Teaching Reflection: Professionalism Memos

Every semester, I struggle with how I can fairly measure, assess, and reward student classroom engagement. “Participation” is a ubiquitous grading category on course syllabi, but as a student and instructor, participation has always felt like a way for instructors to reward students and penalize others based on often arbitrary, inconsistent standards. Reading critiques of participation from scholars like Margaret Price (have you read Mad at School yet? because you should) made me rethink participation from an accessibility standpoint. As an instructor deeply committed to creating positive classroom social dynamics and student learning, I value students’ various forms of classroom engagement. I want students to be aware of their classroom engagement and how it impacts their learning and their peers’ learning. For me, assigning a grade for participation at the end of the semester was not the best way for students to take control of their learning or for me to assess the various ways students engage in the course.

So this semester in my technical writing course, I am experimenting with professionalism. The concept of “professionalism” makes sense in the context of my class, which prepares students to write in professional contexts. However, I would also use “participation” as a framework in a different course.

Discussing Professionalism

I began the semester with a discussion about professionalism. In the first week of class, I assigned students a free-write for homework about professionalism using these prompts:

  • What does professionalism mean? How can we be professional in classroom environments?
  • What professional behaviors help you learn best?
  • What professional behaviors do you expect from classmates?
  • What professional behaviors do you expect from group members?
  • What professional behaviors do you expect from the instructor?

I also asked students to read “The Do’s and Don’ts of Professionalism in the Workplace” (Levo), “What Does Professionalism Look Like?” (Harvard Business Review), and  “You Call It Professionalism; I Call It Oppression in a Three-Piece Suit” (Everyday Feminism). These articles trouble the concept of professionalism, and in class I facilitate a discussion about how professional standards represent cultural values about identity (gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, ability, age, etc.) that are embodied. We also discuss differences in professionalism across cultures and contexts (for example, professionalism expectation differences in a start-up company vs a Fortune 500 company; differences across cultures if students have experience working in different communities or countries).

Establishing Professionalism Expectations

After we discussed professionalism as a class, we created a set of class standards for professionalism. I asked students to share their responses to the last 4 questions with group members and as a group to decide on at least 1 concrete action for each question. I created an open Google document, and students shared their group responses there. As a class, we reviewed each question response, clarified any vague actions (for example, what does “being prepared for class” entail?), and ultimately agreed on a set of classroom expectations. We also explicitly linked these behaviors to individual and peer learning, so we discussed how a classmate’s lack of preparation, such as not completing the reading or homework assignment, might impact other students in the class.

Reflecting on Professionalism Expectations

As part of the professionalism discussion, I’ve assigned midterm and end-of-semester professionalism reflection memos. The memo genre is part of technical writing, and students may be asked in the future to write performance evaluations, so these assignments align with larger course objectives. The memos ask students to reflect on the class expectations for professionalism and learning. Students use the class expectations to reflect on their own classroom learning behaviors to assess their professionalism. For the mid-term memo, I also asked students to consider how they can improve or sustain their professional behaviors to better facilitate their learning. The memos so far have demonstrated that students are critically thinking about how they can best engage with the course material to support their learning and their peers’ learning. For example, students have shared their different approaches to understand the course readings. They also share other ways they are engaging with the class material, such as by taking pictures on their smartphones of “technical writing in the wild.” These methods would normally not be visible in the daily activities of my class, but they demonstrate how students are using a variety of techniques to prepare for class and to take responsibility over the material.

So far the professionalism expectations and memos seem to be serving their intended purpose in my class; there are always unavoidable personal issues that complicate established standards, but for the most part, students are productively engaged in class. In the future, I would want to devote more time to discussing professionalism and learning in class; because of a packed course schedule, the “discussing” and “establishing” portions were limited to 30 minutes. I think this framework would be particularly appropriate in early undergraduate courses. Most of my students are juniors and seniors, and they already have a strong sense of how they learn best and what they need from their peers. I believe the professionalism/participation expectations and memos could be particularly useful for students early in their undergraduate careers who may still be learning how to learn especially when it comes to collaborative projects.

Online Courses in the University: Where are the Students?

It’s no secret to anyone remotely part of higher education that online courses in all of their formations (hybrid or blended, MOOCs, fully online, asynchronous, in-real-time, etc.) have been promoted as the education of the future. The sense of skepticism about these technological advancements is increasing, as demonstrated in the new Gallup study “The 2014 Inside Higher Ed Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology” (sponsored by Inside Higher Ed, Pearson, and Blackboard). Here’s the brief rundown:

  • Approximately 91% of faculty members don’t believe that online courses can achieve equivalent learning outcomes to face-to-face courses
  • 83% of faculty members believe the quality of student interaction in online courses is lower than face-to-face courses
  • Faculty feel that they have been left out of university decisions/discussions about the move to online courses

I’ll be responding to the full Gallup report in a later post because I’m especially interested in what we can do about these perceptions and what this means for pedagogical training or implementation. But for now, I’m trouble because once again I find a significant voice remains unheard in this conversation. Where are the students? What do they have to say about their higher education experiences?

