Small Teaching Online Book Summary

Over the past three weeks I have participated in a Wake Forest Center for the Advancement of Teaching summer reading group led by Director of Educational Development Dr. Kristi Verbeke.

Over 30 faculty (IIRC) read and discussed Small Teaching Online by Flower Darby and James Lang.

What follows is my reading notes and reflections on the book as originally posted in a long thread on Twitter.

This book applies the original “small teaching” insight of James Lang to online teaching. Basic premise: make small, manageable changes based on learning science rather than major but unsustainable overhauls to our teaching.

Ch 1: Surfacing Backward Design

Begin at the end: Where are we going (learning outcomes)? Then ask: How do we know we have arrived (assessment)? And last: What do we need to get there (work)? Useful but common advice.

In online education especially it is important not just to build these connections but to make them very explicit, surfacing not just the what/how of each activity and assignment but the why in relation to learning outcomes. This gives online students understanding, motivation, and direction.

Example of result of backward design from my Introduction to Sociology class

Ch 2: Guiding Learning Through Engagement

Darby highlights how much PROCESS we focus on in face-to-face classes that is harder to convey in online classes. Online we need to be more intentional about how we guide learning.

Breaking down tasks into discrete parts & even (occasionally) conditioning later tasks on completion of earlier ones helps. But my main takeaway from this chapter is that teachers have to make a point of being there for their online students. This takes time/energy. Darby: online teachers need to be attentive to students in forums & discussions, looking for cues that we would normally pick up in class. And responding “early and often.” “Look for every opportunity to help students know how they are doing in the class.”

Ch 3: Using Media & Tech Tools

First tip here echoes 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos by Karen Costa. Create SHORT lecture videos: <6 mins long and informal (rather than professionally produced) are ideal for student learning.

Because online students are often busy outside of classes, it helps focus their attention & structure their priorities to give short graded assessments after each required video lecture. Don’t look at creating engagement this way as pandering to student “consumers.” Grades help guide priorities.

In addition to video lectures, spontaneous (or planned) video updates can be used to respond to issues emerging from the video lectures & related assignments. At Wake Forest we are transitioning to Canvas LMS which makes it easy to record videos inside the LMS or link to YouTube.

Also, do not feel you are shirking your responsibilities by drawing on other available media resources. Curating course materials is an important part of our job as teachers. E.g., Tanya Golash Boza of UC-Merced has put together some amazing videos on race/racism.

Last, remember the book’s premise: small decisions & actions are key. Don’t swing for the fences and strike out, especially making our students collateral damage by turning our tech struggles into their tech challenges. As Darby writes, “First, do no harm.”

Ch 4: Building Community

Online courses are sometimes treated like old-time “correspondence courses” that each student completes as a solitary individual. But the “Community of Inquiry” model highlights the importance of community for student learning (p. 79).

Of the three “presences” (cognitive, social, teaching) at the core of the Community of Inquiry, the social is the hardest for many to achieve online (p. 80). Darby and Lang argue that teachers can facilitate social presence by helping students see us and each other as human beings.

Strategies for doing this include creating structured opportunities for students to interact with us and others. I.e., “discussions.” I and other faculty dread trying to create discussions online, often only knowing the “post once, comment twice” structure that seems so rote. An alternative is proposed by John Orlando: Require “one or two original thoughts” rather than an original post + replies. After all, a reply could be more substantive, interesting, and productive than an original post. And it encourages group interaction as much as individual action.

A real challenge for faculty teaching online will be requirement that we “show up for class” if we want to build community, because class is no longer clearly delimited in time/space. We can’t treat our online classes like slow cookers (“set & forget”). Rather, we have to be present “on a very regular basis” (p. 87). In a F2F class, we facilitate good conversations. Online teaching arguably requires more facilitation. This may be all the more important for under-resourced and/or underserved students.

Monitoring and being involved in online discussions allows us as teachers to foster cultural inclusion and suppress exclusionary practices. Darby and Lang highlight the Critical Multicultural Pavilion EdChange project as a resource.

