Still Standing

A great deal has happened since my last post, and I have been busy converting my three seated classes to online (I already have two other online classes to maintain), readying myself to teach my classes from home. My transition has been easier than some because I have been teaching online for years and even prefer an online environment in many cases.

I know many of my students do not feel that way at all. All of my students are dealing with upheaval in their lives in so many ways, and now this. Therefore, I have taken some steps to help us move forward in our class. Here are some of the things I have done, am doing, and will do to help my students finish the semester successfully.

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Last week, when we were still meeting as a class, I started preparing my students for continuing as an online class. It has helped that I already have a robust online presence. For years, I have posted online resources, and all assignments are already collected and graded online. My students are already used to the online classroom environment in many ways. One of the first things I did was develop a survey to distribute through the LMS that asks a few simple questions about their readiness to continue online, their comfort levels as far as DL classes go, and most recent contact info. I added a comment box, where they could write any questions or concerns.

Be positive. In my communication, I am trying to be as positive as I can while acknowledging the obvious difficulties we are all facing. I try to emphasize that completing an education is more important now than ever and that strong writing and critical thinking skills, which have always been important, will be even more so in the days to come. I also tell them that I believe in them, and I do. They will face this crisis and move through it stronger than ever before. I tell them they have a resiliency that some of them don’t even recognize they have. My students are some of the best, strongest people I have ever met, and they deserve to get a quality education no matter what the delivery system.

Integrate interesting technology. I love educational technology and most of my students do, too, so have tried to add some interesting assignments over the years. They use PowerPoint and Google docs, of course, but we create infographics and annotate text electronically. I have created screencasts with my iPad to show them how to research databases using our state’s virtual library. I show them how to use Survey Monkey for conducting surveys of their fellow students. I do glossary assignments using our LMS that allow them to create study guides as a class.

I want to start using more interactive educational technologies that will allow all of my students to see and hear each other. Here are some that I have wanted to explore more, but haven’t had time to work with much until now:

  • Flip Grid—Allows teacher and students to ask and answer questions through a video format. Smartphone- and user-friendly.
  • Collaborate—Allows for synchronous or asynchronous meetings with students. Through our LMS, I can create Collaborate lessons within the course just like assignments
  • Lesson packages—our LMS allows us to create whole lessons where we can add our own discussion questions, quizzes, or other assignments within the lesson that the computer can grade and send to the grade book. These packages help track which students are actually viewing the material or not.
  • Zoom—Similar to Collaborate, it allows for real time instruction.
  • Google hangouts—I took an educational technology PD course a few years ago and experimented with Google hangouts, but I would like to use it more. Really great for tutoring sessions because I can share my screen
  • Google Maps—I have wanted to add a Google Maps segment to my signature travel project in Brit. Lit. Now is my chance to explore it.
  • YouTube—the live steaming feature will be useful.
  • So many more. I will blog about my adventures as we go along.

It is a brave new world, but I am determined that I will give my students the tools to navigate it successfully.

Pet Peeves

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Not earth-shattering. Not life-destroying. Not important at all in the grand scheme of things, or even in the niggling scheme of things, but here are some of my pet peeves. I freely admit that I peeve myself at times, and I’m sure, others as well. But here goes anyway–for kicks and grins.

