On Public Course Blogs

Our recent Metagogy session – monthly reflections on the English Department’s pedagogical practices and aspirations – covered examples of digital pedagogy within and beyond the English Department. The public course blog and its sister space, the course website, was a particularly key topic. This post offers a summary of our thoughts, questions, and suggestions.

As Trevor Owens suggests in “The Public Course Blog: The Required Reading We Write Ourselves for the Course That Never Ends,” students’ blogging (alongside faculty) can have the potential to cross courses, transcend iterations of courses, and generate writing from interactions with assigned reading (the academic They Say, I Say conversation) that then becomes reading for other students present and future. Some of what we discovered/discussed:

1. Our blogging assessments demonstrate a variety in weighting and amount of instruction. Beth McCoy offers some really excellent wording on the need for regularity of blog posts which both helps students understand how they are being assessed and reminds them of the goals of the activity. Lytton Smith asks his students to post from a range of types of blog post, allowing them to pick those that best suit their current interests; he rewards commenting as well as posting. Steve West offers helpful, clear, and thorough instructions that combine the best of conventional targeted writing assignments with the possibilities of an online space.

2. The need to consider the public nature of these blogs is paramount. Beth McCoy draws her students’ attention to questions of privacy and students’ rights in her syllabus, using wording that is best practice for all of us. A post by Erin Koehler on the Contemporary Poem blog was recently reblogged by the children’s books/YA author, Tonia Allen Gould. It’s useful to remember that Google Alerts and other such tracking could lead students’ posts towards a public audience, in addition to interested parties actively finding course blogs.

3. The blog is not an end, but a means to an end: less a repository than a circulation library (or, if an archive, a living archive). Paul Schacht and Rob Doggett both offered ways to keep online postings in circulation, whether by tweeting out student work for attention beyond the course or by using student work from past courses as models for future courses.

4. The “course blog” might well transcend the course. One of the innovations of sunygeneseoenglish.org is the way blogs are attached to areas of study rather than restricted to individual courses, with titles such as Contemporary Poem, Nineteenth Century Studies, Nonfiction, Speculative Fiction, Digital Humanities. Over time, this means students are reading (and writing) alongside a wider range of peers. While this can present challenges in determining a reading audience, it offers exciting possibilities for inter-course and interdisciplinary work.

5. Course blogs are a specific technology which work best for specific practices and pedagogic goals. That is, non-public writing responses may at times be a better way to develop students’ ideas; private blogs, or sections of blogs, may allow for particular discussions (e.g. within groups); and Google Docs might offer an online, shared space which is not quite so public. We need to think about what sort of “public” we imagine when creating blogs and course websites, and how, why, and when we want our students within that public (or, more accurately, those publics).

References: Owens, Trevor. “The Public Course Blog: The Required Reading We Write Ourselves for the Course That Never Ends.” In Matthew K. Gold (Ed.). Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Digital Pedagogy in the English Department

Following our last Metagogy discussion, I wanted to offer a survey of some of the ways we in the Department are using digital spaces, tools, and resources as part of our classrooms. Please reply to add activities missing from here, or to ask questions about the pedagogical reasons and logistical necessities involved with digital pedagogy.

Collaborative Reading Lists
Paul Schacht uses Zotero for a “group library” so that students can share the research process with one another. This allows research to happen visibly outside the classroom as well as cross into it, especially if Zotero is loaded in class from time to time.

Public Course Blogs
A number of class blogs are up and running, including by Beth McCoy, Lytton Smith, and Steve West; all of these are hosted at our sunygeneseoenglish.org site. Jess Fenn offers a slightly different version, having students post to the Medieval Studies blog as a way to showcase work in a particular minor. More details on the exact processes are explained in the companion post on Public Course Blogs, but it’s worth noting here that there are various ways to get students to talk among themselves or to talk to an imagined public audience; blog post requirements and assessment weightings can be more or less thorough, depending on their centrality to the course.

Course Websites
Paul Schacht takes blogs one step further: for both ENGL 340 and ENGL 458, the whole course exists on a webpage, designed not just for current enrolled students, but for future students to interact with past students. Part of the pedagogy here involves lessons about writing for a public audience, which of course involves thinking about the amount and types of information and sourcing to provide. One great example of some group work here.

Gandy Dancer
Gandy Dancer exists as SUNY-system-wide literary journal in print and online; the online space extends the work of Rachel Hall’s ENGL426/488: Editing and Production Workshops I and II, as can be seen from the content of the most recent issue. Alongside the use of Submittable, Twitter feeds, and Facebook, Gandy Dancer suggests a way for students to produce course-related content that is public-facing and yet not an assignment requirement in the conventional sense.