Last, it doesn’t hurt to “cultivate and demonstrate genuine caring for your students” (p. 104).

Ch. 5: Giving Feedback

Some good Pedagogy 101 items in this chapter. E.g.,

  • recall the difference between SUMMATIVE and FORMATIVE assessments
  • learning requires assessment with timely feedback
  • focusing on justifying our grades is a “common trap” (pp. 110-11).

We need to give students both summative AND formative assessments. We can use labels like “This Time” and “Next Time” and/or “Strengths” and “For Improvement” (p. 112). These labels don’t just help students, they help US remember what we are giving feedback for.

Giving feedback “face-to-face” can be more effective (& even efficient). Reach out to meet with students who are struggling early. Rebrand the potentially often off-putting and little used “office hours” as “happy hours” or “coffee breaks.” Be inviting!

Ch 6: Fostering Student Persistence & Success

Following the small teaching philosophy, this can be something as simply as a “nudge” – an email to a struggling student with advice/encouragement that can have a big impact.

I think there are some things I may do online that I wouldn’t F2F. Like giving “mastery quizzes” as a prerequisite for moving on in a module. In a F2F class students can better gauge whether they are “getting it”; online a simple, ungraded quiz can give needed feedback & direction.

Scaffolding may be more important online, so thinking about ways of giving students easy wins early on to build their confidence both with the material and the technology/LMS. As always, this will be all the more important for less advantaged students.

Ch 7: Creating Autonomy

This chapter argues that students are more motivated if they have some agency/autonomy in courses. Although “we can’t give people agency” we can “provide the conditions and support for it to flourish.” Online courses require students to take more responsibility. We can facilitate this by taking some responsibility ourselves as teachers for guiding students without becoming dictatorial.

This chapter includes a good discussion of Linda Nilson’s specifications grading as a way to reward students for taking responsibility for doing the work of learning. I do this some, though without appreciating all of the benefits. Will def incorporate more online.

Ch 8: Making Connections

This chapter stresses the importance of helping students connect ideas both within and between classes, as well as connecting class ideas to their own experiences. I do the latter pretty explicitly, but the former varies by the class I am teaching.

We can encourage connections with the abundance of material available in the world outside our classes by, e.g., assigning students to “curate” and evaluate a collection of digital materials that illustrate a particular concept. This type of assignment can be set up in ways that facilitate learner autonomy (recall Ch 7).

Ch 9: Developing as an Online Instructor

This chapter is a bit of preaching to the choir. Anyone who has made it this far in the book is already doing this, though of course more can always be done. The chapter provides some direction on the more that can be done: taking online courses, seeking out exemplars, accessing books/blogs/podcasts.

Suggestions provided in “Small Teaching Online” include (tho not limited to):

Which leads to a final important point: take advantage of your local teaching/learning pros. Teams at WFU CAT and Wake Forest’s Office of Online Education have been working incredibly hard to bring 1,000 teachers at Wake Forest up to speed given the reality of at least some online ed this fall.

Actual final point from “Small Teaching Online”:

“Embrace the challenge of becoming an excellent online instructor. Reflect on the moral obligation to help these learners succeed” (p. 218).

I didn’t sign up for online ed, but neither did my students. Bottom line: do right by them

Battling the Cell Phone Menace in Class for a Decade Now

Facebook’s wayback machine (“On this Day” app) reminded me this morning that I have been battling students using their cell phones in class for a long time now.

I know some professors don’t care if students use their phones in class. Fine by me; their class, their rules. And some are just unaware. Many Wake Forest students, including my now graduated son Paul, text me from their classes. But I find it distracting. So, I have tried to dissuade students from using their phones in class for some time.

I put a special note in my syllabus, highlighted in red(dish) so it cannot be missed (above). And I make clear in the grading rubric for class participation the penalty for using phones in class.

And still students use their phones in class, and then complain to me at the end of class when I penalize them for doing so. (Among other things they complain about with respect to their class participation grades.)

