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 QRCodeCity.com — 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 http://scheduleonce.com ]

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 — bit.ly — 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.  Bit.ly 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.


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 Amazon.com is taking orders.

The introduction and complete table of contents is available on scribd.com.

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.

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 qualtrics.com) 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.

Class Writing Opportunity: THE FICTION PROJECT


As a creativity challenge, I recently signed up for THE FICTION PROJECT, sponsored by The Art House Co-op. Registrants (before Feb) will be mailed a Moleskine sketchbook in which to tell and show a story using words and art, based on a surprise random theme. Most participants scan and share their work-in-progress, with commenting available much like a weblog. The deadline is in April, when sketchbooks are returned to be put on permanent display in the Brooklyn Art Library.

The length of the experience nicely fits into a college semester-length calendar for the coming Spring, so I thought I would recommend it to others who are considering a creative class project for their art or writing courses. The “rules” are flexible enough to allow collaborative creations for the class as a whole, or to allow individual entries. The site offers an educational discount for groups over 10.

Visit my profile and feel free to friend me if you sign up. I don’t know what I’ll be doing for this project, or if I’ll even succeed, but I know it will be very weird.

John Irving Worries For New Novelists — Should Teachers?

Thanks to the twitterverse, I was turned on to this video by author John Irving when asked about the future of the book:

The anxieties presently circulating about the marketplace for fiction certainly are causing a lot of changes in the publishing industry lately. In October, price wars among booksellers splashed on the headlines, causing many — including the New York Times — to worry about the economics of publishing and the resultant devaluation of the printed book itself. Some speculate that this is all due to the mainstream attention and interest that ebook hardware is finally getting, especially the Amazon Kindle.

Updike speaks to the impact of all this on young writers. I am starting to wonder how the role of creative writing programs and the teaching of creative writing professors will change as a result, since young writers are who we serve. Here are my thoughts — a rapid fire of brainstorming, more than fully-composed thoughts — about what, perhaps, creative writing teachers should be considering.

For one thing, we should neither give up on the book, nor hide from the realities of the trade by squatting behind a library shelf or the literary canon. We need to be engaged with the present AND the past, with a toe dipped into the future of our students, as well.

We should adapt to paradigm shifts not by teaching to the marketplace but by teaching to the long-view and by persistently putting publishing into historical context. Students need to be aware of current industry realities, and we need to be engaged in it to understand it completely as teachers. But there is wisdom in our experience and we need to share that experience, in order for students to recognize that publishing as an ever-changing process, and is never “stable” in any fixed way. It has always been historically-contingent, and always been in a state of flux across time. The “book” has always been an artifact of the marketplace of ideas — a trace artifact of a cultural movement always in-process. This is as true of business trends as it is of artistic movements, and often one change is simply responding and/or adapting to the other.

We should discuss electronic publishing not as the “new” or the “best” but simply one medium for messaging which is as equally valid for expression as any other. When it comes to publishing contracts, ebooks are just one license among many that a writer can act on, and while one license may be more economically viable at any given time than another, all are equally legitimate ways to transfer intellectual property to an audience.

We should inform students about intellectual property law, and advise them to protect their property — or to know what rights they’re donating to the public domain when they unleash it free online or in free ebook giveaways.

We should encourage experimentation with format just as we encourage experimentation with the blank page to poets.

Too often writers glom on to one format or medium or genre and fixate on it (usually because they derived some success within it) — and this includes everything from the Kindle of today to the illustrated manuscript in days of old. We need to engage new technologies while also understanding the book as a technology itself. But more than that, the key point for new writers to understand — after they’ve learned the art of writing and become interested in pre-professional, career trajectories — is that the products of their imagination and craftsmanship are also ultimately social texts once they become published. Writing, when all is said and done (and revised and marketed) is a form of property that can be traded, and graduates of writing programs rarely learn enough about this stage of the process.

Publishing needs to be considered a stage of the writing process. It is the end stage, but not necessarily the terminus of the process. Books get printed, but the life of the book does not end when the ink dries. There are dialogues that open up (such as in reviews) and books are often updated and revised, serialized and sequelized…and one book experience always informs the next book experience, for writers who survive it.
It is good to teach students “the book life.” To think of writing as a way of life in a culture that is not inherently friendly to that way of living. Texts like Jeff Vandermeer’s recent title, Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer are movements in the right direction. Courses like our own “Publication Workshop” at Seton Hill U, are others.