  • Using st, th, and nd when writing dates–Example–January 1st, 2020. In American usage, the convention has been, and will continue in my teaching, to be–write January 1, 2020 and say January 1st, 2020. The problem is that the British often use the endings when writing the dates, leading to understandable confusion. I am an anglophile from way back, so I’m not dissing the Brits, but I am also an American English teacher, so I will teach American standards. Here’s more about it from Daily Writing Tips: January 1 Doesn’t Need an “st” 
  • Placing the end mark outside the quotation marks–Example. She said, “We are in America, so we should use American punctuation conventions”. Yes, we should, and in American English the punctuation almost always goes INSIDE the quotation marks. “We should use American punctuation conventions.” Here is more on the subject from Grammarly: Does Punctuation Go Inside Quotation Marks?
  • Leaving out the possessive apostrophe OR adding an apostrophe with a simple plural. We need apostrophes, yet we don’t need apostrophes. The rules are simple:
      • Use an apostrophe with contractions or to show possession.
      • Do NOT use an apostrophe with a simple plural.
      • If the word ends in s, then generally the apostrophe comes after the s, but there are significant exceptions, such as when using irregular plurals.
    • It seems insignificant, and maybe it is sometimes, but not using the apostrophe when appropriate and using it unnecessarily can both lead to misunderstanding and also drives Mrs. Winkler crazy!
    • An example–I cant attend the New Years party, but I dont want to go to Sherrys house again because I dont like her childrens’  loud toys’ that company’s seem to love selling at this time of year.
    • Now my spell checker caught dont, Sherrys, and childrens’, but not the cant , Years, toys’, and company’s because although the spellcheck programs are more and more sophisticated, they are not (yet) sentient and can’t replace a writer’s own careful editing and revision.
    • Here’s more on the subject of apostrophes from Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL), one of the first and still one of the best: Apostrophe Introduction
  • It’s and its, a problem that gets its own category. Its own category–no apostrophe because it’s a possessive pronoun. It’s a possessive pronoun--I used an apostrophe because I am using the contraction It’s to mean It is. I think people understand the rule for the most part, but its an easy mistake to make (I did that one on purpose. I swear). Here are the rules again (not trying desperately to be clever this time):
    • It’s is the contraction for It is–Example–It’s snowing on January 5, 2020. The little trick I give my students is, “Can you say, It is in place of It’s? If so, then you have correctly used the apostrophe.
    • Its is the possessive pronoun–Example–The horse chewed on its hay. I understand why people get confused here: Its is a possessive pronoun. We hear the word possessive, and we immediately think apostrophe, but I tell my students, think of it this way– we don’t write hi’s car or his’ car do we? Nouns that show possession use apostrophes; pronouns that show possession do not. Here is an exercise to practice distinguishing between the two from one of my favorite grammar sites–Grammar Bytes: Word Choice–Exercise 13
  • Capitalizing when one shouldn’t and not capitalizing when one should. Okay, I get it that people don’t want to capitalize. It is sooooooooo much trouble to hit the shift key and type a letter, especially when writing with a smart phone. But increasingly I am seeing words that should NOT be capitalized being capitalized, especially doctor, lawyer, mother, father, even brother and sister, as well as a myriad of other words that should not be capitalized in academic writing. I am not too peeved by occasional unnecessary capitalization, often the person is just trying to show respect, but often capitalization errors show a lack of concern for proper writing, even when the person is writing assignments for a composition class! Here is more about capitalization from Grammar Girl: When Should You Capitalize Words?
  • I definitely get peeved when a person does not capitalize the personal pronoun “I” when emailing an English instructor. Come on, guys! Get with the program!

How much can an English teacher take?

 

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I promise I won’t get peeved with you if you submit your best work for publication in my bi-annual literary magazine Teach. Write. Submissions are open for the 2020 spring/summer edition until March 1. See submission guidelines here. 

Thoughts at Year’s End

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I haven’t blogged much this year.

Oh, well.

It isn’t that I’ve lost interest or feel that the blog isn’t important.

I haven’t and it is.

I have been forced to…no, I have chosen, to put my efforts elsewhere.

It has been a pivotal year for me in some ways, and I have discovered many things about myself, my teaching, my students. That’s never a bad thing. It has sometimes been a difficult year, especially for some of the people I love, but even those difficulties are not without worth, without purpose. The sorrows of the year have been tempered with joy. They haven’t necessarily made me stronger, but they have helped me to realize that weakness is not a sin, not evil–it is human.

So here are some thoughts about my year as an English professor:

