First Day of Class: Table of Contents activity

It’s the first day of class for my Composition I class. I have a group of twenty-odd first-years who have no idea what this class is going to be like. They think it’s going to be like their English classes in high school. They’re wrong.

Composition, First-year Writing, Introduction to Writing, Rhetoric: this type of course goes by a lot of names, but the focus is on teaching and practicing effective communication — primarily through the written word, but not only so. One of the activities that I do on the first day of class helps to align the students’ expectations of the class with reality.

After taking attendance and introducing myself, I hold up the textbook and ask them to spend a few minutes making a list in response to the question:

‘What would you put in a book called Everyone’s an Author?’

Everyone's an AuthorSome of the students who brought their books with them will crack open the book to look at it, but I stop them. ‘What would you put?’ I emphasize. What do you think will be in a textbook like this one?

Then I ask them to compare their list with a partner, and then for two set of pairs to compare and put together a table of contents for the textbook. When all of the groups are finished, they share with the rest of the class what their table of contents looks like.

It’s interesting to hear what topics are repeated, which ones are unique to each group, and what order the students put the topics in. Some emphasize grammar, others organization, others on examples from literature. It helps me to get an idea of what the students expectations are for the type of topics we are going to study over the semester.

Then I introduce them to the real textbook. I tell them which of the topics they named will be covered in the book, which won’t be (e.g. we won’t be studying Shakespeare, alas), and what the focus of the class will be. This exercise allows me to identify where the students are coming from in their understanding of what a writing class will include, and to adjust their expectations so that they are not thrown by the first set of readings and assignment.

There are additional benefits: this activity gets the students collaborating on the first day and demonstrates the type of teaching they will experience throughout the semester, that of thinking individually, discussing in small groups, and regrouping as a class. (My variant of Think, Pair, Share.)

It’s a useful exercise that I have used every semester since my first year of teaching. I wish I could claim credit for it; I found a version of the activity when scouring the Internet for ‘first-day of class’ ideas, on a forum or a blog somewhere. But it fits well with my overall teaching style: students will usually have some idea of what we will be doing or whatever the topic is, though it will not always be an accurate idea. Rather than assume they know nothing, I prefer to find out what they do know (and what they think they know) and work from there.


a syllabus experiment

The fall semester begins next week and I am putting the finishing touches on the syllabi for my classes. One thing that always bothers me about college syllabi is how long they are and how much disparate information they include. The longer I teach, the more I realize what needs to be added to the syllabus, and also that the majority of my students only ever use the course schedule. I keep wondering:

How can I make the syllabus easier to navigate so that students will use it more often?

Part of the problem is that the syllabus is pages and pages of text. One solution I read about was to translate the syllabus into an infographic. The downside to that solution is that it can’t present all of the information that the university or program requires that we include in our syllabus. I’m also aware that what I might think is the most important information might not be what the students think is the mot important information. (perhaps I could ask students to make infographics for the syllabus as one of their assignments!).

Instead, I decided to add a table of contents to my syllabus this year:

FA17 Eng1013-24 Syllabus TOC

By including an easy way to look up specific parts of the syllabus, I hope that students will be more likely to refer to the syllabus when they have questions about revision memos, attendance and late work policies, submission guidelines, and other frequently asked questions that are already addressed in the syllabus. Now instead of responding to questions with, “It’s in the syllabus,” I can ask in return: “What page is that in the syllabus?” and the student will be able to answer.

A table of contents is fairly easy to make in Microsoft Word. Just Google for a table of contents tutorial for your version of Microsoft Office, or whichever other word processor you might you, and try it out.

Blackout/All Clear

Willis - Blackout coverOpening line: ‘Colin tried the door, but it was locked.’

Their assignments were straightforward: Eileen, posing as a maid in a manor house, was observing evacuated children in 1940. Polly, after observing FANYs during the V1 and V2 attacks in 1945, was going to observe civilians in London during the Blitz in 1940. Michael, whose research focus was ordinary-people-turned-heroes, was going to Pearl Harbor and a handful of other important moments in American and British history, including Dunkirk. But their supervisor, Mr. Dunworthy, has been  rescheduling drops, sometimes even cancelling assignments entirely.

Willis - All Clear coverHistorians can’t alter events, they’ve all been told. The continuum wouldn’t allow it. The drop simply wouldn’t open, or there would be enough temporal or locational slippage to prevent the time-travelling historian from interfering where they weren’t supposed to. But what happens when it looks like a historian does alter events — through influencing someone they meet, or by saving a life?

And what happens when they can’t get home?

and All Clear by Connie Willis is a single story split into two volumes, chronicling the lives of three historians from 2060 and their experiences in 1940’s Britain. Willis again demonstrates her ability to translate an impressive amount of research to bring the daily experiences of ordinary people in the past to life, and then succeeds in doing so through the quality of her fiction. In Blackout/All Clear, Willis weaves time travel, the Blitz, Dunkirk, the evacuation of children, the fire-watch of St Paul’s Cathedral, the V1 and V2 attacks, Bletchley Park, Fortitude South, Agatha Christie, Shakespeare, and more to create a tapestry of unsung heroes, each doing their bit to win the war.

It is difficult to summarize the book too much without giving anything away, because nearly everything is important (even if you don’t know it yet), so instead I will say that Willis’s writing improves over the course of her Oxford Historians series. The Doomsday Book is good, but To Say Nothing of the Dog is better, and Blackout/All Clear are even better in terms of the tightness of the prose, the presentation of different timelines or storylines, and of characterization.