Sharing the end results of work produced in a classroom — in end-of-term class readings, in class-generated anthologies, in online literary magazines — are all forms of publication. Many teachers neglect to exploit this as an arena for learning the way. Because it’s the messiest part of the process, and the part where “rejection” (beyond grading systems) looms. Bridging the conventional forms of classroom publishing (such as a reading of revised work to the classroom at the end of the term) with emergent formats (such as video recordings to be uploaded for public comments from youtube) will engage writing students with the marketplace of ideas today.

In addition to the “book life” and being aware of the status and reality of the economy of writing, there is also something simply called the “reader’s life.” We should remain role models for engaged readers as much as writers, with an interest in the output of the publishing world. We should advise students to take literature courses and spend time in the library. We should buy books, and practice what we preach by investing in the world that invests in us as authors. We should share and explore new technologies and trends in publishing and talk about these formats with our students. We should show that we are readers as much as writers — we are bookish. Students need to see us reading, hear us reciting published works, spot us in the faculty break room reading a kindle, recognize us in the audience at a public poetry reading, see us browsing the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, sit across from us at a table in the library. When they do so, they will see themselves reflected in the world of books as a real, lived experience.

Last week I bought a Kindle. I carried my ebook device around all week not to show off some new gaget, but to say Look…this might be what our future looks like. I’m interested in where this is heading…are you? I opened up a dialogue with readers on my horror writing weblog, about the ebook watershed. I uploaded documents for a Dean’s Council meeting to my Kindle and brought it to the meeting instead of printing them out or using a laptop. I showed my Kindle to almost every student who came to my office for advising this past week, for both the “wow” factor and to say “hey, you might be getting your textbooks this way someday.” Down the hall, my colleague ordered a Kindle DX for his journalism courses, and posted an interesting blog about the kindle’s impact on academics. Teachers and writers open up conversations about books; books are portals into conversations about culture. Writers shouldn’t be worried, but engaged and thoughtful; we need to be steeled up against the fluctuations inherent to the industry, but also willing and able to transcend it. That’s the skill of the creative writer — telling a good story transcends the medium and the economics of the exchange. But we also have to be creative in finding ways for getting our stories heard.

And we need to keep publishing our own writing, creative or not, as well. That’s the only way to truly learn what it’s like out there. To accumulate knowledge of the book world and bring it back to our classrooms, whether explicitly or obliquely. The skills and knowledge that we’ve always taught will never go out of fashion, but we need to recognize what is at stake in our students’ lives when changes are on the horizon.
It seems almost criminal to advise a student to become a novelist without also arming them with some sort of knowledge and wisdom about the marketplace for fiction. The power of an educated writer is not simply to write well, but to join a community of like-minded thinkers and to participate smartly in the world in which they hope to operate, economically as well as discursively. We can react to changes in the industry with optimism or skepticism, but we should never abandon the one certain thing we have to give writers of the future: hope, balanced by wisdom and intelligence.

Teaching NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) launched today, sending millions of people “with a book in them” to the keyboard in an attempt to churn out a rough novel-length manuscript (minimum of 50,000 words to ‘count’) by the end of November. People engaged in this activity all bond on the nano website, encouraging each other and sharing tips, posting and boasting their latest word counts all the way to the end.

I’ve never done it, but I’ve always been intrigued by this collective endeavor of binge writing. I’ve signed up on the site and lurked, just to see what people are up to. It appeals to me, as a writer who works in manic, highly-caffeinated spurts, and as a teacher who believes in the collaborative learning inherent to a writer’s workshop community. A number of our more productive Writing Popular Fiction students and even some faculty dare to “nano”…it’s awfully difficult for a full-time faculty member to take on such an enormous task during the endgame of a Fall semester, when term papers come pouring in and advising for the next term is afoot, but it can be done.
Maybe college profs need a NaSchoWriMo for writing scholarship? Now is the perfect time to get to work on those conference papers you want to present next Spring, after all.

