Tagged: pedagogy

Teaching: Year Two

(This entry is brought to you by the fact that Tim O’Brien is going to read my short story and I’m freaking out and not writing and not writing and procrastinating and not writing and this is one of the products.)

The fall semester just concluded its fifth week of classes, meaning we are ~1/3 the way through already.  It’s kind of hard to believe; I’ve kept myself more busy than usual and time is flying.  Teaching feels a lot different this year, a lot easier, and so I’d like to take a moment to jot down some of my guesses as to why (although I am not entirely sure).

Repetition.  First of all, most obvious, repeating some of the things I taught last year means less work for me, because I don’t have to replan those lessons that went well.  Second, I’ve been given a chance to remove the lessons that didn’t go well.  Third, the stuff that I’ve kept from last year I’m able to anticipate a little better what is going to bring the most discussion, what is going to cause the most tripping.  As an example, last year we went to the library for a class on the basics of research, and it didn’t go very well because most of the class didn’t even know what their topics were yet.  This time, we spent a whole class on picking out a topic the day before the library, and I assigned them having a topic as homework, and that made our visit to the library much more focused.  Not perfect, but better.

Confidence.  I don’t just mean being in front of a room full of people – I think I got used to that fairly quickly.  I don’t mean confidence in being a voice of authority, or confidence in the material, which, again I felt I had last year.  Instead, I have a confidence in where we’re going as a class.  I can tell the students what I think they’re going to get out of the writing, I can tell them where I think they’ll have difficulties, and I can tell them what they’re going to wish they had taken notes on.

Building on confidence, I’m able to be a little bit more candid, a little bit more honest.  If your first year of teaching is all about faking it as you make it, then the second year, in my experience, is about dialing that back until you find a comfort zone.  This is stupid little things like “I don’t like teaching this part, but you’re going to be glad I did when you go to turn in a paper for x.  Let’s work through it together.”  I think a lot of people confuse being candid with being the students’ friend, which is a dangerous territory.  I can be up front with the process of teaching the class without losing my role as guide.

Not taking it personally.  Definitely my biggest problem last year (and something I’ve written about here before) was thinking that I did something wrong every time a student didn’t do their reading or missed class.  It took a while for me to remember that when I was 18, I missed a lot of classes and I didn’t do a lot of homework, and it rarely had anything to do with the professor.  You forget the varying levels of commitment that people come into a classroom with once it’s your job, I think.  Actually, being in graduate school and sitting next to people who are paying more attention to their phone than the seminar helped ground me.

Giving up some battles.  I’m definitely less stressed this year because I’m not worrying about cell phones and I’m not sending out as many reminder emails and I’m not picking up as many in-class assignments.  The person who did our training has a great mantra – “You should be doing less work than the students.”  That wasn’t true for me last year, but I’m working on it.

Part of my better feeling is just residuals from last year, e.g. seeing a student randomly in the wild who was excited to see me and tell me about his second year of college.

I get my first real batch of essays on Tuesday.  Let’s see how I feel after those are digested.

Hey Hey! Ho Ho! These Cellular Phones Have Got to Go!

Every fall, the graduate students who have taught first-year composition help out with a little workshop for training the next wave of instructors.  The volunteer trainers give little mini-lessons to help ease past the deer-in-the-headlights stage.  Today, I think I decided what I want my topic to be, when my time comes to be a trainer.  I want to give a run down of the two biggest decisions I think you have to make as a teacher: How do you get your students to read? and What do you do about cellphones?


As an instructor, you have to make a decision about how you are going to get students to do the reading.  Last semester I started it telling myself that if I was engaged enough in the lessons that the students would WANT to read.


There are a few students who might do this, some of the time, but overall this just isn’t going to be the case–if there’s no grade associated with an activity, they generally won’t do it.  So, both semesters, I’ve given a little speech where I explain to the students why them not doing the assigned reading is disrespectful.  Namely, that I plan lessons around the assumption that they’re doing the reading, and if they don’t then they’ve wasted my time planning and screwed up me attempting to do my job.  Last semester, when frustration set in, I started giving quizzes about every other reading to keep them honest, on top of the already assigned reading responses (maybe 1/4-1/3 of the readings had a reading response assigned).  I hated giving quizzes.  I didn’t think they were productive in teaching the students how to write, I didn’t like using class time on them, and it made me feel like an asshole.