Student-generated websites/webspaces
In collaboration with Joe Cope in History, Rob Doggett has created assignments within Irish Studies courses in which students structure and create a webspace on a particular topic of relevance to a course: reading evidence, making arguments, and deciding how to organize their ideas while working in small groups. While students can get further support from the Digital Media Lab, WordPress makes it very possible to do everything they need to quite simply.

Class Wiki
Drawing on a model put into practice by Rob Doggett, Paul Schacht, and Caroline Woidat for ENGL170 (the old ENGL203), Lytton Smith used wiki pages for a section of ENGL203 in which students collaborated on close-readings and contextualizations of literary texts; as the semester progressed, students began to synthesize close readings with readings of critical articles. In so doing, they helped teach each other about effective strategies for literary analysis while learning a tiny bit of html. This space is a subset of the wider English Dept-generated “Annotated Literary Texts” project, also used by other department, including Languages & Literatures.

Interdisciplinary Research Grants
Ken Cooper is collaborating on an Innovative Instruction Technology Grant entitled “Developing a Common Online Mapping Platform for Interdisciplinary, Place-Based Undergraduate Research”; collaborators include C. Garrity (Geography) – PI; K. Cooper (English); E. Argentieri (Library); K. Hannam (Biology), and J. Easterly (Library).

Research Papers
Both Ken Cooper and Lytton Smith will deliver digital humanities-oriented research papers at NEMLA this year (Toronto, April 30-May 3). Cooper’s paper, about “bioregional archives” as exemplified by his Open Valley project, is on a panel called “D19: Pedagogical Approaches to Digital Nineteenth-century American Literature,” Friday May 1st, 1.15p.m. (also featuring SUNY Geneseo’s Liz Argentieri); Smith’s paper, about the interaction between poetry and digital media, is on a a panel called “Spineless: Slippery Virtual Literature,” Saturday, 1.30p.m.

Using Google forms as rubrics

Although most people associate rubrics with assessment, they’re also a great tool, in my view, for setting clear expectations on assignments and helping students understand how well they’ve met those expectations.

Recently, I’ve moved from the familiar grid-based rubric to using Google forms. For a given assignment, I create a form like the one below, keep it open while grading students’ essays, and after reading each essay quickly complete the form. I set the form to collect my email address each time I submit it, then select the option to have Google email me a copy of my answers. When the email hits my inbox, I forward it to the student whose essay I just read.

When I’ve completed the whole set of essays, I have a snapshot of how well student’s met my expectations in the aggregate and can share the results with the class.

Quotation and Citation

Since it was an Assessment topic a number of us seem to be interested in, our upcoming Metagogy session, on Thursday 16th October, will be on quotation and citation. Questions we might consider include:
– what strategies do students use to include sources within their essays at all levels?
– how do students reference material, and what does that tell us about their understanding of research as a key literature practice?
– what approaches are we using to help students improve their use of quotation and citation?
I’ll talk a little about Joe Bizup’s ‘Degrees of Quotation‘ handout as one answer to the last question, and it’d be great to hear what others have done or want to try.
Before we meet, if you can post 1-2 sentences in response to this prompt on the Metagogy blog – a question, observation, or tip you have about student quotation/citation – that’ll make for a rich discussion.
It’d be great if you have handouts and want to post them to the wiki’s Shared Reading (https://wiki.geneseo.edu/display/engl/Shared+reading) or Shared Links pages (https://wiki.geneseo.edu/display/engl/Shared+links).
Lastly, various folk have made great comments in response to the Assessment wiki, which you might like to glance at before we meet: https://wiki.geneseo.edu/x/G5KKBQ

Flipping Dickens

I’ve been wondering for some time what the “flipped classroom” might look like in English. The discussion-driven English classroom is already flipped by comparison with the lecture model. Instead of using class time to deliver “content,” the artful discussion leader treats the literary text itself as content, assumes that students have examined it on their own, and uses class time to put students to work solving problems that arise from that content — problems of contextualization, interpretation, analysis, etc.

What’s left to flip?

Here’s what: the authority to decide what problems to discuss, what contexts to explore, what interpretive paths to follow, what analytical tools to make use of.

Also: the work of discovering, assembling, and sharing information about a text’s or author’s contexts — work that the discussion-driven classroom can’t do without, work that the artful discussion leader traditionally tries to make more or less invisible by threading background information in here and there, dropping the occasional carefully researched historical fact (sometimes carefully researched the night before) or critical perspective as though he’d been familiar with it his whole life long.

There’s a lot to be said for the model in which the professor sets the agenda and provides the context — after all, she’s the expert. I don’t know whether flipping that authority and that work would represent an improvement.

