I teach in the School of Professional Communication at Ryerson University. My early research focus was the rhetorical structure of Christina Rossetti's poetry, and I hold a Ph.D. in English from the University of Toronto. Currently I teach effective strategies for professional communication. My current research interests include the effects of the mobile classroom on the teacher-student alliance and the manifestations of Groupthink in online environments.
As many of you know, I can get quite stubborn about the value of comprehensive feedback on student writing. I learned effective writing strategies as a student through tough, detailed commentary on my expression, then took the same approach when evaluating student essays and reports in courses I taught over many years. It always seemed common sense that this kind of feedback helps students learn not just how to avoid specific mistakes but to become alert and careful editors of their own work over time.
Needless to say, instructors don’t have the power to set class-size limits. This year, some class enrollment caps have been set 30% higher than last year’s, and it’s up to us to find a way to maintain pedagogical standards when faced with mountains of marking. One strategy could be to give individualized feedback on the first assignment and then follow-up in-class exercises or mini lectures on common errors throughout the semester. Comments on the rest of the assignments would be limited to summaries of strengths and areas for improvement. Such summaries can’t fully replace inserted commentary, but they can encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning, and so instill a reflex that presumably is at the core of higher education.
You can find articles on how to mark efficiently elsewhere on this blog, but this year’s class sizes require some pragmatic cost-benefit analysis that we haven’t been faced with in the past quite as much. A Procom colleague, Susan Cody, who has served on teaching committees at Ryerson, drew my attention to an article on efficient grading methods that takes into account students’ possible responses to correction. You may also want to plough through the comments on the linked Chronicle forum for more tips and reflections, expressed with a little more passion than I’ve indulged in here.
See the the link below for a call for applications for a part-time position (80%) in writing, research and pedagogy at UBC’s Vantage One Arts Program. The position is for one year. The deadline for applications is May 17.
Kelly Train, our Chief Steward, recently shared an essay by Herb Childress on the predicament of adjuncts in American universities: “This is How You Kill a Profession.” The content and tone are exactly what you’d expect from such a title.
However I recommend you read the essay if you haven’t already, if for no other reason than to commiserate on the lure of the academic life, its promises and disappointments. The essay is an excerpt from The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, and the book seems to have struck a nerve. You’ll find a long review in the most recent issue of The New Yorker that contrasts the reflections of a privileged former president of NYU with Childress’s quasi memoir. It is Childress’s story that takes up the bulk of the review, and whose message supplies its conclusion.
This online pamphlet may come a bit late for those of you who have already carefully planned your first day of class, but if you’re up for a bit of experimentation still, you may find the ideas described here worth considering. You may also end up skipping over advice that is second nature already.
When in the academic year is it an opportune time to bring up precarious employment in academe? It occurred to me that the answer is never. In the spring we’re worried about getting rehired and don’t want to think about the worst-case scenario. In the summer we’re hoping to catch our breath long enough to conduct research, reduce our teaching load or take a much-needed break. In the fall, we need morale to focus on our students. Just before the scheduled breaks, we definitely don’t want to think about the challenges of our position, so my apologies in advance for raising this issue now.
However, I’ve come across some useful information about the sessional instructor juggling act that you might find interesting now that your marking is (temporarily) behind you. The first is the teaching newsletter, Profession, produced by the MLA. Like me in a previous post, the editors thought of Sisyphus when choosing their featured image. The link is for this fall’s special issue, but you’ll find many other well-written articles about university teaching, specifically in the field of language and literature, in past issues.
The other resource is an article in Quill & Quire on a research project by an undergraduate student at Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver that documents the punishing workload of contingent professors. Though the project focuses primarily on the difficult trade-offs of instructors in the creative industries, much of the discussion applies to all disciplines.
Both resources explore the unfortunate compromises inherent in our roles. Still, you’ll find hope alongside the angst.
James Lang, a veteran professor writing for ChronicleVitae has some great advicefor making classes less time-consuming to organize. He suggests lots of engaging, pedagogically valuable strategies for in-class assignments that prompt student self-efficacy and allow for flexible, ad-hoc coverage of the course material.
Though as a School we routinely use in-class exercises as teaching tools, we don’t always see them as moments when students internalize their own responsibility for learning. As we brace ourselves for the fall, it’s not a bad idea to remember that we can relax a bit and trust the learning will happen if we just create the right conditions.
A post in the latest Chronicle of Higher Education Newsletter summarizes a teaching conference session that demonstrated the power of the “Naive Task,” an exercise assigned, often at the beginning of a class, before any principles, theories or facts have been covered. The reasoning is that students will pay more attention to what the professor has to say about the subject if they’ve already tried to puzzle out an answer with their peers. You can read the account here: The Power of the ‘Naïve-Task’
An experiential exercise in my Interpersonal Communication Class on the ideal problem-solving group size, which is a kind of naive task, does engage students on more than one level. I plan to try this approach in other classes this fall. If you already throw students in at the deep end, and have observed the results, please share your experience!
Though Hearing Ourselves Think: Cognitive Research in the College Writing Classroom was published in 1993, I think the book has much to offer today. Ann Penrose and her co-authors present findings on the ways various students process information when struggling to analyze texts and writing situations. Observational research (documented as transcribed recordings of students’ reflections) complements discussions of theory and practice.
As dry as that may sound, the content provides a fascinating insight into what different students are thinking when they wrestle with similar writing problems to the ones we design for our classes. Chapters 8 and 9 cover audience analysis. Chapter 1 explains the rationale for the cognitive approach. Here’s the link to the eBook version in the Ryerson library.