Logging blogging (and other things, too)

One of the challenges of asking students to do a lot of online work—this semester I’ve asked my ENGL 340 students to blog, tweet, post to online forums, and leave marginal comments on Walden—is keeping track of all that activity. I don’t use myCourses—all the work is on open platforms like Twitter and WordPress—so I don’t get automatic analytics about the activity. A solution I’ve devised that seems to be working pretty well is to ask them to log this activity themselves and share it with me in a Google spreadsheet.

This semester, I’ve asked each student to maintain an independent spreadsheet. For each activity, they log the date it was completed and the URL where I can find their work. That’s been a big help—but not as much of a help as it might have been. Next time around, I’ll create a Google form that they can all go to in order to log this activity. That way I’ll only have to visit a single spreadsheet to view their activity, and I’ll be able to sort by student, activity, date, or URL.

I also keep track of my students’ tweets using IFTTT—but that’s a story for another day.

One last thing I’ve recently been tracking in a spreadsheet is attendance. I’ve never taken attendance in my classes after the first few meetings. It uses valuable time, and it just feels too much like K-12. But I’ve always worried that not taking attendance sends my students the message that I don’t really care whether they show up. And although I can’t prove it (having intentionally denied myself the data), I’m pretty certain that my attendance has suffered as a result.

Last semester I hit on the idea of creating a spreadsheet at the beginning of the semester that’s shared with everyone in the class. I called it “Who’s here?” and put the students’ names in the leftmost column. In each successive column to the right goes the date of a class meeting. The first thing I do in every class meeting is open this file on my own computer, projecting it on the screen at the front of the room. I ask students to put an “X” in the box where their row meets that day’s date. The bottom row automatically sums the results. As the semester rolls along, the whole class can see the general pattern of attendance (which, by the way, seems to me much more consistent—and high—than in the past). Attendance doesn’t count as part of their grade, but the exercise simply focuses everyone, briefly, at the beginning of each class, on the question of presence. Who’s here? Who’s not? The pattern of X’s tells a quick and graphic story.

Though there’s no credit attached to this accounting, it seems to make students more accountable. I’m impressed by how consistent they are in “checking themselves in” at the start of each class. In fact, if I’m a few minutes late, I invariably find that a student has created the new column for that day, heading it up with the date, and that many students have already indicated their presence.

An Innovation

We’ve talked a lot in Metagogy about the “porous classroom” (leaky, Ken Cooper quipped) and getting students to work on critical sources, following last year’s assessment. So my innovation for this year offers a way to combine this with group work that hopefully gets all groups paying attention to one another.

One challenge of my ENGL458 Major Authors class has been that M. NourbeSe Philip is a writer not well known to the students and, more crucially, exists within several literary and cultural contexts with which students have varying degrees of familiarity: Canadian writing, experimental writing, Caribbean studies, Black studies, feminist writing, Afrosporic writing, (poetry, even). How to get students informed enough to respond to the literary texts, without the course ceasing to be about the texts?

I’ve frequently created a two-page handout with four paragraphs on it, two front, two back: excerpts from four different essays discussing topics relevant to the literary text at hand, but not directly about it. Students split into groups to discuss and summarize their paragraph. Then they have to apply the paragraph to a specific moment in whichever text by Philip we’re reading. They present both elements to the whole class; the exercise takes about 25 minutes, and means that we’ve got four perspectives into the discussion, with some students choosing to follow-up on the essays excerpted in later writing or presentations.