Apr 11

Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, week 32: Another Wikipedia Assignment

Last semester, in a seminar on Charles Dickens, I assigned students to update a Wikipedia page for a Dickens character. I briefly discussed the assignment on this blog in December, putting my own assignment in the context of other professors who have used Wikipedia in their classes in various ways. The exercise worked well for the course, not only teaching students how to contribute to a website they use every day but also giving their hard work a public audience. And so I incorporated a similar idea into a course-long assignment I had developed for my Romanticism course this semester. I won’t say a lot about the assignment itself (Wikipedia is just one small piece of it), but since this blog allows me to use embed a Juxta comparison, I want to talk about the Wikipedia portion and share a collation set (if you don’t know what Juxta is, I give a brief explanation in an earlier post).

First some background. Wikipedia has glossary of literary terms page, which has been around since 2006. The page’s value has been contested since it was created, and in October it was nominated for deletion. The consensus was to keep it (you can view the discussion on the talk page), but when I encountered it in December, as I was putting the class together, it was mostly empty. It had terms, but almost no definitions.

I already had an assignment planned for my Romanticism course, designed to help students talk more precisely about poetic form. As part of the assignment I gave each student a couple terms, and they were responsible for looking up the definitions in multiple sources, then writing one in their own words. I put the terms together to create our own course glossary, which I distributed to students, including the names beside each definition. Since the glossary of literary terms page was mostly empty, this seemed an opportunity for the class to make a public contribution together. I asked each student add their definitions to the Wikipedia page. Here is a Juxta collation showing their progress, with January 15th (the day I gave them the assignment) as the base text:

[I’ve taken this out, and the one below, as Juxta’s been giving an error — I’ll add them back if and when it’s fixed]

And here is the same collation, with April 8th (by which time they’d entered their definitions) as the base:


On the juxtacommons website you can also view a side-by-side comparison, like this one comparing the page on January 15th with April 8th. As you can see, the glossary is extensive, covering much more than poetry terms (which have their own glossary, in a different format). But the students still made a significant dent. Most (but not all) of the updates are from my class, and some students even added definitions for terms that weren’t on our list (like “novel.”) Overall I think the exercise was  success, even more so than last semester’s version. Next week I’ll discuss this assignment a bit more, in particular a couple of pitfalls, some I anticipated and a few that surprised me.

Have you used Wikipedia or a similar project in your class? Did you take Wikipedia’s own suggestion and have students write a long-form article, or did you develop your own assignment? How did it work? Tell me about it in the comments.

Apr 04

Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, week 31: A Personalized Syllabus Checklist (draft)

One of the great things about being a new professor is the opportunity to teach a variety of new classes: graduate students usually teach only introductory or composition classes. But new courses of course means new syllabi. This week I’m putting together a syllabus for a summer course, and I realize that when designing a class I focus almost entirely on assessments and assignments. Less interesting (but not less important) elements of the syllabus get pushed to the background: things like logistics and course policies. I realized this semester, when a student didn’t turn in an assignment, that my usual “late work policy” didn’t make it onto my syllabus. Oops.

Taking a cue from airline pilots, astronauts, and surgeons, I’ve been thinking about using a checklist to ensure that, when I create a new syllabus, it has all the components I know it needs.

Apollo 17 Lunar Surface Checklist

If you’ve watched television or read a book review in the last three years, you’ve likely heard about Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto, which has received a lot of popular press attention. The idea is a pretty simple one: certain tasks — like flying a plan or performing surgery — are very complicated, with lots of room for mistakes. Using a checklist can help experts ensure that they apply their knowledge to every task, and don’t make simple errors. Syllabus construction is, admittedly, not as high-stakes as landing on the moon. Still, it’s a complicated task with lots of components. A checklist can help ensure they’re all there.

I’m of course not the first person to think of this idea, and just a quick Google search will give you several syllabus checklists, for example from the teaching center at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Minnesota’s faculty senate (both rather barebones lists). The best I’ve seen is from the University of Pittsburgh, which in addition to being fairly comprehensive, allows you to literally check off each item. But I wanted something a bit more specific, tailored to the kinds of assignments I tend to use and to my own teaching philosophies (I believe, for example, that students need to turn in a graded assignment within the first week or two: this allows me to gauge where they are, and gives them a sense of how they will be graded). So here’s a draft of the list I came up with.

Logistics and Basics

___ Course title, semester, meeting time and place
___ My name, email address, and office hours
___ Required texts (are Kindle or electronic editions OK? Where are the books available?)
___ Program requirements (is the course a gen ed? Part of a writing program? Are there external criteria it needs to meet?)

