Archives: June 2015

Stuff that’s out there

My current mission for the online class about teaching online that I’m taking this summer is to do a whole bunch of Googling for existing resources and tools that I can use to expand my teaching materials. Swell. The problem I’m having, as I more or less expected I would, is that I’m not finding a lot out there. There are a ton of resources aimed at K-12 instruction of the stuff I teach, and some of it looks interesting, but most of it is fairly elementary.

The other big problem is that the materials don’t necessarily teach things up to my standard. Not to sound all pretentious, but the Youtube videos about ethos, logos, and pathos are pretty dreadful (unless I’m missing something), and almost none of them address kairos, which I also think is important. Logical fallacies, another important subject, is similarly taught in vastly different ways, and none of them cover the breadth of material I want in the way that I want. This video about paragraph structure is pretty good, but it’s really more about topic sentences than the whole paragraph. So, I use it, but it’s not ideal. In many cases, therefore, I will need to build it myself. In addition, in some of these cases, I just happen to really like my current approach. I teach fallacies by having students develop definitions and provide samples, and then discuss online–all of which works way better than having them watch a video or listen to me talk.

I did recently find Kahoot while looking for quiz tools that would be easier to work with than what’s built into Blackboard. It’s a tool really designed for in-class use, and generally aimed at K-12 educators, but unlike a lot of similar apps, it’s free (entirely so at present) and not limited to a number of seats. I think it will be great for my use with my in-person classes. I asked a teenager recently if she’d heard of it, and she said she loved using it in school. Weird. I’m going to use it for review of some things we’ve done this summer and see how that goes.

I’d like to find a good video for teaching about the Toulmin approach to argumentation, but what I’ve found is often overly long and detailed. For example, it’s common for videos to talk about the history of this model and the dude who invented/defined it. And really–who cares? I don’t even care if they know the name of it; why would I waste their time on that? Many videos also go into more detail than I do. And others are…excessively casual. I have also tried regular Google (rather than just video), and have concluded that my simplified approach to Toulmin is something I just have to build a video (or Prezi or screencast or whatever) for myself. I don’t think it benefits my students to go into Stephen Toulmin’s full-blown process in detail. They will surely forget it as soon as they’ve learned it, and be confused in the process.

Hugh Laurie looking confused and adorable in a bathtub.

At the same time, I’m pretty excited about the tools identified in two pages about storytelling online. I think they represent more of an opportunity for me as a writer than as a teacher, but it did encourage me to check into adding audio to Word files, which is something I’ve realized could be helpful. There are times when the video alone isn’t optimal, and the doc alone is too bare-bones. Offering both a video and an audio-annotated doc will sometimes be optimal, I believe. The process looks fairly straightforward, so I’ll have to play with it. I will just add that date-limiting searches when seeking technology solutions is essential, in order to avoid hopelessly outdated information. I’ve been doing a tremendous amount of that lately, and it’s a huge time saver.

What I’ve really been wanting to do…

…is go through student reflective letters and use their insights to help future students. Like this one:

Not-only-did-I-feel-most (1)


Intro video for class

I recorded this video three weeks ago for a class I’m teaching online this summer. I discovered after the fact that my new camera–which is very complex, and I haven’t spent a ton of time with it yet–was set to overexpose the images. Not sure how that happened, but you can see it in the video. There are a number of things I don’t like about the video, and it’s a wee bit longer than I’d like, but I think it’s a good start. I’d like to come across in the next version as a bit more relaxed and fun, but I recorded it when I was still recovering from a bad cold and extremely busy, so…



Day one of UNIV200

claim without research


Makin’ doodads

Not quite what I had in mind, but I don’t have great tools at hand–and have already spent too much time. :-)

Effective writing can get you the job, the best deal, the loan, the girl/guy, the grant, a reprieve frm the governor. Writing matters.


Course goals or learning objectives

Syllabi are a PITA, but they are necessary. They act as a contract, spelling out in writing what the student must do and when, as well as details relating to behavior, attendance, scheduling, and so forth. (No explosives in class, guys! It’s in the syllabus!) Syllabi are also there to explain to students what the objectives of the course are: a combination of “here’s what you get out of it” and “here’s what we expect you to know by the end.” In my program–sophomore composition–this section is standard and, in theory at least, we’re to use it unedited. I wonder how many of my colleagues have read it and really thought about it recently. I haven’t.

