Computers and the Rise of “Read-bites”

Like the author of the Atlantic article, I find myself now unable to concentrate for long periods on the same text. But I also can’t watch a 45 minute television show without doing something else. I’m multitasking at all times it seems like, but that’s different than not being able to concentrate because of the rise of computers and quick “read-bites” of information.

I find it easier to concentrate on a long article if I have the paper version in front of me and I have put down or put away the technology gadgets. I also find it easier to retain information I read in paper (non-digital) format. But to say I’ve lost my critical reading ability is a bit overboard.

I worry about my students who have never learned to read critically to begin with. When they come into my WGS intro class and find they’re assigned upwards of 50 articles for the semester and that they have to read all of them (sometimes more than once) to understand them, they balk. And then they do it anyway and realize it’s not so bad.

So I think to assume that I or my students can’t read critically anymore is a bit of an underestimation.

Technology is a double-edged challenge though. Most of my lectures I have prepared using information I’ve found online, but then I require that my classroom be technology free, save PowerPoints and videos I show. Halfway through the semester I began to realize that if I ask them to read something online, I must also require them to bring in a hard copy to class or they won’t and we can’t have a productive discussion. The first and last time I asked them to ask them to access the document on their laptops, I lost their attention for the last 20 minutes of class. Never again.

I had a point somewhere in here, and along the way I lost it. Probably I’m writing this, responding to text and Facebook messages and thinking about lunch. But that’s not the computer’ fault, that’s mine. To blame computers and digital technology is a cop out. It’s up to me to stop multitasking and focus on one thing at a time. That’s not anything a computer can do for me.

Brave Space v. Safe Space

loved the article by Arao and Clemens, Brave v. Safe Space!!!

It’s not my job to create a safe space for my students, I’m not a licensed counselor nor can I manage 39 different “safe spaces” all at once. What I can do is offer them a space to be brave in my classroom and manage it in such a way that when students speak they can be reasonably assured that no other student or myself will attack them personally, but will only agree or push back against their ideas with other points from the readings.

I try to create brave spaces in a number of ways:

  • I have a block of text in my syllabus concerning respect and we had a 10-minute conversation on the subject the first class period;
  • At the beginning of the semester, I asked each student to make name tents, similar to what we have in the pedagogy class, and required each student to use another student’s name when responding to them directly. I also model this behavior for them constantly;
  • I ask that students look at the person who is speaking. If I could, I would arrange the desks in a circle but with the large class and small classroom size mismatch, it’s not possible this semester;
  • I am constantly reminding the students to use the texts we read to make their arguments rather than just speaking from personal experience; and
  • I had the luxury or creating my own reader for my course, so I try and always explain why I have chosen to use the readings I did.

One thing I wish I had done that the article mentions is to create ground rules with my students and have them sign it as a pledge to adhere to the group norms that they themselves had created.

How do you try and create Brave Spaces in your classroom??

Teaching as Service

My cat...not being of maximum service to my productivity last semester.
My cat…not being of maximum service to my productivity last semester.

On my CV, there are a number of sections, but two are relevant this week – “teaching” and “service to the university.” Recently I got to thinking that really, the two ought to be combined with teaching listed under service.

All of the articles this week confirmed my hypothesis. If you had asked me a year ago to teach a class, it would have been a no-go. I didn’t know enough; I had never taught before; I wasn’t trained – all of it came down to the fact that I was scared. I was scared of what the students would think of me; scared that I wasn’t enough; scared of not having the answers; scared of all of it.

I did a lot of soul searching in the last year and have come to one conclusion: All I have to do every day is try to be of maximum service to the people with whom I meet and interact.

Once I applied that philosophy to my teaching, the “scared-ness” went away.

All I have to do is try to be of maximum service to my students at all times. That means doing the best lesson planning I can; being authentic as I engage with them in lecture; admitting I don’t have hall the answers; and being humble.

I don’t have to try and be funny, or witty, or loud, or anything else I’m not. I just have to be me. And that can mean different things on different days and weeks depending on my workload in other places.

Sarah Deel mentions in her teaching post that “I will always be thinking about how to be a better teacher, but this acceptance of my teaching voice as an extension of myself is freeing.”

