Come Join Me

Since putting Pedablogue on hiatus in 2012, I’ve continued to share my scholarship of teaching and other research on a variety of social networks. In case you’d like to join me in these explorations, here are a few key links:

While you’re here, click and scroll around — the complete decade of Pedablogue archives (2003-2012) is still online right here! (With my apologies for dead links or missing photos…I’ll fix what I can, when I can.)

Putting Pedablogue on Hiatus

I am putting Pedablogue on indefinite hiatus. Comments are closed, but I’ve left the archives up so that people can still read the many articles on educational theory and praxis.

I started this blog back in 2003 with the intention of sharing my research into the scholarship of teaching, and I think keeping a public journal really served me well. It expanded my knowledge of pedagogy, tied me in with the work of so many other educators out there, and helped me really develop my awareness of my own educational praxis, while also helping me to question the assumptions I harbored about teaching. I published several articles as a result of keeping this blog, and I continue to teach many of the principles I’ve learned in here (especially in a graduate-level course in “The Teaching of Writing and Popular Fiction” for our MFA program). But I have been lax in keeping this journal going, and reticent about renewing my work here for several reasons.

First, it has always been a little difficult for me to juggle my roles as professor and creative writer in a productive way, but when a new ball was tossed into my juggling routine — the administrative duties of being the Chairman of the Humanities Division at Seton Hill U — blogging became the lowest of my priorities. Where once I was blogging at least once per week, I now have been blogging every few months, and that’s just too sporadic and inconsequential for my tastes. That is not to say that my Scholarship of Teaching has fallen by the wayside — I continue to publish and write articles about teaching and I get to apply what I’ve learned in this journal in much of my work with faculty as Chair.

But beyond my own lack of time to commit to this project, I could point to the cultural shift from blogs to social networking, which sort of winnowed away my sense that I was writing for an active audience. But worse, the server on which this blog is based experienced a radical shift when the system moved from Moveable Type to WordPress and our system admin also changed. I can no longer edit the theme, which bothers me to no end, and as you’ll see in many of the posts line breaks and other errors found their way into hundreds of blog posts. This fractured my commitment to the site, and only added more administrative work to my plate…and I now find myself deleting comment spam from the site more often than I write for it.

So I’m taking an indefinite pause while I focus on other things. I may return to this page in the future, or I might turn it to some other purpose someday, but for now, this space is more of an archive of a learning journey I took from 2003-2011 than it is a living breathing document. Thank you to everyone who contributed and visited over the past eight years. You all taught me a lot, and I appreciate the many comments and ideas that were shared here. Pedablogue has been a successful edublogging experience and I still share many of the entries here with others. I hope readers will continue to draw inspiration from some of the articles, and explore the rich diversity that is available in contemporary scholarship of teaching.

This is not goodbye. Follow me on to keep up with my other irons still burning in the fire.

Extra Credit Fun in My Film Course

Knowing from experience how difficult some of the tests in my “Art of Film” class can be for some students, this term I prepared in advance three ways that they could earn extra credit.

1)  Take the practice exams in the online textbook “kit” provided by the publisher prior to class chapter quizzes (for up to two points extra credit per quiz).

2)  Write one extra “media journal” paper (for up to ten points on the final grade).

3)  Create a three minute art film that illustrates one of the film language concepts learned this semester, upload and share on a website, and present the film in class (for up to 20 points).

I was surprised by how few students took me up on #1 (but not >too< surprised because it required paying to sign up to the online “kit” that went along with our book).  #3 — making a short art film — sounds like the most fun, but actually takes a lot of work.  I was impressed by what the students did, so I thought I’d share the results below.

Since there were only three of them, I actually typed out shot analysis essays, with frames from their movies pasted in, in color, as a form of critique.  I felt they deserved extra special feedback for doing something extra special for the class.  And I should add that everyone loved watching these movies and analyzing them with the same skills that we brought to the screen for all the other movies we studied this semester.  It was a good closure activity for the semester!

But first, I give you one of the surprising submissions:  Emily Maeder’s essay for option #2.

A stream-of-consciousness prose poem in response to the surrealist classic Un Chien Andalou.

Written on a banana.



Embedded videos apparently no longer work on my server for some reason. For now, here are links to the videos:

David Berkowitz: Sonnet

Olivia Goudy:  Cow-Tipping

Bruce Powell:  Michael Parente #7


Promise and Problems in the Graphic Syllabus

Of all the crazy things to do this morning, I found myself browsing through the latest (print) catalog from Jossey-Bass, publisher of all things teaching-and-learning-related. Among the many intriguing tigtles, I spotted a book by Linda B. Nilson called The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map that I’m thinking about looking into a little further.

A quick websearch turned up some examples of what amounts, essentially, to a concept (or mind) map of the course material that is included in the syllabus, looking a little something like the figure in the clipped image below (from Mark Smille’s samples — .pdf).

I like the idea behind this, as it takes a “big picture” approach to the course, showing the linkages between various elements of the class plan. Obviously, it’s a direct appeal to visual learners who might benefit from “seeing” rather than simply reading about the course design. And because it inherently uses a “map” metaphor to show the pathways between one topic and another, it surely can help students navigate the course and recognize “where they are” in the grand scheme of the course’s landscape…ostensibly, helping them move toward the learning outcomes that await at the end of the journey.

I can extrapolate a few things about this approach.

