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  • Writer's pictureSpencer Bennington

But It's Summer and I Don't WANT to Think about Course Prep...

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

Welcome back to Rhetorical Roundhouse, your online home for martial arts training and Tae Kwon Do research. Today I want to revisit a topic that will become increasingly more important in the next month or so--teaching online!

You may remember that way back in March, I posted a little guide for the "switch" to online learning. Be sure to check that out if you haven't already as it features more detailed suggestions for college teachers as well as martial artists.

Today I wanted to share a few tips I've been thinking of since I started planning my courses last week. Many of them coincide with my colleague Liz Ricketts's advice about not succumbing to the "teacher as martyr" stereotype. Want to read more from this HASTAC scholar and soon to be literary doctor? Check out her most recent blog!

In addition to saving teachers time and sanity, I'm also interested in how to best serve students at a time when the whole world seems to be falling apart or literally out to get them. To me, this means pairing things down to their most important parts. It means making sure that every decision I make in the classroom is well-thought, researched, and connected to larger student learning outcomes. It also means helping my students make the connections between the skills they're leaning in my class and the many ways they can apply those skills professionally, politically, personally, etc.

So, to begin, I think I would tell all my teacher friends planning for online learning in the fall to follow the golden rule: KISS. Keep it simple, stupid.

I have seen a number of online courses that look like digital labyrinths, a maze of broken links and conflicting due dates, a tangle of readings from 20 years ago amid boilerplate syllabus language stitched together over time...I have seen some bad online classes. But if you follow the first rule, yours doesn't have to be one of them.

So what exactly does it mean to "keep it simple" when planning to teach online?

These are the things you should focus on:

  • Developing or emphasizing measurable and concrete student learning outcomes

  • Employing scaffolded exercises and major assignments rooted in these SLOs

  • Giving regular feedback to students WITHOUT over-budgeting your time

  • Staying organized and creating a routine for you and your students

These are the things you should forget:

  • Tracking attendance

  • Using all the cool new technologies

  • Being the star of the classroom

These are questions you should consider:

  1. Are there major ways I could consider changing my classroom policies or practices to be more antiracist?

  2. Which of these changes are feasible given the amount of time and resources available?

  3. What are my biggest strengths and weaknesses that might help/hurt me as an online instructor?

  4. How can you play up those strengths as a regular part of your classroom and mitigate your weaknesses?

  5. Who in your network of teacher friends is likely to have the patience and resources to help you?

I'll go through these tips and apply them to my own course-planning experience for the Fall to give you an idea of what I mean. This semester I'll be teaching two Expository Writing courses (themed around embodied rhetorics like last semester) and two sections of Communication for Engineers. The great news for me is that both of these courses have robust course maps and outlines for online delivery. I don't have to write SLOs or major assignments, instead, I just have to focus on the day-to-day lessons and exercises. If you teach similar courses and would like to see some of the resources we've collected over the years for the USF Professional and Technical Communication major, visit our Community of Practice website.

So, since I've taught these courses before and versions have been previously developed specifically for online delivery, I have to make sure I focus on developing useful exercises, giving specific feedback to students, and maintaining a sense of order and structure in my class.

Since I've taught these classes before, the exercises will likely just need to be adapted for online environments. Mostly what this means for me is creating learning experiences that are interactive and engaging without being overwhelming. To do that, I might refer to a table like this:

Ok, so I have some strategies now for how to adapt my teaching to online. Now what?

It's important to recognize the time and labor it takes to teach online and how this is frequently hidden. The first goal you should have is to not overextend yourself. If you're like me or any of the other thousands of contingent instructors/graduate students in this country, you simply are not adequately compensated for the work it would take to run a perfect online course--let alone four of them. With that in mind, I cannot stress enough to KEEP IT SIMPLE.

To help, here's a bit more detail on what we might call the "five pillars" of online teaching and learning.

Remember, when it comes to giving feedback, your students need two things from you: concrete suggestions to improve their writing (or whatever skill it is you're teaching) AND a level of everyday communication that let's them know you see them as real people in your class instead of names on a roster.