In any case, I noticed that teachers are actually beginning to use NaNoWriMo in the classroom, and that the site has a Young Writers Program that fosters an educational mission. The site includes some GREAT novel writing workbooks for young adults — and the program can even lend out NEO word processing hardware to students in need.

It’s a great idea. And it can be used creatively. From a class-collaborated story to simply a study of the novel itself, teachers are tapping into NaNoWriMo as a form of learning that reaches outside of the walls of the classroom and participates in the “outside world” even as it focuses the attention needed for cultivating the intimate and interior setting of the imagination.
Daniel Moulthrop shares his experience “Teaching NaNoWriMo” in a google doc, suggesting that the main benefit is “a month of unbridled creativity vs. school as we know it” which leads to increased writing fluency and — after the initial hurdle of starting to climb what seems to be a very high mountain — a reduction of fear about writing.
To any teachers out there doing this: GOOD LUCK!

I don’t have much to offer, but over on my horror writing website, I have a section called “Instigation” that offers “twisted prompts” for creative writers that you can crib from to get your students working on a dastardly plot point.

You also might get your class involved in twitter.com for this project. There’s a lot of activity on that site — just search for the #nano hashtag or “follow” NaNoWriMo.

Fair Educational Use of Popular Culture

I watched this video this morning, as part of my preparation for a course in “The Teaching of Popular Fiction & Writing” next Spring. I liked the level of advocacy here for educational use of pop culture material in the classroom, as well as the emphasis on ‘best practices.’ You can download the full report from the Center for Social Media.

I share these professors’ enthusiasm. But fair use can be a muddy area to define and the issue can get complicated. Even so, the essays available at EDUCAUSE on educational fair use are enlightening for those who are trying conscientously to sort out these matters. One essay from EQ that struck me was “Managing Intellectual Property for Distance Learning” by Liz Johnson, which offers a decision-making model for breaking down the numerous choices that a teacher could consider when sharing materials in an online course, for instance.

Most of what I know about copyright, I learned as a writer, not an educator, and the coverage in the Chicago Manual of Style stands at the foundation of what I know of the subject. I’m no lawyer (so please don’t ask me any legal questions on this topic), and whenever I reseach the subject of copyright and fair use in online environments on the web, one of the things that trips me up are nagging questions about new laws: “am I reading the most recent law? does it cover new emergent technology and the latest digital copyright standards or is this an outdated article?”

Regardless, I think it is important to be clear with students about the ‘situational ethics’ of using copyrighted material in the classroom or in an online environment. I once had a student download an article I shared in an online course, only to turn around and post it to their blog to share with others…I had to inform them that this was a copyright violation, because when I shared it the first time, it was only for educational use and that the author’s rights were protected because it was online downloadable behind the firewall/password-protected CMS service. Now I go out of my way to make sure students understand that the principle of fair use is in place in the classroom, and explain that it is a little bit different than how material is shared in the outside world. It might even make sense to make ‘fair use’ itself a topic for students to study, particularly in any course where the students are learning how to work in an area that produces intellectual property (the arts, writing, journalism, etc. etc.). If one thing is clear to me about fair use doctrine, it’s that the context of any use is everything.
A few additional informal points that guide my own praxis on this subject (your mileage may vary):

+ Avoid using outside sources as “window dressing” — they should be the lumber of the learning mill. Analyze, utilize, discuss, work with whatever you bring into the room.

+ It is wise to do a little research and contact an author if you wish to use their material in a classroom. I have never met a writer who said ‘no’ and having permissions gives you license to use the work in a way that might expand what ‘fair use’ dictates. Some will expand your permissions, or offer tips on how to acquire more material on the cheap/free (e.g. have their publisher send you an instructor’s guide, or point you to a discount on a book); some will even offer to appear in an online chat or take interview questions. This also expands your network.

+ When in doubt, err on the side of conserving the copyright holder’s rights, and be clear about the ‘boundary lines’. Not only does this reduce your likelihood of violation, it teaches by example and will set a precedent for respect of property in your classes and with your own intellectual property.

+ Cite as you would like to be cited. Teach as you would like to be taught.