Supporting/Supportive Roles

I’ve been thinking my way through Kerry’s post — particularly the challenge of “What do I want to do and why do I want to do that?”

So there are two things I’m struggling with and they both relate to transitioning from 302 to 101. I’ve spoken about some of these issues before, but the closer I examine my teaching methods, which I’m finding is the #1 consequence of building a class like this from scratch, the more I’m questioning how to best support my students. The two related issues: How do I fulfill my role in the 101 digital classroom? And how do best I deliver my course within that role?

Teaching F2F 302 for the past few years, for better or worse,  is typically populated by graduating seniors and the far-too-occasional ambitious/daring junior has ingrained in me a certain trust of my students in a lot of ways. Because of their experience as upper-classmen, I can trust that they largely know their way around campus, around Blackboard, and even to an extent, how to manage their academic, social, and budding professional lives. As a teacher, this trust has translated to a bit of a “looseness” in my pedagogy (something I’m actually very comfortable with and I think my students appreciate about me)  — I can and do expect a lot from them. They are expected to look at the schedule independently, get notes from classmates when they miss class, navigate our readings even if I don’t always “check-in” with a quiz or some other formal evaluation every time, etc. I can even change a reading or lesson somewhat on the fly if need-be, and they can keep up because they’ve largely become adept at college-ing, so to speak. They know the deal re: college and within a week or so, my class, and so for the most part, they respond accordingly and are successful at the practical, logistical, and “administrative” aspects of taking a university writing course. I’m a different teacher though when I teach 101 and I blame my very first class for this.

Back when I first received an MA TA-ship, and had “graduated” from the Writing Center and into the Classroom (teaching a 7:30 am MWF course), I was newly 23 years-old, teaching 18-19 year olds and not only did I have no real idea what I was doing, I was terrified my students would “find me out” as a fraud. So, I did the only logical thing (I thought) and presented myself as a no-nonsense kinda guy. “Here’s the schedule, do this, read that, come prepared, you’re adults, no excuses.” That lasted about 3 weeks, until our first major assignment was due. I asked the class how the paper had gone (a little debriefing to blow off steam) and then carried on with a new lesson. Later I wrapped up class and bid them goodbye  when I noticed a student had stayed behind in their seat to talk to me. I approached them and as they lifted their head I could see the hint of tears in their eyes — “I think I did the wrong assignment and I know how important it is and now I’m going to do bad and I don’t know what to do…” Seeing this terrified student, my wanna-be-business-man affect was gone as I went from “College Instructor” to similarly terrified recent graduate, watching a young student just be scared about school — something very familiar to me.

Since then, I’ve always sort of seen my job when teaching 101 as two-fold: I teach writing and I teach “college-arts.” They both require certain kinds of support.

In my time at Mason, I’ve mostly taught upperclassmen, but before coming here full time, I had a handful of 101s at GMU and exclusively taught 100-level FYC at George Washington. I talked about this a bit in my last post, about losing F2F seat time. Mentors from both schools consistently reminded me that with our course caps — even when they feel too big — in writing classrooms (20-ish at Mason; 15 at GW), we may very well be the only professor that student has that 1) knows their name 2) knows when they aren’t present 3) knows when they are struggling. So, to take a bit of pressure off, at the beginning of the term, I let my freshmen know “You’re going to screw up. College is hard. This is a class where it’s okay to practice.” They get “get-out-of-jail-free” cards, a little more leniency when it’s warranted, and a lot more guidance (cynically, I think, called hand-holding, or worse, policing). Not every student needs or wants it. It’s not a regular occurrence to have to calm down a hyperventilating student, or grant an 11th-hour extension, or explain three or four times how to access a reading or handout, but it is an occasional occurrence, and I’m pretty okay with that. I’m not prepping them for the harshness of the “Real World” — I’m teaching them writing in a relatively-cozy, if poorly-lit, college classroom.

So, here’s where I’m struggling now, as I attempt to build a 101 DE course from the ground up — how much “support” is enough/too much and how do I enact it remotely?
My “looseness” — the trust that my students can pretty easily navigate 302 has translated well enough from F2F to DE — I create a learning module on Bb, drop in a reading, a handout, a lecture video, and a writing activity, or some combination therein, and send them on their way. It’s never been a problem for the vast majority of my 302 students to “Attend” my course and do what needs to be done to succeed (as long as they are interested in succeeding). Now though, the kind of educational and organizational support, repetition, “checking-in” etc that I can do in a F2F 101, feels a little daunting in its translation to DE courses.

