Classically Inclined

September 24, 2017

Teaching goals for 2017-18

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 9:31 pm
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I wouldn’t normally blog on a Sunday night, but I am feeling quite strongly about getting a post about this year’s teaching goals up before teaching actually starts (which is tomorrow). I didn’t do a post about this sort of thing last year because I was on sabbatical in the autumn, and in the spring was thinking more about taking on a big new administrative role. This year, I’m still focusing on that administrative role and also on finishing the Monster book (quelle surprise), but there are a couple of things I want to work on.

Inclusivity and pronouns

I have finally come around to the fact that I really should, out of simple courtesy, be giving my students an opportunity to tell me what their preferred pronouns are, and be making an effort to use them. I’m teaching two classes of about a dozen students each for the whole year, plus a half-unit which looks like it’ll have most of the first year in it in the spring; with numbers that small, on language-based courses, I can’t really excuse being rude. I am also calling myself out a bit here – I have a number of genderqueer friends who prefer to use they and their rather than he/she and his/hers, but have always waffled my hands and gone ‘oh, well, my memory is like a sieve, so if I get it wrong I’m really sorry, I don’t mean to be offensive’. While I’ll give myself a pass for forgetting this sort of thing when I was a sleep-deprived mother of an under-eighteen-month-old, at this stage it’s really turned into a rather lazy ‘this is not high on my priorities’, and that’s just not on, is it? So, as part of my general attempt to pull my own socks up, I am trying to become a bit more aware and inclusive, including mentioning my own pronoun preference when I introduce myself. It’s a small thing, but it’s an important one.

Research-led teaching

I really want to get my research and my teaching matching up a bit more this year. This should partly be achieved by teaching Latin on the Edge, our Advanced Latin Author course, which is going to look at Latin texts talking about exile; I’ll write more about that course and what I want it to do in a later blog post, but what I am doing for it is putting together an entirely new commentary on Seneca’s Ad Helviam, which I want to teach and for which there is no such commentary. I’m thinking that once it’s been through testing, I’ll see whether one of the presses that publishes this sort of thing is interested, very much as a teaching support piece rather than as a deeply scholarly commentary – the ad Helviam is a splendid text, and deserves to get out more. I’m also reworking my Roman literature first year module by dumping Livy and bringing in Valerius Maximus, which means two new lectures and a new seminar to write; I want to get into Valerius but haven’t got the time, so this is a nice way to have a think about what’s been said about him and what’s not out there in the scholarship.

Student-led seminars redux

I mentioned last year that I following Ellie Mackin Roberts’ lead and putting student-led seminars into my Latin Letters course. I’ll be using them again in Latin on the Edge, for many of the same reasons and for some different ones which I shall again relate in due course. The second years on Latin Letters will be third years in Latin on the Edge, so it will be interesting to see how they react to going through the process for the second time!

Engaging students

Or, the perennial problem of getting students into my office hours. This year, I’m not doing anything particularly innovative with my teaching methods (unless you count continuing with the student-led seminars), partly because I’ve not seen anything I fancy trying, partly because of the book, and partly because I reckon I’ve got enough on my plate with the new content. So instead I want to try and deal with another aspect of my teaching responsibilities, providing one-on-one support to students who bring me their troubles in my office hour. As most teachers will tell you, despite us explaining this is what office hours are for, turn-out is remarkably low. Always. And the students who turn up are very rarely the students who we think would benefit from some one-on-one time – it’s usually those who are already high achievers but are anxious about their performance. So we can help students get over the first boundary, but we don’t get to those lower down the achievement pyramid (or whatever it’s called). My first tactic is going to be talking more explicitly about office hours more in class – there’s an assumption there that students know what this stuff is for, which is probably wrong. But then, who knows? If anyone knows any literature on this subject, or you have things that have worked, please do shout out in the comments.

 

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April 4, 2014

Teaching at Royal Holloway – a reflection

Term finished at Royal Holloway at the end of March; I’ve now had enough time to catch my breath and finish off all the odds and ends from my teaching, so I can look back over how the year’s teaching has gone. Of course, I’ve still got the marking of exam season to come – precisely when will depend on whether the marking boycott called by UCU as part of the current pay dispute goes ahead. That issue sadly highlights a problem in teaching – there’s more to the process than just the mark that you get in the exam at the end, and when that becomes fetishized as the only valuable outcome of the university experience, we’re doing something wrong. Plashing Vole has written about these issues far more intelligently than I can, so I suggest you read him on them while I think a bit about my first year of teaching in a new institution.

