The Balancing Act: Handling 4 Writing Comps in One Semester

I was not thrilled when I saw my schedule for the Winter semester of 2017. I was stacked to the brim teaching two of my unfavorable courses. I had four sections of EN 121: Analytical Writing & Research, and two sections of LA 122: Fundamentals of Communication. In EN 121 students spend the semester working on a research paper in APA format. throughout the semester, students learn about the building blocks of an APA paper, as well as citation practices. At the end of the semester, students present their findings and research, almost as if they are defending a dissertation. It is also an opportunity to show fellow classmates what they have been working on all semester long.

My strategy to have a successful semester was to set up submissions for Turnitin through blackboard. This would remove any sort of doubt or questionably in regards to who submitted what when. Any professor similar with paper submissions knows the song and dance of a student who may or may not have submitted an assignment and the insinuation that it was the professor who lost it. I knew that if I were to teach 4 sections of a writing course with at least 30 students in each class, that paper submissions would be a huge disadvantage when it came to organization and keep track of each assignment.

In my LA 122 courses, I kept the outside homework to a minimum and had students complete most tasks in the classroom. It worked out quite well because the classwork was another way to fill up class time and in providing homework as classwork, I could have much more time to focus on the stacks of grading my composition courses gave me.

When it came to grading the assignments I assigned two classes a specific due date, and the other two would have another due date. This allowed me time to give my full attention to each class without feeling the need to rush through each assignment, and do so over 120 times in succession. I made it a point for myself to be on top of grading the incoming assignments no more than a week after submission. I have to say, this was quite the challenge I set up for myself. I managed through it, sometimes grading a class in two day sets, doing 15 a day.

It was definitely a tough semester which I felt in my fatigue day to day. I would still plaster a smile on my face and push forward. The common saying of “fake it til you make it” became my mantra as the semester headed to a close. It was a relief when the semester came to an end.

When evaluations were released, I was nervous for the first time in a long time about student feedback. I knew many did not enjoy the course and I was expecting to see that reflected in their commentary. I was definitely right about the complaints, but one thing I did not see coming was a comment which simply read, “Professor not encouraging”. I was perplexed by that comment. In what way was I “not encouraging”? I pulled students to the side who struggled and constantly encouraged them to push forward, especially those at the brink of failure. I had several one on one meetings throughout the semester to stay on top of the large class sizes. I offered office hours, which no one took advantage of and I was “not encouraging”? I had to chalk it to the fact that perhaps, this student did not like me as a professor or an individual. Or perhaps he/she really felt that way. I definitely do the best I can, so I had to just move past this student’s feedback.

Aside from the sole bit of criticism and the large amount of work I had to get done outside of the classroom, I survived one of the most busiest semesters I experienced. I look forward to never doing that again if I have my own way. With the new semester coming up for Fall 2017, I look forward to what is ahead.

A Note On Plagiarism

As an English professor a recurring theme in my career is plagiarism. No matter how much help I offer, often times students fail to show up scheduled one on one meetings, remain confused in class, and choose to give up. It is typically one or two students each semester who may struggle with writing itself or even the English language. In College Writing, students write a total of six essays a semester (over a span of 14 weeks). This provides time to discuss the type of writing in class, read examples, write examples, and eventually move to creating a rough draft which will then become a final draft. I try as much as possible to do work in class so that I can be readily available to help. While this sounds ideal, some students need more help than others, and time catches up with us rather quickly.

My first encounter of plagiarism was when I first began to teach at the college. A student who spoke English as their second language fell behind. Despite my coaxing to see me for additional assistance the student insisted that it could be done on their own. I would later receive a late compare & contrast essay from 123helpme.com. It was so blatantly not the work of the student, and the transgression was so egregious that I was shocked. There was no attempt to alter the work at all. The student failed the assignment and was reprimanded. I did not want to end the child’s academic career so early in his first challenge at college. He was given a chance, and I did not report him. That student would later thank me and pass the course with a C-.

The college recommends all professors use Turnitin to scan for plagiarism. While the program is a great tool, it comes with it’s own set of problems. Some students believe that there is a certain percentage that is allowable for plagiarism. I had one student argue that 25% plagiarism was acceptable, (which, of course it is not) because 75% of the paper was original. Another issue is that electronic grading is not beneficial to the student. Students rarely go back to review the essays online to understand why they were given a certain grade. With submitting a physical paper, students are more likely to review their work and ask questions. Nonetheless, the poor judgement to plagiarize is lessened with Turnitin.

I make it a point to discuss at length all types of plagiarism and it is also spelled out in every course syllabus at the college. I make it known that I am always available if they need help but it is only truly up to the student to make the right decision instead of the lazy one.

 

Movies In The Classroom

I used to love showing films in class but that has changed. In my College Writing course, we read the novel Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. I kept it under wraps that there is a film adaption of the novel to ensure that the students don’t watch the movie and skip the book. While the subject is a bit heavy or triggering for some (the novel is about a rape victim) I have used the novel to teach literary devices, vocabulary and comprehension. Once we finish the novel, I then reveal that we will be watching the film. While some students are interested, there are those who are not.