First off, it could be a very useful way for instructors to make their course design more coherent.  If the teacher spends time organizing the flow of the course — even a course that’s been taught many times before — through a concept map, then they’ll be approaching it much like a writer “pre-writes” a paper, creatively bringing the right brain into the process, and being inherently receptive to new ideas and inventions.  They’ll begin to spot where students might be getting lost, or where topics don’t quite “fit” rationally into the class plan.  By seeing the visual balance of the page, they also might see where they’re committing too much time to one area, or dealing too superficially with another.  It’s a good idea.

I’ve always used a table to outline my class calendar so that every class period has a plan and purpose that the student can see:  I typically use three columns to identify topic, readings/activities planned, and homework due prior to coming to class.  Students report that they like the clarity of this and the way it helps them plan ahead, as many of them use a calendar system of their own that they put all their homework into.  I like trying to crunch my class planning down into as minimalist a summary as I can in the table, while still be useful.  This helps me really focus.

But it’s a very linear class design method, and much of the “flow” between ideas is something only apparent to me.  If I were to start over with, say, my Fiction Writing syllabus, which is organized to cover one element of fiction (character, plot, setting, etc.) after another, and move these weekly elements around in a concept map, might I discover that it makes no sense to start with character and move to plot afterward, and instead start with setting?  Perhaps!  Perhaps I’d also see that some readings work better with different elements of fiction, even if the textbooks I’m using don’t organize things that way.  For that’s another key way that the concept map might assist with class redesign:  to make me own it more, by letting go of the architecture of the textbook design and taking charge of the “flow” of ideas on my own.

On the other hand, there are a few issues or problems I can see with this method.  Students who are unfamiliar with critically thinking about flowcharts might not understand that this design is simply my own, or give it more weight than it might otherwise deserve in their “narrative” of (not the class, but) the discipline.  They might get confused by the linkages if I don’t explain them thoroughly.  Indeed, a flowchart with too many arrows and symbols could only obfuscate the whole thing.  Moreover, the novelty of having a flowchart when other teachers they’re taking don’t do this might make it seem too outre, too idiosyncratic.  And since syllabi are as much policy documents as they are class plans, it might draw more attention from assessors and evaluators than it otherwise deserves.

I think the smartest thing to do is to make concept mapping an important component of the student activity in a course that would include a concept map in the syllabus.  Thus, on the first day of class, the teacher can go over the graphic syllabus orally, narrating the logic of the flowchart in summary, and perhaps then asking students to do their own flowchart or mind map about the first topic under study for homework.  Sharing concept maps can make for fun group activities, and there’s nothing wrong with collecting and critiquing them as actual assignments either (and having examples to show first really helps).  I could imagine also having students write a concept map of their own as a closure activity, describing their journey through the subject over the semester… and then comparing this back to the one on the syllabus, afterward.

Such mapping can be a great creative way to teach any subject, not just creative arts and composition writing class, as it gives students a way to organize information.  And a disorganized syllabus, or one overly cluttered with so many details that the weight over various topics is not clear, hinders students who are trying to organize their thinking.


[See my older post: Alternative Uses for Mind-Mapping in the Classroom]


QR Codes and Google Appointment Slots for Office Hours

On our campus at Seton Hill U, all students are provided with a free iPad2.  They already started getting tablets last year, but what is new is that all students will now have a camera in addition to the gesture-driven tablet device.  I’ve been hoping to make good use of this ability to record video.  But after listening to an engaging talk with futurist Maria Andersen this summer, I was inspired to try to use QR codes in creative ways this semester as one way to make use of the iPad2 camera and encouraging students to be creative with the device..

Not sure exactly what I’m going to do with it yet, but I already have begun.  First up:  a way for students to make appointments during my office hours by taking a snapshot of the QR code I just posted on my door.

QR Code for Office Hours

If a student comes to my office door and snaps this QR code into a scan app — like the free Scan app from — they will be automatically taken to a special web calendar I set up using Google Appointment Slots so they can schedule a time to visit with me.

Google Appointment Slots are pretty neat in and of themselves, but require both the users (you and your client) to be on a gmail system (our campus just moved to one) or to be users of google calendar (our campus just ported the Exchange server over to shift us from Outlook/Entourage to google apps).  [NOTE: If you DON’T have google calendar or don’t want to use it, I found a free service that might offer a workaround for you called ]

The idea, in a nutshell, is that appointment slots allow the teacher to set up blocks of time when they are available for other people to sign up for appointments.  After you set up a block of empty time (with slots within that time block of 15 min or 30 min or 1 hour intervals), google gives you a link you can share with the public that only includes those time slots, which visitors can use to choose their favorite time to visit.  Then those blocks are reserved so others can’t take them.

I noticed right away that the “sharable link” that google appointment slots gives you to distribute and share with others is really ugly and super long.  So I headed over to my favorite URL shortening service — — and was able to carve that long URL down to a nice little address that will be handy for including on syllabi, as well as on the door posting itself for those who don’t use a camera QR code scanning app. even allowed me to customize the link so that it says something I can remember.

After I set up Google Appointment Slots, I realized just how powerful this could be for organizing class activities outside of the usual class period.  This could be particularly useful for mandatory office consultations in my writing classes, for instance, which — in order to accommodate so many visits — usually happen outside the normal spectrum of my office hours and are spread out across an entire week.  I like these slots, too, because it solves my lifelong hang up on never knowing whether its more fair to my students to block them off in my calendar as tentative or busy [I’ve always said tentative, in case someone needs me during those times (and now that I’m serving as a division chair, faculty often do — making me “busy” and often unavailable to passers-by — ergo my conundrum!].

In any case, the QR code looks geeky on my office door.  It will be interesting to see if students actually use the thing.