First, when giving critical feedback to students in your online class, I highly recommend using some amount of public announcements. For example, when my students turn in their first major project, I create what's called a "collective feedback file" and share it with the whole class. This document features anonymous student examples, explanations as to why these examples are problematic or exemplary, and a short model of how to improve or incorporate. These "issues" are all "tagged" with at least one of the major SLOs in the course so students understand exactly what skills they need improvement in, how to do it in the context of an assignment, and why this is important in the larger scheme of their future careers. Collective feedback is one REALLY useful way to protect your time and mental well-being. There are many other strategies for grading and feedback on Write Professionally free to review.

The second bit of feedback students benefit from is the more personalized connection you can offer as an instructor. In an online class, this might mean making sure that you respond to each of your students's discussion posts AT LEAST ONCE per semester. Let's say I have 20 students in my class and I create a discussion board topic. I might read through all the responses, but only type a reply to the 2-3 I find most interesting. If I do this throughout the semester, I can write personalized replies to each student in a low-stakes environment to show them that I see them, I value their ideas, and that I'm here to help them in their own personal educational journey if they need me. Feedback in this sense is designed to build rapport and establish a level of trust between you and your students--things that I for one take for granted in the fave-to-face classroom.

This leads me to the idea of strengths and weaknesses--I know I'm skilled at performing and classrooms are fun, relaxed, inviting, and often exciting. To make my natural charisma work for me online, I will likely create short weekly videos for my students. These are good vehicles for both collective feedback (I noticed everyone seemed to be making similar mistakes on the last exercise...) as well as personal feedback (I really enjoyed Kelvin and Maya's discussion about martial bodies in the last discussion board because...). These videos are also opportunities for me to provide weekly updates, encouragement, and mini-lectures about key themes for the week thus preserving, to some extent, my classroom presence.

My weaknesses as an instructor (there are many) include the tendency to forget about people I don't see or interact with regularly. Out of sight out of mind...out of a job! If I can't figure out ways to maintain real connections with my students online, I'm afraid I'll forget about them as real people. So, just like in my F2F classrooms, I'll be striving to incorporate icebreaker and team-building activities to make sure that I actually get to know my students in ways that I usually do. My other big weakness is organization...especially in a learning management system. But, given that I'm preparing now and that so many more things need to be typed up for online instruction, I'm looking forward to this experience making me stronger in that area.

Finally, now that I have my basics covered and I'm feeling more confident, I can begin to think about how to make my classrooms more of an antiracist learning space. One thing I will be doing in my Communication for Engineers class is sharing the Handbook for Pursuing Justice in Tampa Bay as an example of a professional/technical report. The content itself is something my students might find useful and the genre of the report is something they will be expected to learn according to the curriculum. The same is true for letters, memos, and emails, all documents that can and are used in service of social justice. So, one easy way I will improve my course is by updating my sample/example material to reflect the kinds of community-engaged activity that I hope to see my students participating in. I will be sure to share my updated syllabus toward the end of July so you can see :)

One improvement that might take a bit more time but is likely worth the effort is trying to figure out a more fair way to grade students. Asao Inoue has long touted the virtues of labor-based grading contracts and has a lot of resources for how to utilize these in your class. In fact, he just recently scheduled a MESS TON of office hours/appointments with teachers interested in learning more.

As always, remember that you are part of a larger community of experts, teachers who have valuable knowledge they are usually all too willing to share. Talk to them! Take notes! You are not alone :)

For me, I'll be using the Thursdays in July to be my Teach and Train Thursdays. This means a lot of lesson planning and a lot of kicking! I'll be sure to post a silly accountability photo on Instagram this #teacherthursday so you can see ;)

In other news this week, another Good Black Friday is up and ready for your viewing pleasure. Be sure to subscribe to the Rhetorical Roundhouse YouTube Chanel! Like and share videos to help me grow this platform for charitable purposes.

Finally, I wanted to say how thankful I am to all of you who donated to Master Rupert Cox and Pil Seung Tae Kwon Do in our Gofundme campaign. If you haven't yet, please consider making a donation to support small business and quality martial arts instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic. I appreciate anything you can do to help me repay one of the most hones martial arts masters and educators I've ever met.

That's it for this week! Have some fun and relax a bit, huh? Make sure to enjoy some amount of summer in between rounds of trying to course prep, save the world, and become a better person. Rest, good food, quiet time in nature, social time with loved ones--these are all important elements of productivity. Be sure to take care of yourselves and smile so you don;t forget how :)

Tune in next week for some exciting research updates!


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