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.

Introduction to Literature by Women

Last week I learned that I will be teaching the upper-level course ‘Literature by Women’ this fall semester. As I consider what texts to choose and what to do with them, I remember doing the same last summer when I was preparing to teach ‘Introduction to Literature by Women’. The latter course fulfilled my university’s core ‘Women’s Studies’ requirement; many of the students were freshmen and sophomores from a range of majors. The upper-level course, in contrast, will be taken by mostly junior and senior English majors. Because the audiences and objectives of the course are different, I doubt I will reuse many (if any) of the same texts I used for the introductory course.

While I’m not ready to blog about the decision process for my upcoming course, I thought that I would write about my choices for my introductory course.

Because ‘Introduction to Literature by Women’ was an introductory literature course, I decided to use it to introduce students to women’s writings in a variety of genres, namely: memoirs, poetry, fiction, and essays. I also set the parameters that the texts I chose had to be written by modern or contemporary American women.

I wanted to introduce my students to as wide range of authors as I possibly could, so I opted to have a key text (a book-length work) for most of the genres that would be supported by selected shorter texts, such as short-stories or essays. The only genre that I did not have a key text for was poetry.

Once I set my parameters, I immediately chose Kindred by Octavia Butler as my fiction key text and Ursula K. Le Guin as one of my supplemental authors. I already knew that if I had to teach poetry, I wanted to teach poets I liked, so I included Naomi Shihab Nye and Laurie Ann Guerrero, who was the 2016 Texas Poet Laureate. Upon asking K. regarding memoirs, she suggested Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Dandicat. I read it, was hooked, and promptly added it to my list.

It was then that I discovered that nearly all of my chosen authors were women of color. Although this happened unintentionally, I did intentionally continue this theme: I had Latina-American, Palestinian-American, Haitian-American, and African-American authors, so let me also have Korean-American, Japanese-American, Indian-American, and Native American authors, as well as Anglo-American authors. We spent a lot of time discussing what it means to be an American that semester. Also, that women write about everything, not just ‘women’s issues’. It was awesome.

Below are the units, organized by genre, with the texts that I chose for each unit.

Continue reading

what causes academic dishonesty?

This week I have had to investigate and speak with several students about academic dishonesty issues in their most recent assignment.

The majority of the problems are lack of appropriate citations, ‘patchwriting’ (or incomplete paraphrasing), including direct quotations without indicating that they are quotations, and similar infractions. As a teacher/librarian, I am frustrated because I thought I covered how to cite and how to use sources earlier in the semester. How is it that nearly a third of the class made these mistakes?

It’s easy to think that these students are willfully stealing others’ work and hoping that they won’t get caught. From my experience, however, many students don’t seem to understand fully that what they are doing is theft. So what’s going on here?

There are several contributing factors: for one, the assignment was due shortly after midterms, so many of the students confessed that they were sloppy with their sources out of a combination of haste and laziness. The issue here is time management and organization. Another factor is that this particular class has been a challenge to keep engaged in the classroom, and it is very likely that my lessons on using sources simply didn’t sink in or the students weren’t paying attention.

A third contributing factor is, perhaps, the influence that sharing on social media is having on our society. Not only is it easy to do an image search or find something written on almost anything on the Internet, it is now extremely easy to ‘share’ what we find with our various online networks. All you have to do is click one of the various ‘share’ buttons on nearly any website or on any post on the different social media platforms. We share and share and share and never once think about amending our ‘shared’ posts with a citation indicating the source of the image or article it is that we are sharing. (Well, I do. But even I don’t always present my ‘citation’ in strict MLA or APA style.)

One of the implications of this feature of our online lives is the blurring of our understanding of intellectual property.

Anything we see or hear we can share with others. We expect information of all kinds, from music to articles to pictures to videos, to be easily accessible and free (or cheap). Because most of it is accessed through a screen that we own (a smartphone, tablet, or computer), whenever we want it, it’s possible that we feel like the material we are consuming is already ‘ours’. It’s just there, floating in the ether, waiting for us to consume it. As a result, it’s easy to forget that someone else made that material, and, as such, that someone should benefit from our consumption of their work. At the very least, that person should receive credit for what they have created.

So that is an added challenge to teaching information literacy and academic integrity: teaching also the relevance and importance of intellectual property.

Another contributing factor to the problem of academic dishonesty is that students misunderstand the purpose of assignments and assessment.