My solution for this semester, which I like so far, is that I have half the class writing a reading response every single reading, AND I have 1-3 students giving a brief presentation to launch our discussions for readings.  The presentations break the ice and offer possible avenues to begin further conversation.  The reading responses means at least 1/3 of the class has really done the reading, every single time, and they can pull the weight for the lesson I have planned.  This is in opposition to last semester where there were days where NO ONE had done the reading.  So far, I like it better, but I’m going to bet my evaluations will suffer because of it.

Of course, the lesson for new teachers is to tell them to be realistic from the get go and realize that you need to incentivize reading or it just won’t happen.  That means they need to make hard decisions about how much reading they assign, how tied in to the lesson plans it’s going to be, and what they hope to accomplish by assigning it.


Both semesters my syllabi have included a tag line that I don’t allow technology in the classroom.  There’s a good reason for it and one that I explained to both classes, and that’s that I’m easily distracted.  When I see a student on a cell phone, I start to wonder what I’m doing wrong to bore them or I start wondering how that student is doing in my class etc. etc. and I easily lose my train of thought.   However, both semesters I’ve eventually had my classroom inundated by cellphone usage (although I made it further this semester) and next semester I will not have a technology-free rule.  The reason is simple: I am not willing to kick a student out or severely punish them some other way because of cellphone usage, so I’m not going to be able to stop it.

Here’s what happens.  The first couple of weeks, a few students will sneak out their cellphone.  I’ll catch them, and ask them politely to put it away.  Then we get to the first group activity, and a group finishes early.  The phones come out, and again I ask them to consider the assignment in a different light and try to get them refocused.  Eventually, though I don’t say something because either I feel like I don’t have the right to ask them to be bored, or I don’t want to interrupt myself to ask them to put it away.  It’s all downhill from there, because I start doubting myself about whether I can say something the next time and still be consistent, etc., etc.

So, I’m giving up, and I’m not sure how much it will hurt.  This week, in one of my graduate seminars, one which has a similar no cellphone policy in the syllabus similar to my own, I sat next to an intelligent fellow student who was on their phone the entire class.  She is younger than me–maybe it’s a difference in how the brain works–but she was also able to participate in discussion, despite the fact that she was constantly shuffling her phone from inside her boot to the side of her leg to behind her book.  So this, combined with the fact that she was willing to ignore the instructor’s request of no cell phones in a graduate level class, pushed me into thinking that I’m wasting energy trying to fight it in my own class.

We’re also in an era when people fear boredom and free time.  I’m reminded of two podcasts: 1) “Technological Evolution” from The New Yorker Out Loud wherein the authors and editor discuss our relationship with technology as something that takes out annoying parts of our lives but might be replacing meaningful things along with those annoying parts and 2) The “American Football” episode from Radiolab which included a number of youth football coaches who blamed video games on the decline of young people interested in playing football, not because of time issues but because in video games you don’t lose, you just start over, and so no one is interested in losing in football.

In short, pulling out their phones is the easy thing.  It would take a significant punitive measure for me to change that.

I know this is stuff that’s already been hashed out and beat to death but I think as new teachers we have an instinct to try to do something different, to try to account for perceived failings in our teachers.  The truth is that there are some things that are the way they are for a good reason, and that we shouldn’t ever underestimate how much of the class is in the hands of the students.

Outside Content: 

I’m in love with podcasts lately, if you couldn’t tell already, and the Valentine’s Day episode of Death, Sex, and Money was pretty fantastic.

With regards to the latest inflammatory essay about MFA programs and the predictable bland responses, I’m going to have to side with Split Lip‘s tweet.

Finally, a question to the audience.  I have my presentation about narrative choice in video game stories coming up in the near future, but I’m already looking ahead to my next topic.  I’ve been kicking around doing something with performative art as a plot point in video games, thinking primarily of Final Fantasty VI (or III)‘s opera scene and the play from the Kentucky Route Zero extra content.   What examples can you think of?

Cycle Beginnings

First rule of successful blogging is to write regularly, and definitely to never go four months without a post.

No matter how many first weeks of the semester I go through, they always make me kind of excited.  I’ve been addicted to fresh beginnings my whole life and being a perennial student and now an instructor gives me the opportunity to go through them twice a year.  I’ll have a mostly new batch of students, I’ll be in new classes with mostly new professors and a few new classmates.  I’ll have new shoes.

Drawing up my second semester’s syllabus, I thought about what I’d do differently.  Definitely thinking more pragmatic than I was six months ago.  For example, toward the end of last semester I felt lucky if even three or four students did the reading, so this semester I’m thinking about what I should do to raise that number.  I’ve decided to address it by having less readings overall, but more reading responses, and each student is going to present on one reading during the semester.  Another goal I have is to get my students to stand up at least once per classroom, even if I don’t have a reason for it besides to stand up and stretch.  I noticed that anything that wakes them up some like this really improved the participation last semester.