It’s been a heavy teaching load this year, with three and a half units (which is effectively the same as teaching four units in the second term). The first term was manageable, as the three language courses were mainly intensive in the hour of teaching scheduled rather than in the preparation – after all, once you’ve selected an unseen passage and put together the handout, there’s not really much more you can do until you’re in the classroom. However, the second term added a new lecture course to the mix, and that meant I had to prepare two hours of fresh lecture each week on top of nine hours of language teaching. That took a lot of effort, and left me with little time for anything else. On the plus side, I’ll be reusing my prep for Intermediate Latin and the lecture course next year, so it’s work well invested. A few thoughts come to mind about each course.

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December 10, 2013

Getting student feedback: the ‘Dear Liz’ letter

I mentioned on Twitter that I had decided, after some reflection, to return to asking my students to write me ‘dear Liz’ letters. 140 characters isn’t really enough to explain what they are, so here’s a blog post to do the job.

I picked up ‘dear Liz’ letters in the US, as a strategy that complemented the one minute papers I’ve written about before. When I came to Birmingham, however, I had a rude awakening – students in my ancient religion course responded pretty well to one minute papers, but absolutely hated the ‘dear Liz’ letter, and were happy to tell me so! So I dropped them, and moved on. Fast forward to this year, when I’m teaching far more language than I usually do. I wrote in that post that I wanted to use one minute papers to get a clear grasp of grammar that was causing problems. However, despite good intentions and introducing them at the start of the year, I haven’t actually used one minute papers. At all. They don’t seem helpful – my classes are such small groups that I’m engaging with each student heavily in each class session, and it’s easy to flag up areas of confusion through obvious problems of translation and comprehension. I don’t need one minute papers to tell me what I already know. Equally, the Euripides course doesn’t encourage me to use one minute papers either – my students are in single numbers, meaning that debate and questions flow comfortably. If anything the CIQ would have been a better fit here. However, while I feel I have quite a good handle on how individual classes are going, I don’t have any way to take the temperature of the course more broadly. As I’ve got to know the students quite well, I now think they’ll respond well to this reflective assignment.

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May 21, 2012

Communicating with students: the one minute paper

I realised recently that when I’ve been talking about the Critical Incident Questionnaire on the blog, I’ve talked about it as a natural progression from the one minute paper technique. Without ever writing about the one minute paper technique. So, for those of you who haven’t come across this method of feedback before, here’s how it works and some thoughts on using it in the UK and the US.

The method is taken and adapted from Cross and Angelo’s Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, which is the bible of Cool Stuff For Your Classroom from which most people who run workshops on this stuff tend to draw their material. The purpose of using the one minute paper is that it serves as quick and instant mechanism to pass feedback and other communication between students and the lecturer; it’s a method with a low time cost; and it encourages reflective learning in students. The process works as follows:

  • The final slide in every lecture asks students to answer two questions:
    • What was the clearest point made in class today?
    • What was the muddiest point?
  • Students anonymously write down their answers on a notecard or piece of paper and hand them in to the lecturer as they leave.
  • The lecturer (or postgraduate teaching assistant, if one is available for a large class) goes through the answers looking for broad themes of clarity and confusion.
  • Some possible responses:
    • If one big issue has confused students, write a handout addressing the issue and make it electronically available.
    • If one big issue has caused confusion, allocate time in the next lecture to resolve it.
    • If many little issues have come up, pick three or four questions that best reflect common areas of confusion; write a handout that answers those questions and make it electronically available.
  • At the start of the next lecture, the lecturer begins class with a one minute summary of the one minute paper issues, or a reminder that the handout is now available on WebCT.

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May 9, 2012

Exams from the other side of the fence

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 10:22 am
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Although none of my students will feel at all comforted by this, I have been finding this year’s round of exams profoundly unsettling. Last week, as I acted as senior invigilator for an afternoon, I honestly found myself experiencing the cold grip of fear that I haven’t felt for – well, since I took my qualifying exams for the doctorate, I think. There is a very simple reason for this, which is that I am adjusting to cultural differences in the way that the UK university system copes with end of year examinations compared to the way that the US deals with it. For those of you not familiar with both sets of variations, let me set the scene.

In the US, end of year exams tend not to exist; instead you have end of course exams, which happen at the end of semesters. The final exam counts for a significant proportion of the grade, but not all of it – other assessments, like attendance, participation, quizzes, papers and projects as assigned by the instructor, have already been banked to the students’ credit. In the case of a course that is not being team taught, or does not fall under some kind of higher jurisdiction (like multiple sections of the same Latin 101 class, for example), the instructor has full authority over the final exam. She sets it; she administers it, at the time set by the central examinations office; she marks it; she enters the marks into the university’s grading system. That’s it. She is, in short, judge, jury and executioner. There are some local variations on how this process is managed; for instance, faculty may have to fill out a report explaining how every D or F grade has been earned, or the notorious hand of the athletics department may descend on an unsuspecting instructor’s shoulder. But, in the main, faculty just get on with it, with very little external moderation. This is the system within which I taught for three years.

