Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Spending time to make time in teaching

It is a truth universally acknowledged that in teaching you have to spend time now to make time later for what you want to do.

Today I spent time decluttering the Memorial Cabinet of Classes Past. I thought I'd done a reasonable job of that before, but judging from the old tests I put in the confidential destruction bin, the old notes and handouts I lugged to the recycler, and the transparencies (yes, I still had some!) I tossed out, maybe it's an ongoing process. This freed up a lot of folders. 

Like Bardiac, I like folders for classes, several per class for papers to grade, papers graded, notes, and everything.  Each class has its own color so I can grab the right one easily. They don't need to be pristine as long as they're used folders from my files, and the new old folders now have new labels and are ready to use. 

I spent time writing assignments, too, and instructions, and quizzes, and notes on a novel I'll teach in a few weeks, and lecture notes (which are really just the questions for the class). I also sent a message to the classes about something they need to do that will make an upcoming class easier. I'm teaching another new course this year, so everything is baked from scratch. 

Except for a meeting, this took all day, but it's satisfying to know that I've made some free time on another day.  

Monday, August 27, 2012

Fun with iPad: tech tools for teachers

Profgrrrl's post  about wanting to buy (but not really needing) school supplies like paper and pens hit home for me. I want to buy some, but I don't need them. I already have more ink than it would take to write War and Peace, and I went a little crazy and bought too many PaperBlanks journals a few months back, presumably so that I can admire their blank pages since they're too pretty to write in. 

But tech tools are fun, too, and here are a few that I'm trying out this semester. 

  • Strict Pomodoro for Chrome (free) is the, well, strict version of the little red apple app. The Pomodoro app tries to keep you going with its 25-minute intervals, but Strict Pomodoro, like a good Puritan, knows that on some days the flesh is weak. It prevents you from going to your favorite distraction sites during the 25 minutes, so you have to keep going. 
  • (free) I am still hooked on this; I've been getting up at 5 and logging in to this app. Even if the words for that day are all brainstorming or book notes rather than writing, it feels good to get something written before you even start the day, and whatever you write after that is gravy.
  • Scrivener looks as though it will be good if I can ever get through the tutorial.  So far it's tougher to learn than Dreamweaver, but I think it will pay off eventually, especially when I get to figure out how to use those cool little index cards on the corkboard. 
  • Kindle. (free) I still like the Kindle app best for reading, because if it says it downloaded something, it really did download it so you can read it even if you don't have internet access. Also, Kindle lets you mark up the text and saves your notes and quotations to a web site that only you can access. 
  • Google Books (free), I'm sorry to say, has been more sketchy with this: I'll think I have a book downloaded and try to access it somewhere without internet, and the app says, in effect, "Hold on just a sec--need to get a few more files--." Google, I love you for most things, but I don't trust you to keep my books on the iPad where they belong.
  • IAnnotate: still the best way to mark up a public domain book as well as to grade papers. Instead of downloading the version into GooglePlayBooks, I save the .pdf to Dropbox and open it in iAnnotate so that I can mark it up. 
  • Goodreads and Librarything both have a way now to let you scan the ISBN barcode and add a book to your library.  Use the (free) Redlaser app for iPhone or Android to scan the barcodes; send the list to yourself and upload it to Librarything. Julie Duffy explains the process here. Goodreads has an app for this, making the process even easier. 
Grading/Writing/Notes for iPad

I keep collecting notes apps and welcome any advice about which ones you've found most useful. Some have handwriting recognition, some include the ability to record your voice as well as write, and all include a function for typing. Most can import .pdf files so that you can mark them up. 
  • Writepad. This note-taking app has handwriting recognition.
  • Noterize. Another note-taking app, with a yellow notepad-like look to it.
  • Noteshelf. This puts your work into an iBooks-like bookshelf with notebooks. 
  • NotetakerHD. This is a little easier to use than some because its tools are ranged along the bottom of the screen. 
  • Penultimate, which is simple to use and inexpensive. 
  • NotesPlus, which looks really promising. The handwriting recognition feature costs a few dollars extra but will probably be worth it. 
To be honest, I actually end up taking notes by typing on the keyboard and using the following:
  • Docs-to-Go, which syncs with Dropbox and is seamless with Word, Excel, and Powerpoint. This is a free-standing app on the iPad and doesn't require internet access. It's a little faster than CloudOn. 
  • CloudOn, a new (free) app that lets you use Word, etc. and works with Dropbox and Box. Since it works by syncing, you'll need internet access. 
  • PlainText, (free) which is good for taking notes in meetings and sending them to yourself. It's very simple to use. 
And, as recommended in Profhacker,  Attendance2, which will let you take attendance on the iPad and email reports to you or your students. There was a learning curve with this one, but I think it looks promising.

