Righting a Class

Courses are not going as well as I would like this semester, and one course in particular. I haven’t written about it until now, since this blog is normally filled with happy thoughts. Besides, I figured I would wait until after the class was over and do a post-mortem. But then I realized that I should practice the same transparency I preach.

I should begin by saying that I’m not a “natural” teacher. I’m passionate about the act of teaching, but it is not something that comes easily to me. I am still in awe of people who at least make it look easy. When I was a graduate student, I remember coming out of my office, after spending hours trying to pull a lesson together, completely panicked, and being saved by a colleague, Dougie Bicket, who had a great way of engaging the class off the cuff. Likewise, I tried not to be jealous of a colleague at Buffalo, Tom Feeley, who not only managed to entrance large classes and get them excited about the material, but managed to do so while maintaining an active research agenda.

For me, teaching has always been a challenge, sometimes even a battle. I don’t like to “teach the book” and because I am easily bored, I generally don’t teach the same course twice. As a result, I often find myself scrambling a bit to prep for classes. Sometimes classes go well–students come out energized and excited about the material. Even better, for me, is when former students get in touch and tell me that the course really changed their thinking about the world, or influenced their life choices. Sometimes classes go bad, which for me is always indicated by students drifting off. Some of the things I’ve done in the classroom have gone spectacularly wrong, but often the course itself is recoverable. Sometimes it’s little things: earlier this week a student pointed out that I had a picture of Rehnquist next to a quote from Justice Brennan. Stupid mistake, but what made it worse is that this was a recycled slide: I probably showed it in two earlier courses.

Then there are entire courses that get off keel. I’ve been lucky in that this has only happened once or twice in my teaching career, and the courses rarely went off the rails. It is not clear to me that one of this semester’s courses is sunk yet–in fact, I thought we were trucking along OK, if not great–but I’ve been informed by some of the students that we are listing, if not sinking.

The course is titled “Collaborative Studio” and is an online course. It began inauspiciously: I had been planning to teach an undergraduate web development course, but for various reasons (it was incorrectly titled, outside the interests of the major, etc.), it didn’t attract enough students to be offered. Instead, I was switched into this course, which was fine by me, because I was interested in working in a studio environment and working on projects in addition to the more scholarly seminars. So, I organized the course around the analysis and production of infographics and information visualization, a topic that would be of substantial use to most of our graduates, who tend to head off into “mainstream” web production for large media companies.

Then the second road-bump. I got a frantic phone-call during the first week of classes, asking me to come in to talk to the QU Online folks. You are, when teaching an online course, required to use Blackboard at my university, which was news to me. I am deeply ambivalent about Blackboard, and although I am not rabid about it, I generally avoid using it. So, this was a bit surprising, and I had to scramble a little to figure out how to get something together for them.

But that was just a little bit of chop, not the iceberg.

About four weeks into the course, I learned about the Google Sketchup campus competition. We were already doing the first set of infographics, with the expected range of outcomes. I didn’t know how to use Sketchup, but I have a strong suspicion that the ability to think and work in 3d is going to continue to be important for producing for the web in the midterm future. Maybe that means Second Life, maybe it means something else, but having a basic understanding of the tech is a nice thing to have. I also figured that winning the competition, though perhaps a bit of a long shot, would be a feather in the students’ cap, and a nice portfolio piece. Finally, the models of the campus could probably be re-used in interesting ways for other projects. So, I raised the issue to the class. Everyone seemed to be enthused about the change. In retrospect, I probably should have continued on the planned path rather than making a major change a third of the way into the course. Right about now, we would be working on using PHP to create data-driven graphs on the fly. At least that was the idea. But, it is done.

Now, the trick is, I didn’t know anything was going wrong, at first. I asked everyone to pick out a building and sketch it up, to get their feet wet. A few were outstanding, most were pretty good, and a couple had some difficulties. Then I asked them to do a couple of campus buildings. They didn’t have to be perfect–or even good–they just needed to be done. I heard from a couple of frustrated students. One student is in another of my in-person classes. The other I’ve met in person before, but haven’t seen this semester. None have come in for my office hours, phoned me, or IMed me. (Next time I teach online, I am going to require one-on-one chats, even if only on the phone, so that I have a better track on where people are.) I frankly thought that this was a problem that only a couple of people were having, which in a dozen-person class is to be expected. But it seems that a substantial number of people in the class are disgruntled.