  • Individual conferences continue to be invaluable and should be done earlier and more often. I have long held research paper conferences with my students and have almost always found them effective, but because the research paper comes later in the semester, some students are too behind to gain the full benefit of a one- on-one meeting time with me, so in the future I want to hold conferences more often.
  • I have always liked Oxford’s “personalised learning” model of tutorials where small groups of students (three or four) meet once or twice a week with a faculty member to discuss readings and essays. Although this style of teaching is not possible when a faculty member has over 110 students in composition-heavy classes like I did this semester, I would like to move in the direction of more individualized instruction when I can and make room for it in my schedule.
  • Less is more. This year, I had too many students, too many papers, too many assignments. For example, at the beginning of the fall 2019 semester, I had 120 students–three first semester English composition classes (close to 60 students and 20 online), one second semester freshman English composition class (20 students), close to 20 online British literature I students (composition heavy) and the rest an online eight-week study skills course. That course may seem like the easy one, but I do a great deal of time-consuming direct communication with students because it is such an important introductory course.
  • I know, I know, some of you teachers out there are scoffing at my “light” load, but these heavy teaching loads are not good for us or our students, and I for one am determined to work on making my grading load lighter so I can do justice to my students and have the time to give more meaningful feedback to them, which leads me to my next thought.
  • Discovering what meaningful feedback is. This year, I have relied more heavily on advanced grading techniques provided by our LMS, particularly rubrics and checklists. I have spent more time tailor-making grading tools for each particular assignment, so each includes more feedback with less effort.
  • I still make some markings directly on more heavily graded essays, but I usually stop at the first paragraph or first page and include a statement from my “quick list” that says “I will stop line editing here. See the rest of the paper for any additional comments.” (I LOVE my quick list embedded in the LMS’s advanced grading system that allows me to save common comments and quickly add them to the graded paper.) Then, when posting the grade I include this comment or one similar to it: “See the rubric and comments on the document for feedback. Contact me if you need more information.”
  • My marks on papers are more useful to me than students. This year I have come to face the fact that most students don’t read or try to understand the marks that I make on their essays, but I continue to line edit the first paragraph or page and make spot comments throughout the essay because it helps me grade more accurately and efficiently. I typically grade ten or more essays in one sitting, so it’s easy to lose track of each paper’s strengths and weaknesses. However, if I have made comments, it’s easy to flip back and re-read them before marking the rubric.
  • The downside of plagiarism detectors. This year, I have encountered less direct word-for-word plagiarism but more academic dishonesty. How can that be? My theory is that students use the plagiarism detection software incorrectly or they do not understand or abide by the basic tenets of proper documentation.
  • Quite a few of my students, therefore, are turning in papers that are at best poorly documented and at worst out-and-out plagiarized because often they will only change around a few words or retain the syntax of the original quote. Sometimes, these quotes are simply dropped into the paper without any attempt to integrate them into the paper. In addition, some students will include complete works cited lists at the end of the papers but have no internal citations. Occasionally, they will question why this is considered plagiarism and seem truly baffled that I would give the paper a low grade or a zero. Next thought.
  • Our society thinks too highly of technology. Don’t get me wrong. Modern educational technology is a great tool. I love it and embrace it, but it is only a tool. It can’t do the heavy lifting required to be a good writer, which comes more from reading and comprehending complex texts than from any other single thing. But online writing, like this blog, does not lend itself to the deep, intense labor of reading that is needed to give birth to good writing. Also, technology makes the process of revision and editing easier in a myriad of ways, but I have yet found a truly effective way to motivate my students to use the tools technology supplies. One draft, and I’m done, seems to be the mantra.
  • Five Easy Ways. One way I have tried to help students grasp the concepts of revision and editing is through my “five easy ways” to revise writing. These are simple concepts that I learned in graduate school that can help students learn to find and revise errors. Not always effective when students have been writing one draft only for years. However, students who persist consistently improve. Isn’t that always the case?
  • The continued value of working with others. I am an extrovert. I tend to draw energy from being around and interacting with people. I like collaboration, working together with people toward a common goal. And I continue to enjoy my extroversion. One of the great things that happened this year was the world premiere of my play Battered, probably the best thing I’ve ever written and would have never happened without the director, who is one of my closest friends, the cast, crew, and so many others. It was wonderful–one of the highlights of my  career as both a teacher and a writer.
  • On the other hand, I have also been learning the value of working alone. I have been a people-pleaser most of my life. It goes against my nature to do things just for me without someone suggesting or guiding me, or vice-versa, but as an effective English instructor with 30 years teaching experience, I now see the value of not trying to convince others that my way is the best way but simply doing things my way to the best of my ability, while listening to other voices I trust, like my colleagues at the college, continuing to research andragogy, the teaching of adults, and being humble enough to honestly assess my teaching and make changes when necessary.
  • One big change I made as a result of teaching an eight-week freshman composition course is streamlining the course–fewer papers, fewer assignments, less ineffective feedback, but more information provided through advanced grading methods, which are standard for all students, and personal communication, only when requested by the student (forcing the students to take more charge of their education has been a big plus). I do NOT plan to teach in the summer ever again, please Lord, no, but I did keep the eight-week model and spread it out to 16 weeks this past semester, and all would have been well if I had not made the stupid decision of picking up a third first semester freshman English course. My fault, not to be repeated.