In the darkness of the classroom the familiar glow of bright smartphone screens reflect on their faces despite trying to hide their phones under their desks. At this point the film is paused and a warning issued. Yes, I’ve brought additional assignments, yes I will turn off the film. Please put cell phones away. Despite the disheartening need to reprimand the students, this works and students either commit to hiding their cell phones more diligently or actually take heed and put their devices away. I shook my head.

Watching a film adaption of a novel is a great way to illustrate many scenes students may have had difficultly with, or even just put faces to the characters. It bring the novel to life. Some students feel that watching a film in class is a free pass to sleep, work on other assignments for other classes, or completely mentally check out. For these reasons, I have students write a compare and contrast essay about the film vs the book. This assignment forces students to take notes, and most importantly pay attention. Another way to keep students focused is to keep half, or most of the lights on to detract sleepers, and cell phone usage.

In a perfect world, I would put on a film and students would be engaged and excited. They would be drawn in by the characters and interested in the film adaption of the book. This is not a perfect world, and while there are students who are that interested, many are not. I have also taken to showing films very rarely because the effort to enjoy such a luxury in the classroom doesn’t seem that appreciated.

Looking Back

This is the first semester in a long time where I am teach courses I have never taught before. Currently I am teaching:

  • Professional Writing & Presentation
  • Developmental English II
  • Literary Criticism & Analysis  (Module/Summer Session 4 week run time)

I was originally slated to teach 5 courses this semester but unfortunately 2 were cancelled due to lack of enrollment. The two courses were another section of Professional Writing, as well as another literature course, Women Writers. I must say, I was much more disappointed about not being able to teach Women Writers. Just as the Literary Criticism course is my niche, Women Writers is on the same level…Although I must confess I did infuse some of the Women Writers course into Literary Criticism this semester!

This semester somewhat reminds of my very first semester teaching college courses. When I first started at the college, I was hired at the very tail end of Summer. I had a week before classes started and very little time to prepare. With some assistance from my amazing colleagues, I was able to hit the ground running. During my first semester I taught two sections of Fundamentals of Communication courses (freshman speech class) and one large course of students (34!) in my College Writing & Analysis course (freshman English). I was still balancing my previous full-time job during this time so every night after work I sat down with the textbook, and the ebook and read. After reading and outlining the text, I drafted lectures that I would then practice and revise. I often incorporated in class assignments and discussions to keep things from being monotonous. I was tired, but I was happy. Finally, I was doing work which was meaningful and using my Master of Arts Degree in English.

Flash back to right now, I am virtually doing the same thing in preparing lectures, practicing lectures, incorporating in class assignments and discussions but with much more experience, a lot more comfortability, and without the burden of my previous full time job. It was a decision I made easily when I was asked to teach a bigger course load. I could not teach more classes if I was working at the same job. I walked away quite easily to pursue a career that is more worthwhile than a lot of the work that I’ve already done.

A Note About Textbooks

During the semester of Fall 2016, I was asked to teach two courses I do not usually teach: Contemporary Social Issues & Sex & Gender. I was excited and nervous at the same time since Social Sciences are not my speciality, I but looked forward to the journey ahead. I was provided with a textbook for the Sex & Gender course, but there was absolutely no textbook or collection of recommended resources I could have used to adequately plan out my semester. In the courses that I typically teach, College Writing & Analysis and Analytical Writing & Research, open source textbooks are used. After consulting with the department chair, I set out to find an open source textbook.

After a bit of a search I settled on “Sociology: Understanding The Changing World”. “Sociology: Understanding and Changing the Social World is adapted from a work produced by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution.” The free etextbook worked well with the units in the course. While it was not perfect, it provided a great deal of information that I was then able to reinforce through news articles and a documentaries. I felt it important that students in the course have something to ground them in their learning experience throughout the semester. Also, I was very concerned with how I would build a course from scratch within the span of two weeks for a fifteen week semester. Luckily, with a textbook readily available in the Sex & Gender course, I was able to relax a bit more.

The textbook that I used for Sex & Gender has been the long standing text for this course. The book is titled “Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender & Culture” by Geoffrey Wood, published through Cengage. This textbook provided an array of resources from lecture slides, journal topics (in class writing assignments), exams, and a very detailed instructor’s guide. While I found journal topics and exams to be very helpful, I did not rely on the lecture slides since they were not my own. When I prepared for a lecture I broke it down into two parts to cover the span of the week (biweekly class sessions). Choosing to hand write what I planned on discussing was very beneficial in helping me prepare for class sessions. Having not just a textbook, but a physical textbook made a huge difference for myself and the students in different ways.

As mentioned previously, I have been using open source textbooks for both of my freshman survey courses. Despite the resource for the course being free, and easily accessible, it is similar to pulling teeth in making sure students download the ebook and read it.

