Finding a Way

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I’m behind keeping up with my summer loves, especially reading and writing, because I’m working this summer. It’s not too bad a gig–Monday through Thursday schedule, three classes instead of five or six, ten weeks instead of sixteen with a two-week vacation at the end. I can handle it this summer and the next because I have something to look forward to–permanent summer break.

Yes, retirement begins on August 1, 2023. I’m a little excited. Can you tell?

In the meantime, I make the best of things in my temporary office in the library at our college as we await the final touches being put on the new multi-million dollar building that replaces two of the oldest buildings on campus. One of those buildings was my work home for 26 years, so as the building is being torn down, I admit I have become nostalgic. Who wouldn’t?

photo by Katie Winkler

However, I am not too sorry to see it go. It served us all well over the years, but it was built during a different time and doesn’t meet the needs of a 21st-century student body or its faculty. My students being able to access the WI-FI from my office will be a nice change. I hear the adjustable stand-up desks are really rad as well. Do people still say “rad”?

So, I watch the goings-on across the lake, answer numerous messages and emails, occasionally chat with colleagues, teach one small seated class, and grade, grade, grade the assignments and essays of my mere 43 composition and developmental students. During regular semesters, English faculty usually teach six classes and have 100 or more students. To earn an overload, an instructor must have over 110 students or more than six courses, so this “leisurely” pace helps a little.

Despite the tedious nature of grading essays, I know from long experience that working directly with student writing through grading and conferencing and therefore establishing a relationship with students as individuals is the most important work I do as a composition teacher. I do not think there is any substitute for it.

Hence the dilemma.

The demand for English instructors to deliver online instruction is higher than ever, but course loads that already did not consider how much time an English professor needs to deliver meaningful writing instruction online have not been altered to reflect the nature of effective andragogy in the English classroom and how it has been affected by the increasing number of online students.

In addition, the number of students desiring accelerated online English instruction has increased. If you take the already heavy grading load of a 16-week semester and cut it in half, something’s got to give. Often times that is the student, who may or may not have been advised that the course must cover 16 weeks of material in 8 weeks’ time.

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Currently, I am the only instructor at my institution who is crazy enough to attempt teaching eight-week online freshman composition classes. I must say, now that I have taught them for several semesters, the accelerated classes work extremely well for a certain type of student, especially those who are working towards degrees to gain a promotion at work. Highly motivated students like those in our pre-nursing, emergency medical services, and law-enforcement programs also tend to do well.

Students who are not good candidates for online learning, are not prepared for the workload, are not willing to make changes to their schedules to make room for the extra time they will need to spend, or those who do not manage their time well, along with those who are weak students or writers in general, simply should not take the accelerated course.

But they do.

So what is an English teacher who cares about learning for ALL students, whether they should be there or not, supposed to do? Furthermore, what does an instructor do if she wants to infuse her own personality into her course and resists the impersonal “canned” classes that so often do not fit her institution’s student body and do not help build the vital personal relationships that are required for good teaching of any kind?

Find a way.

With all that extra time (guffaw) I have this summer, I am continuing to make changes in hopes that the Mad English Person who, after my retirement, steps into the perilous land of acceleration will have an easier time of it. Here are a few things I have done and am doing to help that poor soul:

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  • Adding lessons–In my learning management system (LMS), I can create multi-media lessons that help guide the students through the essential material. My own simple questions can be embedded throughout each lesson that is automatically graded by the computer, allowing an easy low-stakes grade for the student and zero work for me. Of course, I must take considerable time to build the lessons, but remember, I have all that extra time this summer.
  • Early in the course, assigning paragraphs instead of full-length essays–Having students write paragraphs of seven to ten sentences instead of full essays has been a game-changer. I can still teach multiple rhetorical modes as required by the state, including illustration, process analysis, classification, and definition, but now I have more time to focus on the basic elements of any good writing–thesis, support, conclusion, organization, transitions, sentence structure, diction, grammar, and mechanics. In addition, I can grade closely without overwhelming the students. My constructive criticism seems easier for them to digest. Best of all–it’s doable for even the weakest of my students.
  • Fewer and shorter essays–Beyond a doubt, less is more. In an accelerated class, I must limit what students write for both our sakes, but I have found that the writing is stronger because I have more preliminary work leading up to the final draft that is low stakes for them and little work for me. Win. Win.
  • Require rough drafts but give little direct feedback. If one of the learning objectives is for students to revise and edit more effectively, why in the world am I going to revise and edit for them? How does that help anybody learn? I am handicapping students if I give too much feedback on a rough draft. I require them because they help students with time management, and I have an earlier draft to judge students’ revising and editing skills. Because I give mainly completion grades for drafts (and make sure students are aware of this), there is little work for me.
  • Line editing less–In the “old” days, I felt like I owed it to students to mark every single error I could find. No more. I save time, energy, and my sanity, by line editing the first paragraph of an essay, and then marking and making comments occasionally after that. I used to spend 45 minutes to an hour grading one researched essay, but now I can effectively grade one in half that time.
  • Make use of the LMS advanced grading system–I am not a fan of Turnitin (subject for another day), and I’m too close to retirement to want to pursue a change in our relationship, but I do make use of the LMS’s built-in advanced grading system. I can easily build new rubrics and checklists. I also have access to a “quicklist” when I am marking an essay. I choose from a long, long drop-down menu of common comments. Over the years, I have added links to webpages that give students more information or offer exercises to help them with various writing issues. It has really helped me save time.
  • Adding more required online sessions and conferences–I am able to record the sessions, so even though few students can attend live, one or two usually do, and the other students are required to view the sessions. Logs on the computer allow me to verify if the student downloaded and viewed the recording. The conferences are even better because I can speak in person to each student, which helps to form those all-important relationships between us through discussing the student’s writing and listening to their concerns.
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I may be old and worn out, and some people can’t seem to wait to put me out to pasture, but I’ve been at this work a long time, and I am not afraid to say it–I’m damn good at it. I know what works, and letting some AI, no matter how sophisticated, do the instruction, may lead to better data in the short term, but it won’t lead to better writing–only holding students to a standard, then compassionately working directly with them and their writing can achieve that.