[My self-imposed ban on writing about MOOCs is still in effect, so I'm writing about everything but; if your MOOC cravings get too strong, try Historiann and Jonathan Rees. Or maybe Audrey Watters, who talks about some issues with the way that grading actually works in one.]

Friday, August 24, 2012

Making contact

We've all read those studies that show that students make up their minds about professors in the first 90 seconds and don't really change those opinions for the next 16 weeks.  That's not something we can do anything about, really--they'll think what they're going to think. What the first week of class boils down to is not just introducing the syllabus and material but figuring out how we're going to relate to the students.

So we try to make contact with them, even if it's a larger class. In addition to trying to learn their names (which I can never do the first week, of course), I try to get off the stage (the dreaded "sage on the stage") and talk to everybody a little bit. Handing out syllabi individually, instead of passing them down the row. Making a seating chart and thus making individual eye contact with them.  From the number that come up after class just to exchange a few words, they want to make contact, too.

This isn't much, compared to what we'll be doing later, but it's a start.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The annoyance scale

On a scale of 1-5, with 1 being "I have to say something" and 5 being "eh, maybe I should just be amused," how would you rate the following?

1. Colleague who asks you all about a certain program (including whether such a program even existed at the university) in a meeting and, when you fill him in, stands up and gives a little speech about all the things that said program is doing--things you've just told him. Do you chime in, or not?

2. Colleague who loves to speak up a lot in meetings makes a few dramatic statements--not really incorrect, just incomplete-- about a committee on which you not only served but wrote part of the final report, and another colleague, knowing that you know much more about the committee than dramatic colleague, looks at you to see if you'll say something.  Do you speak up, or not?

3. Visit to a store that rhymes with Madio Mack to get an audio cord, during which the salesperson informs you that "these are mono. That means that you get only one channel of sound." Do you wrap the cord around his neck for being condescending, this being a feature of shopping at Madio Mack every single time I've ever gone there, or just let it go?

4. Do you also strangle the cashier, who repeatedly gives you a hard sell on an extended service contract for a $15 audio cord before he'll take your money and let you leave?

I chose 5 for each one, because 1 & 2 obviously needed the spotlight way more than I did and 3 & 4 reminded me why I should not shop at Madio Mack. So you see, these were lessons disguised as annoyances, and now I can look happily forward to the new school year.

Did you have any experiences this week in which you had to use the annoyance scale?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Watch one, do one, teach one

Bardiac has been to a workshop that changed her mind about the way she teaches.  Here's some of what she heard:
According to the research (and I trust that the speaker did a good job looking at all the research), it does no good (and may do harm) for an instructor to mark or correct grammar in student papers. The research looked at lots of different strategies: code and look it up, check and have the student correct it, and on and on. And none of it, NONE OF IT, actually worked to get students to write better or more grammatically. None of it.
I found this research conclusion depressing and, with all due respect to Bardiac and the researchers, counterintuitive.  How do they "get it" over time if you can't tell them about errors? Asking them to clarify is great, and I totally agree with that part--but how can they ever get better if they don't know something is wrong? 

As I said in the comments over there, this may be true for some or even the majority of students, but there's a motivated minority (or maybe majority) that wants to know and wants to get better. They're the ones who say "but how can I correct this?" or "how can I change it so it sounds better?" or even "thanks--no one has ever told me that that was a problem before." I've heard all these from students, and I'll bet you have, too. Heck, I've said them all when I was a student, and I'll bet you have, too.

I read a book about medical school by Perri Klass one time years ago, and she talked about how medical students learn to do some simple procedures, like stitching up a minor wound.  The phrase she used was that the students were supposed to "watch one, do one, teach one"--the idea being that once they'd done the first two parts, they could teach it to someone and learn by doing the teaching.    They didn't get a chance to say "nothing works" or "I can't get this" or "why do we have to learn this anyway?" or "you're ruining my creative spark with all your nattering on about complete sentences"; they just had to do it.  Of course, they were a self-selected, motivated group--they were in medical school, after all--but still, couldn't something like this be tried?

And one piece of anecdata out of several I could mention: last year, I had a student who wrote convoluted sentences to say obvious things. We spent a lot of time together going over ze's drafts before ze turned them in, discussing individual sentences, and so on.  Those meetings are like interviews: you're interviewing students about what they are saying, and the words that come out of their mouths are often an awesomely clear version of what's not written on the paper. So we work with that, and then we look at another draft, and so on.  And the writing gets better.  That's the part that everyone, even the researcher, agrees works, it seems: one-on-one time with students talking about their writing. Ze also improved in terms of the comments given in our class's draft workshops--the "teach one" part of the equation.