Some complain of a lack of internet to download such a large file. At one point, I resorted to downloading the whole ebook for the College Writing course to my flash drive and manually transferring the textbook to the flash drive of the students just to make sure they had the textbook for the course. Once this song and dance was complete, it was another issue to make sure that students read the text. Often times, students claim to get side tracked the reading assignment. I blame it on the fact that students must read the material on a screen as opposed to a physical page. In the age of technology, staring at screen is typically affiliated with entertainment. It is easy to become distracted and click over to social media sites and fall down the rabbit hole. While some can resist the temptation, not all college freshman are as disciplined. Another issue with the etextbook is the fact that some students do not bother at all to download it, hoping to skate by without having to spend the money. This ultimately hurts the student since it is harder to borrow a textbook from a peer in class.

I can say truly that having a print textbook is my preferred method of providing course materials. Printed textbooks may be heavy, they may take up space, but in my experience, students prefer paper! Printed texts could be highlighted, dogeared, and do not expire at the end of the semester.

Earlier this semester, I was asked to review the Project Guttberg website where a vast selection of literary work is made available to all. Using the site was being considered to replace the reader for the Literary Criticism & Analysis course I am currently teaching now. I perused the site and instantly thought of the issues I have already faced dealing with free open source textbooks. I provided my feedback and did not recommend the change. Furthermore, Project Guttberg had many links, which took me to other links and so on and so forth–I did not find this frustration to be beneficial to our students.

While education may continue to advance, and the classroom may use podcasts, etextbooks, and cell phone applications, the one thing that should definitely remain the same is the use of print textbooks; they are a worthwhile learning tool that will stand the test of time and continue to benefit all.

*Excerpt From: [Author removed at request of original publisher]. “Sociology: Understanding and Changing the Social World.” iBooks.

A Note About Summer Sessions

A long time ago, okay not that long ago, I was a college student. I remember as the days for the Spring semester came to a close course offerings for Summer Session I and Summer Session II were always released. I dreaded the idea of having to sit in class for three or four hours cramming information into my brain. I never considered the benefits of taking a Summer Session so it is quite ironic that I am teaching one now.

Today was my first day teaching my first Summer Session although Monroe refers to these courses as “modules”. Nonetheless, the concept remains the same. It is a full course course with a short, but intensive schedule that allows students to take a 3 credit course in less than half the time. This allows students to earn credits towards graduation sooner than a 15 week semester would provide. It was exciting not to waste anytime and dive headfirst into the curriculum. Thus far, I’ve taught many freshman surveys or second level courses, but I’ve never had the honor and privilege of teaching Literary Criticism & Critical Analysis! After a year of teaching the surveys, I welcome the opportunity to step into my realm after “being in  the trenches”–it is a welcome, and appreciated change.

The course will be meeting four days a week for three and a half hours. I was given free reign to set up the course my way. I’ve decided to start with poetry in which I classified by theme (women, life struggles, love), then we will move on to short story fiction, then short nonfiction. We will end the semester with American Drama. I am also lucky because I have a small group of six students (this is incredibly rare!) who all became very comfortable with class discussion immediately. I definitely look forward to teaching this course and teaching something other than “How to Write a Strong Thesis”.

A Note About Recommendation Letters

Earlier this year a former student contacted me via email requesting a recommendation letter to Columbia University. I was happy to hear from *the student and remembered the student easily. The student was in my two of my freshman courses. I remember the excellent work ethic and that the student was not afraid to challenge my grading of his work. It was an easy decision when I said yes to the young man. I wrote from memory about his determination and drive, along with sincerity. He was a student who asked questions, and greeted his professors in passing. Once the letter was written, he was thankful and my good deed was done.

Another semester I taught an early 8:45am course. Early classes are difficult for freshman, especially in the Winter. The mornings are dark and cold. Students trek begrudgingly to class half asleep. Meet the next student who asked me for a recommendation letter. This student spent the whole semester half asleep and checked out. Despite many private conversations, the return in investment was mediocre work, clearly showing failure to pay attention in class. Lastly, the student fell asleep in class almost religiously. After all was said and done, the student asked for a recommendation letter at the end of the semester. I was baffled.

I thought to myself, if I was a student who performed poorly and took regular naps in class how could I have the audacity to ask for a reference letter? Perhaps I can refer you to a mattress? I mulled over the request: On one hand, I do want all of my students to do well in and out of my classroom, yet at the same time, it is clear that this student was not deserving a recommendation letter. I concluded that I would write the letter for the student under a condition. I knew it would be worth it if the student delivered. I emailed the student back and asked for a resume and a brief 5 paragraph essay about future goals. I expressed that despite the fact that we spent the whole semester together, it felt as though I didn’t get to know the student…which was true. Many of our interactions were stand offish and the student was often impatient and short in our conversations. In the end, the student never responded back to me. To this day, I have yet to hear from the student again.

Educators are not required to write letters of recommendation, it is not in our job description however, it is something that at least I would like to do for my students. I did not want to say no to the second student despite the poor quality of work the student produced. I felt that asking for a written statement and resume was a small exercise in giving a second chance. It was up to the student who chose not to take the second chance. Before asking for a letter, students should assess themselves: Have I been a good enough (not perfect but good enough) student in class? How is rapport with my professor? Am I willing to do anything additional if asked? All of these things should be taken into account before requesting a recommendation letter.

*All names,sex, and actual semester of the students have been hidden for privacy purposes.