I definitely have plenty of thoughts floating around, but this blogpost is getting a little long and have a novel to work on and some after Christmas sales to hit, so I will sign off for now and blog some more later.

BTW, this is fun and relaxation for an English professor on holiday.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Everybody!!

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Mrs. Winkler Goes to Baltimore

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I am still here! But not where I normally am.

I am in Baltimore for the National Council of Teachers of English 2019 convention. I had such a full day yesterday that I was unable to blog, but I am sneaking some blogging in between sessions. Getting ready to listen to a session called Beowulf in the Spheros, it promises to be an interesting blend of Ancient and modern technology.

Here we go!

More later.

Too Long

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This is what I get for teaching in the summer—less time to work on my blog. I almost let all of June go by without a post, but I made it!

I am saying right now, while I am in the midst of it, that I will never teach a course in the summer again. What was I thinking? Those of you who know me understand how I can get during the school year–I’m kind of intense, let’s say. Summer has always been my time to work on myself—my writing and reading, my diet and exercise, my family, my friends. Oh, and my Scrabble online time.

Not that I haven’t been doing all that.

However, I should have anticipated that teaching a composition course in eight weeks instead of sixteen is naturally going to take up a big chunk of time. And it has. Yet, I’m not sorry that I have done it because even if I do not succumb to the allure of teaching in the summer again (oh, Lord, I hope not ), I have learned a great deal that I can apply when teaching my sixteen-week classes.

Here we go:

  • Streamline assignments–I found that with fewer assignments, students are getting an ample amount of writing practice. I have also found that I can assign less time for assignments and still get the same quality of work from students. Giving weeks of time to complete the major assignments doesn’t seem to help either. Plus, I don’t have weeks of time when teaching a sixteen-week composition course in eight weeks.
  • Compact assignments–I re-wrote assignments to get more information in a single assignment so that I could afford to streamline. It takes some work and creative thought, but I dig that kind of stuff. Hey, course design is one of the reasons I love teaching so much.
  • Add video and text resources but keep them well-organized–I always have included a myriad of video and text resources, but with our new clean-looking LMS interface, it is easy to use labels to keep all of the student resources organized and easier to access. One tip–add resources that come from highly respected institutions (a plagiarism quiz from Cornell, which covers just about every possible plagiarism situation my students stumble across) and those that involve technology (a video about how to use Survey Monkey, which students like to use when doing field research for their capstone project).
  • Spreading out due dates–Students would find it difficult to be successful if they tried to complete two weeks worth of work in one cram session right on the day assignments are due. We can say good students get started early all we want, but the reality is most students, strong or weak, wait until the due date to complete assignments. Spreading out due dates helps students manage their time and helps me keep up with grading.
  • Introduce and summarize assignments–I have always added an introduction to my assignments, including key concepts from the text that I want to reinforce, but I have rewritten the introductions to be more intentional. I have also added summaries that include ONLY a bulleted list of what the students actually must submit for the assignments. This seems to help a great deal in avoiding confusion. Aristotle’s old advice, tell them what you are going to say, say it, and then tell them what you just said, still holds true.
  • Create screencasts–It is relatively easy to create explanatory screencasts and upload them to YouTube with my ipad. I created a screencast just the day before yesterday that is about eight minutes long and takes students through the steps to find sources on my college’s website. YouTube has a feature that makes it easy to close caption in order for the video to be ADA compliant. All together, including upload, the screencast took me about one and a half hours to create. That would be more than I might want to dedicate during the school year, but since I have only one class this summer, and this screencast will be able to be used again, it was worth the effort.
  • Stay in touch–I have always tried to stay in touch with students, but I have made an even more concerted effort to communicate with students this summer since I have more time. I try to answer e-mails quickly and maintain a light and friendly tone with students. Last night I called a struggling student and spent about fifteen minutes offering some advice but mainly encouraging her. Fifteen minutes to save her from withdrawing a second time from English composition. Time well-spent. I know in the regular school year, with six classes, I will be unable to talk to all of my students this way, but I can certainly try to make a more personal connection to online students who are struggling.
  • Encourage strong students, too–This summer it has hit me harder than usual how much my strong students need me. They need to see not only a blanket “good work” on assignments, but also remarks on their essays about specific things they have done well. Sometimes the A students are lost in the shuffle. I don’t want to forget them this coming school year when I start getting busy putting out fires.
  • Empathize with difficulties–It doesn’t hurt to be human. I try to remember what it was like to work two jobs, be active in a campus club and be in student government while I was carrying a full load of classes. Some of my students have small children to care for as well. I can’t imagine. But I need to try.
  • However, don’t lower standards–While I try to show students compassion and make concessions where I can, I never want to lower my standards. I would not only be doing a disservice to the student but also to the college and society at large. Our students’ potential employers deserve workers who can read and write clearly, concisely, and persuasively. I have to be kind but firm.
  • Maintain a sense of humor–Much undervalued in education, I think. Having a sense of humor when communicating with students, when appropriate of course, eases tensions and humanizes me and the situation. It helps establish rapport with students like nothing else and helps them realize that, wildly successful or not, this intense eight-week English composition course will be just a blip in their lives, an important blip, but not the be all and end all of their existence.