But if I hadn't said anything about the student's sentences, how would ze have known? And if ze had not been persistent and motivated, would hir writing have changed?  I'd say persistent, motivated student + discussions about drafts + indicating that there are fixable problems on the draft = the possibility of writing success.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

What helps when you're writing?

Here's what's been helping with writing lately:

  • Standing up. When caffeine just can't get you over that early afternoon slump, here's what I discovered: writing standing up. I know I'm in good company here (see picture), but I never thought this was for me until I tried it. Putting the laptop on top of the small, ancient copier in my study, which is the perfect height for a standup desk (and also free),  forestalls the faceplant into the keyboard and instant descent into dreams that seems just about unavoidable from 2-3 p.m. (Hint: Writing a blog post in this dead zone will also wake you up.)
  • Writing in a cool room. My study gets too hot in the afternoons, even with the blinds closed, so I take the traveling circus approach and descend to the cool basement, where I set up a cardboard box, put my laptop on it, and write, yes, standing up. I also have one of those giant exercise balls that they make fun of on Portlandia, and that works when I feel like sitting down. A coffee shop would probably be good, except that that would mean putting actual going-out-of-the-house clothes on instead of running shorts and a t-shirt.
  • Follow your impulse to jump up and move around. Now we have proof, because the goddess of NPR says so: it's good for you to get up and move around every 20 minutes. The words then start to click into place, like Tetris blocks falling, and you'll get some sentences that way. 
  • Stay away from FaceBook.  Even if you don't find it a time suck, trust me on this: Everyone on FaceBook will be either (1) doing more interesting academic things (fabulous seminar!) than you, or (2) writing more than you and posting about it, or (3) uploading pictures from a more exciting, exercise-filled vacation spot than you are visiting.  This goes double for Twitter, which can only confirm your assessment of yourself as a slothful waste of space. So banish these as best you can. 
Jonathan at Stupid Motivational Tricks asks "What's your fuel?" What tricks have you found lately? 

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Signs that a novel may not be holding your attention

  • When it takes you several days to read a reasonably short book written in what ought to be pretty straightforward prose.
  • When a character who was apparently introduced earlier shows up many chapters later and, like David Spade on Saturday Night Live, you want to say, "And you are ---? And this is regarding ---?" 
  • When this character has somehow acquired a new name, thus explaining part of the confusion, and you find this infuriating.
  • When a character refers to "that passionate night in Paris" and you think, wait, what? Was that in this book?
  • When you start resenting the introduction of yet another character because you want to know if this one has a point or is just going to be thrown in the corner with the other pointlessly introduced characters. 
  • When you start to think about the characters and drift off into a microburst of sleep and dream a more gripping plot than the one you've been reading, only to come back to reality and characters that you can't remember.
  • When the author writes a passage that really does make this sound like a classic, if a forgotten one, only to lose the thread in the next chapter.
  • When the twists of the plot are such that the movie Anonymous makes sane historical sense by comparison. (To paraphrase Chinatown: "My son! My brother! My lover!")

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Random links of writing productivity

  • Via Nicoleandmaggie, "The Chaos of Writing." "A sample: When I first started to write, I got into the habit of playing music as a background. If my bedsit was too quiet then the hyper-critical interior of my head would simply yell so loudly that I couldn't focus."
  • At Get a Life, PhD, getting your goals out of your head and onto paper. I've actually done this; it's all in a sweet Excel spreadsheet, which has a little column for "sent" items. But simply writing down that Chapter 15 will be done, as GaL,PhD suggests--ah, there's the rub. I have "finish chapter" on my calendar for the Laocoon chapter for July 7 and think I may, just may, have come up with a solution now, a month later. See how that works (or doesn't work)?
  • What Now has a good long post about writing-to-learn exercises that she participated in at a recent Bard College seminar. 
  • I just submitted a proposal for a conference, and--don't laugh--I've started drafting the paper already, since the materials are already at hand and in my head because of writing the proposal.  Efficient use of time or stellar procrastination technique? You decide. 