Too often students are focused on getting the ‘right’ answers to get ‘good grades’ rather than mastering concepts.

When writing an essay, students get distracted by wanting to appear like they know the content of their essay topic, whereas I am more interested in their methodology and whether they have understood the strategies we discussed about crafting an argument. A student writing about suicide prevention will copy and paste from a Psychology Today article to make it look like she knows the subject; I want to know if she knows how to appropriately and effectively use sources and is capable of critical thinking. What the student thinks is important is often at cross purposes with the purpose of the assignment.

So the issues here are not just underdeveloped information literacy skills, but also:

  • Underdeveloped time management and organization skills;
  • A lack of understanding of the concept of intellectual property;
  • A misunderstanding of the purpose of the assignments, and, perhaps, of (higher) education in general.

Realizing this will help me to better prepare for next semester as I know I will need to adjust and create lesson plans to address these issues. The responsibilities of a college writing instructor are much more than simply teaching how to write an essay; or rather, writing an essay involves much more than simply putting words on paper — but that’s another post entirely.

Writing Exercises: Synthesis

Before my students submit their first essay, I introduce them to the idea of synthesizing their research. I open the discussion with a description of how I usually see research used in student essays: a paragraph making a point with one source used for an example; another paragraph making another point with another source used for an example; and so on, which each paragraph referring to only one source and most sources only used once in on paragraph. This description often elicits nodding from students, agreeing that is how they use sources.

‘Using your sources that way works,’ I say, ‘But it isn’t very sophisticated and you aren’t getting much out of your sources this way. Today we are going to practice synthesizing your sources.’

Synthesis is joining the conversation.

Synthesis, I explain, is like having a conversation. Each of your sources is a person sitting a table in a café and they are talking about your topic. When you write your essay, you are pulling up a chair to their table and joining the conversation. Think about how you have conversations with a group of people: does each person speak in a monologue before passing the topic on to the next person at the table?

No. Instead, people talk over each other, interrupting each other, adding on to someone’s earlier point with an example of their own, or countering what someone said with an opinion. During a conversation, each person’s idea is woven in with the others’. That is what synthesis looks like when writing an essay.

Writing exercise:

I then organize the students into groups of four or five and give them this exercise:

Choose an issue on campus that all of you have an opinion about.* DO NOT DISCUSS YOUR OPINIONS YET. Once you have selected a topic, spend five minutes writing about it.

When everyone in your group is finished writing, choose one or two people to be the note-takers for your group. Then take turns reading your opinion aloud. The note-takers will pay attention to any repeated ideas, points of agreement, points of disagreement, and anything else that seems noteworthy – these are the “themes” of your conversation – and keep track of who said what. Review the notes as a group after everyone has finished reading.

Now organize the notes. You may find it helpful to use a chart:

Theme: Theme: Theme:

Now begin to think about how you would translate your chart into writing. For instance, you could write a paragraph about each person’s ideas summarizing their main points OR you could write a paragraph about each theme/idea and include all five points of view in each paragraph.

The first option is simply summarizing. The second option is SYNTHESIS.

Synthesis writing is more sophisticated and better demonstrates that you know what each source says about the subject and how the source relates to the other sources. Spend a few minutes writing a paragraph about each point in your group’s topic.

This exercise works well to introduce the meaning of synthesis and put it into practice. After discussing their results, I then provide them a Synthesis Matrix to use for their essay’s sources. The rest of the class period is spent filling out the synthesis matrix for their essays, and I wander around the room helping students to identify themes in their sources for their topics.

After introducing this exercise into my lesson plans, I have seen a dramatic improvement of how sources are used in my students’ essays.

* After a few times doing this exercise, I’ve banned the topic ‘parking on campus’ because inevitably every group chooses it. I’m tired of hearing people complain about parking and I’d rather them think of a more creative topic to discuss.

writing exercises: cubing

cubing-exerciseMy favorite writing exercise to use with my first-year composition classes is the ‘cubing’ exercise. This writing exercise helps students to generate content for their assigned essays by providing focused writing prompts on their topic. The idea is that their topic is a cube and each writing prompt is a side of the cube. The students are given five minutes to write about each side. The exercise overall takes about 40 minutes because I explain each prompt as we change ‘sides’.

