Category Archives: Teaching

Teaching & Technology

My brilliant cousin, Nate Gandomi, who studies (broadly) education and technology at Berkeley, just wrote a thoughtful post about a book called The E-Learning and Social Networking Handbook. My comment to his post is below:

“The hype that follows the emergence of new technologies assumes a smooth transition between entertainment and education.” . . . this quote summarizes the frustration I have felt when trying to integrate technology in the classroom. I’ve sat through workshops on everything from Google Maps to Dipity to Mind Maps to Second LIfe, all of which inspired me to try something new in class . . . until I tried to create a lesson plan of my own, at which point I’d just feel stumped. I’m not trying to say that integrating technology into the classroom cannot be both fun and educational, but I do think it takes *a lot* of creativity and effort on the instructor’s part. Also, teachers can’t simply find a YouTube video to show once in a while — they have to carefully choose which technologies they bring into the classroom based on their goals for the course.

I was also very struck by the phrase “access to information does not equate knowledge.” I remember showing my students on-line bibliography tools, as in, “isn’t it great? You never have to memorize the format of citations!” I would assume that I could then skip discussing how to make a bibliography in class–surely the students could figure it out for themselves. Of course, most of the students did not make a correctly formatted bibliography (probably at least half did not make one at all). More importantly, they did not understand the purpose of citing sources.


Praise for Students & for Selves

My great friend Rebecca Zook just started a blog about learning that I highly recommend called Triangle Suitcase. Her post on praise follows up with my last post on positivity.

Part of the point of Rebecca’s post is that praising students for effort is an effective way to motivate them. When trying to generate positive emotions in oneself, though, I think that effort is something dissertation-writers often overlook. Thoughts like  Wow, I’ve been in school for 24 years! That’s dedication! or I’ve read over fifty books on this topic–I’ve gone to great lengths! could be a way to generate positivity even when the writing itself is not going particularly well.

Radical Revision

My friend, the Dr. Somers-Willett, very recently published the book that grew out of her dissertation. We were discussing my work, and she told me, “don’t be afraid of radical revision.”

The way I have been revising–the way many people revise–is by attempting to shove my responses to advisor and writing group feedback into my previous draft. But Dr. S-W suggested a way that was indeed more radical and much more frightening.

She suggested I write the whole chapter from scratch, pasting in sections from my old draft as needed.

When she said it, I felt a flash of recognition–yes, this was a good idea; yes, this would work better; yes, this would be more efficient in the long run. Then came the FEAR. (Oh, *&^%,  not again!)

As a teacher, I never got one revision that was written over from scratch. If I had, I would have jumped for joy. Most of them tried to address my comments but never did so in anything more than a superficial way.

Recently, I re-wrote my introduction from scratch. Not one sentence was kept in the original. When I went back to look at the old intro (hoping to salvage some of it), I didn’t see a single thing worth keeping. By starting over, I freed myself to improve much more dramatically.

But now I’m facing re-writing Chapter 1 and it’s seriously freaking me out. I want so badly to finish that it can be hard to trust in a method that feels like more work, even with my own experience and trusted advice contradicting telling me that this method is going to work.

Productivity & Positivity in Meetings

I’m reading an interview of psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity. Fredrickson discussed some research by business consultant Marcial Losada. Losada studied sixty business teams during their annual strategy meetings. He tracked the statements made in the meetings as positive, negative, and neutral. He then tracked the performance of the different teams. He found that “three positive events to one negative event should be the tipping point” that turns a medium-performing team into a high-performing one.

The first thing I thought about when I read this was a recent bad meeting I had. The meeting was so bad that it wasn’t until the next day that I realized major progress had been made on my dissertation. All the negative feedback was essentially about style. The core of my project–which had been on shaky ground–was finally acceptable. However, instead of anyone telling me that, they started telling me about minor things I was doing wrong. I can’t say I helped the positive vibe–I felt emotional to the point that it was difficult for me to have productive thoughts or defend myself.

