt like a huge burden.

Now I try to write as early in the morning as is possible, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Writing for 20 minutes at 6 a.m. results in more words for me than writing for 45 minutes at 4 p.m.

Now you may not be a morning person and perhaps your high energy time hits at 8 p.m. My advice is to then reconfigure your schedule so that you can write at 8 p.m. as often as possible. Whatever your high energy time is, that’s when you should write, and if your schedule doesn’t allow that, then figure out when your lowest energy time is and write as far away from that time as possible. (If you’re not sure when you have the most or least energy, try this.)

sleep hygiene for faculty

kittySleep hygiene is the official term for your sleep practices, including things like napping, what you do to wind down before bed, setting your bedtime and wake time, and what you eat or drink before bed.

I was not always a good sleeper, but for the past nine years I have been a champion sleeper, getting 7.5 hours of good quality sleep almost every night and waking up feeling refreshed.

I know that getting good quality sleep is not always within your control. My daughter did not sleep through the night until she was six, which means I did not sleep through the night for her first six years (which is why I am able to pinpoint with accuracy exactly how many years it’s been that I’ve been getting good quality sleep). In addition to caring for children or other loved ones, we might have health conditions, work schedules, and other circumstances that make it impossible to get high quality sleep on a regular basis. However, there are quite a few things you can control to help yourself get higher quality sleep.

After getting craptacular sleep for most of my life (the six years that my daughter wasn’t sleeping plus most of the years before that because of stress, depression, difficult work schedules, and frankly, terrible sleep hygiene), waking up feeling well-rested the last few years has been truly profound in improving my quality of life. For example,

  • I can think clearly most of the time.
  • I handle stress better.
  • It is easier to maintain a regular workout schedule.
  • I get more high quality work done on a regular basis without stress.
  • I procrastinate less.

Faculty tell me all the time that they didn’t get enough sleep because they were up late grading papers or doing research or reading or writing. My thought is that whatever it is they were doing was probably not done nearly as well as it would have been if they had gotten good quality sleep and then did that thing.

If you want to start getting higher quality sleep today, here is what I suggest:

  • Use an app or create a spreadsheet to track your bedtime, wake time, and how you feel for a few weeks to figure out how much sleep you actually need. I always thought I needed 8-9 hours a night, but when I tracked it, I found that I actually feel and perform best on 7.5 hours a night. I also learned that going to bed and getting up pretty early (to bed by 9:30 and up by 5) is best for me. (In a perfect world, I would go to bed at 8:30 and get up by 4, but I’ll be damned if I can get to bed by 8:30 most nights).
  • Once you figure out the sleep schedule that works best for you, try to stick to it every day of the week. I usually shift things later by about an hour on weekends, but on the weekends when I stick to my weekday sleep schedule, things go better.
  • Restrict alcohol and electronics in the hour before you go to bed. Metabolizing alcohol can cause you to wake up in the night and the evil glow of electronics can disrupt sleep cycles.
  • If you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes, take melatonin or get up for a few minutes to read. I find that on the rare occasions that I don’t fall asleep quickly, staying in bed stressing out about not getting enough sleep makes it even harder to fall asleep. The first time I tried this, I was amazed at how well it worked. I thought getting out of bed would “wake me up” more and make it harder to fall asleep, but when I came back to bed 15 minutes later, full of melatonin and having read some poetry, I fell asleep almost immediately.

Finally, it may help to remember that our students practice notoriously horrible sleep hygiene and we do them no favors when we talk about how unrested we are. Instead, we can model good sleep hygiene for them–and maybe even those colleagues who like to brag about how sleep-deprived they are.

The Tie-Breaker: Making Decisions about How to Spend Your Time

rock-scissors-paperIt’s common at a teaching institution to feel pulled in too many different directions by your job. Sometimes this pulling can actually be quantified. When I was hired, for example, I was told that 50% of my time should go to teaching, 30% to scholarship, 20% to service, and the remaining 50% to the Writing Center, which I direct. Do the math and you’ll see why I wondered whether the job was actually going to be any less work than the 6:6 load I had left at a community college. (The answer is no, it’s not less work!)