I’ve only heard specifics from one person, who is concerned, if I gather correctly, for three reasons. First, they expected this to be a content-based class, rather than a production-based class. It seems that it has been taught that way in the past, but I was really surprised to learn this, since it is–in title and in catalog description–a studio course. Nonetheless, a mismatch between expectation and course content is a recipe for disaster. Second, they are concerned about how they will be graded. I always find this to be a difficult question, particularly with graduate work, since I am note particularly concerned with grades and do not find it easy to empathize with students for whom this is a primary concern. When there is a large class (like my law class this semester) letter grades make sense as a way of providing feedback, but at the graduate level generally, they simply do not, and I would be happier if they were done away with all together. Nonetheless, I’m happy to provide everyone in a small project-based class an A, as long as they contribute to the group goal. This is particularly the case if the grade in the class is something that is getting in the way of doing good work and learning. Lastly, they are concerned that they have a lot of individual work for a “collaborative” class. Truth is, we are slow to build back to a team, but the project as a whole is a group effort. It just happens that it is easily segmented into individual work at this stage. I’m not sure how to handle this one–doing collaborative work as a distributed group is hard enough, it seems silly to make it even more difficult.

Across the board, it is frustrating. I do not know that meeting in person will help solve these problems, especially with only a few weeks left in the class. Given that it is an online class, finding a time everyone can meet may be very difficult. It looks like we’re closing on a time (next Friday) when I had really hoped to attend a talk here in the city. Given that I will be sacrificing that time, I hope we can make some progress, and it will not just be an opportunity for people to complain. Unfortunately, although I am at least aware of the strife now, and not blissfully going along with the course, I still do not fully understand why there is strife and what students think can be done to ameliorate it, which leads to a great deal of frustration on both sides.

In the end, I guess I have learned my lesson. If you are going online, keep it simple, stick with the expected, don’t make any sudden moves, teach the text, and don’t try to do anything too far-reaching; keep your head down. I guess my experience with the cyberporn class online, which was generally pretty positive despite being an online course of nearly 300 students, made me overly-optomistic.

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  1. Vrinda Saxena
    Posted 4/7/2007 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    Dear Prof H,

    I think you are a wonderful, brilliant person in the classroom. Very charismatic and well spoken.
    Your style of lecturing is engaging, informative and there is never a dull moment, and you command respect easily. I have been in colleges for a long time, have seen different teaching styles. You are a natural eloquent teacher (although u feel differently).

    It is deplorable when students say they have too much to work on in a studio class. In my experience we have always worked countless hours burning the candle at both ends to see a project to its glorious success. There will be bugs and obstacles along the way but that is the nature of technology collaborative projects. We have used IM and FTP late into the night to fix things. Graduate classes are not meant to whine in, grades are important for the GPA sure, but it is a pleasure and challenge to earn them through creative collaborative hard work.

    Nothing is a bed of roses especially for me this semester, about which I will post in our ICM blog shortly.
    I think the two classes are very lucky to have you as their teacher this semester.

  2. alex
    Posted 4/7/2007 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    Well, thank you Vrinda, that’s very flattering. But I should say that I don’t think the students are necessarily whining. There is something non-functioning in the class, and I would like to figure out as much as they would what it might be.

  3. Posted 4/9/2007 at 5:51 am | Permalink

    It’s an online class. That’s definitely tough especially if it involves creativity. I have had difficult moments teaching as well, but I try to be rational about it. If the proportion of students who are happy outweight the unhappy ones, you should be ok. It’s good that you challenge yourself by creating as you go along, rather than to regurgitate what you’ve produced before. I’ve learnt that trait from you, which keeps me ahead of the pack. Alex, many of us COM students from UB remember you in fondness. You’re always amazing me, making sense of the new world around us.

  4. Posted 4/16/2007 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Alex, as a former student I think you don’t give yourself enough credit as a teacher. While I can’t fault professors who prepare and rehearse, there is something to be said for the style you exemplify — enthusiastic, wide-ranging, stream-of-consciousness discussion. Maybe not the best for for ‘analytic’ classes, but an absolute must for ‘synthetic’.

    As to your difficulties this semester, I blame the medium — I’ve been consistently disappointed with online classes. Without the face-to-face interaction, you might as well just read the textbook. Actually, I think I would get more out of a the book.

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