Friday, October 18, 2013

Vampires, Zombies, Robots!

While I was at U Birmingham (UK) for induction a few weeks ago, the Distance Learning PhD cohort did an activity that was part speed dating, part apocalypse, part screen-writing, and part serious research.  The title was "Vampires Robot Apocalypse!" and its purpose was to strengthen our ability to give an "Elevator Speech" about our research.  (Either that or one of the folks on the induction week planning committee just had too much coffee--or wine--and thought it would be hilarious.  It was.)  Everyone met with three different partners and, under a time limit, explained what our research is and what led us to want to pursue that research.  After the first partner, we also had to choose which sci-fi/fantasy scenario best lent itself to our research: Vampires, Robots, or Apocalypse.  I went with Vamps.  With our final partner, we were asked to combine our research foci and our scenario of choice, add ourselves into the mix as protagonists, and write a book or movie preview.  The results were pretty hilarious.

I decided then and there that I was going to find a way to work the exercise into my Research & Writing course.  So I did.

I modified the title and added Zombies to the mix: "Vampires, Zombies, Robots!  (Oh my!)"

First, I told my students I wanted to give them "Context" on the class meeting's activity, so we watched the previews for I, Robot, Queen of the Damned, and Warm Bodies.  Without telling them why, I then instructed my students each to find a partner who is not in their Focus Group (small groups of students organized by theme and similarity in research topic).  I then gave the students three minutes each to explain their: 1. Research Project, 2. Purpose, and 3. Justification (why they chose the topic).  I then gave them the following descriptions and told them to choose one:

*Vampires: Vampires exist by sucking the life-blood out of humans, ruling over them with their superior life-span (forever) and strength.  Life is short if you’re a human.
*Robots: Science and technology have triumphed; creative thought, mistakes, and human emotion are no longer relevant.  Life is mechanical. 
*Zombies: People are mindless consuming bodies, decaying and falling to ruin.  Life just isn't life.

They had a shorter time to discuss their Topic, Purpose, and Justification with their second partners, then additional time to explain their choice of apocalypse.  In their third pairings, students had even less time to discuss their Topic, Purpose, and Justification, but additional time to discuss their apocalypse.  I then gave them about 15 minutes to write a movie preview combining their research topics, apocalypses, and themselves as protagonists.  I made sure to remind them to use their cheesiest "movie guy" voice as they wrote.  At the end of class, all of the pairs read their previews aloud as dramatically as they could (when they weren't collapsing into giggles!).  

Success!  It was an absolute riot and it was a useful exercise: Students had to work with partners they might not normally have chosen to work with.  Students also had to describe their research (8-10 pgs.) concisely to someone who wasn't familiar with their project.  Students had to think abstractly to connect topics like STDs prevention, the importance of architects, and GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) to an appropriate apocalypseOn top of all this, students had to synthesize their research, an abstract idea (apocalypse via Vampires, Robots, or Zombies), and create a viable end product: a film preview.  I will definitely do this again!

   Life just isn’t life.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Beautiful, Nose-Tickling, Irreplaceable Dust

I have spent the last week and a half in Birmingham, UK for the induction to my PhD program at the University of Birmingham.  Much of this time was dedicated to ensuring that the new doctoral students would not suffer the academic version of 'culture shock' after our two weeks on campus are over (a large cohort is Distance Learning students), but I have also spent a significant portion of my time in the campus Main Library.  It's a glorious building full of floors and floors of books, periodicals, and journals.  (And it doesn't hurt that there is a delicious cafĂ© on the ground floor...)

Of course most of the time I've spent in the library has been focused on research and writing--although I spent all of today dealing with course assignments and student questions (I'm teaching my courses via DL/online platform for the two weeks I'm gone), but I've definitely spent more than a few minutes simply drooling over all the beautiful books.  Please don't misunderstand me: I love my iPad.  This [over-priced] magical tablet allows me access to millions upon millions of books; however, I will never, ever accept a touchscreen as an equitable replacement for the texture of paper.  True: I've sneezed more in the past few hours in the library than I normally do in a week, but this seems a small price to pay to be in the presence of so many glorious tomes.  Caxtons, caxtons, everywhere! 

I am an admitted, unabashed bibliophile.  --A sneezy bibliophile, but one who will defend the importance of paper no matter how brilliant the technology is to come.

Today's moral: Read a book, a real one, one that has a possibility of giving you a paper-cut.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Books Every (English-Speaking) Child Should Read

I know there are a number of these lists online; I know because my mother (yup, I have one, too) emails them to me all of the time.  I'm not sure if this is supposed to be an affirmation of her excellent parenting skills (Thanks, mom!), or if she's hinting that she wants grandkids.  Either way, it's not terribly subtle, even if the purpose isn't clear.

While stressing over the pile of essays I did not wade entirely through grading this weekend, I came up with the start of a list in my head last night (I was attempting to fall asleep):

*Please note that I am clearly not listing these in any order of age-appropriateness, etc.

