I write this on the near-eve of starting back to the Fall semester. There has not been a semester like this before in my lifetime, for sure.
I finished up a fully-online summer session just last week, although that was not unusual for me, as I normally teach online-only in the summer. The only two differences were that I did not have access to a testing center for my students and I did not hold any face-to-face office hours. That saved me a bit on gas, not having to commute to campus (about a 50-mile round trip), but the effect was largely the same as any other summer. So, my summer teaching in a pandemic was barely different than my normal teaching in the summer.
This coming semester, however, is going to be intense. It is going to be uncertain. As of right now, the Friday before the semester starts on Monday, there are still a number of things in the works and decisions that have not been finalized, leaving a lot of things in the air.
I am, much like in the summer, fairly well positioned already for this upcoming semester. I already teach online, which is what 3/5 of my classes are this semester. The other two classes are hybrids that have run about 70/30 online/face-to-face, meaning that they are also pretty much ready to go with only minor adjustments. The only thing giving me anxiety about them right now is the question of if I am going to have to hybridize my hybrids. Both of them are in classrooms where the full class cannot meet at one time and still maintain social distancing. There are two ways this can work out this semester:
- If bigger rooms can be found for the two hybrid sections, then they will run just as normal hybrid classes this semester.
- If not, then I have to hybridize the hybrids. That means that there will be two cohorts of students, and half will meet on one week and half on the next week, with each student ultimately meeting face-to-face for half of the normal number of sessions. For a hybrid class that would only meet 16 times a semester, that would mean each student only meets 8 times, with the rest of the class being fully online.
I call this hybridizing the hybrid because all face-to-face classes are already being hybridized at my community college. The classes are being divided in half if they are not in a room large enough for everyone to fit, and then half meet on the first day of the week and half on the second.
And, just as a side note, I will not know if I get option 1 or 2 above until sometime early in the coming week. And, when it is known, there is not a clear indication of how I am going to get every student to know what changes there might be, especially if some of them are not to show up on the first day we meet (Wednesday).
If this all sounds really complicated, it is. It is stretching all of our imaginations, our resources, and our capabilities across the college. But we are managing so far. It is nobody’s fault that things are this way, but it certainly makes everything difficult.
I will return soon to talk more about what this semester looks like, but that’s where we stand at this point.
In Part 2 of this series, I am going to look at why I decided to introduce and include student reflection in my courses.
I started out using what I called reflection responses in my hybrid class, largely as a check on making sure that students were actually paying attention in class to what we were talking about. The first two semesters I used them, they took the form of questions that I posted in the last 5 minutes of class, with the answers due the next day. This both helped make sure the students stayed for the whole class and helped me see if they were understanding the main points from the day. I was reasonably happy about this method, but in a class that is discussion-based, the difficulty was both in making sure I ended with enough time to write out a question and in not being able to set the question before that point in time as I did not know how the discussion might go. As it became more of a burden, I moved to a new type of reflection in my hybrid courses the next semester.
In Spring 2019, I changed over the reflection responses in my hybrid course, giving the first ones that look like the assignment I discussed in Part 1 of this series. I started using a set series of questions that were released on the day of the class and then due the next day, giving them about 36 hours to complete them. While they were not tied specifically to the discussion, I still tied them to the larger themes of that week in the class. Again, that worked reasonably well.
In Spring 2019, I attended the TxDLA conference in Galveston, TX, and heard another session on the ideas of having the students do self-reflection. It was not the first time at all, but it was the one that really triggered me to consider expanding their use. That conference also started getting me to think about reflection more as a way to have the students set their own goals for how they would complete the material and allow me to check in on both their progress in the course and their overall attitudes each week.
In combination with the ideas from the conference, I had reformatted my online course in the 2018-19 school year, moving from weekly due dates to a unit format, with each unit being open for 3-5 weeks and all assignments in the unit due at the end of the unit. I was overall pleased with how that was going, but a certain percentage of students were waiting until the last minute every unit and then not being able to complete everything. For other students, they were really confused on what they should be doing each week, as they could not plan well enough to be able to spread out the material to get it all done in a 3-5 week period.
So, in Fall 2019, I introduced the reflection responses as I detailed in Part 1. The immediate benefits were that I could help direct the students in what they should be working on each week to keep on track. The questions asked also put it in their own minds that they did need to plan out how they were spending their time in the course. I also used the “nudge” approach by mentioning certain upcoming assignments in the middle questions, getting them to realize that certain deadlines or assignments were coming up that they might not have on their radar yet. I saw an immediate improvement in their own self-reported progress in the course, although I have not had a chance yet to go back and run any comparison numbers to see what it might have changed in grades.
