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Life

Connected to what?

I've had this thought more than once during the past few weeks: What if I delete my Facebook account? I have no real reason to delete it, and I certainly have nothing against Zuckerberg or the company (though recent history has definitely exposed his true business sense). I haven't posted anything I'm trying to hide, and there is no one in my Friend list who I believe to be a liability. So, what is the source of these feelings?

Hollowness.

That is the feeling I am left with when I look at Facebook. To me, it is a very hollow. I know it is not that way for everyone, such as my sister who is very involved in playing various games with several of her friends. I know many people who chit-chat back and forth with their friends all day, as if they were in the same room. I think this is great, but it's not the experience I have had. I'm not sure it's the experience I want to have.

The obvious advantages to Facebook are the networking and being able to see what people are up to (assuming they choose to share their lives) without having to ask. Networking, especially in this day and age, is a benefit. It's nice to have a central place where you can send people messages, knowing it will go directly into the e-mail inbox. It's also frustrating when you never get a response from someone, knowing your message went directly into their e-mail inbox. To this end, I would say this has been my main use of Facebook.

Facebook also does a nice job of keeping people who would not ordinarily be in your consciousness in your consciousness. Stalking, lurking or whatever you want to call it probably is not a benefit, except for those moments when you think, "I wonder whatever happened to old So-and-so," then you proceed to find him or her on Facebook, only to discover he lives in Peoria, Illinois and sells sand to hourglass companies. "Oh," you think to yourself, and move on. But at least old So-and-so is in your thoughts in some way, which is a way to stay connected to your past, I guess.

For me, the hollowness comes from knowing there are many people in my Friends list who want to know about me but aren't really interested in knowing me anymore. They want to have a connection to me in case I ever come in handy but they aren't committed enough to actually connect. I have a handful of friends who actually do write back, chit-chat or want to get together from time to time, but I am starting to think those are the friends I would have stayed in touch with even if there were no Facebook.

Like I said, hollow.

The main question for me, however, is not the impact this 21st century digitally-driven social networking has on me. I'm a grown-up with a great job, wonderful family and sense of purpose in life. I can deal with a little hollowness. The bigger question is how does this type of connecting affect people who have never known anything else? How are my children going to define friendship? Will they grow up thinking that people are information you need to simply find out? That once you know the person's information, you "know" that person? Will they believe the lie that you are what you share? Will they feel compelled to tweet, update, instragram or whatever every single experience they've had, or even worse, manufacture experiences just because they think they'll make for a good tweet, instragram or update?

When I think about the true friends in my life, I think of inside jokes, mountain adventures, long stories to fill long bus rides to school events, secret pacts made by a campfire, calling each other over college breaks to find time to hang out. I think about talking over dinner, serving together with someone other than ourselves in mind, playing phone tag for weeks until one of us catches the other person at home, road trips. Friendships should be so heavy with shared experiences they leave a wake in our past that never really dissipates.

I'm sure my children will use Facebook (or something like it), but I am starting to believe I will have to be purposeful if I hope to keep it from becoming the central piece in their social lives. Lives are more than data, and connection is more than updates. One way to help with this is to keep my account open and use it responsibly. And Friend them when they're old enough.

Mine, Yours and Ours

This semester was one of the more challenging I've had since I began teaching college. For one, I was teaching 4 classes: three undergrad and one grad. Three of the classes were completely online, and the other was hybrid. The hybrid class and grad class were at a large university in my city, and the other two classes were at a small community college about a thousand miles away. Confused yet? Good, because that is how I felt most of the semester. What made this particular semester even more challenging was the nature of the courses I was teaching. I call them Mine, Yours and Ours, and each course presented its own set of challenges.

Mine

I have taught these online sections of the same class for about 7 years. This began as an experiment, and it was so popular within the community college setting in which it was offered that they asked me to teach more sections. For three years I only taught in the summer, then I was asked to pick up one section in the fall and spring, and now I am teaching two sections each semester and two each summer. This particular course can be used as a substitute for basic composition, and apparently there are a lot of students who do not want to take basic composition. This class still requires the students to do quite a bit of writing, but the crux of each assignment is not me pointing out the deficiencies in their writing. (Of which. There. Are. Many.) I focus more on their content, but I still point out areas of their writing that need to be improved in the subsequent papers. Anyway, the course is not that hard and students who stay on track all semester almost always make an A. Everyone else usually makes a D or F. Seriously.