At Texas State, there are two semesters of freshman English.  The first is focused just on learning academic writing, but the second is focused on academic writing AND research.  I’m pretty excited about moving on to the second one, as I feel like it’ll give me more of an opportunity to craft prompts that allow students to explore things that they might not otherwise contemplate.  We’ll see what actually happens though.

My only serious New Year’s resolution was to read more women and more books in translation.

One upcoming thing I’d like to discuss: I’m presenting on choices in video game narratives at the national Pop Culture Association / American Culture Association conference in April.  I’m curious to here any input on meaningful choices in video games.  I’m focusing primarily on three types of changes: aesthetic (like Kentucky Route Zero), rhetorical (Spec Ops: The Line), and social (Fallout, Mass Effect).  Are there equivalents to these kind of choices in other media?  What choices were the most meaningful to you?

Outside content:  They show this video at the McDonald Observatory.  Pretty good for making me feel insignificant/significant.

Teach Me to Teach You

Today is Monday and the beginning of my fourth week of teaching.  It’s my first time teaching–I’ve led workshops and covered other people’s classes before, but it’s my first time actually running a class for a semester.  It’s… different than I thought it would be.  It’s harder to figure out how to make opportunities to build rapport.  It’s easier to talk in front of a class.  It’s harder to remember names and which class has said what.  It’s easier to make assignments and rubrics and such.

The biggest thing is the attendance and reading assignments.  I’m going to be giving my first quiz over reading next week because students weren’t doing the reading, and that makes me feel like an asshole (based on my old perspective as a student).  The thing is, though, as the teacher of a class everyone has to take, especially one with primarily students in their first semester, there’s just not really an alternative.  If I just grade them on the handful of essays and not on the day-to-day stuff, I’m not really teaching anything.  It’s extremely frustrating to prepare ideas for a discussion and then literally 80% of the class not doing the reading and us be unable to have a conversation about it.

Of course, I’m not saying anything that teachers don’t already know.  I’m not saying anything that teachers haven’t already said to me.

I just never believed them.  And yes, maybe it’s true that if my bits of lecturing or classroom presence was a little bit more amazing that the students would be inspired to do the reading without coercion, but apparently I’m not at that level, so what’s the alternative?

I’m sure there’s a lot of motivational quotes out there for this situation, but I’ll close with TC Boyle reading Barthelme’s “The School.”


I overdid the first half of this summer.  In the past two months, I’ve traveled to Seattle, Venezuela, Aruba, Frostburg MD, and Aspen, as well as finished my first year of graduate school.  Fortunately, that time is almost over–only one trip left for quite a while.

My trips to Frostburg and Aspen were both for “conferences.”  The whole conference system is such a fascinating part of academia.  In my experience/reading/conversations, they can be almost equal parts professional/social/vacational (I just made that word up, don’t worry).  I’ve spoken to people who hate going to conferences, and see them largely as a necessary evil + time drain.  In Aspen, several of us compared it to summer camp.  The popular writers’ conference Bread Loaf apparently has the nickname “Bed Loaf,” after what goes on in the evenings.

Frostburg was a purely academic conference.  I discussed it in my last entry – the conference was the 2013 Computers and Writing gathering.  I presented on a panel about crowdfunding, and spent my time outside of that presentation listening to other people’s panels, eating the provided lunches in a gymnasium, checking out Frostburg’s local scenery, and attending a karaoke night targeted directly at the conference-goers.  Two notes on that last one – 1) It had the highest average skill level of any karaoke night I’ve sat through and 2) Apparently we left right before a fist-fight between two conference attendees.  Yes, I was very disappointed.

There’s so much going on with conferences that I have a hard time wrapping my head around all the little facets.  Conference presentations often end up as a line on a student/professor’s resume/CV, even though for most entry-level academics hardly anyone shows up to your presentation and thus there is no metric whatsoever of quality.  If you bomb, or even completely skip out on your presentation, there is nothing stopping you (outside of some rare circumstances) from listing it anyway.  The only thing that gets reviewed (for my field, anyway) is an abstract proposal you submit months before you present or, in most cases, even begin creating your paper/talk.

Then there’s the economic/professional incentives of the conference organizers themselves.  There’s a sense of competition between the hosts of various years when they’re at universities.  The larger ones that are hosted at hotels and conference centers instead of universities receive bids from the hosting locations way in advance to convince them to head that way.  The 4C‘s (composition’s largest conference), for example, will be in Indianapolis next year, and that’s not chosen at random.