So this year I’ve decided to try to triple reinforce my expectations by having students sign and initial that they have read and understand the class expectations. We’ll see what difference it makes.

I Am a Professor

There, I said it. I am a professor. The description does not exactly roll off my tongue. I am a professor. It somehow sounds pompous to me. So I generally avoid saying it.

T-shirt suggested for me on my Facebook feed

T-shirt suggested for me on my Facebook feed

When I am traveling and a cab driver asks me what I do for a living, or at holiday parties when I am making small talk with people I have just met, I usually say “I teach at Wake Forest.” Which is true enough, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far.

I spend 40% or less of my work time teaching (in and out of class), preparing to teach, or grading. In fact, the 300-375 minutes/week I spend in classrooms (30 weeks a year, not counting summer teaching) is one of the smallest parts of my job.

I spend another 10-20% of my time in department, college, university, and professional service activities (committee work, doing peer reviews).

So the majority of my time I spend reading, researching, and writing for publication. And this, I think, is what most distinguishes being a “professor” from being a “teacher.”

But I don’t think many people get the distinction. Even though a large and growing percentage of the American population today has graduated from college, the majority of college graduates have little contact with professors outside of class. So all they know about the job is that professors teach.

Posted in a dorm common area at Western Carolina University

Posted in a dorm common area at Western Carolina University

And at many colleges and universities, there is no expectation that faculty will do anything other than teaching (and doing institutional service work). In these cases, saying one is a “teacher” is perfectly descriptive of the job, even if the formal job title is “professor.” (This also applies to institutions where faculty are suppose to do more than teach, but do not.)

Still, I get frustrated sometimes when people say “must be nice to have summers off” or “must be nice to work only 3 days a week.” Depending on my mood, this is true even when I know they are joking, as with the guys I play tennis with. I came across the dedication below (for my sociology of religion textbook) recently because I have been working on the revisions for the new edition of the book over this winter “break.” It expresses my frustration.

My acknowledgements for the 5th edition of my religion textbook with Keith Roberts

My acknowledgements for the 5th edition of my religion textbook with Keith Roberts

In fact, I have been working on the textbook revisions for 10-12 hours a day 6 days a week from the moment I turned in my fall grades. And I will be working on it until the moment I step into class for the spring semester. So when people ask me how my winter break is going, I want to channel John McEnroe and scream, “You cannot be serious!” Or at least to say, “Must be nice to have some time off for the holidays. I wouldn’t know.”

But when I settle down and upon reflection I realize that I am part of the problem. I perpetuate it by continuing to say “I teach at Wake Forest” rather than saying “I am a professor” when people ask me what I do for a living.

It still doesn’t roll easily off my tongue, but at least it better reflects who I actually am and what I actually do. I am a professor, dammit.

Concluding note: My lovely wife, who is an occupational health nurse working in manufacturing facilities, will read this post and think, “Quit complaining. You don’t have a real job. The people I work with have real jobs.” To her I say: I would not trade my job for any other. I love my job. It is a great job. But it is a job. A more than full-time job, where you work six days a week, not three, and where you don’t have summers or winters off. That is all. Now I have to get back to my textbook revisions.

Putting Grading and Grades in Perspective

The quickening of life due to technology is a blessing I depend on daily. But it is also a curse at times, especially at the end of the semester when it comes to grades. I submitted my fall grades today at 11:45am (they were due at noon!). By 4pm the first grade complaint had arrived in my email. No more waiting a week for the printed report card to show up in the mail or having weeks before the start of the next semester for the student to cool off before being in touch!

Exceptional RatingI never worry about “getting in trouble” for the grades I give. My syllabus is usually a dozen pages long, reading like the legal document that it has become, spelling everything out in meticulous detail. I also use grading rubrics handed out in advance so students know the grading criteria for individual assignments.

I don’t even get frustrated by the grade complaints. What I mostly get is sad. I feel badly that they are under so much pressure to get certain grades, whether the pressure if from their parents or themselves.