Now, I had fun! I love writing this blog and hope someone reads it, but even if no one does, I have had a chance to pull together some interesting conclusions about my experience teaching this eight-week online composition class, and it is giving me some good, good, good vibrations. Sounds like summertime to me!

Anyone for a game of Scrabble?

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DON’T FORGET TO SUBMIT TO TEACH! WRITE! DEADLINE FOR THE FALL 2019 ISSUE IS AUGUST 1! CLICK HERE FOR SUBMISSION GUIDELINES. I WOULD LOVE TO SEE YOUR POETRY, SHORT FICTION, OR CREATIVE NON-FICTION! YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE A TEACHER OR A PUBLISHED WRITER TO SUBMIT!

 

 

 

The growing importance of baccalaureate degrees in workforce development

battered posterMy new play about domestic violence inspired by Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book is called Battered. It makes its debut April 11-14 at the Patton Auditorium on the campus of Blue Ridge Community College. One of the best things about working where I do is the opportunity to collaborate with other departments and community members on developing art that addresses important issues in our society.

For this play, I collaborated with the director, student and community actors, technical theater students, student filmmakers, campus police, fellow professors of drama, English, psychology, and sociology as well as employees of various social service organizations in the area.

Because of having so much to do (I still teach a full load of English composition and literature classes as well, along with all of the grading, of course) I do not have much time to write, but I wanted to share some important passages from the conclusion of a white paper entitled “The Evolving Mission of Workforce Development in the Community College” by James Jacob and Jennifer Worth, published by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University:

As more jobs require higher skills, the education levels demanded by employers will continue to rise. This means that more community college workforce programs must assume that students should be prepared to complete a degree at a four-year institution or complete a community college baccalaureate. [my emphasis] Except for allied health areas, most career and technical programs lack consistent integration between the skills programs and their “foundation” or basic liberal arts and sciences areas. Most occupational programs do not require these courses for certificates, and even if students want to complete a degree, occupational faculty consider them add-ons to be undertaken after they complete their technical program sequence. This is a mistake because not only do survey data clearly indicate that most career and technical students wish to obtain a four-year degree, but the evolution of many of these occupations means they will soon require a four-year degree. [my emphasis] Even in work-based learning programs such as apprenticeships, particularly the younger students view them as a first step toward a four-year degree. The work of Anthony Carnevale at the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce has been very important in emphasizing that degrees in specific college majors lead to income gains, and his data support the belief that both specific degree skills and general skills matter in the long run for anyone attending a community college workforce program (Carnevale, Jayasundera, & Gulish, 2015). [my emphasis]