Creative writing conferences have their overlaps with academic conferences, but there are a lot of differences as well.  Since they’re not as much for professional development, and most people attending are not academics, there’s a greater sense of the participants wanting to be there.  As I mentioned, several people compared the class to attending summer camps as a kid, in the sense that it’s a brief isolation from your normal life in a space that’s fast-paced, emotionally intense, and slightly uncomfortable.  This analogy holds extra true for my two trips to Aspen: I stayed in a shared hostel room complete with bunk beds both years.

Both types of conferences are known for their social scene.  I have yet to attend something like this that didn’t include an extensive discussion of where the evenings’ drinking would take place, or of hearing whispers of who was hooking up with whom.  Networking of the more professional kind happens at both as well, and a little charisma goes a long, long way in the room.

I’m curious to hear from others on the topic.  When it comes to academic conferences, I have yet to find someone who is more than lukewarm on them–the best thing I’ve heard on the subject is how excited they are to see their friends/ex-colleagues.

I’m also planning on tackling the actual content of the creative writing conference classes I’ve taken in the near future.

Outside content:  Really, really excited that my article’s abstract is up.  Hoping a hard copy is in the mail soon.  A second link since I don’t want to overload the self-promotion (ha-ha, a BLOG trying to limit self-promotion) – an interview between Charlie Rose and David Lipsky, the latter of which was my fantastic instructor in Aspen.

Personal Vanishing Point

I apologize for my last entry, in which I sat down to write a blog entry on the impetus that I hadn’t written a blog entry in a while, instead of the impetus of having something to say.

I have something to say, this time!

I’m about to finish the book Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy, which is a fantastic memoir based around her discovering she had cancer in the jaw at 10 years old, and the subsequent experience with operations, chemo, and radiation.  (Side note here, one day I want to teach a class entirely around the illness memoir.  This book, Reynolds Price’s A Whole New Life, and William Loizeaux’s Anna are just so, so good.  Also, Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story might be one of my favorite books ever, if you wanted to go that route.)  One of the big parts of this book is her beginning to identify herself as her illness, as her ugliness, as her disfigurement.

“This singularity of meaning–I was my face, I was ugliness–though sometimes unbearable, also offered a possible point of escape.  It became the launching pad from which to lift off, the one immediately recognizable place to point to when asked what was wrong with my life.  Everything led to it, everything receded from it–my face as personal vanishing point.”

One of the things that makes a memoir remarkable is the ability to take the foreign experience and distill it into a universal.  In this case, the foreign is having this cancer, specifically at such a young age.  The universal is that most, if not all, of us have had something in our life that has become our own “personal vanishing point.”  That could be something as mundane as acne, as reflective as children, or as capitalist as our jobs.  Some small aspect of our identity, of who we are as people that actually becomes our entire idea of self.

For me, in middle and high school, my identity felt dangerously intertwined with being “the smart kid”.  A lot of times I felt like that was the only thing people associated with “Graham”.  I pushed back against this, sometimes in self-destructive ways, but ultimately one of the best things for the problem was summer camp.  At the time, I wrote (paraphrasing) that gifted summer programming gave me an environment where everyone was “the smart kid” so I could be known for something more.  (Quick note, as I mentioned last entry, NSGT has some scholarships available for summer camp.  I went to ones through the Center for Gifted Studies out of WKU, but you can find similar programs across the country.  Duke TIP is probably one of the best places to look for info.)

A dozen years and a lot of life experience later, I no longer have that same level of identification.  Sometimes there’s still echoes of it though, and yesterday in class was one of those days.  We were discussing what should be taught in college freshman composition classrooms, and we were being critical of the current practice of basing performance metrics entirely on the academic, majority culture discourse.  Basically, we define success in the classroom largely based on standards made by old white men.  I agree, this is a bad thing, but I think we have to be very careful about how we go about solving this problem.  As an example, another student in the class responded to the proposal of having an optional, concurrent remedial course by saying that if a large group of students need a review of the topic sentence, it should be just be taught during the normal classroom.

I got emotional at this, and I tried to respond, but I did a bad job because I wasn’t able to articulate the thoughts that this idea raises in me.  What this idea suggests, to me, is the basic philosophy that can be used to justify policies like NCLB.  The idea that because we don’t want to do tracking, because all tracking is inherently bad, we should therefore teach everything to everyone.  In a perfect world, this makes sense, because in a perfect world the instructor works on the individual level, and the overall coursework is not as important as the growth of each student.  As we all know, though, no teacher has the time to realistically do that, so by shifting the content downward, we are simply excluding a different group of students.  (Two side notes:  This is essentially why I dropped out of high school, and raising expectations typically leads to improved results.)