In the mean time, I’m reading up on various strategies for USING QR CODES IN EDUCATION (thanx for the inspiration, effectiveteacher).  I already have ideas for using them in syllabi and perhaps to provide “answer keys” for students to check their work — and as marginalia for students to “learn more” in handouts — and for on-screen projections during lectures for lecture notes– but what I’m really brainstorming about right now is not just how I can use them for me to deliver information in cheeky ways, but for students to use them to exchange and deliver their own creative work in handy and fun and clever ways.


Professor of the Year Address

This week, I had the humbling distinction of being awarded Seton Hill University’s 2011 Professor of the Year. I am very grateful for this, and I really appreciate the kind encouragement. The award comes with a plaque and a plum parking spot for next academic year (Hurrah! I’m thinking of subletting this), as well as addressing the graduating class and award-winning students (and their parents) at the Honor’s Convocation. I had a great time with this, and tried my best to make it as un-boring as possible. You can read my speech — called “Scary Things” — over on my creative writing weblog.

Congratulations to the Class of 2011.
Here’s the campus press release.

Many Genres, One Craft: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction

New Creative Writing Guide!

Title: Many Genres, One Craft: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction
Author: Edited by Michael A. Arnzen and Heidi Ruby Miller
Publisher: Headline Books Date: May 2011
Hardcover. 384 pages. List Price: $29.99 (US)
ISBN-13: 9780938467083
ISBN-10: 0938467085

If you teach creative writing, you might consider adopting my latest book, Many Genres, One Craft: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction. Modeled after the graduate program where I teach — the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill UniversityMany Genres is a thick hardcover collection of over sixty essays by prominent writers and teachers who look under the hood of both the craft of writing for a genre audience and the business of penning novels in today’s publishing world.

The book is ready to be distributed in the first week of May 2011, and is taking orders.

The introduction and complete table of contents is available on

We are keeping an active weblog about the book, featuring contributor profiles, bonus articles, and book news. To celebrate, we’re also conducting a Virtual Book Tour that itself promises to offer a lot of instruction.

“Speaking from experience, I can tell you there isn’t a muse and if there is, she’s already dating someone else.” If there isn’t a muse, as you’ll read in this invaluable book for writers, MANY GENRES ONE CRAFT is surely the next best thing. No matter what you want to learn–from choosing the point of view for a scene, from getting the most out of a critique group to fine-tuning your final draft, from approaching a literary agent to promoting your published book in print or electronically or both–it’s all there. The contributors know their stuff, and what they’re teaching applies to writing at any age. MANY GENRES ONE CRAFT covers all the bases superbly, including issues I haven’t seen addressed anywhere else in today’s rapidly shifting publishing landscape.”–Renni Browne, co-author of SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS

Dysfunctionality as a Consequence of Rigor

Many of my colleagues are discussing Academically Adrift — a book which The Chronicle has called “the most significant book on higher education written in recent years” — a study which reveals that students today are studying less than ever, and therefore learning very little.

One of the notions that the book raises is that there is a lack of “rigor” in college.  A key data point that supports this idea is the finding of the study that 35 percent of students reported studying five hours per week or less — and that 50 percent of the students surveyed said they didn’t have a single course that required 20 pages of writing.  As the Chronicle suggests:  “as the proportion of the population going to college rises, more and more [students] are simply not suited for academically rigorous forms of higher learning. Consequently, schools dumb down the curriculum, engage in grade inflation, etc.”  Moreover — and this one claim that my colleagues are very interested in discussing — the reliance on student evaluations seems to reward less stricture.  In “A Lack of Rigor Leaves Students ‘Adrit’ in College,” NPR cites author Richard Arum:  “There’s a huge incentive set up in the system [for] asking students very little, grading them easily, entertaining them, and your course evaluations will be high.”

I suspect there is some truth to these notions, and that whatever the study in Academically Adrift signifies, it reflects a culture that is undergoing change — and that universities may not be adapting to this change in the best of ways.  It is easy to suggest that teaching praxis should become more “rigorous” and raise challenges that have students work with more discipline and meet tougher challenges.  But what also may be indicated here is that our notion of “rigor” may also need to adapt.  I’m still thinking this through, but I would point readers to Craig E. Nelson’s “Dysfunctional Illusions of Rigor: Lessons from the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning” — an excerpt from Wiley’s book series, To Improve the Academy, which recently was reprinted in the Tomorrow’s Professor mailing list.  In a nutshell, Nelson asks teachers to re-evaluate their assumption that students are to blame for their lack of preparation to learn in college, and to consider whether pedagogical alternatives can lead to higher learning, even for the most ill-prepared.

Here are the core “illusions” that teachers harbor, which Nelson suggests can lead to dysfunction:

1. Hard courses weed out weak students: When students fail it is primarily due to
inability, weak preparation or lack of effort.

2. Massive grade inflation is a corruption of standards.

3. A good clear argument in plain English can be understood by any bright student
who applies herself.

4. Traditional methods of instruction provide proven effective ways of teaching content
to undergraduates.

5. If we cover more content, the students will learn more content.

6. Traditional methods of instruction are fair to a wide range of diverse students of
good ability.

7. Students should come to us knowing how to read and write and do essay and
multiple choice questions.

8. It is essential that students hand in papers on time and take exams on time. Giving
them flexibility and second chances is pampering them.

It’s hard not to hold some of these assumptions, which seem “common sense” for most of us.  (For instance, if students don’t take exams on time, wouldn’t an open deadline only displace the dysfunction to a time management crisis for the teacher?  And how on earth can “grade inflation” be good?)  Nelson provides some interesting ways of reconsidering teaching.  But the key lesson of Nelson’s study is that rigor for rigor’s sake only makes methods that are not working even worse.  It is wise for us to consider alternative pedagogies and to explore the scholarship of teaching to try to find new ways of reaching the learners who seem “adrift.”  We can’t just say ” swim harder.”

