Friday, January 24, 2014

Scheduling (and a New Book!)

Lots of campuses seem to want to have a conversation about cheating and academic integrity--unsurprising--which means I have received lots of invitations this year to visit other colleges and universities (and even some high schools) to share the research from Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty.  I enjoy doing this, and try to accommodate as many invitations as possible.  This spring I'll be visiting Georgia Tech, North Carolina State, Ohio State, and even a high school in Guatemala, among other places.  I am looking forward to them all.

However, I am booked solid at this point for the entire spring semester, given that I also have to teach my classes etc.  If you are interested in having me come help start a conversation about cheating on your campus, don't hesitate to contact me (look down and to the right for the e-mail address) but I am scheduling for the summer and beyond at this point.  I will be on sabbatical next year so will have more flexibility in my schedule.

I am also working on a new book project, and will be looking to get out and about next year to present some of those ideas and get feedback from working faculty.  Tentatively entitled On the Clock, the book argues that we can learn from recent research in cognitive theory how to make timely interventions throughout a standard class period to maximize learning.  These interventions stem from some basic ideas that seem to be emerging from the learning research right now, are quick and easy to apply at set points throughout a class period (i.e., in the first five minutes, at the thirty-minute mark, in the last fifteen minutes), and will work in almost any type of classroom environment, from lectures to collaborative learning classes.  

I will provide periodic updates on the project here, as well as sneaking some of the research into my upcoming Chronicle columns.

Have a great semester!  

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Teaching with Twitter

Last fall I wrote one of my monthly columns for The Chronicle of Higher Education about how I was experimenting with the use of Twitter in one of my courses.  The impetus for the assignment came from some of the research I had done on cognitive theory for my book Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty, in a chapter called "On Original Work."  At the time I wrote the Chronicle piece, the assignment seemed to me to be working really well--but I was slightly anxious about publishing the column before the end of the semester.  What if it turned out that the students really hated the use of Twitter as part of their course work?

Course evaluations for the fall 2013 semester arrived last week, and happily the students' verdict matched mine--almost every evaluation mentioned the course Twitter assignment as one of the "most effective teaching methods of the instructor."

"I loved the class Twitter feed!" one student wrote.  "I learned so much about British culture and found a lot of research for my papers and Colloquium on the feed.  Please keep it for your other courses."

When students, talk, I listen.  (Sometimes, anyway.)  So I'll be using Twitter again this semester.  This time around I am trying it out in my Creative Nonfiction Writing Workshop.  To give you some idea about what a Twitter assignment looks like, I've reproduced the assignment sheet below.

Twitter Assignment

Good writers are readers; they read not only for pleasure, but also with an eye on how the sentences and paragraphs and pages of their fellow writers work.  So part of my goal in this course is to help you become a more discerning reader of nonfiction writing, someone who can spot a great sentence and understand what makes it tick.  That won’t happen if you confine your critical reading of creative nonfiction to the five texts we are reading this semester, and to two seventy-five minute class periods per week.  You need to become more attuned to the language that confronts you every day, in both your academic and your social environments.  You need to get in the habit of noticing good writing.

In service to that end, all students in the course will be required to use Twitter to share with the class three outstanding phrases or sentences they have encountered each week.  These sentences can come from the assigned reading in the course, from work you have read in other courses, from material you read outside of your courses, and even from the social media postings of your friends and followers.  The only requirement will be that you are prepared to explain, once a week in class, what makes those phrases or sentences worthy of our attention.

Your three required tweets must be posted every Tuesday by 10:00 am (no tweets required for the week of spring break, the two weeks on either side of Easter break, and the last week of the semester).  Spread them out over the week by simply posting great phrases and sentences when you see them, rather than by trying to do them all Tuesday morning.  All tweets most include the hashtag #CNFAC14, and an indication of the writer whose work you are tweeting.  You can use shorthand that our class would easily understand, as in “LAM” for a quote from Last American Man. We will begin class each Tuesday by talking about what we see on the course Twitter feed, and how your tweets exemplify principles we have discussed in class or how they point us in new directions. 

As the semester progresses, the Twitter feed will become an excellent resource of exemplary nonfiction writing.  So not only should you write to the Twitter feed, but you should also read it! Notice what your classmates are noticing.  Do not repeat the same sentences that your classmates have posted—which means that you should look beyond the required course reading for at least some of your tweets.

Your weekly tweets are worth ten points, and will be checked every Tuesday before class.  If you have a Twitter account that you would prefer to keep private, simply open a separate one for this course, and close it out when we are done.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Selling the Course

While I was doing the research and writing for Cheating Lessons, one of the subjects that continued to arise was motivation, especially as it relates to course design.  Too often, it seemed to me, we provide our course content as an answer.  The faculty member always recognizes that some big question lurks behind the answer his course provides, but doesn't always take the time to share that with the students.  So the students walk into the course, and the faculty member presents a fifteen-week answer to a question that nobody has asked.

Over the past year or two, then, I have worked hard on thinking about how to frame my courses, both on the syllabus and in the opening weeks of the semester, in ways that should help students see how the course will provide them with answers to interesting questions, or will offer them the opportunity to improve their lives in some substantive ways.  I don't think it's enough anymore--if it ever was--to say to students: "I have some important stuff here on offer, you can take my word for it; now sit down and start learning." To foster the kind of intrinsic motivation that will lead to deeper learning, we have to give students more help than that in understanding why our courses matter in their lives.

So I thought I would post here the two paragraphs in my course descriptions that try to help students understand the bigger picture of the course, and how it will help improve their lives in some substantial way.  Would love to see and hear examples from others!

For Creative Nonfiction, an upper-level writing workshop:

When Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Renin published the paperback version of Three Cups of Tea in 2007, the book shot to the top of the national bestseller lists, earned millions of dollars for their nonprofit organization, and inspired countless individuals to help build schools for girls halfway around the world.  How did they inspire such changes through the simple act of organizing words on paper?  My goal in this course is to help you understand what techniques and strategies of nonfiction writing—such as the ones used by Mortenson and Renin—can help change the minds and hearts of readers about issues that matter to you.  Whatever writing you end up doing after you graduate—whether published books or essays, tweets or Facebook updates, advertising copy or notes to friends—I want you to understand what forms and techniques of writing grab the attention of readers, win them to your side, and inspire them to think differently.    

For British Literature Survey II, a mid-level requirement for our majors:

This course is designed to help you better understand the world in which we live today—culturally, socially, politically—by tracing contemporary issues and cultural phenomenon back to their sources or to previous considerations of them in British literature and culture.  By the end of this semester, for example, you will have a much clearer understanding of why J.K. Rowling writes about mudbloods and muggles in Harry Potter, or how the Spice Girls fit within a broader context of debates about women and sexuality; you will gain a fuller appreciation of the complexities involved when debates arise about the clash between new technologies or expanding industry and the environment; you will have a richer awareness of the sacrifice we ask of our soldiers, and the trauma they experience in war; you will have deepened your ability to talk about the relationship between humans and the (possible) divine. In short, this class, like any literature class, should both enrich your understanding of the human condition and your understanding of the historical and literary heritage of the English language that continues to impact our American lives today.