So it is with me. The less concerned I am with how much my students like me, or don’t like me, the more I can focus on creating effective lessons.

I’m learning this focus also has implications for how my students react and interact with me. Teaching Women’s and Gender Studies can be a tricky subject, especially when I make a point from the outset to let students my intro class isn’t going to focus on some of their experiences (eg: the men) except incidentally. Because I’m invested in teaching my lessons and not about the personality factor, I have yet to have anyone challenge my authority or be overtly hostile when I presented an idea with which they don’t agree.

For example, I called a student out in the second week for sitting with his hands over his face like he was sleeping for half the class. The next week he apologized for being late to class because he missed the bus. Now he regularly speaks in class and is one of my better students.

He could have decided, after I called him out, to ignore me or directly challenge me. Instead, I think because that same week I also called out a woman who was using her cell phone in class (a no-no listed on the syllabus), that I wasn’t directly picking on him, but rather trying to create a conducive learning environment for everyone.

So, to the original point, teaching as service. That’s it, pretty basic. Do what I can to be of maximum service and don’t beat myself up when I don’t always get it right.

Two Articles Related to Teaching Differently

Thinking about student assessment, and how it could be done different, this week, I came across two related articles and thought I would share.

The first, Are College Lectures Unfair?, is a New York Times opinion piece on whether or not lectures actually accomplish much for anyone besides white, affluent, male students. To quote from the article:

Research comparing the two methods has consistently found that students over all perform better in active-learning courses than in traditional lecture courses. However, women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation students benefit more, on average, than white males from more affluent, educated families.

The second, Produce Thinkers, Not Docile Workers, argues that we seriously need to shake up the classroom in order for our students to better learn. The author quotes Cathy Davidson, a professor and scholar of technology and pedagogy at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, who has spent plenty of time thinking about this type of stuff. From the article:

[Davidson] wants us to do away with a model of education in which students are evaluated by how well they meet the professor-dictated criteria. Instead, we need to make student learning the goal of everything we do. The best way to do that, Davidson argues, is by helping students understand why they should be learning what you want them to be learning, and having them take the lead in achieving their learning goals.


I Wanna Go to Summer Camp!!!

Summer 2006 - I was a lifeguard at Camp Stonybrook Girl Scout Camp in central Ohio. Here, I was dressed as Willy Wonka for an all-camp game of some sort
Summer 2006 – I was a lifeguard at Camp Stonybrook Girl Scout Camp in central Ohio. Here, I was dressed as Willy Wonka for an all-camp game of some sort.

Summer camp – so many possibilities, so many activities to choose from, so many games to play, so many arts and crafts to do, and so many, many things to learn!

Best of all? No grades!

Upon reading this week’s “ungraded classroom” piece, my mind immediately wandered back to the years I spent as both a camper and counselor at Camp Stonybrook in central Ohio. I learned a lot of neat skills – everything from tie-dyeing T-shirts (not so useful, although I still do it on occasion even at 31 years old) to tree identification (more useful than tie-dye) to making minor repairs to my bicycle (totally useful for getting around Blacksburg). More than that, I learned intangible skills like cooperation, assertiveness and confidence.

Best of all, I learned those skills more completely because I was able to do so without fear of failure. Without a grade, I learned it was okay to take bigger risks and that someone besides myself (usually a counselor) knew what was going on, so I had someone I could go to for guidance when I needed it. I fully immersed myself in the learning because it did not feel like learning, it felt like fun!

Moving into the classroom setting, I think learning could be done in much the same way. If an 8-year-old can become fully immersed in a subject, then why not an 18-year-old? I believe learning should be fun and that I should play the part of a counselor rather than an instructor. I want my students to play with ideas, challenge them (and me, and their peers) and make those ideas their own.

This also leads into the imagination piece we read. If students are ungraded, they have more room to imagine new possibilities without fear of being wrong. The part in the imagination piece about doing the least amount of work for the ‘A’ resonated with me. I have been there. I have had semesters where I am busy, and all I want is to do what I have to do to get the ‘A.’ Usually in those classes I never feel like I’ve earned the ‘A’ or even learned very much, but I did the required work so I got the ‘A.’