The bigger surprise was the answers to the final question — the open-ended one. From the beginning, a good 1/2 to 2/3 of the students were answering that question. I was getting at least a paragraph and sometimes multiple paragraphs about what was going on in their lives. I started having a much better sense of what their lives were like and what challenges they were facing outside of class. I also heard about birthdays, celebrations, pets, relatives, accidents, funerals, successes, failures, and just about everything else you can imagine. While I can say that not all of what they wrote were things that I necessarily wanted to know, it kept me appraised of what they were doing with their lives and how they were fitting my class in with everything else going on. I had a better idea of why one student might not be completing assignments on time or why another student might need an extension on an assignment. I could see ahead of time when a student might be struggling with something, and I could send congratulations to them when something positive happened.
Over the past two semesters, I have found the whole process to be very rewarding. In the next post, I will talk more about the student response to the reflections they were asked to fill out.
In teaching about race at a community college in introductory American history courses, you get used to students saying that they are learning things that they had never encountered before in their previous history classes. This is even more true for issues of race in American history, especially in teaching at a majority white institution (although that has actually become less true than when I started 14 years ago).
I wanted to give an example here of one assignment that I give my students in my hybrid courses. It introduces students to a portion of American history that is usually left out. I will admit that I had not even heard about it through my own undergraduate and graduate education. However, I have come to believe that you cannot understand any of the ongoing racial issues in our country today, especially those between African Americans and police, if you are unaware of what happened in the period after emancipation and especially after Reconstruction.
As a side note, for those of you who might not be interested in looking at a full assignment, I urge you to go and either watch the documentary Slavery by Another Name and/or read the book Slavery by Another Name. It is such a fundamental part of understanding American racial history, but I find that I am introducing it for the first time to most people who I mention it to. So, even if you don’t want to delve into what I have below here, do yourself a favor and go watch it. I cannot link it directly, as PBS has made the decision not to offer it streaming on their website anymore. However, a quick YouTube search will give you numerous places to watch it. I am not endorsing bypassing the source of the documentary itself, but I have never understood why they can’t offer their documentaries on their website for viewing, especially one as fundamental as this one. I had our library purchase it so that my students can always have a stable place to see the documentary.
For those of you who would like to see what one of my assignments looks like for my hybrid course, I have included the one that is based around Slavery by Another Name here. This is what my students see for their first week of my HIST 1302 hybrid course. I am leaving out the link to the documentary that is in the assignment, and you can see the previous paragraph as to why.
Week 2 Activity
Skills for Week 2
For Week 2 of HIST 1302, we are going to start with a continuation of the last topic in HIST 1301. We will look at what happens in the South with the end of Reconstruction and how slave-like conditions would continue well into the twentieth century.
Week 2 is aimed at the following core competencies for history as developed by the American Historical Association:
- Build historical knowledge.
- Gather and contextualize information in order to convey both the particularity of past lives and the scale of human experience.
- Recognize how humans in the past shaped their own unique historical moments and were shaped by those moments.
- Develop a body of historical knowledge with breadth of time and place—as well as depth of detail—in order to discern context.
- Develop historical methods.
- Recognize history as an interpretive account of the human past—one that historians create in the present from surviving evidence.
- Practice ethical historical inquiry that makes use of and acknowledges sources from the past as well as the scholars who have interpreted that past.
- Develop empathy toward people in the context of their distinctive historical moments
- Recognize the provisional nature of knowledge, the disciplinary preference for complexity, and the comfort with ambiguity that history requires.
- Describe past events from multiple perspectives.
- Explain and justify multiple causes of complex events and phenomena using conflicting sources.
- Use historical perspective as central to active citizenship.
- Apply historical knowledge and historical thinking to contemporary issues.
Overview of the Week’s Assignment
For a period of nearly eighty years, between the Civil War and World War II, Southern blacks were no longer slaves, but they were not yet free. Generations of black Southerners lived in the shadow and under the threat of being forced to labor against their will.
Legally, slavery was outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, “except as a punishment for crime,” and even before Reconstruction ended in 1877, many Southern states began enacting a series of laws intended to re-subjugate newly freed blacks and provide cheap sources of labor. Vagrancy, loitering, riding the rails, changing jobs, even talking too loudly in public — these behaviors and more — all became crimes carrying stiff fines or sentences. Although these statutes made no mention of race, Southerners knew that they were intended as instruments of white control. The result was a huge increase in the numbers of blacks arrested and convicted.