Contrast that with a conversation I just had with my DSG (Dissertation Support Group). The first thing the future Doctor Anderson said after I told her about the meeting was, “wow, you sound like you’re handling a hard situtation really well.” I have long marveled at the chemistry and productivity of my DSG meetings, and now I realize that they are well beyond the 3 to 1 ratio of positivity. No matter how rough the material, we find ways to remind each other of the good work we’ve done.

But let’s go back to what I did right after this bad meeting.  I was determined to squeeze every ounce of usefulness out of it that I could. So after it was over, I went over my notes and wrote down every useful suggestion I could find about how to improve my dissertation. Then I categorized the suggestions into categories. This was already helpful–the meeting seemed more productive once it was on paper. Then I sent the summary to people involved. I asked them to check over my summary and make sure we were all on the same page. The summary was in neutral language (“need to improve close reading” as opposed to “close reading section is very bad”).

The 3 to 1 ratio has many applications. I know that I don’t give my students that much positive feedback on their papers. I would really like to try to do that. I’d like to talk to my family with that much positivity. I’d like to be that positive when I’m reflecting on or discussing my work.

Here’s what I am going to do. I’m going to send this blog post to my committee before my defense. And I’m going to ask that they help me make that conversation as productive as possible. I know too many stories of defenses that are not fun, anti-climactic, or boring. Defenses should be at best a celebration of what’s been achieved, and at least a productive conversation that helps students revise before graduation and/or publication.

Recommendations from Students

When I first heard that grad students should ask former students to write recommendations of their teaching, I thought to myself that I would be way to embarrassed to ever ask my students to say nice things about me.

But one day this winter, buoyed by three compliments on my course from students, I wrote several students from my last six courses. I chose to write a mass e-mail, because I didn’t want any particular student to feel pressured to respond. I tried to give them a few “outs” so they didn’t feel bad if they didn’t want to do it. I told them that I knew they were busy and that I understood that they may not remember the details of the course that well.

One smart thing that I did was offer to show them a recommendation I had written for a professor up for tenure so they would have some idea of what was appropriate to discuss. All the students who wrote were eager to see that letter; they would have had a much harder time without it.

I am so glad I asked. Five of my students enthusiastically agreed, and their letters have been so kind. It’s been a real boost during this last semester. I feel like I have accomplished something while I’m here–I don’t think any of my students from my first few classes would have described me as “organized.” But the students also claimed to have learned real, useful skills that have benefited them outside of my class.

So, I say it’s worth the embarrassment! However, if you feel uncomfortable approaching students out of the blue, it might still work to ask students who tell you they enjoyed the class (either at the end of their final exam, in person, or via e-mail) or even to ask for a little reciprocation if a student wants you to write a recommendation for them.

Cycles of Revision

I read about the cycles of revision when I was trying to teach my students how to improve their work. I think they were in a Penguin handbook back in the day–I tend to purge writing handbooks regularly so I can’t cite them exactly.

  1. After reading your draft, clarify your thesis. As any good writing teacher will tell you, you often won’t know what you want to say until you’ve said it. Even if you start out with a thesis, it may need to be modified. Also, during the thesis stage, eliminate all writing that is not relevant to your thesis.
  2. Next, work on paragraph organization. I like to write a one-word summary next to each paragraph, which often helps me see where I need to rearrange. Also, if a paragraph can’t be easily summed up in a word or two, it may have more than one main idea in it and need to be divided.
  3. Now that you know your thesis and you have the structure of your paper figured out, look for places to add evidence. Some of the quotes you cut, for example, may need to be replaced with more appropriate citations.
  4. Read the paper out loud, slowly. Correct any issues of sentence clarity and transitions between paragraphs.
  5. Give your writing to someone else to review. If you want to communicate well, audience feedback is essential.

I find that focusing on different types of problems helps me do a more thorough job of revision. (It is always very difficult for me to avoid the temptation of stopping working once I have a first draft. At the same time, if you’re an endless tinkerer maybe having clear steps to follow would speed you up a bit.)