I feel especially badly for students who invest so much of their sense of self in their grades that they see an “A-” and they do not experience happiness. They only see what is not there.

Or, worse, they have a sense that if they do their best, that it must be worth an “A.” They do not understand a world in which THEIR best does not equal THE best.

Case in point, a very good student I had in class this semester saw an “A-” only for what was not there, rather than what was there. S/he wrote to me:

I’ve never had a professor say that an A is a 95 or above which is why I’m concerned about this because I worked incredibly hard in this class and feel like I deserve an A and to any other professor I have ever had at wake a 94 would be an A.

So if you could provide me with clarity on why you choose to grade this way and why it isn’t standardized across classes that would be helpful because I am concerned about this.

My response:

I am happy to clarify, though I doubt given your state of mind about this that this is going to make you feel any better. But hopefully I can give you both some information and some perspective (my view at least) on the grading in general and your grade in particular.

The syllabus, which I reviewed at length at the beginning of class, specified the following grades according to points earned:

“The scale for grades based on the number of points earned over the course of the semester is as follows:
A         96‑100
A‑        92‑95
B+        89‑91
B          86‑88
B‑         82‑85
C+       79‑81
C         76‑78
C‑        72‑75
D+       69-71
D         66-68
F          Less than 65”

So, in fact, 96 and above is an A in this course (and all of my courses).

The bulletin of Wake Forest College (p. 33) specifies only that A represents exceptionally high achievement, A-, B+, and B represent superior achievement, B-, C+, and C represent satisfactory achievement, C-, D+, D, and D- represent passing but unsatisfactory performance, and F is failure. There are no instructions nor is there any standardization in grading within or between departments beyond these broad frameworks.

So, although you may have never had a professor say that a 95 (or a 96) represents an “A”, it is certainly the case that professors grade very differently. In some cases most students get A’s and in other cases few students do. In some classes (accounting, biology, math) many students fail, and in some (com, soc, religion) none do. So, grading varies enormously from class to class, such that what a 94 means in one class — and what it take to earn a 94 — is not the same in another class.

I am very sorry that you do not feel that being at the high end of “superior” is adequate. I wish that you would look at an A- and think, “Awesome, I performed at a superior level.”

I am also sorry that you feel if you work incredibly hard that you “deserve” an A. It is absolutely possible for people — myself included — to work incredibly hard an not attain “exceptionally high achievement,” a grade that is reserved — in my class, at least — for truly exceptional (rare, unprecedented, extraordinary, remarkable, phenomenal — some synonyms) work. Your work was at the high end of superior, and in the case of your class participation, it was exceptional — hence your getting 100% of that component.

You have probably already figured this out, but for the record let me put this in some perspective for you. If you take 120 credits to graduate from Wake Forest, you will have the opportunity to earn 480 grade points. For this 3 credit course, the difference between an A (4.00) and an A- (3.667) is 0.999 grade points (p. 33 of bulletin). Or, in the context of your college career, 0.2% of your total grade points.

As I said at the outset, I am sure that nothing short of “ooops, I made a mistake, you get an A” will put a smile on your face and give you a sense of satisfaction in a job well done. But that is my hope for you.

Read Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members: A Novel

Whether you write letters of recommendation or not – but especially if you write letters of recommendation – read Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members. It is a novel written in the form of letters of recommendation by Jason T. Fitger, Professor of Creative Writing and English at Payne University.

Although not a typical narrative, the novel nonetheless tells a funny and at times poignant story of an older professor dealing with changes in himself and in the university, through his many digressions in the letters of recommendation he writes.