For example:

  1. Describing: What does your topic look like?
  2. Comparing: What is your topic similar to? Different from?
  3. Associating: What does your topic make you think of? What is related to your topic?
  4. Analyzing: What are the origins of your topic? Why is your topic important?
  5. Applying: What are the functions of your topic?
  6. Arguing: What claims are you making about your topic?

ultimate-critical-thinking-worksheetOne reason why I like this exercise is that it is so adaptable: the sides can be any prompts you want them to be. This exercise can be tailored to any genre or assignment. I have also used the Global Digital Citizen Foundation’s Ultimate Cheatsheet for Critical Thinking for this exercise. Each side has a series of questions (who, what, where, when, why, how) for the students to consider about their topics.

Changing sides of the cube often means interrupting students mid-thought. I tell my students it’s okay to stop mid-sentence since the idea is to keep writing. I often allow 5-10 minutes at the end to allow students to return to one of the sides. Depending on the topic, or amount of time left in class, I’ll add the ‘seventh’ side to a cube (the inside of the cube).

Students are usually surprised to see how much they’ve written in only 30 minutes (the amount of time actually spent writing). It’s not unusual for students to write 800-1000 words during this exercise, and even those who struggle with writing get at least some ideas down on paper. This writing exercise helps students break through writer’s block and realize that they can write about their topic. I emphasize that the material written during this exercise is part of the ‘shitty rough draft’ so that students don’t think they can just add a works cited and call the essay done. Instead, I encourage them to comb through what they’ve written and find the ideas and sentences that really shine and work from there.

on academic distance


I was discussing with my students the topics they have chosen for their “Explaining a Concept” essays during their House Tutorials yesterday. One of my students chose “religion” as her concept. I’m fine with that, as long as she does her research properly and I know that I will workshop how to research in class tomorrow. It’s also a chance for me to teach a different concept: academic distance. And it didn’t take long for me to demonstrate just that. As part of the group discussion for how she could focus her paper topic, another student said, “You could say how religions change. Like how there were Catholics and then the Christians came–”

“Catholics are Christians,” I said automatically.

“But Catholics pray to angels and believe in the Virgin Mary and Christians don’t,” said another student.

“Actually, Catholics don’t pray to angels. Catholics are Christians.”

“Are you Catholic?” they asked. To which I replied, “Now, about your topic, one way you can focus it is by choosing something specific…”

Which means, of course, they think I’m Catholic. Explaining the finer points between Catholicism and Anglo-Catholic Episcopalianism would take too long; also, my denominational preference doesn’t matter. They don’t understand that what I personally believe did not matter in that discussion: factually, Catholics are Christians. Catholics don’t pray to angels. As for saints and the Virgin: veneration is not the same thing as worship. “Praying to” the saints relies on the premise that all Christians, living and dead, are the body of Christ. “Praying to” a saint is, in a sense, equivalent to asking a friend to pray for you. Now, we could talk about the “cult of the saints” during the Patristic and Medieval periods, but that would be different–because it is in a different historical context.

You can be familiar with a subject without being that subject. It is possible to research a topic without being personally invested in that topic. It is possible to research a subject without putting your own beliefs “at risk.” If you are afraid of that happening, then perhaps you need to question the strength of your convictions. Investigating opposing or alternative viewpoints to your own is not a weakness, but a strength. And when you are personally invested in that subject? Challenge yourself. Identify your bias, become aware of it. Then you can set it aside. You can’t completely detach yourself from your bias; it will keep you company, sprawling on your papers, occasionally getting in your way, like a cat would, while you do research on that subject. Maintaining academic distance requires you to be intensely self-aware.

One of the things I try to teach my students is the habit of critical thinking, the practice of questioning everything, to not accept generalizations at face value. Question the source. Who are they? What authority do they have on this subject? Where are they getting their information? Are their sources credible? I can lecture, I can demonstrate, I can give examples–but whether they take any of it in is up to them.

Photo: Chiesa di San Francesco in Lodi, Italy.

Pots on the stove

It’s nearing the end of the semester. I’m behind on grading because I’ve been applying for academic jobs and the fall semester is the main “season” for the American market. Fourteen applications down, with a few more to go, but now I have a bit of respite before the next round of deadlines.

So what I should be doing is working on my article so I can finally actually submit it somewhere, instead of only saying I’m going to do that, right? Actually, I have two articles I need to write or revise. No wait, three…

No, I have some ninety (90) essays to grade between now and Christmas, plus the backlog of homework assignments to grade. Fourteen need to be graded by Monday and I can do that, no big deal.