Friday, August 03, 2012

News flash: Digital for-profit company supports going digital

A few bullet points with comments.
  • The president of McGraw-Hill predicts that "campuses will be completely digital" in 3 years. 
  • A study funded by McGraw-Hill found--surprise!--that its digital Learning Smart features enhanced learning.
  • It has a "pay-for-performance" model with the online Western Governors University that "ties the fees we receive for learning materials to the grades of the students using those materials in class." 
    • I couldn't figure out how to interpret this, since the link provided gave no clue.  I did read at a link on the page that the American Enterprise Institute thinks that accreditation is a too-little, too-late warning system that will gradually fade away once the invisible hand of the market works its magic on higher ed. 
  • "Colleges such as Indiana University and the University of Minnesota are partnering with learning companies to ensure that all students have access to the learning materials for their courses at a price that’s substantially lower than what they’re used to paying – as much as 60 percent less than a print textbook."  
    • Will that still be the case--cheaper than used books--once the digital materials are the only game in town?
  • "While the transition to an all-digital learning materials experience may not always be comfortable, it’s one that is a necessary part of the solution."  
    • Really? Necessary for whom? "Solution" to what problem? What are we solving here? Whose comfort are we talking about? 
Read more: 

In unrelated news, the Village Voice feature on for-profit colleges shows how congressional leaders have made them the gold mines that they are:  

The industry had discovered the value of paying protection money to Congress. It spent $16 million on lobbying last year alone, buying a dream team of former officials that includes former HouseMajority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Missouri) and no less than 14 former congressmen.

"I didn't know when I got into the issue of for-profit schools that it was the best way for me to have a reunion with every member of Congress as they parade through the door, all representing these schools," says U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), who has held hearings investigating for-profits. "There is so much money on the table they can afford to hire everybody."

Money for everyone, that is, except the students, who are saddled with debts that they--unlike every corporation--or should I say "person"?-- in America--can never discharge through bankruptcy.

See also Leslie M-B's reaction to the recent report on the gold mine that is for-profit online education.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

It takes a village

I've been thinking about Ianqui's recent post about a flap in Brooklyn when a beer garden allowed families to bring their kids along. Her conclusion was that (I'm paraphrasing) people need to chill out about this issue, and I'd agree.

The other day I had to go to Kabletown's local office to pick up some equipment.  There's a waiting room like the one in Beetlejuice where you take a number and wait your turn for 40 minutes or so, except that it's pretty roomy if you opt to stand instead of sitting.

As I stood there reading on my iPhone, two little kids (about 2 and 5) started tearing around the place with the youngest shrieking--you know, that dog's-whistle-level shriek that only little kids can manage. I looked up briefly with my "mom's eyes" but didn't see any buzz saws or other likely hazards, and since the kids were barefoot, they had a pretty good purchase on the uncarpeted floor. There wasn't any way they could likely injure themselves too seriously. I went back to reading.

A woman came out of the door and addressed the kids: "You need to stop running or you'll get hurt."  They looked at her with wide eyes and kept going.

Then they ran up to me and stopped.  I said, "You need to stop shrieking, okay? No shrieking." They didn't stop running but they did stop shrieking. The running didn't bother me, and I went back to reading.

Then the littlest one got into the chair at the desk that Kabletown reserves for the elderly and disabled.  An elderly woman came in with her daughter, and the daughter said, "Please get out of the chair." The child just looked at her as she repeated her request but didn't move.

A woman who was watching this got up, went over to the child, moved the chair, and said, "You need to get out of the chair so that this lady can sit down.  Go find your parents. Where's your mother?"

The older boy said, "We haven't got a mother."  She said, "Go find your father, then," and they went over to the seating area where the father had been ignoring the whole thing. He still didn't say anything to them, but they seemed to settle down.

I guess my point would be this: yes, it probably would have been better if the parent had made some effort at getting the kids to behave, but since he didn't, the rest of the people stepped up--not in a mean way--to let the kids know that they needed to settle down.  The temporary Kabletown village stepped in, and it all worked out.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The cure for writing: give up and do more writing

Take two pieces of scholarly writing, the multi-level beast and a different piece.

The multi-level beast has been fighting me (see Laocoon) for months now, and although only one small part is gumming up the works, it's a part that I will go to great lengths to avoid writing. Nothing was helping, so I temporarily gave up.

Instead, I took out a piece of writing that I had worked on some time ago and had presented portions of as a conference paper. I reread it and tried to remember why I had not finished it before, especially given the huge investment in archival work that I had put into it. Then I got to work.

I can't believe the difference.  I worked late into the evening for a few days, and I wanted to work on the paper all day. I got up in the morning excited about working about it.  I talked about it at dinner.

I didn't need to time anything, turn on any anti-internet distraction software, or force myself back into the chair.  I didn't feel any compelling need to clean the refrigerator or engage in any other creative procrastination.  I resented time taken away from the computer.

When the piece was finished, I sent it.

Now, that doesn't help me with the multi-level beast. But I wanted to record, right here in writing, that I wanted to work and felt happy about it as a reminder that it is possible to be happy, stimulated, and engaged by the work instead of weighed down by it.