Other times the pulling comes from an embarrassment of riches, such as the year I was invited to participate on several time-intensive committees for causes I was deeply invested in. I had the option of saying no to any, even all, of the committees, but I truly wanted to participate and felt I had something to contribute to each one. I ended up joining two committees and saying no to one but wishing I could clone myself to serve on the third one, too.

Other times we feel pressure, either internal or external, to do more, whether it’s taking on another class, chairing a committee, mentoring another student, or something else. We can technically say no, but to do so might have consequences we’d rather not deal with (the class gets cancelled and the students are SOL, the committee ends up being chaired by someone disorganized, the student flounders without mentoring and ultimately drops out).

To help me prioritize in the situations in which I do have some degree of say, I have a simple system: I designate a specific area of my job to be the priority each semester. I have four areas of responsibility: teaching, service, scholarship, and the Writing Center. I choose one of those to be the priority area for fall and spring and two to be the priorities for summer. I don’t advertise which one is the priority for the semester, and I don’t use it as a justification to slack in the areas that aren’t priorities. This system simply helps me make decisions when I feel stretched too thin; for example, I want to return papers in tomorrow’s class and I am behind on a draft of an article. If it’s a teaching semester, I’ll prioritize responding to the papers; if it’s a scholarship semester, I’ll prioritize the article draft. This system basically acts as a tie-breaker for me.

It’s easiest to see how this system works by looking at four years’ worth of semesters. First, I make scholarship and the Writing Center my summer priorities, with scholarship getting the first half of the summer and the Writing Center getting the second half.

Fall Spring Summer
Year 1 scholarship and WC
Year 2 scholarship and WC
Year 3 scholarship and WC
Year 4 scholarship and WC

I make teaching the priority once every academic year, alternating between fall and spring so that the classes I routinely teach during a particular semester don’t get more or less attention than other courses.

Fall Spring Summer
Year 1 teaching scholarship and WC
Year 2 teaching scholarship and WC
Year 3 teaching scholarship and WC
Year 4 teaching scholarship and WC

Finally, I fill in the remaining semesters by alternating scholarship and the Writing Center, but balancing them between the semesters.

Fall Spring Summer
Year 1 teaching scholarship scholarship and WC
Year 2 WC teaching scholarship and WC
Year 3 teaching WC scholarship and WC
Year 4 scholarship teaching scholarship and WC

Earlier in my career, I alternated teaching with service and did a ton of service. More recently, I’ve become aware of how unevenly service is distributed by gender (see this and this) and made a conscious decision to put my time and energy elsewhere, thus the absence of service on the grid. Again, this doesn’t mean I don’t do service–it just means I don’t prioritize it.

So over the course of four years, teaching, scholarship, and the Writing Center each are the focus for four semesters.  

time breakdown for a typical week

laptop-coffeeMany discussions about doing research at a teaching institution break down into the kind of bickering and belittling evidenced in the comment thread on this Inside Higher Ed article.

So let me say from the outset, I teach writing and writing center theory and practice at an institution with a 4/4 load. I get a two-course release every semester to direct the Writing Center and I currently also have a one-course release every semester to coordinate a program. So I teach one course a semester and have, at least by my institution’s estimation, the equivalent of a 4/4 load.

(People have told me that the administrative work I get course releases for is “easier” than teaching, but interestingly, none of these people have done administrative work or if they have, they were not, in fact, able to publish more while doing it. I don’t think administrative work is easier than teaching, but it is different from teaching–a lot of it saps my energy much more than anything connected to teaching does.)

I have taught as many as seven courses a semester, back when I was adjuncting at two different community colleges. Seven writing courses/semester left no time for research. But I was teaching six courses/semester for most of the time that I was working on my Ph.D., so I know that for me, six grading-intensive courses/semester + research is possible, but it’s not preferable and I hope to never do it again. My point is not to say what is possible for you or anyone else, but simply to say that what is possible is a function of you, your circumstances in any given semester, what you are teaching, and what else you are juggling.