Course Policies

___ Late work policy (penalty?)
___ Attendance policy (how many allowed? Penalty?)
___ Participation guidelines (or indication that a detailed rubric will be provided)
___ Department or university requirements (e.g. honor code, accommodations for students with disabilities, etc.)

Assignments and Assessments

___ Learning goals (I usually have about three, such as: write clearly and persuasively; read closely, paying attention to syntax, genre, authorial style, etc.; use course vocabulary; develop a historical perspective; engage with scholarly discourse; develop a technical skill [e.g. updating Wikipedia])

Note: In my composition classes, I break down the writing tasks: introduce a paper that motivates the reader; support a claim with evidence; build a logical argument; engage with other writers; etc. For these classes, I reiterate the relevant learning goals below each assignment, when it’s listed in the schedule.

___ Grading rubric (include participation)
___ An early low stakes assignment (worth no more than 5% of the course grade)
___ Details about major assignments: due dates, word counts (rather than page counts)
___ Final paper/portfolio/project/exam: when will it be? Will students need to show up for the scheduled exam time?

Schedule of readings and assignments

___ Manageable reading assignment for each day (depends on the course)
___ Longer readings saved for weekends; shorter readings when there’s only a day between classes
___ Lighter reading assigned the weeks when students are also working on papers or exams
___ Manageable reading load in last two weeks (when students are likely very busy?)

Do you use a checklist when you create a syllabus, or do you have another method of making sure everything gets on there? Is there anything you think is missing from this list? Let me know in the comments.

Mar 14

Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, week 28: improving student writing

In my experience, most students understand that a paper for an English class is not the same as a text message. But do they understand that writing for a college class is not the same as writing for a high school class (or a standardized test)?

This semester I’m teaching a literature course for non-majors, and while writing is one my learning goals, it’s not as major a focus as it would be in a composition class. We spend most of our time talking about literature, but since the major assessments are mostly written I wanted to spend a little bit of time getting students to rethink what writing means. I’ve tried a few different approaches with this class, which I’ll simply list here:

  • We talked about readers. Early in the semester, I asked students to consider who reads what they write. I used a very specific genre: emails to a professor. The choice was sparked by an article from Wellesley College’s Project on Social Computing that was floating around Twitter at the time (and a similar post in the Facebook group “Angry and Not Angry Teaching Resources.”) I asked students what they thought professors (or managers, or any kind of potentially senior person whom they don’t know) might expect from email, stressing the generalizable point that readers determine the expectations for what is written.
  • They summarized the assignment. Before the first paper, I handed out an assignment describing what I wanted and giving the rubric I’d be using to grade. But there’s research to support the notion that students often ignore these directions, falling back instead on what they have seen from writing assignments in the past (assuming, I suppose, that all writing is the same). So I asked students to summarize the assignment back to me, in their own words. Most did fine, and I was able to correct a few who clearly had missed the point and resorted to the 5-paragraph, standardized-test model of writing.
  • I surprised them with a workshop. I’m not in the habit of lying to students, but this is the one exception (and I’ve used this exercise in several classes). According to the syllabus and to the assignment instructions, the paper was due in class on a Monday. Rather than collecting it, though, I asked students to do an impromptu workshop, then revise the paper and turn it in on Wednesday. They passed their papers to the right, reading their classmate’s work with specific instructions from me. We did this several times, so by the end of the class each student had seen seven or eight examples of other students’ writing. The exercise had two goals, which I explicitly spelled out to the class:
    • Writing is a process, and they can only improve by revising. The point of surprising them with the workshop is that even “final” drafts can be improved: it’s been my experience that students don’t always put their full effort into a paper if they know it’s “just for the workshop.”
    • They get to see what student writing looks like (which, unless they’ve taken other workshop-style courses before, they don’t often get to see). Most students read only professionally edited, polished prose, which can be intimidating if their own writing looks nothing like that. It helps to see writing more similar to their own.
  • They summarized my comments. After I returned the papers, I asked each student to write me a paragraph summarizing my comments and telling me what they will do differently next time.

I was impressed with the papers, overall. They at least contained all the right parts: they made a claim and supported it with evidence, and most were moving past the “writing to display” model. And having read the paragraphs summarizing my comments, I can confirm that students at least read them (which, we know, isn’t always the case). The summaries even seem genuine: a few expressed disappointment in the grade, but also understood what they need to improve.

How much time do you spend working on writing in your classes that aren’t overtly writing-focused? Do you have any strategies that have worked well for you?