Peonage or debt slavery, an illegal but widespread practice, flourished. Many black men were picked up for these minor crimes or on trumped-up charges. When faced with staggering fines and court fees, these men were then forced to work for a local employer who would pay their fines for them.
Others were victims of laws that made it a crime to leave employment for another job, keeping many blacks working under intolerable conditions as sharecroppers or elsewhere, rather than face the terrifying possibility of being arrested and sent to a forced labor camp. In other cases, workers would become indebted to planters (through sharecropping loans) merchants (through credit) or company stores (through living expenses). The workers were often unable to re-pay the debt, and found themselves continuously forced to work without pay.
Convict leasing, a form of forced labor that was legal, occurred in concert with Southern state and county governments. These governments realized they could lease their convicts to local planters or industrialists who would pay minimal rates for the workers and be responsible for their housing and feeding — thereby eliminating costs and increasing revenue. Soon markets for convict laborers developed, with entrepreneurs buying and selling convict labor leases.
The victims of forced labor were disproportionately black and poor. Ostensibly developed as a social solution to prison costs or insolvent debtors, in reality, forced labor was tightly bound to systems of racial oppression, and its abolishment accompanied the growth of a greater public concern for fairness and equality.
Additionally, the history of forced labor in the South is connected to a number of major events in American history ranging from Reconstruction to the New Deal. Today, forced labor, in various forms, continues to exist around the world.
While all of Chapter 18 is assigned for reading this week, the Weekly Activity is specifically focused around the sections on the South. You should reread and concentrate on pages 356-61 as a general background before viewing the video linked below. You also should read the lecture for this week, especially the first three lecture points, “The End of Reconstruction,” “The New South,” and “Jim Crow.”
For more specific background on the ideas discussed in the video, you can also refer to the following webpages for more information:
Here is the documentary: (documentary link removed)
The documentary is 90 minutes long and will stream directly through your browser.
While you are watching the video, I would like you to consider the following questions. You do not have to submit answers to these questions to me, but they will help you be prepared for what we are going to discuss in class.
- In what forms has forced labor been practiced in the past?
- How is the forced labor that was practiced in the American South after the Civil War connected to broader American history?
- What impacts did the use of forced labor have in the American South? Do these impacts continue to affect us today?
Before-Class Writing Assignment
To prepare for class, you need to submit a 250-word response to the Canvas classroom. You can find the submission link on the Week 2 Assignments page. You can either enter the response in the text box or upload a response in one of the following formats: .txt, .rtf, .doc, or .docx.
Access the following short videos to guide you in writing your submission:
- Reflections on Peonage – This video is from a StoryCorps oral history that features Kate Willis and her cousin Susan Burnore, descendants of John Williams, a plantation owner who practiced peonage. In this clip Willis, who wrote a high school paper about peonage and her family’s connection to it, defines the practice as well as discusses how it operated and how it differs from slavery. The clip is about a minute and a half long.
- Reflections on Robert Franklin – This video is from a StoryCorps oral history that features Robert Corley, a descendant of Robert N. Franklin, a white shop owner who benefited from forced labor. Here, Corley, an historian, talks about how he felt to find out about his great-grandfather’s role in the illegal practice. Corley discusses John Davis, a 23-year-old black sharecropper who after encountering Franklin, was fraudulently charged, imprisoned, and subsequently forced into labor while traveling in Alabama. As an historian, Corley also provides context regarding forced labor and racial attitudes of the time. The clip is about five minutes long.
- The System at Work – In this book excerpt from the book Slavery by Another Name, author Douglas A. Blackmon writes about how an intricate system of forced labor, supported by local criminal justice systems, operated in the American South, by examining the inner workings of the farm of John Pace, who used forced labor. The audio excerpt is about two and a half minutes long.
Using the materials presented here, your response for this week is on the following topic: I am fairly certain that you have never heard of any of this before, as it is not a topic generally covered at all (outside of sharecropping). What is your initial reaction to it? Why do you think it is something that is generally not discussed or remembered? How has it affected racial relations in the American South through today? Please use specific examples from the background information, documentary, and/or supplementary videos to illustrate your thoughts.
We will discuss the following:
- What was the system of peonage and contract labor like?
- What conditions in the South led to the development of the system?
- What have the consequences been for the US through the period of time we will be studying and through today?
- What does this change about the way we think about the US and the American South?
- How does it help us understand racial issues that still face the US today?
This is the first substantive post of my new series on student reflection. I have detailed where this series comes from in my previous post introducing the series.