Here’s how I spend my work time in an average week during the semester:

  • writing center stuff (meetings, mentoring, planning, etc.) – 15-25 hours
  • teaching prep, including grading, and teaching – 8-13 hours
  • my own research and writing – 5-10 hours
  • service (committee meetings, prep, and follow up) – 5-7 hours
  • program coordination – 2-10 hours

There are weeks where my own research and writing get no attention, generally around midterm, when the Writing Center gets crazy, or heavy-grading times. (The times listed are based on what I found when I tracked my time for a few months using toggl.) What you see here is a typical week, but it’s not what every week looks like. 

I once told a brilliant and prolific scholar in my field that I envied how much she managed to publish on a regular basis and I asked her for advice. She said, “I don’t work out, I have no family, no pets, and my work is my life.” She went on to say that she was incredibly happy and loved her life. She didn’t miss workouts or pets or any of that, whereas I would miss them terribly if I didn’t have them. That conversation helped me feel some ownership over my choices–I have chosen to have a family. I have chosen to look only for jobs in Denver. I have chosen to stay at a teaching-focused institution. That doesn’t mean I am always happy with my choices, but in the grand scheme of things, I am.

Reducing time spent on teaching prep

clockfaceReducing the time you spend on teaching prep frees up time to put toward other things, like research or writing or family or whatever. Tonya Boza observes

I have been teaching at the university level for over a decade, and have learned that there is not a direct relationship between the numbers of hours you spend preparing for class and the quality of the class. Instead, after you reach a certain threshold, you receive greatly diminishing returns on your time investment into teaching. In fact, if you spend too much time preparing for class, it may end up not going so well because you have way too much information to share with students, and they (and you) end up feeling overwhelmed.

She then goes on to offer several “tips” for spending less time on teaching prep, my favorite of which is to lecture less. This tip in particular illustrates one of the most important benefits of spending less time on teaching prep: it often results in better teaching. Students generally learn more when they are interacting with the material, actively engaging with it, rather than sitting passively, listening to a lecture. Maryellen Weimer reviews some of the evidence that engaging students in activities is more effective as a teaching strategy than lecturing.

Recently, I participated in a webinar on reducing teaching prep time by Chavella Pittman. Pittman advocates that faculty schedule their teaching prep for 1-2 hours immediately before class; this is a surefire way to make sure you don’t spend too much time prepping. I usually schedule my office hours immediately before class, so I do most of my prep in the hour or so before my office hours start. I’ve also found that during class, while students are involved in group work, I can usually start sketching out the next class meeting.

One strategy I used to use quite a bit but don’t much anymore is having students, either individually or in pairs, facilitate discussions of readings. On paper, this looks like a great strategy and I have many colleagues who rely on the strategy and report good results. I have no doubt that it works really well for some faculty, but in my experience, the only way to ensure that the student-led discussions really get into the meat of a complex reading is to meet ahead of time with the student discussion leaders and spend as much or more time prepping them to lead the discussion. When I haven’t done this, the student-led discussion often turns into a lecture, and as I already said, lecture isn’t the greatest way for students to learn–whether it’s students doing the lecture or the instructor doing it. (I’m talking about undergraduate students–graduate students, particularly those with some teaching experience themselves, can probably handle discussion facilitation.)

This fall, I am going to try something new for me to start discussions. About ten minutes before class, I am going to hang several pieces of flipchart paper around the room, each with a different question about the reading, such as “which aspect of the argument did you find most challenging?” and “if the author could be here with us today, what would you ask her?” As students arrive, I’ll give them big post it notes to write their responses on and then stick on the appropriate flipchart page. I can then use the responses myself to facilitate discussion or divide the class into groups and have each group facilitate a discussion around the responses on one of the flipchart pages.

Here is the teaching prep routine I am going to work with this fall for each class meeting:

  1. Identify 2-3 learning goals for the class session.
  2. Review the assigned reading with those learning goals in mind, which will help me focus on what is important to “cover” about the readings.
  3. Come up with questions about the readings that support those learning goals to go on the flipchart paper.
  4. Figure out which content I need to lecture on. Check to see if there are any good videos, TED Talks, or visuals on the interwebs to integrate.
  5. Decide what kind of activity will be the main activity of the class meeting (I don’t want every class to feature the same activity), such as small group discussion, large group discussion, think-pair-share, freewrite and then share, roleplay, debate.