Spring 2017, week one

It was the best first week I’ve ever had. It’s common for professors to treat the first day of class as kind of a freebie. We hand out our syllabi, go over them, tell the students a little about ourselves, have them go around the room and introduce themselves to us, maybe we memorize a few of their names, maybe we tell them story, or give a little introductory lecture, then we let them go early.

But this year I jumped right in. In my interdisciplinary arts class I prodded them into a robust discussion about the meaning of college and the value of the arts that lasted all the way to the final bell. In my news writing class I gave a lecture about what constitutes news and showed them a video of a big city newspaper’s editorial meeting. In documentary films we watched our first film, Clinton Cash. All the students went home with assignments, due by the beginning of the next class.

All the classes are different so of course I have different approaches to each, but there are some common strategies. One is Slack. I’m using to host all outside-of-class discussion, as a platform where students can react to readings and films, draft ideas for class projects, and collaborate. I started using it for my summer school class last year and, after a few bumbles here and there, I’m at a place this semester where it’s integration into my classes is just about perfect. And the students seem to really like it. So much so that they even use it to chat with one another about day-to-day stuff. It builds community.

It’s like a cross between a messaging software, discussion board, social media platform. It’s got a cool design, and a lot of flexibility.

I don’t use the university system’s software anymore. At CSU we call it Cougarview. It’s your standard Brightspace by D2L class management software, and it’s hideous and counterintuitive. It’s not well optimized for phones and tablets and its suite of products is severely limited and completely outdated. The discussion platform they offer is straight out of the late 90s, there’s no way for students to collaborate on documents, no wiki, no way to build webpages. Students can’t even email us through it; when they try, it goes to email addresses that don’t exist.

So last year I started making the move away from Cougarview. I use Google docs and Slack. For each class I create a folder on Google drive, fill it with folders for assignments and readings and the syllabus and I share it with them. Our campus emails are managed through Gmail, so it all integrates nicely and is safely contained within the university’s system. They can download the drive software and easily access it through their phones. The only downside is it doesn’t calculate grades. Cougarview does, but I was never able to get it to work with the way I calculate grades and create assignments, so it’s no loss for me.

Class highlights:

ITDS 1145H: Deep discussion Thursday about racism and classism. It started slow, with us talking about an essay,“Carson McCullers (1917–1967) ‘The Brutal Humiliation of Human Dignity’ in the South,”and the students held back a bit, but gradually they opened up and things got flowing. It’s a good range of students — black, white, male, female, from the city and the country, and they were all very kind and respectful to one another. As the class drew to a close I told them this would be a big part of the class this semester: starting with a reading and letting the conversation take us wherever it may.

ENGL 3155 & 3183: Day one, a lecture: “What is News?” Day two, another lecture: “How to Write a News Story.” They seemed to catch on right away. After I’d given them all the basics on news stories — who? what? when? where?, inverted pyramid — I had them write leads for some event that occurred recently in their lives, and as they wrote I went around the room giving them pointers and asking questions.

ENGL 310: We started with Clinton Cash. For their homework, they had to read a couple articles about Steve Bannon that I’d posted in a Slack channel. Then Thursday we watched Triumph of the Will, which one of the articles identified as a major influence on Bannon. The class is a survey of documentary film, and I decided to start off with propaganda before going back to the beginnings of film and moving through to present day. The theme of the class is “truth and reality,” so I wanted to start right off the bat by questioning both. I’m happy with the results. We’ve had good discussions in class and on the Slack channels.

Next week:

ITDS 1145H: We begin reading and discussing The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. (The theme of the class is Carson McCullers at 100. I won an interdisciplinary initiative grant with a history professor who’s teaching post-Civil War American history in the context of McCullers’s work. Students from both classes will be collaborating on projects.)

ENGL 3155 & 3183: The beginning students will write their first news story. They’ll watch a video of Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing, take notes, and then construct a short story from it. Meantime, the advanced students will continue doing background research for our class investigations into financial aid and healthcare.

ENGL 310: We’ll watch The River, an old New Deal propaganda film and the first half of Roger and Me, which Bannon also haled as a major influence. We’ll discuss their first assignment: a mini-doc using propaganda film techniques to make something good look bad or bad look good.


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