The last 101 I taught was (horrendously) 3 hours long, once per week. It was rough. It had been a while (4+ years?) since I’d taught the course — I tried too many new things, I was rusty, I was expecting, unconsciously, 302-level students and it was rough. Seeing them only once per week required a different approach to logistics that I didn’t totally possess or understand. And I’m not just talking a clear and organized schedule. I mostly had that, but what I didn’t have was, at least starting out, the ability to recognize that I was asking a lot (too much?) of brand new students, moving too fast, and expecting each of my 20 students to keep up without issue. It’s a lot easier to help your students stay “on the path” when you see them 3 times a week. Once was tough and zero frightens me a bit.

After a few weeks, in my once a week section, I noticed that while attendance was mostly steady, engagement was down. The class, save a few overachievers, was lost, and it was clearly my fault. I made a few changes — started saying the same things in different ways, repeating instructions as I made my way around the room, trying to reinforce things visually and verbally, started making “how-to” models on Bb, started structuring the physical classes to match previous ones, and opened up an Open QandA forum that we could use between our too-few F2F meetings that, unlike email, everyone could see. Things got better, mostly, and when students struggled, it wasn’t because they were lost, at least not administratively.

Part of what I’ve been talking with my ID about is leaving “Breadcrumbs” in my DE sections.

How can the design allow easy steps-tracing, back to important moments, comments, files, etc without going through the main path I create in a lesson or unit. Some of it means re-learning Bb (or learning it for real for the first time) but the rest is thinking like a new student. Not assuming every module is completed start to finish in one sitting, or that every step is done in the order I set up, or that every (or any) student thinks or learns like I do. I’ll likely be spending more energy on “teaching” Bb itself and “teaching” college-arts, as well as teaching “taking an online class in the university.” So our task becomes 3 or 4 fold. The “stuff” I can recognize in F2F sessions, when my schedule or scaffolding or lesson-plan doesn’t logistically click (or they ignore me or forget or just have a tough week) doesn’t show up the same ways in DE, so I have to be proactive and maybe even assume that that “stuff” is just there for some.

Which brings me to my second issue — part of how I can address the “orienteering” is good, solid, consistent design. Clear expectations. Clear instruction. A routine and scaffolding as seamless as one can reasonably expect. The problem is: we teach two occasionally conceptually incongruent (or at least not-seamless) courses, whatever you wanna call them– Rhetorical reading/writing and Technical Writing.

The conceptual and the practical, can sometimes, in my best and sharpest teaching moments, come together nicely– using the rhetorical and conceptual, Visual Analysis, as an entry point into the technical, Citation or Cohesion or Paragraphing, works and everything links together smoothly — but only sometimes. There are moments where I need to deviate from the conceptual and step out into “Now we just talk about syntax” or “Stop! Grammar-time” (sorry). So how do I reconcile these competing impulses to have a seamless unit-to-unit, lesson-to-lesson scaffold (so that my students can navigate what I want them to do and where I want them to go with minimal effort), with the need to fully teach 101 and have lessons and skills integrated that just don’t want to fit uniformly into the puzzle? I worry about sending students outside the nice and neat module to something that, perhaps to them, feels distinct, unrelated.

I’m still spit-balling design and trying, when possible, to have my technical lessons “fit” with the thematic goals of any given assignment, and, loosely, they probably will. Yet, I’ve also started building a “Writer’s Workshop” — a set of mini-lessons, or a mini-unit that will punctuate the other more conceptual lessons/units and act as a stand-alone Bb space of its own. I think this requires a heavy reliance on routine — for example, to minimize the “roughness around the edges” and maximize consistency, these non-conceptual lessons need to be employed at regular intervals. Say, every Friday, for instance, we do a lesson and a “workshop” so even though it’s less streamlined than would be ideal, they still get the skills and hopefully still feel supported by the design. I’d love to talk to folks more about this spectrum (what should I be aiming for?) of neatness and completeness when we meet next. How do you envision fitting lessons and skills in the course which seem to fall outside neat categorizations?

Anyway, this all brings up a ton re: workload, but I’ve already gone on far too long, so I’ll save that for next time.

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About Brian_Fitzpatrick

Brian Fitzpatrick is a Term Assistant Professor of English at George Mason University and previously taught at George Washington University.
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