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.