I don’t want to give away too much, but some memorable passages from a couple of the letters include:

  • “This letter recommends Melanie deRueda for admission to the law school on the well-heeled side of this campus. I’ve known Ms. deRueda for eleven minutes, ten of which were spent in a fruitless attempt to explain to her that I write letters of recommendation only for students who have signed up for and completed one of my classes.”
  • “Only by rewarding West [a junior colleague up for an award] and others of his happy ilk, and perhaps by killing off senior faculty, myself included, will it be possible for that elusive and almost mythical beast – collegiality – to prevail.”
  • “I have decided to accept a desperate departmental nomination for chair. Janet [his ex-wife who works on campus] will tell you that, throughout this institution, I am widely disliked. (I’m sure you’re shocked at the news.) She has attempted to bolster me, however, by claiming that, though understandably reviled, I am not universally distrusted, and on that basis I should serve out a three-year term.”

It’s a fast read at 180 small pages. I was sorry when it ended.

A Letter to My Future Students

I am participating in a faculty Writing Associates Seminar, in which we are learning to integrate writing more intelligently and productively into our courses. For an upcoming retreat, our seminar leader asked us to write a letter to our future students about what we hope they will get out of our class. I wrote the letter below for a course I am developing — related to my new research project on American gun culture — on “Guns in American Society.” Enjoy!

Photo credit: Lauren Carroll/Winston-Salem Journal

Photo credit: Lauren Carroll/Winston-Salem Journal

11 July 2014

Dear Students –

I am excited for this opportunity to spend some time together learning about the place of guns in American society. I have very high, perhaps even unrealistic, expectations for what I hope you will take away from this course.

First of all, I hope you will cultivate a scholarly approach to understanding guns. That means you will be able to take an issue that is contentious and complex, and approach it in as objective and nuanced a manner as possible.

This is easier said than done. As sociologists, we are a part of, not apart from, the social worlds we study. This is both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength because we bring a great deal of personal experience and understanding to our studies. It is a weakness because our personal experiences and understandings can be partial, biased, uninformed.

Therefore, we need to inform our personal experiences and understandings with broader sociological theories and more rigorous sociological studies of the phenomenon of interest. In other words, we need to develop our sociological imaginations. As C. Wright Mills put it decades ago, “it is by means of the sociological imagination that [people] now hope to grasp what is going on in the world, and to understand what is happening in themselves as minute points of the intersections of biography and history within society.”

This passage from Mills also points to a second objective of this course. I hope you will come away from the course with a better understanding of yourself with respect to guns. This includes your personal relationship to and personal beliefs about them.

Finally, although we will cover the good, the bad, and the ugly of guns in American society, there is much more to understand than we will be able to cover in the short time we have together this semester. Therefore, I hope to encourage you to develop an attitude and the tools necessary to continue to develop your sociological imagination with respect to guns for the rest of your life.

I am looking forward to getting started on this sociological enterprise with you.

Until then, best wishes,

David Yamane

Sociologists are Open Minded Toward the Open Minded

I just came across a review of some interesting work by my fellow sociologist of religion, George Yancey on religious and political bias in American higher education.

His book, Compromising Scholarship, was reviewed in a Chronicle of Higher Education Innovations blog post by Peter Wood called “Preferred Colleagues” (back in 2011 — I missed it!). Wood begins his review writing:

A new study presents evidence that more than a quarter of sociologists (27.8 percent) would “weigh favorably” membership in the Democratic Party by a candidate for academic appointment, and nearly 30 percent would weigh favorably a prospective candidate’s membership in the ACLU. More than a quarter (28.7 percent) would disfavor hiring a Republican, and 41.2 percent would weigh negatively a candidate’s membership in the National Rifle Association.

The study shows even greater bias against candidates with particular religious affiliations. Substantial numbers of the sociologists surveyed said they would be “less likely to hire” evangelical Christians and fundamentalists if they were aware that a candidate fell into either of those categories. Evangelicals face the barrier that 2 out of 5 sociologists (39.1 percent) are disposed not to hire them. Fundamentalists fare even a bit worse: 41.2 percent of sociologists say they would take such an affiliation negatively into account.

Imagine if you were to combine some of these categories of people — because, of course, we do not exist as separate variables in real life. Someone who is an Evangelical is more likely to be a Republican is more likely to be an NRA member. So, imagine asking sociologists to consider hiring a Evangelical, Republican, NRA member. Not going to happen.