In the UK, the end of year exam, for the classics student, forms a hefty part of the final grade for many modules. There may have been a paper due after the Christmas break which will form 50% of the grade, but often the final result is down to what happens in those three hours. Accordingly, the examination process is overseen much more rigorously. Exam questions are produced well in advance (I had to have mine written before the end of the autumn term) so that they can go past the scrutiny of the exams committee and the external examiner (an unknown beast in the US, to the best of my knowledge). Exams are printed and administered centrally by the university; here, academics are required to be present for the first fifteen minutes of an exam they have set, but otherwise their presence is not required. Students sit examinations with other students sitting different examinations, rather than just their own class – hence the ‘Great Hall’ phenomenon – and there is a thick handbook for senior invigilators full of guidance about proper procedure, announcements to make, paperwork to fill out in case of irregularities and so on. Examinations, once sat, must be processed by an administrative office (the exams office, the department or both) before they are available for marking. The exams go through the process of first and second marking and are then open to the external examiner for moderation. Finally, grades go before the Examination Board, so that the end of year mark for each undergraduate can be decided.

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March 5, 2012

Teachable moment

I had a couple of unexpected insights into my teaching last week, one caused by circumstances beyond my control, one a consequence of a choice I’d made to vary my approach.

The first occurred in the first year literature survey, where I was giving my second lecture on Cicero’s Catilinarian speeches. The lecture of the previous week had dealt with the dates and chronology and the who and why of the conspiracy itself, so that I could spend its companion talking about the interpretation of the four speeches to people who had all the background material and thus would get what was going on. So far, so good.

But when I got to the classroom, the computer wasn’t working. It just wouldn’t turn on – which meant no Powerpoint. Drat, I thought. Rather than mess about with the machine, I decided to pull up a stool and give the lecture from my notes. The slides had a couple of particularly relevant quotations on them, but there was nothing that the students hadn’t read before and couldn’t look up afterwards. So I gave the lecture, and at the end, as usual, asked students to complete a one minute paper for me. (I have realised that, despite talking a great deal about one minute papers, I have yet to blog about them. It’s on the list of future topics.)

To my great surprise, a good number of students completed a one minute paper to tell me that they had preferred the lecture without the Powerpoint. It was easier to concentrate, they said. I could take notes better without being distracted. I enjoyed the lecture more.

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December 19, 2011

Reflecting on the autumn 2011 semester

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 2:27 pm
Tags: , , ,

A recent Faculty Focus post on End of Semester Reflections: Beginnings, Endings and Spaces Between reminded me that I wanted to do some thinking about the term that has just finished, especially since it is the first term that I’ve spent in a full time position. I’ll do some more specific reflection on the new assignments I’ve been tracking later in the week (I hope!), but this post is more of set of general reflections on the experience while it’s still fresh in my mind.

I think what I will remember most about this term in five years is that actually, I coped rather well. Not only did I have to learn an entirely new system of timetabling, assessment setting, university norms and all the general institutional process that comes with a new job, but I stayed on top of it – and even managed to get some research done. I kept two weeks ahead of my teaching prep, which is the practice that keeps me sane and gives me a buffer in case something goes wrong; I didn’t stay up until 3am doing prep; I got all my marking done on time; I gave every lesson and lecture I was supposed to; I didn’t miss any deadlines. True, I was sometimes scrabbling around said deadlines, but I got there in the end – and I think that’s a pretty impressive achievement for a first term. (more…)

December 12, 2011

The Blue Form Of Death: end of term evaluation forms

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 12:02 pm
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Over the last fortnight, I’ve been distributing Module Evaluation Questionnaires to my students, this year printed on fetching blue paper (hence this post’s title riff on MS’s Blue Screen Of Death). Most of them went out on Friday the week before last, and I gave any stragglers the opportunity to fill out one in the last lecture of term, most of which I gave last Friday.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have noticed that on the Friday when I first distributed the forms, I was not a happy bunny – I had, like an idealistic novice, looked straight through the evaluations to try and see any patterns or information that would be of use. Which meant I was looking at the tick-box scales – you know the ones, the ones which ask students to score on a scale of strongly agree to strongly disagree with statements like “the module was intellectually stimulating” and “the module was well structured”. I’m afraid I flicked through the tables and the written feedback, and all of the really negative material jumped out at me, in the way it always does, and my confidence in my teaching abilities plummeted to the floor.