In this post, I am going to describe the student reflection assignment that I have used for 4 semesters now. Later posts in the series will deal with why I use student reflection (Part 2), the student response to these reflections (Part 3), my thoughts on how they are going and what they can help with (Part 4), and then what use they can be in our new pandemic world (Part 5).
I started using student reflection as a part of my hybrid classes starting in Fall 2018. For the first year of using them, they were more aimed at making sure the students were paying attention in class, but they slowly morphed into something more than just a reflection on the class. Over the summer of 2019, I made the decision to move student reflection into my online course and to change up the use of them in the hybrid class.
In Part 2 of this series, I will delve more into why I use them and why I made the changes. For now, I just want to give you the format of them.
Each week, my students are asked to submit a response to the following 5 questions. I have no specific word count on this assignment, and I grade only on if they complete it.
- What did you do in the class in the past week? (After the first week, I add a second question: How does that match up with what you said you would do in the previous week’s reflection?)
- What are you planning on doing for this class in the upcoming week?
- This question relates to something going on inside the course. This can be something like:
- Have you started working on a particular assignment yet?
- Reminder to make sure they know something is coming up, like the drop deadline.
- Question about how they responded to a specific assignment, especially if I am trying something new.
- This question relates to something going on outside of the course, such as:
- How are the other courses going that you are taking?
- If it is later in the semester, what advice would they now give themselves at the beginning of the semester?
- What is the best piece of advice they have received about succeeding in college?
- What one change would they make in the course if they had the ability?
- Are you planning on attending/participating in this particular thing going on at the college?
- What are your plans for after you finish the course/finish at the college
- And, especially after the COVID-19 shutdown, this question became one about how they were doing and if they needed help with anything.
- Lastly, is there anything else you want to tell me, either about yourself, about the class, or about something interesting in your life? This last question is your free space to write whatever you want to. If you do not want to write anything, that is fine, but I wanted to give everyone some space each week to write whatever they want with no judgment on my part. I will read it, but that is all, unless you ask me for advice or have questions.
So, for each student (I start out the semester with about 200-220 and end up with about 170-180), I get a response back to these questions every week. As noted at the beginning of this post, I will be exploring aspects of this assignment as I move forward with this series.
I am, of course, not the only one out there who is reflecting back on what teaching through the pandemic was like. I have already discussed some general thoughts on the transition and on how the students reacted in previous blog posts here. I have been consuming various pieces of media, from blogs to webinars to podcasts, where everyone has been reflecting on the changes and how the last couple of months have gone.
Probably the most direct takeaway from the piece is what she said about how the transition – “In short, we did the job we signed up to do — under conditions that none of us signed up for. And, unfortunately, it looks like many of us will be in the same predicament come September.” To me, that is really the story of this time. I won’t say at all that everything was the best at all, but I do think that I did a pretty good job in keeping up. I also feel like I actually did more work in the last month and a half than I normally do.
In looking at her 5 lessons learned, I can see some parallels in my own experience.
1. They’ve gotten a bad rap, but Zoom classes can be rewarding.
While I am not so sure about Zoom classes specifically, I found her discussion of the synchronous vs. asynchronous debate interesting. I know for a fact that some of our faculty had never even heard those words with relation to education prior to this, but it became a key point with the transition. My own online course is exclusively asynchronous, but I added in Zoom office hours for them. I have done online office hours before, with only a very minimal participation by the online students. This experience was no different, as they were just online office hours, not a specific session of delivering information. I had not a single student from my three online sections attend any of the online office hours in Zoom, which pretty much matches up with my previous experience. As there was no synchronous component of my online course, there was no expectation on the students that there would be one after, and there was apparently no interest in the new addition for them.
Now, of course, the hybrid class had its own synchronous component of meeting once a week in person. I switched over that time to a Zoom session for each hybrid section, but I did not make it mandatory for attendance. This is largely because of a recognition that many of my students might not be capable of making a session on Zoom, and I didn’t want to penalize them. I had a number of students with connection issues (as in poor internet access), who had family issues or conflicting school times for their kids, or were called in to now work at the time they would have had class. I had one student out of 25 attend for one of my hybrid classes and 4-5 students out of 21 attend out of the other hybrid class. So, there was some small demand, and I gave participation points for coming on and talking about the material. Far more students chose to participate in discussion forums than in the Zoom sessions overall.
2. Have a pivot plan.
This is exactly what we’ve been told to do for the fall. We don’t know if we will be in person, online, or a mix of the two. Right now, our schedule looks exactly as it would any fall, and we have been told that any decision about changes to what we do in the fall won’t come until June. However, the more general messaging is that we need to be ready to pivot and that we all should be developing courses that can be both in-person and online, possibly even at the same time. In many ways, this matches the new thing I have heard quite a bit about in the last week – HyFlex courses. While we won’t have any courses scheduled as HyFlex, the model essentially has students given the opportunity to take the course either online or face-to-face as they want without losing anything either way.