But this semester, I’ve decided to give it a try and see what happens. Not for a lark, but because I can glimpse the possibility, at least, of certain gains: increased student engagement resulting from an increased sense of ownership; the opportunity to make agenda-setting an occasion for struggling, as a class, with the problem of how to frame a good interpretive question or which analytical tools best suit a given question; the opportunity to make their efforts at contextualization an occasion for struggling, as a class, with the problem of finding and evaluating the credibility of sources.

The class I’ve “flipped” in this way is ENGL 458, Major Authors: Dickens. As I’ve told the students on the main course page,

In this course, you’ll decide, as a class, which of these questions to ask — or whether it would be better to ask other questions altogether. And you’ll decide how best to answer the questions that you do ask.

Because this is your course on Dickens.

To see how I’ve tried to put this promise into practice, have a look at the syllabus.

Already, I’ve faced some interesting challenges. Twice in the last week or so, I went rogue, abandoning the carefully planned rotation of student reports and group discussion in favor of traditional, full-class discussion of issues I just wasn’t prepared to see us ignore. And the students’ research, which gets posted to the Nineteenth-Century Studies at SUNY Geneseo blog each week, hasn’t always been as thorough as I would have liked, or drawn from the caliber of sources I’ve encouraged them to find.

But, as expected, the research issues have led to conversations in class about credibility, credentials, and peer review. And I hope that my occasional hijacking of the discussion agenda has the advantage of highlighting my own passion about the issues I refuse to let go unaddressed.

I’ll see how it goes. And I’ll report back at the end of the semester.

Cross-class Time

I’m wondering whether the new 4-credit system might allow us to run activities that usefully cross between our different offerings, sometimes even across levels of course.

In creative writing, this might take the form of a journal club, a 20-30 minute meeting where students are using our library of journals to talk about different aesthetic styles they’re finding.

In literature, this might take the form of approaches organized by critical perspectives (an eco-crit approach to non-shared texts) or skills-based work (citation has been coming up a lot recently).

Exact ideas would depend on how open we want this to be to multiple classes: something designed with two specific Major Authors classes in mind, for example, would look different from a Reader-and-Text-wide coming together.

Citation: Degrees of Quotation (Joseph Bizup)

Following on ideas from Jess, Paul, Graham, and Beth in reaction to our Assessment pages, I’ve been returning to two ideas from Joe Bizup, Director of the Writing Program and Associate Professor in English at Boston University. These might be useful for a future metagogy session.

Firstly, he offers a way to think beyond primary/secondary/tertiary sources (literary texts, criticism, reference works) that accounts for the different ways we might read a text for different purposes: Foucault’s History of Sexuality could be a primary or secondary source, depending on the argument we’re trying to make. For Bizup, the acronym BEAM helps: Background, Evidence, Argument, Method. His essay explores ways writers can think about the purposes behind their use of sources, rather than thinking of sources as intrinsically primary/secondary/tertiary etc.

Secondly, his 1-page handout on ‘Degrees of Quotation’ displays the ways we might attribute authority – and so change the ways we claim authority when reacting to ideas in a text. He takes students through block quotes to paraphrase, and everything in between. See an exercise based on it here. Link to download handout: here.

Both these resources are up in the Shared Texts and Shared Links section of the Wiki (English Department).

The Porous Classroom

I find myself thinking about how the flexible pedagogy of a 200-minute, 4-credit class might offer opportunities beyond the flipped classroom or the Freirean teacher-student, both things we can achieve anyway with oral presentations and other measures that allow our students to claim expert status. Similarly, online activity – blogs, wikis, e-seminars – might form part of any course. What makes our 200-minutes different?

I’m trying to forge (forage?) an answer by thinking of ways that 200-minute class might be experienced as porous. Perhaps it’s just that everyone in Newton has been teaching with their doors open in this heat; scraps of economic theory, political science, and Barthesian structuralism escaping into the corridors and out to campus.

Practically, for me, this means finding ways to not only create the expectation that conversations – rigorous, intellectual conversations – will continue beyond our meetings (that’s a sine qua non of a literature or creative writing class, no?); it means creating structures that allow such conversations to happen, whether physical or virtual. And for them to happen, they must somehow be registered within the classroom space (in classrooms and beyond).

In wrestling with how to explain to students that their class schedule is different from my.geneseo.edu, I’ve found myself explaining why collaborative annotated texts, letters written from one poet to another, and collectively-authored blogs should form part of the 200-minutes we spend together, if not all together (or altogether). And I’m hoping that these structures will lead to the students developing others, too: their own blogs, group work on literary texts as a way to study, meetings over coffee about poems and poets. I then have to find a way to incorporate those developments in the classroom: the world escaping inside.

That’s the theory, at least! Looking forward to hearing if others have similar intentions/experiences, and to hearing about other uses of time – around the corridors I’ve picked up on various ideas of flexible work (different activities each day) and focussed student attention that I’m keen to hear about and try out.