This term, I teach two sections of “Seminar in Thinking and Writing,” the second course in our two-course freshman writing sequence. My sections both meet MWF, nicely bookending my lunch break. Since Seton Hill usually schedules committee meetings for Tue/Th, that means on MWF I usually have nothing else to do but prepare for, and respond to, those STW classes.
These last two weeks have been a bit more hectic than usual, because I am teaching myself how to use WordPress (totally redesigning my course websites in the process), mentoring two independent study students who are re-designing the website for the student paper, moving my academic website to a new server, and also taking Moodle for a test drive (it’s an open-source course-management system). I’m also monitoring the backchannel conversation during Faculty Senate meetings, fielding email questions about the source code for Colossal Cave Adventure, and in between all that finding time here and there to keep up this blog and maintain a presence on Twitter.
Needless to say, I’ve got enough passwords and logins and archives of emailed status reports to make my eyes bleed. When it all works, or when I take a problem to a tech guru and the clouds lift and suddenly something makes sense, it’s really very satisfying.
Still, now the preliminary short homework assignments are starting to roll in, students are contemplating the first big assignments, and I know from experience that the stress levels are about to shoot up. So I’ve been shifting my time to course prep.
Because Seton Hill’s STW course has a shared syllabus, and it’s already pretty full, I don’t ask my freshmen writing students to blog, but I do update the course blog regularly. In fact, because I have two sections, and thus twice as many students using the course blog, I find I am updating it more frequently, putting more detailed assignment instructions and rubrics up earlier, etc. When a student in my morning class brings up a question about a course page, I will often cut my lunch break a bit short, and touch up that page before my afternoon class.
Friday morning, I presented a 20-minute slide show that used color coding to introduce the general organization of an academic paper. This lesson is the first time I really ask the students to think of the shape of a full-length paper, and the visuals are an important part of the lesson.
The slide show went off without a hitch in the morning class. A few students did look like thought the info was a bit overwhelming, but others appreciated knowing more about my expectations, and the students who have been in my class before, and remember this lesson, assured their peers that it really was helpful.
So I went into the afternoon class feeling pretty good about this lesson. But this time, I was in a different room, where the projector wouldn’t turn on. I rearranged the day’s plan a bit, letting the students start on a writing activity I had intended to save until after the slide show, while I called the help desk.
Seton Hill has a phenomenal help desk. It occupies a glassed-in former classroom, right by the elevator on a busy floor in Admin. There’s a display table up front showing nifty Apple gear, a genius bar in the back, workstations on either side for work-study first-responders, as well as two full-time tech specialists. In a nearby building is another tier of specialized support, and all these guys seem to be in constant speaker-phone communication with each other, while answering email, while eating Cheetos and drinking Mountain Dew, while also (on an otherwise slow Friday afternoon) fragging each other in Call of Duty.
Our new iPad/laptop program has doubled or maybe tripled the number of computers on campus, and since more teachers are using computers, students and faculty are more likely to get all stabbity and panicky when something goes wrong. Even though the help desk is a busy place, within two minutes of my call, two first-responders showed up in my classroom. When I saw that they were pushing all the buttons I pushed and jiggling all the wires I jiggled, I figured this would take some time, so I shifted to a plan B in the classroom. When I heard one of the help-desk crew members go out into the hall and call in the next level of support (which in this case involved finding the man with the right set of keys to unlock a closet and push a reset button), I did a quick reassessment.
Up to that point, I had stretched a five-minute free-write into a 15-minute workshop, but that well was running dry, and I still had at least a half hour of material I had hoped to cover on the computer. I did have ready access to printouts that I could have put on the document projector, but since it was the projector that wasn’t working, that would have been no help.
So I told my students, “I’m going to my office to get some whiteboard markers.”
The class is a lively group, and pretty easy-going. Most were already fairly amused by all the activity going on, and I guess something about the idea of their techno-geek prof resorting to markers struck them as funny, because there was a ripple of laughter.
So my afternoon class got a sketchy whiteboard version of the lesson. I don’t do slide presentations often, but this slide presentation is something I created specifically to serve the visual learners. Of course, having created the visuals and tailored the lesson to those visuals meant I knew the visuals pretty well, and was able to re-create them on the fly fairly effectively (if occasionally a bit lopsidedly). If you’ve ever seen the Instructables website, or the animated RSA talks, you’ll recognize that the simplicity and immediacy of hand-drawn line art can be very effective.
The screen was fixed before I was finished with my whiteboard version of the lesson, but I thought it would be too disruptive to change modes. And anyway, I knew I could post the whole show for students to view on their own, if they felt they needed the fancy visuals.