I know in my own job interviews way back when someone at Notre Dame asked me if I was a “Catholic Restorationist” (whatever that is) and at another school I was asked to talk about what political magazines I read. Studying religion in general is suspicious to many sociologists, especially if there is some thought that the study has roots in some personal connection to religion.

Reflections on 5 Days in the Life of a Tenured Professor

I have to admit I was shocked to total up my working hours last week and see that I only worked 42.5 hours. I’ve been thinking alot about why it seems like I worked much more than that. Here are some conclusions I’ve come to:

(1) I have read somewhere (I can’t remember where!) that the average employee works (actually works!) only 26 hours per week.

(2) The lack of control over my time makes many of those 42.5 hours seem alot worse than they are.

(3) Other responsibilities outside of my main job leave little room for rest.

(4) The knowledge that even 40 hours is not enough to get everything done is a stressor. Hence, I put in another 7 hours today (Sunday) sending faculty in the department information about their upcoming salary review, scheduling meetings with journal interns, and drafting a memo to the dean requesting permission to hire this year and next.

The life of a tenured professor is a great one, and I don’t at all want to come off as complaining. But it is not as though tenure has made us all into a bunch of slackers. To the contrary, most (but certainly not all) of us tenured professors continue to work as hard as ever — because we like what we do.

Day in the Life, Day 5

Day 5: Friday. Busy morning and relaxing afternoon ahead.

6:15am: Wake up, shower, dress, coffee, kids to bus

7:30am: In my office, chatting with colleague on phone

8:00am: Check email and prepare for 8:30am meeting and 9:30am phone call.

8:30am: Meeting regarding personnel issue

9:30am: Phone conversation with woman from England working on on-line submission system for journal

10:15am: Meeting with undergrad student working as teaching assistant for me

10:45am: Touch base with department admins, sign forms, etc.; talk to faculty member leading our hiring process; final check of emails

11:45am: Leave campus for indoor center to drop off rackets for tennis team and play tennis(!!!)

2:00pm: Lunch, post office, bank

3:00pm-4:45pm: Watch women’s tennis match

4:45pm: Get son from basketball practice

5:30pm: Home, go through mail

6:00-7:30pm: Nap

7:30pm: Dinner

8:00pm-10:30pm: String tennis rackets

10:30pm-Midnight: Check email, correspond about departmental affairs, schedule meetings for next week

Midnight-12:30pm: Draft memo to dean about department’s hiring needs for next year, while checking eBay, facebook, blog.

12:30pm: Tequila and bed

Total hours worked: c.6

Day in the Life, Day 4

Day 4: Wake up late from staying up too late last night. Day full of teaching and meetings ahead.

8:00am: Wake up, coffee, shower, dress, take out recycling. Everyone already gone to school and work.

9:00am: Decide to work at home until 11:00am meeting. Check email, prepare for class today.

11:00am: Arrive at office at last.

11:00am: Meet with honors student to discuss research interviews, and departmental admins to discuss departmental matters

12:00pm-1:15pm: Class

1:30pm: Lunch (non-working for a change!)

2:30pm: Office hours: meet two students regarding courses

3:00pm-4:15pm: Meeting with interns to train on on-line submission system for journal, and follow-up email queries to system designer

4:15pm: Go to tennis center to pick up rackets; compose and send emails that have to go out today.

5:15pm: Get son from school basketball practice

6:00pm: Deliver son to church league basketball practice

6:00pm-7:30pm: Work on faculty salary review materials during practice

7:45pm-9:00pm: Home, dinner, kids to bed, talk to wife about daughter’s courses for next year

9:00pm-11:00pm: String and grip tennis rackets

11:00pm-11:30pm: Revise and post class assignment to course website; email students

11:30pm-12:00pm: Check eBay, facebook, blog.

12:30pm: Bourbon and bed

Total hours worked: c.9