Frog and Toad
The Wind in the Willows
Little House on the Prairie (the entire Laura Ingalls Wilder series--and this is good American history, too)
The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien
Every Dr. Seuss book ever written
Good Night, Moon
The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, A. A. Milne
Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling
Gulliver's Travels, Jonathon Swift
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle
Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson 
Around the World in 80 Days, Jules Verne
A Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne
Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
The Time Machine, H. G. Wells
Hans Christian Andersen's Fairytales
Aesop's Fables
The Diary of Anne Frank, Anne Frank
The entire Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling
Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
Little Men, Louisa May Alcott
Joe's Boys, Louisa May Alcott
Any of the Hardy Boys series, Franklin W. Dixon
Any of the Nancy Drew series, Edward Stratemeyer
Adventures in the Big Thicket, Ken Gire
The Call of the Wild, Jack London
White Fang, Jack London
The Prince and the Pauper, Mark Twain
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Mark Twain
Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Christmas Tales of George MacDonald
The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald
At the Back of the North Wind, George MacDonald
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, Washington Irving
To Kill a Mockingbird, (if s/he isn't already required to read it in school) Harper Lee 
The Yearling, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls
Anne of Green Gables (and the whole series), L. M. Montgomery
The Princess Bride, William Goldman
Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
The Hunger Games Trilogy, Suzanne Collins

These are just the ones that came to mind last night while I was busy not sleeping.  Also, just letting your kiddos watch the movies is not what I mean.  In fact, if you let your kids watch the movies for any of these books without first having them read the book (or reading it with them), you have pretty much ruined the book for them.  In the case of Gulliver's Travels, don't bother showing them the movie at all.
More to come, I'm sure...

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Charleston Shuffle (or 'Sidestepping the Plagiarist')

The semester officially started again yesterday, so I have seen all of my students over the last two days.  One change I'm making this semester is the inclusion of a "Contract" on my syllabi detailing 6 reminders and expectations for my students.  This is partly an effort to minimize incidents of plagiarism throughout the semester and partly a reminder to my students that I expect them to take my courses seriously.

I'm teaching one section of Composition, two of Research & Writing, and one of World Lit. I, and all four groups of students received syllabi with the Contract front and center.  The nuts and bolts are essentially: 'I understand that by enrolling in this course, I'm agreeing to buy my text, read assignments, abide by University Academic Integrity Standards, be subject to the University's penalties if I violate those guidelines, and that I will strive to avoid any dishonest behavior in the class.'

I asked all of my students if they thought the "terms" of the agreement fair, and they all agreed.  They signed their copies (in their syllabi) and signed a copy for me to keep.  This may seem like overkill, but it frustrates and saddens me when, every semester, students try to take a shortcut and plagiarize.  Not only do I catch the students who do plagiarize, but I am not lenient on the penalties.  I never cheated or plagiarized in school and I want each student who graduates from the University where I teach to have a degree that is worth something.  If it's common knowledge that students from any institute get away with cheating and plagiarizing, everyone's degree is devalued.  This is a concept I try to explain to my students repeatedly.

The idea of a student "contract" is certainly not original and certainly not mine.  Research, in fact, has demonstrated that the more frequently students are asked to commit to a statement of honesty (or the inverse: a statement of not being dishonest), the less likely they are to cheat (or plagiarize).  Frighteningly, the more easily students can access information, it seems the higher the levels of academic dishonesty go.  From the German Education Minister who quit over the scandal of her plagiarism on in her PhD work (the second such scandal to hit during Merkel's term), to Taiwan's Chief of General Staff who resigned amid a similar revelation: plagiarism is not unique to the U.S., for certain.

The popularity of software like Blackboard's "Safe Assign" and websites like has risen dramatically as more and more professors and educators (even at the secondary level) grow concerned with the number of students turning to plagiarism, instead of their own, original work.  The question, still, is how do we best deter students from plagiarizing?  Some research would seem to indicate that simply educating students on what plagiarism is (via online tutorials, etc.) is more effective than the threat of detection, but clearly this does not stop all would-be plagiarists.  Type "plagiarism" into Google and you'll quickly realize that there are millions of websites, pages, tutorials, and videos on plagiarism.  Some of these are tutorials for educators on how to catch and deal with plagiarism, and some are "How to plagiarize and get away with it" pages for the less-than-ethical student. 

In my experience teaching, students are most likely to plagiarize (or cheat in other ways) when they feel overwhelmed, out-of-time, or under-prepared.  Some students spontaneously forget years of training in MLA format and hand in assignments that attempt to cite sources, but can only be deciphered over multiple painstaking readings.  I don't see these as equivalent to the blatant and intentional plagiarism of copying and pasting or "copy-summarizing" (wherein students essentially copy material from a source, then change words or rearrange parts so that the end result is not identical to the source), but they are still a problem.  Once upon a time, dishonesty in essay-writing meant buying an essay from another student, reusing someone else's old work, or copying material from a book off of a dusty library shelf.  Now, it's so easy to plagiarize that I fear some students may simply be overwhelmed by the temptation that dances around in front of their face every time they turn on their smart phones, tablets, or computers.