I could easily teach this class in my sleep. I know exactly when each assignment is due, what I am looking for from each student, and I can usually successfully guide students back on track when they show signs of dropping out. One of my sections this semester did kind of implode (only 10 out of 23 students completed the class), but this is the first time this has happened. When I finally hand this class over to someone else, which I will be doing in the fall, I feel pretty confident that I know it well enough to help the new instructor get off to a good start. In other words, I feel like I totally own this course and have command of what happens throughout the semester. In fact, most of the teaching I have done throughout my career falls into the Mine category. For good or bad, it's my course.

Yours

Another of my courses this semester was an online graduate course. When I was asked to teach this curse ... I mean, course ... I felt pretty confident I would be able to do it just from the title. I promptly found out which books the professor had been using, obtained desk copies and proceeded to look through her syllabus. I contacted her former teaching assistant, and this is when I found out about something called Intellectual Property. I already knew what this was, but what I didn't know was that at this particular school that meant I was supposed to teach the course "as is." The lessons, assignments, discussions, etc. were already loaded into Blackboard and all I had to do was show up.  This didn't sound so bad at first, but as I began looking at the assignments I knew this was going to be very challenging. Maybe I am just immature, but I found it REALLLLY hard to enforce assignments with students that I never would have given in the first place. I never really got control of my serve the entire semester, and I think the main reason was that I felt such little ownership of the course. Many of the assignments were outdated, the technology the students were using was definitely outdated, and some of the tasks the students were asked to perform were not even possible in the most recent versions of the software. To add insult to injury, I was not allowed to have access to the server the students were using to host their websites. When they would e-mail me with questions about uploading (or Putting, in this case), I didn't know exactly how to help them because I did not have access to Put files on the server. How can you help someone with something you have never done before?!? I could not even see the files on the back end to tell them if they were in the right directory or not.

I have taught this exact course at another university, but I completely designed and implemented it myself. I was able to answer student questions (and challenges) with confidence because everything that was there was something I put there. The students learned a lot, and the evaluations turned out pretty good. I will not even look at the evaluations for this class. Had it not been for the fact that this class was made up of pretty motivated Master's students, this would have been a total disaster. I am willing to bet the students already think it was.

Ours

The final class I taught this semester, a hybrid course at a large university, would mostly be described as a team effort. The course outline was made up of several topics I chose myself and some that were "part of the course." Most of the course policies were my decision (attendance, late work, participation), while others were required to be  common across all sections (readings, exams). This course has historically been a source of student data using a battery of attitude and self-efficacy instruments, so there were some lessons that we were all encouraged to teach in order to assess changes in those areas. Some of the modules for this course were designed as part of a grant-funded project, and I taught them for all of the instructors. This was quite time consuming, but it did give me a chance to refine my teaching strategy over several iterations, which is good for improving my personal instruction. Most of the instructors for this class give the same assignments, though they differ in how they are graded and how much work the students are expected to do. The area in this course with the most variation was in the final project. Without going into a lot of detail, this varied greatly across different sections of the course. I guess the bottom line here is that overall this is a good course, but the student experience is very different depending on who is teaching the section.

Take-Aways

My experience with teaching this semester gave me a front-row seat into some of the big issues facing higher-ed teaching in this era.