There are many alternatives out there that might be worth exploring, especially in the research that Nelson cites in his essay.  If you see yourself in any of those 8 “illusions” above and are interested in finding out more, as a starting point,  the Institute for Learning and Teaching at Colorado State has productively expanded some of Nelson’s ideas in their great “Master Teacher Initiative – Teaching Tips” website.

“Student Outcomes”: Michael Diezmos

“Student Outcomes” is a continuing series of interviews with my former students who are now experiencing “real life” after college. Considering how much of our work is based on the assumption that “learning outcomes” will be met, I thought it would be a good way to catch up with them and to see what sort of impact college has had on their lives in the long term. Past students interested in participating should e-mail me. Comments, as always, are appreciated. — Michael Arnzen

Michael B. Diezmos, Seton Hill U class of 2007
Start with a brief bio that tells us first where you are now, then what your status was in college (e.g. “Creative Writing major, Volleyball player, Tetris fan, whatever.) Let your personality show.

I attained my MAs degree in American Studies in 2009 at Utah State University.  My thesis explored how marginalized people gained power through word manipulation and language play.  I took a year off to get work experience before finally deciding on applying to the Peace Corps and to several PhD programs.

At Seton Hill U, I was a writing fanatic. I kept a personal journal, and I maintained a blog. I also wrote for the public. I contributed to Eye Contact, SHU’s literary and art magazine, and to the Setonian, SHU’s student newspaper. I did work-study at SHU’s Writing Center, and an internship at SHU’s Office of Public Information. I incorporated writing in other activities I did. As Vice President of my class, I did a class newsletter. I wrote articles about my community service experience. I also translated a Filipino legend for my Honors Capstone Project, and reflected on my process.

Tell us where you thought you’d be now, back when you were a college freshman.

I thought by now, I would have a 9 to 5 job, and even if I might not like my job, I would still be writing my novel at night.

However, life turned out differently. 3 years after graduating from SHU, I realized I wanted to be in the education field either as a Professor of Rhetoric or as a Director of a Writing Center. I want to work with tutors and students. Completing the Peace Corps or a PhD program will help me become a better tutor and teacher. I still write, but I’m reading more so I can learn from authors I like.

Describe your college experience in one word. Then elaborate in no more than five sentences.

My college experience can be summed up by the word, “hands-on”. In writing and other types of communication, accurate information is important in attracting and compelling an audience. As a Setonian journalist, my experience in Fine Arts, Art History, and Dance made me more credible when I reviewed art exhibits and performances. I learned more about audience and the publication world in general as the Eye Contact Business Manager, and as an assistant to the Associate Director of Media Relations.

Describe one very specific lesson from the college classroom that you’ll never forget. Give us concrete details. Tell us not only what it taught you, but also how and why it worked.

One of the many lessons from a Literature class that I’ll never forget is developing my voice through weekly reading responses. I could focus on the obvious or start exploring the not-so obvious or analyze a detail that caught my attention as long as I supported it with evidence ( textual or basic common knowledge ). This exercise made me comfortable in expressing my opinions. This lesson worked because the teacher remained open to possibilities. Even when the idea seemed improbable, the teacher nudged me in a good direction, where I could make the idea and argument into a reality ( a possible research paper ).

What do you know now that you wish someone would have taught you in school? How might that lesson best be taught?

I wish someone would have taught me how to better aply for jobs. Throughout my college experience, I though my resume was enough. My main priorities were to complete my classes’ requirements, participate in extracurricular activities, and graduate on time. There were resources available, but I didn’t know how to navigate them.

This lesson could be best taught if there was a structured class dedicated to career and life after the university, but this class had to be SPECIFIC to the student’s major and field of study. The class will be the main resource for networking, for news on internships and job openings, information on graduate schools and scholarships, and discussions about the field. The class could even have a budget for speakers, workshops on cover letter and resume writing, Q-and-A sessions with human resources and hiring committees, and mock-up interviews ( specific to the field ).

What teaching method(s) were you subjected to that never made a dent on your learning?

Taking tests was a teaching method that never made a dent on my learning. I did well recalling the agreed answers ( as discussed in class and the textbook ). However, thinking back, all the tests I took blended into one. On the other hand, writing essays and doing research papers made more impact on my learning. Even if I didn’t remember each content, I remembered the process of gathering materials, exploring different angles, and synthesizing the information. The focus on process helped me to develop my critical thinking skills.

What college experience did you find most displeasing at the time, but now recognize as an important contribution to your learning?

I didn’t enjoy doing presentations and participating in discussions when I was in college. But I’m glad I did them because they are helpful in my chosen profession as a tutor and teacher. Presentations and discussions helped me to think on my feet, to be more social, to stand up for my beliefs and opinions, to be open-minded to others’ beliefs and opinions, to negotiate, and to have patience.

What habits — good and bad — did you pick up in school, that you still continue to apply?

Making a list is a good habit I picked up in school and that I still apply today. Lists help me to set goals ( short and long term ), draft papers, and organize in general. If I wanted my day to be extremely productive, I would make a list where I would even note daily routines ( such as eating ). It feels good to cross things out ( a good reminder that I accomplished something even if it’s trivial ). The activities I don’t finish will just be moved to the next day. A list gives me an overall picture of the day, and it helps me to anticipate and react to the day’s surprises.

What do you miss about the college classroom, if anything?

