Tag Archives: teaching

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.

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.