If you try to correct sentence clarity first, you end up wasting time (re-writing sentences that may not relate to your thesis) or, much worse–never get around to addressing major issues. It’s easy to not see the forest for the trees in revision. Reading with an eye for discovering your thesis–and only discovering your thesis–does more to improve your project than perfect grammar could ever do.

Writing in a Vacuum

Gerald Graff wrote a really interesting column in the MLA newsletter this month, which pointed out that many undergraduate papers are asked to interpret a text in a vacuum.

I know that’s true of my undergraduate experience. Most of the time, I was specifically told not to cite criticism in my papers. No wonder I am struggling to “enter the conversation” to this day. For much of my academic career, no professor explained to me the importance of answering the “so what?” question or finding someone who disagreed with me.

I bring this up for two reasons: first, making students enter a conversation when they write any paper, in any class, is a compelling idea. Second, as Graff points out, in many academic genres (the conference talk, the job application, the dissertation abstract), it is vitally important to explain both why your project matters and why it may be controversial.

Annotation Minus Paper

I’ve always been a huge fan of the “Reviewing” toolbar in Microsoft Word, which allows one to make marginal comments in documents. I grade using this tool and I love it. I don’t have to worry about messy handwriting, and I can type faster than I can write–which means I give my students more comments. Bonus: they can read them. I have long since given up receiving paper copies of student work.

While researching for my dissertation, I can comment on Word documents and highlight important points, but until today I wasn’t able to annotate .pdf files. Then I learned about the PDF XChange Viewer, which is a free program that lets one underline, draw pictures, and attach “sticky notes” all over a .pdf.

Academics may not be the worst paper wasters in our nation, but we’ve got to come close. In my book–or rather, my blog, taking notes while avoiding printing = awesome.

Teaching: It Works!

I had a student in a literature class who–even though she ended up with a good grade in the class–I felt did not “get it” in some important way.  Her papers tended to try to argue something an uncontroversial point, and I worried that she wasn’t developing skills for subtle critique.

This student is taking another class of mine this semester–a course designed by another person.  My former student, who I did not have high expectations for, just aced a big assignment.  A big part of her success was due to her knowledge of poetic forms and techniques–something she learned in my class.

I rarely teach the same students twice, and it’s wonderful at this moment to see that my student learned and improved in my class.  And she retained something!

Self-Help for Graduate Students, Part 8: Authentic Happiness

Seligman, Martin E. P. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press, 2002.

Time Investment: 263 pages. Plus questionnaires on the following website:

You could do the Signature Strengths questionnaire before reading the book for some interesting insight also. When I took the it, I found that one of my strengths is “loving and being loved.” Going back to the book, I expected to read something like: “If you’re good at loving, you should pursue one of the following careers: x,y, or z.” What the author actually said was to incorporate that strength into as many things that you do as possible.

His example involved a janitor he met while visiting his friend in the hospital who was in a coma. The janitor cleaned up the room, and then switched the wall art around–and he was spending a really long time fussing with the art. Finally, the author asks what he’s doing. The janitor says, “Patients do better when they have new stimulus. It’s my job to make sure that they have new and beautiful art.” Basically the author (Martin Seligman) was amazed that this janitor took a menial job and turned it into a calling by retuning his job to be about nurturing (instead of scrubbing toilets).

While I’m not mean to my students, I could instantly see how focusing on caring for them (instead of focusing exclusively on improving their writing) would improve my performance and my happiness with my job. It would also, as the book says, help give my job meaning and purpose.

I also realized that my favorite professors–the ones who made me want to be a professor myself–would score pretty high on the kindness scale. I don’t even always ask my students, “how are you?” when they come to office hours!

Yesterday, instead of sending a brisk & businesslike, “you can’t take advantage of me just because I’m a young woman” e-mail to a student who has missed several classes, I forced myself to sit down next to him and look him in the eye as I showed him the attendance sheet. Instead of wishing he would just drop the class and get out of my hair, I thought about how great it would be if he staying in the class and succeeded in passing it.

I think part of the point Seligman makes is that doing what you’re good at is bound to make you feel happier. And you can find ways to do what you’re good at in almost any situation.