One of the things I missed about the college classroom is the physical space for conversations on literature, current events, philosophy et al, and a community that inspires its members for positive ( social ) action.

If there was one suggestion you would make to college teachers everywhere, what would it be?

The best advice I received was not to give others advice ( ironic? ). According to this Austrian actor, advises took away the responsibility from the advisee to make things happen. With that said, it’s always nice and great for students to have a supportive teacher, who is realistic, a problem-solver, and a co-conspirator ( contradicting? ).

Congratulations to you and best wishes to you on the next leg of your journey, Michael!
Read more “Student Outcomes”!


The blogosphere at my host college, Seton Hill University, is in the process of migrating from a Moveable Type system administered by our longstanding faculty member in New Media, Dennis Jerz, to a WordPress-based system serviced by the college’s IT department.  I appreciate all that Dr. Jerz has done and continues to do; his post on his struggles and successes with this process is here.

I think most everything has moved over smoothly, and I’ve been able to restore things like tags and categories.  But I’m certain a number of links and references will be broken in the archives.  Right now, the biggest issue I’m trying to sort out is how to restore line breaks between paragraphs, as those seem to be lost…

Patience, as I try to clean up the old posts and work out the kinks.  If you run into a problem, feel free to let me know.  And if you have an older link to Pedablogue, please do me the favor of changing it to the new domain:

Happy New Year!

Mike Arnzen

p.s. If you’re looking for something that’s gone lost, the previous server still seems to be online for now, so you can try there.

Creative Writing Guide Coming: MANY GENRES, ONE CRAFT

One of my big nonfiction projects this past year was co-editing a huge, 130,000 word collection of instructional articles for writers, called MANY GENRES, ONE CRAFT: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction, along with a former student, author Heidi Ruby Miller. It’s early, but the website for the book has launched, and many insightful features are planned for it in the months leading up to the book’s release this coming Spring:
I am very pleased with this book, which should be released by Headline Books this Spring. It would be useful for any teacher interested in working with students who want to write genre fiction and novel-length prose for publication. The unique focus of this book on writing for multiple popular genres is something you won’t find in most instructional guides for creative writers, …but what makes it really unique is that every single contributor is a faculty member, visiting guest writer, or published graduate from the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program at Seton Hill University, where I work.

In other words, it’s the product of a learning community. I’m very proud of my colleagues and the students who put a lot of passion into sharing their wisdom. This gives the book a “writer’s workshop in a bottle” spirit.

But it also reflects a pragmatism and focus on genre theory not often found in creative writing textbooks. Look at the sneak preview of the Table of Contents. You’ll see it is a hefty tome (130,000 words with 60 contributors!). It includes sections on not only the “craft” but the whole spectrum of popular genres in which writers of fiction ply their skills… and a third section on the writer’s life (and even features a chapter by Lawrence C. Connolly on “The Teaching Writer” that would be useful for teachers reading this who also write fiction).

I’ll likely post more reflections or news about this book in the year ahead, especially when it’s available for ordering come Spring 2011. But for now, there’s the weblog, which will include news and features leading up to the book launch. Check it out, and if you have questions about the title, let me know.

Making “Course” Corrections

Navigators use the phrase “course correction” to describe the accommodations necessary when a vehicle or aircraft goes off trajectory and the pilot has to take control of the steering wheel to get back on track. Teachers — especially those of us who use an intricately designed class calendar on the syllabus to guide most of our decisions — sometimes need to do this too. But sometimes we don’t realize it. We get caught up in the routine of instruction. We get too focused on the moment and forget the objectives that launched us on this journey or the end point we originally had in mind. Or maybe we get swept away by the tides of facilitating change and get caught off-guard by approaching deadlines or final exams coming right around the corner.

We need to make course corrections.

I did this recently in my first year Composition course. Every course in Seminar in Thinking and Writing at SHU contains an oral presentation assignment — a formal speech — that students are asked to perform in order to develop their communication skills. I always enjoy these and I am strong believer that practicing public speaking can help make a student a better writer. But the problem is that this assignment risks crowding out the attention to other issues in the class, like a research project. So I’ve always combined the two, and asked students to give a speech that shares their current research with their peers, under the assumption that they can kill two birds with one stone.

But this term, I was getting the feeling that my students were feeling worn down by the onslaught of short paper assignments. Their writing was becoming less genuine, and as I reader I was more and more feeling like many in the class were “phoning it in.” There’s always a degree of that in a “required” course like freshman comp, but I usually have success in getting students engaged and exciting about expressing their ideas through writing. In this case, I got the sense they were feeling midterm exhaustion, not just from my course, but from their entire raft of courses.

So I decided to make a course correction. I loosened up a bit. Instead of asking them to speak about research I made it easier: I asked them to simply tell us a story. They haven’t really done much narrative writing in my class, so this would give them the opportunity. The revised assignment asked them to share a personal anecdote related to the class readings and themes so far. I still wanted them to do research of a kind, so I made it mandatory that they had to interview one of the people who were involved in the story. “And if you don’t know what story tell, interview your mother or father,” I told them.

The speeches so far have been phenomenal. Depressingly, most of the tales are about personal tragedies — death and loss and health issues and victimization from crime and bullies — but I really am happy to hear students speak honestly about a topic they’re passionate about, and to trust the space of my classroom enough to share such touching personal matters. While I am not always satisfied with the connection they make to the class themes, I’m still learning a lot about my students (if not just “students today”) and they seem to be engaging with one another more often and honestly now (since every speech is followed by a mandatory open-floor Q&A). And if the class has given them an outlet for “being heard” or better understood by their peers, I am pleased. I still grade them the same way I normally would, and I challenge their assumptions in the Q&A, but I’m glad I made this decision. If anything, I think it fosters bonds, but it also cultivates the vibe of genuine honesty that I will expect from students when they do their research to come.