It’s November, and it’s the second year (third? good grief) I haven’t done NaNoWriMo. Even as I think of all of the academic work I need to do, the sundry of paperwork piling on my desks (at work and at home), the meals I need to cook so I have something to eat later, the household chores that need to be done… I just want to spend the day dreaming in my novels — outlining a bit of Orion here, making a revision plan for TFK here, reading up on screenwriting for “Masterpiece” there.

I’ve got four pots on the stove, and fiction has been on the back-burner for so long I think it’s gone cold or sticking to the bottom of the pot. At least academic research is keeping it company back there.

As always, what I want to do exceeds my capabilities and my responsibilities.

Not all roses

I am afraid that my last post about my (mostly positive) student conferences has cast too rosy a glow on my life at the moment. This is more of what an average day looks like:

  • Having to inform yet another student that they have failed the course due to too many absences.
  • Spending all weekend grading essays for one class, then realizing at 11PM on Sunday night that I haven’t done my lesson planning for the week.
  • Sitting in a parking lot at 9PM eating an overpriced sandwich for dinner–
  • –or coming home and having cereal for dinner, again.
  • When I’m not grading or lesson planning, I’m working on job applications–
  • –all the while realizing that I am one out of hundreds applying for the same twenty-two (22) medieval literature positions currently being advertised–
  • –and also aware of the fact that I’m not really a strong candidate until I manage to publish something, which I can’t do, because I don’t have time to revise my article, because of teaching and grading.
  • Wishing that being able to construct a grammatically correct sentence would be an entrance requirement for university.

Or, today’s combination of events: starting the week on too little sleep (because of staying up late to lesson plan and then having to sleep on the couch because of noisy upstairs neighbours) and after class having a student ask if I could excuse his absence from last week — without Student Life approval — because he had been in jail and didn’t want Student Life to know. I said no. (Thinking to myself: “You have to deal with the consequences of your life choices.”)

BUT, I try to find crumbs of good things, here and there. Like the comments I leave on some of my students essays:

  • “This is an essay, not a mystery novel. State your thesis at the beginning.”
  • “What are you responding to with this statement? Starting ‘in media res’ might work for fiction, but not in an essay.”

Student conferences

How is it nearly Friday already? Just a few days ago — it feels like yesterday — I was in Massachusetts, enjoying the crisp autumn air and celebrating one of my best friend’s wedding. But more on that in another post.

This week I have had my first-ever round of student conferences. Twenty minutes of discussing with each student about how they are doing in class, how they are finding the class, and about their current essay assignment. The amount of positive feedback I received was far more than what I was expecting. Here are a few gems:

“None of my other teachers really talk to us. You’re my only teacher who I actually have conversations with.”

I found this both heartening and sad.

“I love your class! It’s so great to be taught by someone who really knows their subject. Some of my other teachers don’t seem that way. But you really know what you’re talking about.”

I had to restrain myself from laughing: this student has no idea how badly I have had impostor syndrome this semester.

“I was telling my aunt, ‘My English teacher, she’s awesome! She’s short and I love her accent. She’s English or something.’ You’re my favorite teacher.”

Probably the best description of me as a teacher I’ve heard: awesome, short, cool accent.

I began each conference with a brief summary of our agenda and then I opened the discussion with a question: “In your own words, how would you describe what kind of student you are?” That would get us talking — how they perceive themselves or about the kind of student they want to be, and what I have observed as a teacher. I’d then ask different questions about the kind of work we do in class in order to gauge how effective my activities are and see what I needed to tweak or change. It was amazing to hear some students describe exactly what I had intended for each exercise to be — several, actually. There were a few outliers who just didn’t like how I structured my class, but they admitted that they could see how my structure was useful. I think it helped my students, too, to hear my rationale for some of our activities. For the outliers, maybe they will take the activities more seriously now.

Student conferences are exhausting, basically having variants of the same conversation every twenty-minutes for eight hours, but I learned that I love talking one-on-one with most of my students. I wish my classes were smaller so that I could focus my attention on a few students and have more interaction with them in class, rather than having mostly surface-level interaction spread out across a class of twenty or more. As draining as they can be, however, I’m thinking of having more than just one round of conferences next semester, and also of spreading it out over the term so that I’m not blitzing through in a week.

With all the “I love your class” and “You’re my favorite teacher” I’ve heard, I think this comment warmed my heart the most:

“I’m kind of thinking about changing my major to English.”