Continue reading

in response to Charlottesville, VA

After the events of this weekend, I am compelled to condemn the actions of the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who call themselves the ‘Alt-Right’.

Independence Hall Assembly Room - Philadelphia 2015

As a white woman, I condemn the words and actions of those whites who believe that they are superior to other humans based on the color of their skin.

As a Southern woman, whose family settled in the Carolinas when they were still but colonies, I condemn the culture of racism in the South and call for those roots to be torn out and thrown onto the fire of truth. Then move onward, because racism is an invasive weed that has roots spread throughout the country.

As a descendent of slave owners, I condemn all acts of slavery and its legacy in the discrimination and disenfranchisement of people of color. I weep that this is part of my family history.

As a Christian, I condemn the actions, words, and attitudes of those who claim to be Christians but are false prophets. ‘By their fruits you will know them’ (Matthew 7.20). Racism is sin and is contrary to the message of the Gospel and to the Kingdom of God. Before God there is ‘neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female’ (Galatians 3.28; see also Colossians 3.11), but Christ came for all, died for all, and rose for all. Each and every one of us.

As an American, I condemn those Americans who would deny the freedoms of this nation to other Americans and to those seeking to build a better life in this country. This country’s ideal is to be a place where every individual can live to their fullest potential, regardless of color or creed. As a nation, we are far, far from embodying that ideal, but it is an ideal we should be pursuing in order to bring to reality — not limiting its promises to an arbitrary chosen few.

As a white Christian American from the south, I condemn the words and actions of white supremacists, both in Charlottesville, VA this past weekend and beyond, as antithetical to my own beliefs and as morally wrong, nor will I stop opposing them.

Photo: The Assembly Room in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, PA, USA, where the Constitution was debated and signed.

Beacon 23

Opening line: ‘They don’t prepare you for the little noises.’

Howey - Beacon 23 cover

After being shipped home with a war injury and decorated as a hero, the unnamed narrator is reassigned to Beacon 23, where he can have some R&R in the vast loneliness of deep space. The beacons serve as lighthouses for interstellar travel, warning ships of asteroid belts and other obstacles that a ship travelling faster than light would not want to run into. Most of the time it is quiet on the edge of space — except for when it’s not. And, as the saying goes, when it rains, it pours. Beacon malfunctions, bounty hunters, hackers and pirates, and alien enemies — the beacon keeper faces all of these and more on his own. He thought that Beacon 23 was as far away from the war as he could get. He was wrong.

Beacon 23 by Hugh Howey is an introspective novel as the narrator examines his own psyche in the solitude and isolation of deep space. He lives alone on the beacon and communication takes three months to reach him. His only visitors are the occasional ships bringing supplies; most of the time, his patch of space is empty, as it should be. The whole point of the beacon is to keep ships away from his asteroid belt.

The novel was originally serialized, and I could tell. The beginning of each section includes a brief recap of the previous chapters that felt out of place when reading the novel as a whole, but which would fit weekly installments. Each section covers a different episode in the narrator’s time on the beacon: a malfunction, unexpected visitors, repairs, a rescue, more unexpected visitors. The narrator’s monologue is simultaneously honest, funny, and poignant. The events that led to his becoming a beacon keeper are teased out bit by bit throughout the novel as the narrator shies away from them, distrusts his own mind, and eventually confronts his memories face to face. This is not only an entertaining and funny novel about a quirky lighthouse-keeper, but also an honest study of a mind with PTSD. This is novel worth reading.

Shades of Milk and Honey

Opening line: ‘The Ellsworths of Long Parkmead had the regard of their neighbours in every respect.’

Kowal - Shades of Milk and Honey coverJane Ellsworth is a talented and eligible young woman in nearly every respect: she paints, plays the piano, and weaves glamour with ease. But she is not beautiful; that blessing was bestowed on her younger sister Melody. The summer brings several newcomers into the neighborhood: Mr. Vincent, the renowned glamourist invited to create a new glamour in the Fitzcamersons’ dining room; Captain Livingston, one of Lady FitzCameron’s nephews, is also back from serving in His Majesty’s Navy (and catches the eye of every matchmaker in the neighborhood); and Miss Dunkirk, the younger sister of Mr. Dunkirk. Jane is not at all surprised that Melody seems to hold the attention of all of the eligible young men in their set, and so she devotes herself to being a dutiful sister, daughter, and neighbor. Despite her admiration of the new glamourist’s work, however, he is always disgruntled with her. Meanwhile, it seems possible that Mr. Dunkirk esteems her instead of Melody! And what is Captain Livingston up to? Miscommunication and intrigue abound in this Regency-styled comedy of manners.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal is set in a world similar to the landed gentry of Jane Austen, only with the addition of ‘glamour’, a type of magic that can create illusions. The ability to manipulate, or ‘weave’, glamour is another of the many skills a young noblewoman needed to know to demonstrate her refinement and education of the arts. For the most part, Kowal stays true to her source material; to the well-trained eye or experienced reader, it sounds ever so slightly different from Austen’s writings because it is written by a twenty-first-century author, not an eighteenth-century one. As someone who appreciates Regency-era novels, rather than loving them, I enjoyed Kowal’s novel because of the addition of magic and from recognizing the author’s homage to Austen. The novel is the first in a series, though stands well on its own.

For fans of fantasy and Jane Austen: This novel is for you!