But now, I’m being called on to examine others’ approach to goals or learning objectives in three syllabi for similar courses. The first of the three I found was fairly detailed, ill-organized and confusing, and listed all of the usual sections except for objectives or goals. Presumably the chief goal is to pass and move on with your life. The second syllabus…well, it includes everything except for a calendar of assignments, but has only a course description explaining what students will do in the class. There is one brief sentence explaining who the course is for (“students whose academic or career objectives will benefit from strong, professional-level writing and research skills”–or, in other words, everyone). How odd. The third syllabus actually has an entire module of the class (which is online) dedicated to explaining the importance of the course, which is interesting. It’s something I address in person on the first day, but probably not enough in the online version. There is also a very short bulleted list of four course outcomes, which lists standard skills one should improve in such a class. (In brief: research, topic development, synthesis, writing.)

In our syllabus, the objectives are much more detailed, and are also skills based. That’s the nature of our program–and of most writing classes. While there are some specific terms and concepts we want them to learn, for the most part they are enhancing skills they will apply to the rest of their lives. In other words, I teach the most important course at VCU. 😉 In a sense, it also makes it easy for me to teach effectively: provide direction and feedback, and let them learn by doing. (Well, at least it’s easy in theory. Not so easy in terms of time and effort.) I also allow students a ggreat deal of latitude in selecting a research topic. Lame topics are off limits (body image and the media! performance enhancing drugs in professional sports! violence on TV!), and I strongly encourage them to pick a topic relevant to their intended career, so it’s helpful to them in multiple ways. But from there, students steer their own course. This makes it harder for me, in some ways, but more valuable for them, by far.

As for whether students feel especially inspired by these syllabi and the stated or implied goals: I doubt it. Thing is, students take these classes because they are obliged to, not because they want to. I can tell them about the value of the course, but mostly they just want it over. By the end of the semester, I believe they’ve seen value, both in terms of the knowledge they’ve gained and the skills they’ve enhanced, but it’s a struggle sometimes. And in some cases, the horse you’ve led to water just isn’t interested in your watering trough. Where does that leave me? With ideas (that I’ve been tossing around for a while now) about using prior student feedback on the class to help students understand the value going in–and to provide a more dynamic, visually interesting version of the syllabus online. Unfortunately, I’m still obliged to use the boilerplate text…but I don’t necessarily have to foreground it. Whether that will make much difference to my students will be interesting to see.



I’ve also been forced by my captors to create a Gravatar account with a picture. I used an old picture taken in a dank torture room at Virginia Commonwealth University several years ago. I selected this image because I hadn’t been teaching long at that time, and still maintained my youthful optimism. Also, I hate having my picture taken. Bah. Grumble. Also, of course, it’s amusing that there’s a Sherlock Holmes book behind my head because, well, you know.

Meriah Headshot-sm


This Whole Online Teaching Thing

My first writing assignment for my online class about online teaching is requiring me to talk about how I feel about online teaching. This summer is my first time teaching online, but I’ve taken a few online classes before and, frankly:

I feel you, bro. My main issue with the classes I’ve taken, however, has been that they’re usually a bunch of bullshit. That online continuing ed class I took to maintain a certification that shall remain nameless? It replaced 8 hours of in-person training with less than 45 minutes worth of trivial crap I mostly already knew. *yawn* And the delivery? Oh, sure, I’d love to read several pages of text and then do a poorly-written quiz. Youbetcha.

As for my students, I worry a lot about procrastination. Some of them are on the ball, but the process of refining a research question, which usually takes 5 minutes in person, is taking forever with some of them. This is partly because they don’t always communicate well or in detail via e-mail, but also, they’re busy. Working, out of the country with family and friends they haven’t seen in months, whatever. It’s so, so easy to just avoid that particular website–and then, before you know it:

Students also have other issues, like messing up or being confused. And while I’m online a lot, I do sleep from time to time. Sometimes I even leave the house. And then stuff happens.

I also know that, while people have happy, rosy dreams about MOOCs, the reality is that they typically educate the educated–and, worse, they have insanely high failure rates. Have you ever bailed out on a MOOC you signed up for? I have.

And now, thanks to Twitter, I have something new to worry about: cheating. Did one of my students change writing styles between assignments, or did I imagine it? Why did she switch fonts? Is there even any way for me to tell if they’re paying someone else to do the work?

But, on a more positive note, I do think there’s a ton of potential in online classes. For some people in some situations, they’re a great (and perhaps the only) choice. And they certainly can be designed and executed well. Best of all, they offer a tremendous opportunity for faculty:

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go design an online course to MAKE ME MONEY. (OK, no, I really just need to grade a ton of papers.)


Clever, witty musings, coming soon. Money back guarantee!*

I am being required to blog by a nasty bunch of people at my school who want me to be able to teach more effectively online. Alas, cruel world. I have no choice. More soon.

*This is a lie.