Course corrections can be hard to make, but often I think it is important to “reconnect” to the students. To step down from the podium, and sit around the table with them. To take a quick survey or have them reflect on an assignment. To take a step back from the grading pile and think about what didn’t work as expected, and whether it would be worthwhile to change the syllabus now rather than just next time the class is taught.
In my online graduate course in the Teaching of Writing as part of our MFA writing program, I have used a midterm evaluation (an online survey I build through to get the kind of feedback I need to know about their sense of workload, assignment foci, and what they feel they need to know to become good teachers. I feel this is necessary, because every group in this course includes a mixed level of experience when it comes to teaching, as some in our program are currently teaching high school, or have experience training others in some non-English field. So I solicit input on the syllabus and test whether they think changes or needed or if there are topics I didn’t plan that they think they might need to learn. As graduate students, they are very forthright in expressing their desires as well as their feedback and I find it helpful. It also raises the course to a “meta” level since it is a course ABOUT teaching. Then I do what we so rarely get to do with end-of-year student evaluations (and something I think is a bit risky, actually, but what the heck): I post the results. Sharing like this lets them compare their own assessment of the course with their peers, in addition to asking them to do a little role reversal with teacher. I have done similar “polls” with students in other classes, and then used the results for a class discussion, while also delivering my own “evaluation” of how the class is going. I think these kinds of reflexive practices — in concert with the students — makes everyone more accountable and invested in the outcomes that stretch out on the horizon. And they generate a shared sense of agreement in making course corrections, as everyone now has a hand on the wheel…

Teachers always make little micro-changes that adapt to the flux of their classes, but if students aren’t involved in changes somehow — even if they trust the instructor’s experience and expertise — they can seem arbitrary or capricious to the students, and can backfire. I recommend working together with your students to determine the direction of the vessel, even if you are the one doing most of the steering, and plotting the outcome of the journey.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation (with my iPad)


Yes, I’ve been playing with my ipad — and have rediscovered the bad artist that lives inside of me by drawing and doodling things like that picture of my cat, Knipsy, up above. But I’ve mostly been thinking about teaching with it, as the ipad was a gift to all faculty and students at my school….

Here at Seton Hill University, our IT department has been working overtime, distributing new ipads to every student during the first week of classes. Our university was the first, I believe, to announce its decision to empower all its students with a free ipad, as well as a macbook which is supported by their technology fee. Our wireless infrastructure was smartly built in anticipation of supporting this massive load of new user logins, and so far (after the first day) so good.

Happily, the faculty, too, were given ipads at the top of the summer and asked to prepare ways of using it in the classroom. I’ve been doing that, but I’ve also just been playing with it, making it a part of my workflow and daily life. I even had some teaching opportunities this past summer where I was able to dip my toes into the ipad teaching waters, so I thought I would take a moment to reflect on what I did and what assumptions I have going into the class now. (The title of this posting is a little deceiving, sorry…it’s more about the classroom than summer vacationing…)

And many have felt the device might not be ready for university classroom use. Right from the get-go, I realized that the device would be something akin to a portable entertainment player since it’s really built on the paradigm of the ipod touch. Immediately, I worried that my classrooms would forever be altered into some kind of beeping, blorping, video game arcade, in which I would have to vie for my students attention while standing in front of the blackboard, patiently crushing the chalk in my hand into powder. But that’s not the case. The trick to using the ipad lies in taking charge of the equipment and transforming the tablet into a device for creating, not just consuming, texts. And while there are plenty of websites, ebooks, and other texts out there to consume, our goal will be to have students use these as tools, in order to foster creative literacy. Not an easy task, but it should be right up my alley as a creative writing instructor with a mild case of technology fetishism.

Here I display my cat drawing during the summer student ipad distribution

I dipped my toes into the ipad teaching waters first in June, at the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction residency (technically, these grad students were the first class to receive free ipads from Seton Hill — pictured above, where you can just barely make out the image of my cat in the photo). First test: used it as a timer. I used a free LED stopwatch app as a countdown timer when the students gave feedback during workshops. I just tapped the screen, and propped the ipad up on its hinged case so all could see, as digits started counting down the two minutes I’d apportioned each critic. It worked well, because the student could look up and see how much time they had left. But when it reached the last ten seconds an alarm would go off in very annoying way (bip, bip, bip, BIP, BEE-BEE-BEE-BEE-BEE-BEEEEEEP!). This cheesy “the bomb is about to explode” sound effect really threw some critics off and they didn’t like the way it changed the tone of their helpful comments. I >could< have turned the sound off, but that defeats the whole intention of using a stopwatch, really. Free programs that don’t allow you to control these elements come with such problems across the board, from poor aesthetic design elements to rude noises, to simply unwanted advertisements in the margins. But they are functional and can be helpful.

I had two guest lectureships this summer where I dipped further into the ipad teaching waters, going up to my ankles. Both were genre fiction writing workshops, and I taught similar material at both. I used the ipad to organize my thoughts (using an app called Taskpaper, which I like quite a bit) and I enjoyed the whole travel experience with a mobile app. But in the classroom, I used it very timidly for activities.
For the first, Odyssey: The Fantasy Writers Workshop, I planned to play a heavy metal song (the somewhat cheesy but effective “Black Sabbath” by none other than Black Sabbath) using itunes to the class and asked them to collectively identify and analyze all the horror tropes it employs, which I captured on the whiteboard. (There were a metric ton of these tropes — corny stuff can be a good teaching text).