Now, the typical rebuttal to this idea is to again question the standards we are attempting to “raise the bar” on, and whose standards and values those reflect.  And I agree, we do need to question those values and standards.  But in the process of questioning them, we need to keep in mind this question:  What do we seek to accomplish by teaching a class?  By the educational process?  Unless you want to work off the assumption that it’s realistic to envision a world without grades, and therefore without some sort of graduation process, then I’m going to assume that we, as educators, seek to accomplish eliciting growth and effort within and from our students.  If that’s the case, we need to keep that in relation to how we are going to measure that growth, that effort.  By necessity, that’s going to require some kind of goals, standards, objectives, whatever you want to call them.  Now, universal standards are not the right answer–most people can agree with that.  But in the process of you, personally, figuring out what those standards should be–whether it be for your classroom, your children, or whatever–beware of rejecting the current model without having a well thought-out one to replace it.

For your external content, I highly recommend checking out this Youtube video which does a great job visualizing some math concepts in a way that makes them insanely interesting, even for little old English major me.  If you check out the creator’s channel, there’s a lot more in the same vein.

On Sincerity and Authenticity

Last night in my Composition Pedagogy class we covered expressivist and rhetorical pedagogies.  I know, I know, try to contain your excitement.  Anyway, I was in charge of teaching the rhetorical section, and like many English majors in their late twenties, I am slightly obsessed with David Foster Wallace.  Because of this, I used his 2005 Kenyon Commencement speech, commonly titled “This is Water“, as part of my lesson.  My logic was that speeches are often analyzed in composition classes for their rhetorical content (Identify the Ethos, Logos, and Pathos that Martin Luther King Jr. uses in his “I Have a Dream Speech”, etc.), and that Foster Wallace often makes arguments about the rhetorical presentation/nature of writing (“Tense Present“) and other cultural phenomena (“E Unibus Pluram“).

I expected part of the class to not like it.  It’s a long speech, and we could only listen to the first 1/4 of it.  Much like his writing, some of the speech feels overwrought to the point of being tedious (which is the same thing that makes most of his fiction and some of his essays out of reach of my enjoyment).  However, I didn’t expect the majority of the class to disagree with both his content and his style, which is what happened.

Some context:  We spent the first half of the class discussing expressivist pedagogy, which came to power in the 1960s.  If composition itself is traditionally concerned with the writer, the reader, the text, and the reality/truth, expressivists are the ones who put the writer at the top of the chain.  Practices like freewriting or trying to find an “authentic” voice are closely associated with this theory.  In class, we spent a lot of time discussing what having an authentic voice meant, and whether or not it was the same as sincerity.  The general tone of the class agreed with the postmodern idea that there’s no such thing as having one voice, that we are comprised of many voices.

Now, when you start talking about David Foster Wallace, discussing whether his voice is authentic or sincere leads to some complex stuff.  On one hand, the man wrote frequently against the overuse of irony that permeates modern American culture and told Charlie Rose that his pushing the boundaries of text with his signature injections of footnotes are an attempt to portray the convoluted reality of thoughts.  On the other hand, it’s been reported that he made up pieces of his supposedly nonfiction essays to dramatize the story.  Now, whether or not that makes him inauthentic, insincere, or whatever negative adjective you choose to use is up for an engaging debate.

However, in class last night I was disappointed to hear those critical of his commencement address refer to it as being overly ironic, and even “hipster” (a reference to their interpretation that part of the style of the speech was an attempt to seem cool).  The biggest contributor to this attitude were the instances in the beginning of the address where he acknowledges the expectations (mostly negative) of what a commencement speech entails and then proceeds to work within those expectations while simultaneously seeming to mock them.  And, I think, interpreting that action as an attempt at irony is not illogical.  What I would argue, though, is that by acknowledging the social/cultural expectations and boundaries that he and the event are subject to, and then working within them, he is not being ironic.  In fact, I would argue he is being more authentic by making his audience cognizant of these factors.

But, I don’t know.  How do we walk the line between authentic, self-aware, and likable/readable in our writing?  Is there a point to looking for a voice, authentic or not, in your writing?

Your external content of the day looks at adding a new voice, literally, to poems.  Motionpoems takes poetry and adds video/audio to them.  Having met a couple of the poets who received the treatment, the dissonance between the voice used in the video and their real voice is highly entertaining.