However, last week I started dealing with the forms in a rather more systematic way; someone else will collate the numerical data, but I like having a record of written feedback, both to remind me what students have said as positive, but also as pointers for what I might work on improving next time. With some feedback, of course, you just can’t win – for my religion lectures, I had responses praising my use of Powerpoint juxtaposed to requests for the slides to contain more detail and more information. For that lecture, too, I had students expressing appreciation for the detail and depth of the lectures next to responses requesting that we do more analysis and suggesting the course should be more challenging (particularly difficult when I know I have students with greatly varying prior knowledge in the room, which makes it a challenge to teach at a level where everyone is going to get something out of the lecture).

What really struck me, however, was the disjunct between the written feedback and those blessed ticky-boxes, which are considered so important as a numerical metric of our teaching ability and effectiveness. They just didn’t see to add up with the written feedback. I’d have an enthusiastic comment about the course content, with only a 4, or even a 3, ticked for ‘the module was intellectually stimulating’. There seemed to be a lack of understanding of what these forms were for, or how they were going to be used once students had filled them out. (more…)

October 31, 2011

Changing the university admissions process

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 12:19 pm
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The big higher ed news in the UK press today is the recommendation by UCAS that universities should only offer places to students once they have their A-level results. For my international readers – UCAS is the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, whose job it is to centrally process applications from secondary school students and manage the overall university application procedure. In general, they do a very good job of making a complicated system run smoothly – they deal with the early deadline applicants for Oxbridge and then keep on going until the clearing process in the summer after the A-level results come out. So when they say that they have a suggestion about how the system might work better, you can be sure that it’s probably based on experience. (I should note that this plan would have to work out how to incorporate results from other exams like the Scottish Highers and the International Baccalaureate, but the UCAS suggestions currently focus on A-levels, so I will as well.)

Their suggestion is that instead of putting applications in from about October onward, depending on the early deadlines, students should take their A-levels and then put their applications in, using actual rather than predicted grades. This is because predicted grades are not particularly accurate, with students both under- and over-performing the predictions, meaning that they either didn’t apply to universities their grades would have got them into or that they don’t meet their offers and have to either go for their second choice or, if something’s gone seriously wrong, look for an alternative course in clearing . The UCAS plans would mean moving A-levels a bit earlier, to give time for the interview and application process, so that the universities wouldn’t have to completely rearrange their term dates; when I say a bit earlier, the BBC article is suggesting two weeks earlier. (more…)

October 27, 2011

Busy, busy bee

I think this has been the most busy week I’ve had to face at Birmingham, and it’s driving home to me just how much catching-up work I have to do as a new academic. This week is crunch point for student meetings of several types – I have dissertation students coming to talk about the first piece of written work they’ve produced for me; my first year students have their Adjustment Tutorials to make sure they’re settling in to university life, and to help us identify anyone who might be in need of extra support; and I’m having initial meetings with the second years planning their study tour, a great feature of the Birmingham course which funds students to go overseas and visit sites and museums relevant to their areas of study. These are all crucial and exciting meetings to have with students – the first real insight I get into how third years are tackling their dissertation work, sharing the highs and lows of the first month at university, beginning to plan foreign travel and come up with realistic ideas about what can be accomplished in the time available.

But all of this exciting student contact has to be fitted around writing my lectures, which this week includes planning a seminar on the first two books of Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica and preparing a comparative lecture on Greek cults and hero worship, plus what now seems like an inordinate amount of other meetings. I’m sure that if I’d been thinking straight, I wouldn’t have planned to attend both the university Central Induction event and a training session on supervising students in the same week as the mid-term IAA school meeting… but hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it’s too late to worry about that now. The lecture on Greek cults and heroes seemed like a great idea when I was putting the syllabus together, but as usual, coming to write it is a bit more complicated than I expected. There have also been some admin jobs that I haven’t been able to put off, including such domestic delights as buying a new mop and picking up a kettle from the Post Office – which don’t sound particularly thrilling, but demand their own chunk of time which I can’t then devote to other things.

Mind you, after you’ve gone through eight adjustment tutorials in a row, like I did this morning, your brain has turned into well-intentioned mush – it’s important to check in with first year students that they’re making friends, the finances are alright and they’re balancing their workload, but moving out of pastoral care mode into hardcore lecture writing mode is surprisingly tough. It’s days like this I envy my senior colleagues, who are able to review and revise their lectures rather than do a whole series from scratch, or at least have notes for one course they’ve taught in this format before. I’m consoling myself with the thought that if I put the effort into producing good lecture notes this time around, I’ll have good material to reuse elsewhere. It doesn’t hurt that it’s reading week next week; after this week of back-to-back meetings, I’m going to appreciate a bit of a breather.

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