As I was being introduced, I set up the ipad, and accidentally pressed play, interrupting the speaker in a very rude way with an unexpected guitar riff. No big deal, but remembering to turn down the volume before doing such preparatory actions was my first lesson learned. I also learned that the built-in speakers on an ipad are pretty decent and can reach across a classroom fairly well. Exercise: success! I repeated this lesson in the Alpha Science Fiction/Fantasy Workshop for Teen Writers in a larger space and to a bigger crowd, which confirmed it. (The students there seemed much more comfortable with my use of an ipad, which I tried to carry with me everywhere in lieu of a notebook to model the digital professional at work…I read from it, and even took notes from what they were saying on it at one point).
So my first lessons with teaching with ipad — which is a glorified ipod mp3 player at its basest level — were lessons in controlling and employing sounds. Much of the attention has been placed on the visual elements of this device, but the sound is still ever present and very important. I can reach more ears than I can eyes with this thing, unless I’m employing the document projector.

I’ve used sound in the past to shape writing activities, so this wasn’t earth-shatteringly new. I had previously used my laptop to play “nature sounds” using itunes while students prewrite their stories, or to help shape poetry, to good effect and I will probably use these tactics again, in a way which will be much more convenient with a lightweight and portable ipad in tow. And having access to the itunes store on the go can allow me to download sounds and songs if inspiration strikes during a class.

What I haven’t done yet is record my lectures or podcast student work with the ipad. And what’s more important is how the STUDENTS use them. During one of my graduate level workshops, I was appalled when a student began playing a shooter game while another student was giving a critique. Others, however, restored my faith in mankind by calling up information on wikipedia when there was a factual question about setting in one story. As with any technology, it’s how students use it that make all the difference.

Final point: summer is now over and I taught my first freshman writing class yesterday morning. Only half had brought their laptops. They remained dark. No one multitasked during class, no one decided to record the opening discussion, and no one used them to take notes. I was glad they were well-behaved, but I actually put in my syllabus a recommendation for them to bring either the ipad or the macbook to class — whatever input they find most easily and naturally allows note-taking — and for the first time ever a few “app” recommendations appear in my syllabus, underneath the required books. I will try to get us to use these like musical instruments in a band class. I will try to post reflections on these here from time to time, and share related resources and apps I discover, using the tag ipad. There is a lot of experimentation and development going on among virtually all the faculty on my campus right now, so I hope to share what we learn here as well.

Using Voicethread to “Bookend” an Online Course

Last semester I tried out Voicethread as a new format for instruction in an online course. I found the software kind of fun to play with; the format it uses for virtual (asynchronous) discussion of any given “slide” really appeals to me. Instead of using a “threaded” discussion (ergo the name “voice thread”, student responses all appear around the slide (or video or text) in a way that is very collaborative…you get the feeling that you’re all “sitting around a table” and having a seminar-styled conversation.

But — as with most things online — there is a lot of ‘front loaded’ preparation, with both the slides, the questions, and the comments. While I had originally assumed that I would be using voicethread software for the entire term, it occurred to me that it might be more useful to employ it just twice: at the beginning and at the very end of the term. This allowed me to set the tone for the course while also giving me a strong “closure activity” to wrap things up.

One of the problems of teaching online, I think, always happens at the beginning and the end: at first, everyone is trying to learn the technology and the system the teacher is employing. At the end, students usually just conclude by turning in some document, rather than having a genuine conversation. Voicethread gets students involved in a way that can break expectations and get students talking to one another right away.
I’m not sharing my voicethreads from last semester here, because I want to respect the privacy of the students. But I can give snapshots, followed by a quick overview of what I did at the beginning and the end, if you’re looking for a practical tip.


My online course was a literature class for graduate students in our MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction. Before the class began, I set up a voicethread as an introduction to the course content. The first slide was a generic “hello” and introduction by video that framed the course in a personal way: it humanized the relationship right away, because they heard my voice and saw my face and could tell that I was interested in what they had to contribute because I was soliciting feedback. In the slides that followed, I shared images, one slide after another, of the covers for the texts we were reading in the semester ahead. This allowed me to give an overview of the readings, and to explain some of the concepts that we would be learning that term. But more than this, I made the subject of book cover art — and how it relates to genre fiction — the very subject. I briefly analyzed the implications of the art on each book cover a little (e.g., “notice the red font…implying danger”), or compared and contrasted different covers of the same book (eg., “notice how this earlier edition of the book uses art deco rather than photorealism”) — and then invited students to analyze the covers in their comments as well. They all got into the task, and showed me more than I myself had seen in the covers. This was a raving success, in my mind, because it got us in an analytical mode right away, while also cultivating interpersonal bonds via virtual discussion.

At the end of the course, I returned to voicethread and used it to get feedback on the class. I returned to using some of the book covers we analyzed at the beginning of the class, and “wrapped up” some of the class content with commentary. But then I shifted the focus to my main purpose of this “closing” exercise through voicethread: to solicit feedback on the class in a sort of virtual, shared, class evaluation. I had only five slides or so, each with a question typed on it that addressed a broad area of the course objectives. I specified the area of my question in caps. Questions I asked included “Which books this term taught you the most about the craft of writing?” and “What knowledge did you most glean from your classmates?” While my main intent was to foment student reflection on their progress of learning objectives, the comments included evaluation of the course, and were insightful to me as a teacher piloting this class for the first time.