In many occupational areas where community colleges are strong—such as nursing programs—the employer desire for a four-year degree is already very apparent in most metropolitan labor markets. Moreover, the anticipated adoption of artificial intelligence by many sectors of the economy suggests
that there will be even less employment for those without a four-year degree. [my emphasis]

Thus, community colleges must continue to remain responsive to the unfolding
needs of their communities for more employees who have four-year degrees and/or possess the appropriate basic skills to obtain these degrees. Clearly there will be many students, primarily adults, who need to acquire skills quickly so they can obtain meaningful work. Community colleges need to continue to provide that opportunity, but they also need to indicate to students that they will need credentials of value if they are to be competitive in the labor market. [my emphasis] This challenge will continue to inform the future of workforce development in the American community college.

NOTE: A previous version incorrectly identified the location of the Community College Research Center as Cornell University. The Center is part of Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Three of Five: More “Easy” Ways for Students to Improve Their Writing

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The following is the third in a series of five assignments I give early in my freshman composition classes to help students find relatively easy ways to revise their papers. I find that it helps students, especially many community college students who may not have done a great deal of writing in high school. The “Five Easy Ways” offer students five almost grammar-free issues to look for in their papers. I have found that when students locate these issues and re-write the sentences containing them, then their writing improves, sometimes just a little, but enough for them to begin to better understand the process of revision and editing.

Here is the assignment as given to my online freshman composition students:

Five Easy Ways to Improve Your Writing–Part Three–Eliminating Unnecessary Words and Phrases–

Often people make the mistake of writing the way they speak, which often times causes unnecessary wordiness. Other times writers “throw in” extra words and phrases, perhaps because they think their sentences need to be longer to “sound” more academic when in reality, concise writing has been proved more effective time and time again.

To practice eliminating unnecessary wordiness, complete the following activity:

  • Write an illustration paragraph with the following topic sentence (filling in the blanks, of course): A good ______________ is _____________________, _______________________ and ________________________.
  • Example of an appropriate topic sentence: A good restaurant is clean, with a nice cozy ambiance, has a welcoming staff that treats all guests as special patrons, and of course, serves delicious food with a variety of healthy options, plus a few naughty choices just for fun.
  • Support the topic sentence with at least one specific example of each of the three characteristics (five to eight sentences).
  • Examples of the kind of specific detail that I’m looking for: Never Blue, one of my favorite restaurants in downtown Hendersonville, has a variety of healthy choices on its menu, including homemade hummus and house-cured salmon, but some naughty choices also, like the incredible “Devils on Horseback” (goat cheese-stuffed dates) and the sinful phyllo-wrapped chocolate confection simply called “The Brownie.”
  • Write a final supporting example or a concluding sentence for a paragraph that is 7 to 10 sentences long–no more, no less.
  • Revise the rough draft. Here’s a guide
      • Re-write any clauses that begin with “There” or “It”
      • Eliminate any use of first or second person pronouns (I, me, my, mine, we, us, our, ours, you, yours, etc)–Re-write, if needed

    Eliminate any use of the following words or phrases–Re-place these words and phrases or re-write, if needed.

      • very
      • really
      • a lot
      • lots
      • due to the fact that
      • extremely
      • that said
      • Well (as a filler word, okay to use it as an adverb)
      • as a matter of fact
      • totally
      • actually
      • See other deadwood words and phrases to avoid by clicking on this link: http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/plague.htm
  • Submit the rough draft and the revision ON THE SAME DOCUMENT and submit. Be sure to label the rough draft and the final draft, so I know which one to grade.
  • Remember, I want to see a great deal of descriptive, specific examples, not just generic supporting points.

 

I like giving these shorter paragraph assignments early on in first-semester freshman English because I can give extensive feedback more easily and students get some concrete ways to revise their papers early on.

If you have any suggestions for ways that students who are not used to writing academically can learn to revise and edit their papers more easily, please share!

 

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I also would love it if you would consider submitting to my literary journal designed for writing teachers, Teach. Write. My fourth edition is slated for publication on April 1, 2019. Deadline for submissions is March 1, 2019. See the submission guidelines for more information. Previous editions are free online.