To be honest, it’s a terrible time to be a student. Once again, none of this is new to anyone who works with students, but it needs to be repeated:

  • The cost of a college education is rising, and students are increasingly shouldering more of the burden as state and federal governments have removed funding from public institutions. From 2001 to 2011, tuition/room and board at public universities rose 40 percent, and the cost of a private institution rose by 28% (according to National Center for Education Statistics)

    Graph representing the percentage increase in consumer goods since 1978

    Percentage increase in consumer goods since 1978

  • Subsequently, students have an increase in extracurricular responsibilities, namely work. An AAUP survey found that 45% of traditional, full-time undergraduates worked while enrolled and 80% of part-time students worked.

    Graph representing ercentage of traditional college students enrolled full and working

    Percentage of traditional college students enrolled full and working

  • Not only has the number of students who work increased, but the amount of time students spend working has also increased. 21% of students work 20-34 hours per week (this represents an increase), and 8% work at least 35 hours (this is a slight decrease from the initial 2008 recession but is still up from prior survey years).

Students are facing very real, very difficult material circumstances. And yet, very little of higher education has changed up until this point to accommodate the changing circumstances of these students. Universities still function on temporally-bounded semesters or quarters, the general education curriculum still requires 30-60 credit hours, courses generally require the same amount of face-time as the number of credit hours, and courses for the most part require the same amount of work if not more as universities become increasingly concerned about maintaining rankings and the possibility of government-sponsored ratings. Meanwhile, professors lament the demise of their students’ curiosity, popular books argue that students aren’t actually learning anything in college, and students (and politicians) are failing to see the value in a college education.

And at this point, who can blame them? College isn’t working for the students anymore because it’s not responding to the students who are currently here. We’re still teaching in a state of nostalgia for a student who probably never really existed but that we reminisce about fondly. The student who showed up for class prepared by reading all of the required and supplemental material, the student who was driven by intellectual curiosity and not the looming specter of a terrible job market, the student whose primary responsibility was to be a student.

I’m not suggesting that maintaining standards is a bad thing, or that we need to move to a 60 credit hour degree program that guts the general education curriculum. I’m not even arguing that online education is the way to fix these problems. What I’m suggesting is that we (faculty, administrators, university staff members, students, community partners, etc.) need to seriously reflect on what we are currently doing, why we are doing it (“Because we’ve always done so” is not a convincing reason), what are the current needs for the various stakeholders, and how can we meet those needs.

I do believe that online education is one way that we can meet some of the current needs of students. In my own hybrid classroom, students consistently mentioned they liked the flexible class format because it allowed them to work on their own time, and it alleviated one of their major concerns about how to juggle school work with pay-the-bills work. I won’t claim that this approach worked for everyone, but we should make the option available to students to take these courses. But we also need to make sure that there is adequate training, support, quality control, and assessment practices for these online courses and for those who design, teach, and take them, not just a blind rush to throw everything online and call it a day.

Coming up in Part II: Full breakdown of the Gallup report, what it means for technology on campus, and ways to break down the anti-online culture

What Does It Mean to Teach?

Fall semester begins at OSU in just two short weeks. After a year of teaching new (and in some cases, very new hybrid format) courses in our first year and second year writing program, I’ll be teaching another new-to-me class of digital media composing. This is the first time I’ll get to teach a class outside of a one or two year writing curriculum, so it’s quite a change in some ways.

I’m also preparing for the OSU University Center for the Advancement of Teaching new TA orientation next week. Over 600 new-to-OSU TAs from across the disciplines will come to a three day teaching bootcamp. In many cases, it may be the only pedagogical training the TAs receive (not for lack of resources on campus but more for lack of time and incentive to attend extra co-curricular events hosted outside of departments).

The new class prep and new TA orientation curriculum combined with my own fun reading has made me particularly reflective about teaching and learning: what I do as a teacher/scholar and why I do it.

1- Being more inclusive in a variety of ways

I read Margaret Price’s Mad at School (2011) this summer and had one of those revelations. This book changes everything. As someone who is a proponent and critic of classroom communities, this book forced me to confront the assumptions I had about who was in my classroom. One of Price’s arguments is that the university and writing classes are founded on the principles of rationality. “Good” writing is linear and rational, it makes sense, and it represents a rational, able mind. But mental diversity and disability disrupts this concept of “good” writing and rationality– what happens when linear thinking is not . How can we teach writing in a more inclusive way that doesn’t just accommodate individual instances of mental diversity but encourages and celebrates it?