Whether you use my approach (or voicethread) or not, I recommend that if you’re teaching online, you pay special attention to the beginning and ending of the semester. While learning is asynchronous, every course is predicated on the notion that there will be a synchronous experience: a period of time that the teacher has organized into a beginning, middle, and end. Technology can be employed to “bookend” that experience in a meaningful way.

On “The Sacramentality of Teaching and Learning”

Great post on Dennis Jerz’ blog about experiencing the “ritual” encounter of freshmen writers with the difficulty of learning at the college level, and the gentle way that teachers should respond to it. It includes a sad-but-true clip from a Charlie Brown movie that revolves around the typical student approaches to a paper assignment, and knock-out quotations like these from William Zinsser (Writing to Learn):

“Whenever I hear [students] talk about their work, I feel that few forms of teaching are so sacramental; the writing teacher’s ministry is not just to the words but to the person who wrote the words…. Through the writing of our students we are reminded of their individuality. We are reminded, whatever subject we are charged with teaching, that our ultimate charge is to produce broadly educated men and women with a sense of stewardship for the world they live in.”

Zinsser and Jerz aren’t advocating some religious dogma here, but instead articulating the “reverence” one must have to be a real sponsor for another learner’s efforts to grow. I admire this. This reverence is composed of “ministry…not just to the words but to the person who wrote the words”. This is well and good when it comes the instructor’s affect, but to push it even further, what form does that ministry take in praxis on the classroom floor?

First, there are many ways in which college teaching should probably not be like Ministry with a capital M. One shouldn’t “preach” through lecture. One shouldn’t “worship” the books taught in the class like they are a “gospel” that cannot be open to criticism. One shouldn’t “bless” the A students and “damn” the Cs. One shouldn’t turn class journals into “confessionals”. And one certainly shouldn’t use the classroom as a conversion machine for one religious doctrine, but have tolerance and respect for diverse faiths and backgrounds.

One should “minster” not in the clerical sense, but in the broader sense of the term: “To attend to the wants and needs of others.” So I’ve been thinking about how I’ve tried to do this in the classes where I’ve had the most success. Here are a few ways I think the “minister” metaphor might be extended in fruitful ways (with the caveat that this advice always depends on the context):

Establish Sanctuary.
The classroom has to be a place where students trust that the professor has their learning and not their own personal agenda in mind for all class activities. They have to feel that if they reveal their “secret selves” through their writing or speech, they will not be harmed by the teacher or others. This means speaking up to protect the innocent, when conflicts occur during peer workshops, responding with politeness and affirmation when leading discussions, avoiding privileging some students over others, cultivating a sense of class unity by fixating on the diversity of the issue at hand, rather than one dominant idea alone. Cultivate an environment where people want to read their writing aloud, and want to listen to what one another has written, too. Applaud often. When I ask my students to formally perform “readings” of their papers and stories to the class, I flat out tell them, “This is church.”

Model the Golden Rule.
I realize this is loaded with Christian implications, but I simply mean that teachers should “do unto others” in the way that members of an academic discourse community implicitly are expected to. This is true of writing workshops, but it’s also true of the entire teacher/student relationship. This requires responding to writing and grading with the same degree of energy you expect from students, meeting deadlines, arriving to class on time, putting effort into handouts and documents as if they were papers you too were submitting to the class, etc. Good writing teachers will write in class while their students are writing in class, for instance. Working together is the great equalizer that foments collaborative learning. Similarly, it means taking spoken comments in class seriously, even if the student is slacking or goofing or rebelling (these actions often mask some insecurity about the material or their preparation, and feel like personal affronts, so it’s often hard to contend with this… the trick is to shape your responses to these students in a way that is actually redirecting attention to the whole class interest, and to try to get the student to see it that way too).

Respect the Sabbath.
Students always over-determine days off (snow days, holidays, weekends) and so do faculty, because the “work” of school can become a grind. Use this to your advantage by employing rest time. Do it consciously, aware of when taking a break (whether during the period, or during the semester) can actually make students’ learning more productive. Schedule breaks in the center of courses longer than an hour and a half. Ease up once in a while on the drill routines. See if you can avoid dumping huge assignments into student breaks just because they wouldn’t fit into your class syllabus. Make Fridays the “fun” day. Now I’m not saying you should let go of the wheel and turn the course into a pleasure cruise, or you risk losing student respect, commitment, and growth. All “fun” activities should still be related to the course content, but in a way that relieves concentration on one thing and allows coming at it from a different, looser angle or context. Buffer time between projects allows learning — and an awareness of growth — to sink in. Use reflection paper assignments to ask students to stop and take stock of what they’re learning, to measure their own self-development. Vacillate between contemplative tasks (reading/listening) and productive tasks (writing/speaking). Watch a course-related movie and host a conversation about it once in awhile. You might find it also allows you to take stock of the students real understanding of the material by letting go of what you “need” to cram into the course calendar.

Too often we think our job is to transmit information like a non-stop broadcast antennae. To minister to student need and revere student thinking is to stop talking and “just listen.” It isn’t always the case that students don’t know how to write; it’s more often the case that they’ve never written for an audience. We need to be that audience, and they need to understand the variety of audiences that they will be engaging as a scholar. Moreover, conferences should be a chance to listen to students, to be their sounding board, to be their audience. It seems self-evident to me that to minister means to pay attention to the needs of others as they emerge in the present tense, not just the act of planning to serve them in advance. If we want our students to be good listeners, we might have to show them the art by doing it ourselves. If your mission is to teach, you need to be a missionary of education and go to where the student lives, not spout from the hilltop and expect them to know how to climb up.