How do we help them not plagiarize so that they do learn?  This question will be a large part of my focus this semester, in addition to the usual.  All of my classes have their syllabi now, and I have promised not to talk so much in a single class again!  Best of luck to all this semester...I shall, as always, endeavor to be more faithful to my readers this semester!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Katniss vs. Ender: The Final Showdown


My Spring 2013 experiment is drawing to a close...with inconclusive results, I might add.  I had two sections of ENG 120: Composition this semester, so I assigned one to read The Hunger Games and the other to read Ender's Game.  Both classes wrote weekly journals on the chapters they completed each week, had weekly (sometimes bi-weekly) discussions in class, and wrote novel-related essays throughout the semester.  The carrot dangled in front of both classes was a week of watching The Hunger Games film (starring Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen) while they were completing work on their research papers.  (The film version of Ender's Game comes out this November, otherwise I would obviously have show it to the class reading Card's novel).

All of my students have completed their "Exit Journals," in which they detail (rather openly, as I encourage them to be) 1) What they expected the course to be like, 2) What the course was really like, 3) How they felt about the course, and 4) What suggestions they might have to me for future classes.  Here is where the conclusions come into play...the class reading The Hunger Games was consistently more on top of life than the section reading Ender's Game (and I mean from Day 1).  The HG section was consistently on-time, in class, and attentive.  The EG section was rarely more than half full, usually very late, and hit-or-miss attentive.  While some students in the EG section did genuinely enjoy the sci-fi classic, the majority (I'm fairly certain) flat-out did not read it; ergo, I can't really use their feedback.

I can, however, report that the feedback from my second group of students to read The Hunger Games was overwhelmingly positive.  So positive, in fact, that a number of students recommended that future classes read the entire trilogy!  Color me shocked: College students who ask for more reading.  What is becoming of the world of academia?!

I will have to do some soul-searching as to whether I will include Ender's Game in my Fall readings for ENG 120, but I will absolutely use The Hunger Games a third time.  Perhaps I will even orchestrate a class field trip to see Catching Fire in theater when it releases!  (I know, I know--I'm on the edge of insanity!)  I do intend to poll my HG section to see how many students would honestly have read all three books if they had been assigned.  And, if I do assign the trilogy, I will need to consider actually making students buy the books from the bookstore, as opposed to buying them myself and lending them to students (which, by the way, I have about a 98% return rate on).

Overall, including a novel in my ENG 120 course has absolutely been a success!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Singing the Budget Cut Blues

As a public-private institution, my University receives a significant portion of its funding from the local government (in addition to grants and funding from the Federal government).  Unfortunately, our local government is pretty much incapable of managing its funds, so all the government agencies and public-private institutes (like the University) are feeling the squeeze.

This time around, although our Senate is claiming that it will restore the 8% it claimed in salary reductions for all government employees beginning in 2010, simultaneously, it is proposing to make an across-the-bard 5% budget cut.  For our University, this means that all open positions are frozen, faculty on short-term contracts (including me) must be defended by their respective department chairs and college deans, class sizes may be increased, and a number of other uncomfortable measures may be implemented.

Why am I writing about this?  Because, ultimately, my concern is my students.  Government cuts affect me, absolutely, but they also affect my students.  Larger class sizes mean: 1) Teachers are more stressed, 2) teachers cannot spend as much individual time with students or on assignments, and 3) students begin to feel lost in the mix.  Larger class sizes and overload (teaching more than 12 credits per semester) also cut into whatever personal and family time professors have left.  Professors are also heavily pressured to complete significant research, to attend conferences, and to present their research--although the University has a paltry amount of funding dedicated to funding those endeavors.  There are absolutely no funds for faculty to take significant time in order to complete research, unless they write or apply for grants themselves (but they still have to give credit to the University, even though it didn't give them any support in the process).

The end result is, inevitably, unhappy, stressed out professors.  These, in turn, lead to discontent students suffering from lower quality instruction.  How do we combat these inevitable outcomes?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Numbers vs. Action

I took the time to review most of my ENG 120 students' SAT scores in Writing and Reading this semester.  I was already aware that my university has remarkably low SAT score percentiles across the board, but I was curious about my specific students' scores.  With few exceptions, my students had the low Reading and Writing SAT scores I had expected, although many, surprisingly, had passed the University's in-coming Writing Placement exam (although many failed the Reading Placement exam).

What does this mean?  Well, when I couple it with one sections' responses to my question, "What was the last fiction book you read-for pleasure or school?" it means my students are writing and reading well below what is acceptable for college students.  Still not shocking.

At the beginning of the third week of the semester, however, with both sections roughly six weeks into their respective novels (Ender's Game and The Hunger Games), I can start to judge how many students are reading (and how well).  My students are, across the board, reading!  Yay!  Hoorah!  Fireworks and hooplah!  Not only are they reading, but they are also enjoying what they are reading!

I'm not just patting myself on the back here--I'm genuinely thrilled that my students are reading.  Both novels engender great discussion about social issues, ethics, and morals--and my students are largely driving the discussion.  They also keep a weekly blog about the novel (I post general topics/guidelines each week), which forces them to write about what they are reading, in addition to discussing it.