Price also questions the concept of participation and how it is invoked in policies such as attendance. Participation has been one of those nebulous terms on syllabi; often it seems as if it’s used as a stick to punish students who don’t fit an instructor’s image of what a “good” student looks and acts like. I value classroom interaction especially because I rely on a student-led facilitation model of my class (see below), and participation is one that I can explain my expectations to students. But until reading Price’s text, I didn’t think about how my expectations for what participation looks like can be excluding many students. Not all students can or want to speak aloud or engage in large or even small class discussions. For some, simply showing up to class is a form of participation.

I’ve been brainstorming alternative ways to get students involved in the course content in a variety of ways that will not only fit diverse learning styles but all of the other invisible forms of diversity and ability that often students won’t want to disclose to me. I’ve also tried to focus more on bringing diverse learning styles into the classroom. I’ve written about The Doodle Revolution here and here, so I plan on incorporating more visual opportunities into my course. I also want to explore multiple forms of reflection in my class, such as allowing students to complete optional blog responses (in a variety of formats such as video journals, images, or alphabetic text) in which they can engage the course content and the class discussion but on their own time in their own way. I want students to learn in my class, and that means rethinking and possibly moving away from a “teaching style.”

2- Focusing on learning as opposed to teaching

I’ve been reading Facilitating Seven Way of Learning by James R. Davis and Bridget D. Arend (2012). In my field, there isn’t much training regarding learning theory, which seems like a gross oversight considering that there is a good century-worth of information out there to help us be better teachers without having to reinvent the wheel. I’ve taken it as a personal challenge to learn more about learning so as to make my classroom an accessible learning environment for all students.

Subsequently, I’ve been re-thinking my role as a teacher or instructor as well as my teaching philosophy. I want to reject those terms at this point in favor of “facilitator” and “learning or facilitating philosophy.” I like the term  facilitator because it better describes what I do in my class. I don’t tend to lecture much; I prefer students to read for homework (what would constitute the subject of a lecture) and come to class ready to discuss and take part in activities to put the readings into practice. Most of my day-to-day job is facilitating opportunities for students to practice what they’ve read and experience learning. But it’s really up to the students to learn; I can only guide them so far, but they are the ones who are empowered to make the course content their own.

This student-empowered classroom is also why I want to move away form a teaching philosophy. The teaching philosophy, already a statement that has been criticized for multiple reasons, strikes me as detrimentally teacher-centered. It asks potential instructors to focus solely on their position and approach to the classroom without considering that the instructor is simply 1 person out of a class of 25+ individuals who all have an investment and responsibility. So although I think it’s necessary to reflect on one’s role in the classroom, I’m not convinced that a teaching philosophy is the best way to do so.

I suggest a learning philosophy instead as a way to recognize that 1- these are the things that I do as a facilitator and why I think they are important; 2- these are the things students bring to the class and how they can engage with the course structures/curriculum 3- this is the end result, which is probably a more collaborative approach to learning that emphasizes both student and instructor. I believe a significant mission for universities is to serve the students and provide them with learning opportunities (of course that mission is complicated and conflicted), so let’s recognize that mission as we prepare and hire instructors for the future.

These are just some initial thoughts as I prepare for the semester, and I’ll chronicle how these actually play out in the day-to-day life with pressures from real students, real administrators, and real time constraints.

Reading Reflection: The Doodle Revolution

Currently reading: The Doodle Revolution: Unlock the Power to Think Differently by Sunni Brown (2014)

I recently picked up this book after a conversation on the always fascinating #womenintc conversation on Twitter. Some of the scholars had been posting pictures of their writing process, and many of the pictures included pictures of elaborate drawings, flow charts, and visual representations of works in progress. So I went in search of some texts about the power of visualizations, but I was really looking for a low-stakes form of visual thinking that I could use in any writing class.

Enter the doodle.

Brown’s whole goal is to unlock the power of visual thinking and to silence the inner critic who says that you can’t draw. Doodling is not art, she argues, but doodling is valuable because it provides an alternative way of viewing and thinking that can lead to new problem solving strategies. Brown has a lot to say about visual literacy, and it really fits nicely with multimodal composition theory. But I really value this book for its practical applications. Throughout the book, Brown breaks down line-by-line the elements that make up a doodle so as to make doodling accessible to even the most unartistic among us. If you can draw some sort of circle, you can doodle. The doodle itself isn’t the important component; it’s really the process of taking complex information, relationships, processes, etc. and breaking these aspects down into a visual representation.

I’m trying to think of ways to best incorporate doodling into the Intro to Digital Media Composing course that I will be teaching in the fall. I want to start the class off with doodling as a low-stakes, less threatening way to start thinking about visual representations. I’ll probably assign part of this book or a podcast that The Student Affairs Spectacular recently released on doodling. I may ask students to doodle themselves as a class introduction activity in the hopes that they may find it easier to start visually representing themselves. Brown provides some great group activities to build doodling skills like an exercise to help create doodles ranging from the concrete to the abstract. I’d also like to ask students to doodle a section of an alphabetic text, probably one of the course readings, in order to practice translating or remediating.