IMPOSSIBLE DREAM?

My vision.

I have a vision that every community college board of trustees member and administrator, from the president on down, would take a freshman composition class from a master teacher who has been at the same college for ten years or more. The board member or administrator could choose a seated or online class, but they should take it in its entirety, complete the work by the due dates, and submit their work for evaluation. Of course, the faculty member should be informed and agree to the process. There should be agreement that there will be no retaliation if the administrator does not receive an A. (That last line was a joke–I think so, anyway.)

To get the full experience, each individual should agree to be evaluated by the instructor and receive non-degree seeking credit, but auditing would at least help administrators see what the course is like and what the demands are on the English instructors as well as the students. Imagine if every board member and administrator had on their official transcripts an A or B in an English class at the college where they serve!

I have a vision.

If those in power see what truly happens in a college English composition classroom conducted by a veteran instructor, perhaps they would become partners with the English faculty, smoothing out so many of the adversarial relationships that have developed during these difficult times that have divided us so much along socio-political lines. For this to work, however, the instructors must be allowed the academic freedom to conduct the courses as they see fit within the parameters of each college’s academic freedom policy and the guidelines of national organizations such as the American Association of University Professors. In return, the instructors must treat all members of the class honestly and with the respect that all students are due.

If we, all of us, believe what we say, that we are tired of the division and that we want what is best for the students, all students, not just those who believe the way we do, then don’t we need to start understanding what it is that students and the faculty who teach them are actually doing in their classes? Relying on hearsay, no matter where it comes from, is not the best way to gain that knowledge, is it?

I have a vision.

Imagine what could happen if board members and administrators were able to express their own opinions about topics important to their own lives and their important work at the colleges through their writing assignments. I have been teaching at my college for over 26 years, if you count my adjunct years. In that time, I have rarely been given an opportunity to share my work with board members or administrators or to find out what they do, what it is important to them, how they feel about education, or how we could work together to better serve our students, school and its employees, local businesses, the community at large, as well as the colleges and universities our transfer students will go to. I want to know what the board and the administrators think, so I can support them in their important work. I admit, I haven’t always wanted this, but I have repented my past attitudes, and now I truly want to know.

I have a vision.

I see me getting a chance to talk to those in power, to put aside the things that divide us and let them know how much I care about all my students, no matter what their career goals or lack thereof, that caring, as an English instructor, means not accepting work or behavior that is non-standard or inappropriate, that there are consequences at school and in the real work world for tardiness, absences, not following directions, sub-standard performance, negligence, sloppiness, and most of all, not submitting to the authority in the classroom or at the workplace.

But I also want to show them that there are real rewards, going beyond a pat on the back and a “good job,” when students work hard to improve their writing by revising and editing their work, leaving behind the “wait to the last minute, one and done” mentality so many of them have when it comes to writing academic essays and professional reports. My students, the ones who are teachable, truly do become better writers and communicators in school and in the workplace, and they know it. They know that it is largely their effort bringing them there, and it empowers them. Isn’t that our collective goal?

I want so much to let the board members and administrators understand the passion that I have for my work, that it is not just a job for me–as a devout Christian, I consider it my calling–a sacred honor to help my students communicate better, even those, maybe especially those, who malign me or do not go through the college’s grievance policies to lodge complaints about me and other instructors. These students need me, and I want to help them. I want the administrators to know that if they will only send the students back to the faculty members, or at least talk to us before instantly believing an upset or angry student, that many problems might be resolved before any escalation can occur.

I pledge that at my college, if any board member or administrator reads this, that I will be the first volunteer. I invite you to take one of my classes and actually complete the assignments by the due dates, bravely subject your writing to be evaluated, just as my courageous students do. Then, at the end, let’s talk, as equals, just two people who want what is best for our students.

It’s good to have a vision, I think, even for old English teachers like me.

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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Summertime

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North Carolina Coast–photo by Katie Winkler

Summertime and the livin’ is easy.

Sort of.

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I have decided to teach an eight-week freshman composition course this summer that began yesterday. People have said it can’t be done, and perhaps they are right. Perhaps it is simply too difficult of a course to teach in eight weeks. We’ll see. However, I think it is worth trying because many of our stronger students could benefit greatly if they could get both freshman comp classes completed in one semester.

Despite taking on this experimental course this summer, I will still have some extra time that I hope to spend productively. First, I have been working on a novel for several years now and am determined to finish the rough draft this summer and have the work edited and ready to go out in the world to seek fame and fortune (Ha!) by the end of the year.

Second, I want to revise, edit, and polish some of my short stories that I have not found a home for yet. Last year, I totally reworked a story that had been rejected numerous times, and it soon, after some revision suggested by the editor, found a home with the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable. It’s called “Pilgrimage” 

Another goal is to continue seeking and reviewing submissions for my literary journal Teach. Write.  When I first started the journal, four editions ago, I only accepted work from teachers of writing, but now I accept work from students of writing as well.

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If you are interested in submitting to Teach. Write. then see the submission guidelines for more details.  You can see the latest edition by clicking here. I love to see stories about teaching composition and learning to write, but I accept short stories, poetry, and essays on a variety of topics and themes. I would love to see your work!

As usual I keep busy, but never fear–I plan to do a great deal of sitting and reading on my deck with my feet up, sipping iced tea with lemon.

Ahhhhhh, summer.