Summer camp is where I learned.

So the real question is: how can I make my classroom more like summer camp?

Mindful Learning

The piece this week that resonated most with me was Ellen Langer’s Mindful Learning. Having been an education reporter at a daily newspaper, I am well aware of the recent arguments in favor of not teaching the “same old way” it’s always been done.

Especially with the advent of No Child Left Behind, grade and high school teachers are trying to find new ways of teaching that still make sure students learn what they need to know for the state tests. Teachers in younger grades know that one size does not fit all for students – some students like to wiggle more than others, some are content to listen and remain quiet – and the teachers work to reach all their students.

Why then, when students come to college, do we as instructors rely on our old PowerPoint and lecture methods to present information? (Why also, do we have 200-person intro classes? But that’s another story). If it didn’t work for 12th graders, why do we think it will work for “13th graders?”

It hadn’t really dawned on me that I was maybe taking the easy way out with my lectures and discussion. Why not try and think about new ways and try new strategies to deliver material to my students that might work better?

Having never taught before, I was relying on how I was taught in undergrad forgetting that the reason I’m in graduate school is because I liked going above and beyond on my assignments. I could make just about any subject interesting without much prompting and could learn something from even the most god-awful boring professor. Not all of my students are like me.

This week made me pause and truly think about ways I might make my teaching more interesting. I’m looking forward to seeing what my classmates have to say!

Does Blogging Change the World?

This week’s theme was “Connected Learning,” although most of the articles (and one video) focused on blogging.

So here’s my thought on that topic: I hate most blogs.

Scott Rosenberg of Salon noted in 2009 that blogs changed everything, and he’s right. With free blogs available to anyone with a smart phone and access to McDoanald’s free Wi-Fi, there’s a lot of digital ink being spilled.

But I’m not sure how much is truly being said.

Many times, it feels to me like the types of blogs being written are personal journals. Before the internet, young girls would write about their latest crush on the pages of their pink diaries secured with gold-plated, easily-pickable locks; now these same teen girls have any number of free platforms to air their angst.

I don’t agree with Seth Godin when he says “if you’re not good at (blogging), but you stick with it, you’ll become good at it.” Some people will never be good writers and yet, there will be people out there who encourage them so they continue to throw some drivel on an empty blog post page each week.

Blogging has become the new “oversharer” – that one person at the party you avoid at all costs because you know they’ll draw you into a conversation you can’t get out of for 25 minutes. They’re somewhat of a trainwreck, but you can’t (or don’t want to) look away.

All that said, I think there can be a number of positives for having a blog. I have had 2 personal blogs and 1 (now 2) classroom blogs in my life. And I totally get why people do it. It feels good to write, it feels good to connect, and it feels good to feel like someone (even if it’s just 1 someone) read your blog post and got something out of it.


Blogs create community. Whether it’s a personal community (people sympathized with me as I tried to plan my lesbian wedding over the course of a year), or a public community (a Sociologist who blogs about her research on racism), people are connecting.

This is a good thing.

Another good thing that happens, especially with professional or academic blogs, is that the blogger creates an impact outside of the insulated circles in which they usually live.

Tim Hitchcock notes on his blog on the impact of blogs in the Social Sciences that “there is every hope that we can rebuild the humanities as a wider public discussion, able to more effectively reach beyond the academy.”

Not everyone has access to, or can understand, articles written in academic journals. Blogging about research offers a way to break down hard subjects, explore them at a more personable level and allow individual readers outside the academy to respond. In short, blogging can provide a way to create a quick impact.


Overall, I’m torn on the usefulness of blogs. They can be good if you’ve got something important to say, but can easily turn into a oversharer’s diary of sorts.

I don’t believe in blogging as a class assignment just for the sake of doing it. Many times students don’t understand the material they read for class and it’s not fair to make them take the public risk of publishing their thoughts. Also, blogging isn’t a new technology, so doing it “just because” is dumb.

I do think there is value in sharing research with a wider community through a blog, especially if the research can be explained in an understandable way. I’ve learned a lot of neat stuff from reading blogs on subjects in which I’m interested, but I’ve also had to filter through a lot of non-useful writing to get there.

Again, I’m torn.