  1. Canned content : college courses :: canned food : nutrition. I believe it was necessary for me to teach a pre-planned course of someone else's content in order to experience how utterly horrible this is as an educational model. Yet, there are dozens of institutions, both non- and for-profit, that follow this model. My experience with being given a course shell already populated with assignments, readings, discussions and projects was nothing short of disastrous. The entire course, from the terminology to the tools to the links, was out of date. Can I get a "screencast" from the congregation? How about a screenshot? Maybe a video lecture where the slides and voice-over are in the same file? Nothing. This notion of taking a course shell, changing the dates on the syllabus and serving it like yesterday's meatloaf is not as efficient as some people think it is. Instruction is not some thing (i.e., knowledge) that is delivered through a human to other humans. It is the act of a human taking a thing (subject matter) and transforming it into a learning experience for other humans. If a person can gather a bunch of resources and teach himself something new, that's great, but it isn't teaching, and I'm pretty sure universities do not intend to build themselves on this self-help model. If the "teacher" is just the person who makes sure Blackboard is working and points students to the person who actually has access to the server, then why in the world did I bother getting a Ph.D.? Where is the expertise in that?!?
  2. I have completely re-thought my strategy for handing over my online course this fall. My original plan was put everything in a folder, burn it to a disc and giving it to the new instructor. Given the chance that the new instructor might take my content and do what I was forced to do with the grad class, I will probably only give the new instructor as many resources as he needs to get started. I think there is some value in having to think through the course and make decisions about what to assign, and when. The new instructor should come up with his own tests and assignments based on what he thinks is important to know. I have lived with the course so long, I may be missing the point entirely and don't even know it. I want to be helpful, but I also want what is best for the students. And after my experience with the online grad class, I think that what's best for the students is when the instructor puts his or her advanced degree to good use and brands the course with his or her brain, perspective and creativity, not someone else's.
  3. Standardized courses are really tricky. My first experience with a standardized course was a public speaking class at a large university that ran between 60-65 section each semester. It was required, in classes of 20-25 students, for every single undergraduate in the university. I don't think there was one graduate instructor, adjunct or professor who taught the class exactly as it was supposed to be taught. I think they were all pretty similar, but you can't expect intelligent, creative individuals to teach something in the exact same way. The hybrid course I taught is a completely unique experience from section to section, and I think that is OK. But you also want to ensure that in a certification program, as this one is, all students are held to the same standards. Standards vs. Personalization. That is a really hard balance to find, and it is something I will have to think about a lot this summer. In the fall I am teaching a 100+ student course with several TAs to "manage" smaller groups of students. I want the TAs to be themselves and explore their own style, but I also want each student held to the same standards. No shortcuts. No trying to win cool points by being lax. Again, I had to have this experience with a multi-section standardized course because I am about to be in charge of one myself.

Every semester I have taught at the college level has been so different. Nothing has played out exactly the same way twice. No two groups of students have responded exactly the same way to the same project, story or reading. This is what makes it fun, but it also makes it incredibly challenging. The only thing that is guaranteed is that nothing is guaranteed. Oh, and cliches. You are guaranteed to see a few of those if you read my blog.

When do preservice teachers become professionals?

This semester, while I consider it a success in almost every way, was very challenging in terms of dealing with students. I have been teaching at this level for 12 years, and there is very little I haven't encountered to this point. I have seen everything from students getting put in jail to deaths in the family to a student in my class passing away in the middle of the semester. Each of these circumstances, and everything in between, is very sad and a burden to deal with. I dealt with the same thing when teaching elementary school, so I know that this was part of the deal when I signed on.

It is not uncommon for me to get a message from a student during the semester that this or that issue is going on and they will either need to a) drop the course past the deadline, and need my permission, b) won't be able to turn in an assignment on time or c) will need to miss one or two classes.  I actually had a student this semester go to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy, and her mother e-mailed me TWICE from the hospital waiting room to tell me her daughter would miss two weeks of class. Remarkably, she only missed one week and was back on track in a matter of days! So, I get it that life happens.

Well, there was a whole lot of life happening this semester. A whole lot. Some of the circumstances were real, and I was able to work with those students. But many of the circumstances were very vague and handled inappropriately, and in many instances, could have been avoided. I won't go into detail about some of the more entertaining excuses I got, but needless to say, dinnertime chatter between my wife and I was very colorful this semester.

What really gets to me about these many, many life issues is that I had no idea they were occurring until several weeks after the student had stopped coming to class. From my vantage point, here is what typically happened:

  • Student misses class
  • Class involves activities that are either for a grade or necessary for completing an assignment
  • More weeks pass
  • I e-mail student to see if he or she intends to complete the class
  • Student e-mails me and says they have not been in class because of "family issues" and wants me to "help them get caught up"

Please forgive me if you think I am being unreasonable for being suspicious when this particular scenario plays out about 4-5 times with different students in two different sections.  One time? Sure, I will probably take the bait. But when it happens repeatedly, I start to detect an odor. Here is what I think is happening from the student's vantage point:

  • Student misses class
  • Student finds out from a classmate that the missed class session involved activities that were either graded or necessary to complete an assignment
  • Student intends to contact me and let me know why he or she missed class
  • Student proceeds to miss more class
  • Student takes a reflective look back at the last few weeks and analyzes which, if any, events in his or her life could legitimately be called a "family issue" that needed intense and unwavering focus, to the extent that all forms of electronic communication were simply not possible until this very moment
  • Student contacts the professor and vaguely states that he or she has been dealing with "family issues," and wonders if there is any way to make up the activity, either through a special appointment (which he or she is totally willing to do based on my schedule, as long as it is on Tuesday between 1-3 or Friday after noon but before 5) or extra credit (which I will have to create, chase down and grade based on criteria I will need to, you guessed it, design)

This all comes down to Fundamental Attribution Error. Everyone, not just college students, has a tendency to justify and explain their own circumstances in a way that is favorable toward themselves. That is human nature, but what about professional behavior? I mean, assume these excuses were coming from teachers with students showing up in their classrooms everyday. Would this same approach to handling life's circumstances stand up? Even in the worst cases, a professional would have to let someone know what was going on so the school could arrange to provide supervision (a substitute teacher) for the students. I mean, I had a teaching partner give birth over lunch break and she called from the L&D room to let us know she wouldn't be back to teach that afternoon! So, is it unreasonable to expect college students to handle their affairs, especially when it comes to their professional training as educators, as professionals?

As a form of catharsis, I wrote came up with the following list of professional behaviors that I think preservice teachers should be expected to demonstrate:

Professionals …

(Meetings) Are not late for meetings Come prepared for meetings Are actively engaged during meetings Don’t make appointments that conflict with meetings Let people know beforehand if they have to miss a meeting, and why

(Projects) Meet their deadlines Are proactive Don’t make excuses when deadlines are missed

(Group Work) Do their own work Do their part

This list is not exhaustive, but I am trying to get some traction on the set of behaviors I should expect from my preservice teachers. These are behaviors that will be expected of them during field experiences, student teaching and in the workplace, so why is this not the case for their classes? Perhaps I am being unreasonable and this blog post will cause an uproar. I actually would welcome that. If I am in some way off base, I would like to know so I can determine the correct way to respond and interact with students when it comes to their personal affairs.

So, let me hear from you. How do you deal with these kinds of circumstances with students? What are your expectation for professional behavior in your classes?

Inspiration is for amateurs

This time of year, when there so much to do, I find it hard to get motivated to do some of the things (e.g., grading) that I don't want to do. This morning as I was driving to work, I was reminded of an interview I once saw with Chuck Close, a professional artist. He has these words for anyone who is emerging with their profession:

The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.

This is a popular quotation, and for good reason. If I treat motivation (inspiration) like it is something that I must have before I can do anything meaningful or productive, I will end up wasting a lot of time. I have experienced this first hand recently with my writing, where I have been much more systematic about chipping away at manuscripts than I have in the past. There have actually been studies about this, and they show that writers who set aside smaller chunks of time each day for writing actually get more done that writers who set aside larger chunks on a couple of days or who set aside a whole day. This seems counter-intuitive, but having squandered many  a "writing day," I guess it wouldn't hurt to try it. After I get this figured out, the question will shift to, how do I get my students to adopt this philosophy?

Drinking or Pouring

One of the panelists at the keynote on the last day of SITE made a really interesting remark. He said (in my own words), your perspective about the glass being half empty or half full depends on whether you're drinking or pouring. I don't know if he meant for this remark to be poignant, but I have really been thinking about it a lot. I guess the difference, to me, comes down between giving and receiving. If a person spends a lot of their time receiving and expecting from others, circumstances would naturally be viewed as falling short of his or her needs and expectations. I have known quite a few people like this, and honestly, I have been this person on many occasions. When your focus is on what you are (or aren't) getting, there will always be something missing.

On the other hand, people who spend more of their time, talents and energy giving tend to see the world in terms of what they can give and be for others. It makes sense that this sort of person would not spend a whole of time thinking about what he or she is not getting.

It seems the common view is that perspective is the starting place. A person has his or her worldview, and they act based on that perspective. But I'm starting to think that actions, whether focused on helping others or yourself, influence perspective, and this makes the daunting task of improving a pretty self-centered worldview not so impossible. A very wise person once said, "If your first concern is to look after yourself, you'll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you'll find both yourself and me." I'm glad to have been reminded of that in the most unlikely of places.