3. Student goals will take center stage.
I will be honest that I did not change enough in my course to affect the student side of things. I already did things like student reflection essays (more on this in a later blog post), things that are already really student-centered. In relation to a lot of the rest of what we were asked to do, my course met the idea of student goals taking center stage before the crisis and continued to do so afterwards.
I will come back soon with the final two, as this is already getting long as it is. What are your thoughts, either as a teacher or students in this new environment?
I haven’t done any article reviews in a while, so I thought I’d sit down and hit my Evernote box a bit here. So, here we go.
The first article comes from the ProfHacker blog at the Chronicle of Higher Ed. As with so many others, the intent here is to look at way the future of the university system will be, and while I teach at a community college, and not a university, the ideas are still relevant. I also, of course, like the origin of this one, since it came out of a conference at my alma mater, Rice University. It starts off this way: “I sometimes hear that the classroom of today looks and functions much like the classroom of the 19th century—desks lined up in neat rows, facing the central authority of the teacher and a chalkboard (or, for a contemporary twist, a whiteboard or screen.) Is this model, born of the industrial age, the best way to meet the educational challenges of the future? What do we see as the college classroom of the future: a studio? a reconfigurable space with flexible seating and no center stage? virtual collaborative spaces, with learners connected via their own devices?” Certainly, my classrooms are set up that way, even my “other” classroom, the two-way video one, still has all of the emphasis on me. The article also noted: “With declining state support, tuition costs are rising, placing a college education further out of reach for many people. Amy Gutmann presented figures showing that wealthy students are vastly over-represented at elite institutions even when controlling for qualifications. According to Rawlings, higher education is now perceived as a “private interest” rather than a public good. With mounting economic pressures, the public views the purpose of college as career preparation rather than as shaping educated citizens. In addition, studies such as Academically Adrift have raised concerns that students don’t learn much in college.” I have posted up articles that talk about both of those things before, but this information from this conference really narrows it all down well. At its heart, what the article notes from the conference is that it is time to update the model to the Digital Age from our older Industrial Age. That we have adopted the multiple-choice exam and the emphasis on paying attention in class from this old Industrial model, where creating a standardized and regulated labor force was key. In the Digital Age, it will be important to “ensure that kids know how to code (and thus understand how technical systems work), enable students to take control of their own learning (such as by helping to design the syllabus and to lead the class), and devise more nuanced, flexible, peer-driven assessments.” Throughout the conference, apparently, the emphasis was on “hacking” education, overturning our assumptions, and trying something new. While the solutions are general in nature, I found this summary of the conference to be right up my alley, and certainly a part of my own thinking as I redesign. I wish I had known about the conference, as I would have loved to have attended.
Looking at the question from the opposite end is this article from The Choice blog at The New York Times. The blog post was in response to the UnCollege movement, that says that college is not a place where real learning occurs and that students would be better off not going to college and just going out and pursuing their own dreams and desires without the burden of a college education. What is presented here is some of the responses to that idea. A number of people wrote in talking about what the value of college is, so this gives some good baseline information on what college is seen as valuable for. Here are some of them:
- “a college degree is economically valuable”
- “college is a fertile environment for developing critical reasoning skills”
- several noted that you can get a self-directed, practical college education if you want it
- “opting out is generally not realistic or responsible, given the market value of a degree”
- “the true value of college is ineffable and ‘deeply personal,’ not fully measurable in quantifiable ways like test scores and salaries”
That’s just some of the responses, specifically the positive ones, as that’s what I’m looking at here. It is interesting to see the mix of practical things and more esoteric ideas. I think that both are hopefully a part of college education and that both are part of what we deliver. I would like to think that’s what my students are getting out of college in general, and I hope that the redesign that I am going for will help foster that even more. I especially hope to bring more of the second and fifth comments into what I am doing, as that is the side that I think a college history class can help with.
Then there is this rather disturbing article, again from The Chronicle of Higher Ed. It discusses the rising push for more and more online courses, especially at the community college level. As the article notes, that is often at the center of the debate over how to grant a higher level of access to the education experience for more and more people. But, with more emphasis being put on the graduation or completion end and less on the how many are enrolled end, this could end up putting community colleges at an even higher disadvantage. As one recent study put it, “‘Regardless of their initial level of preparation … students were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from face-to-face courses. In addition, students who took online coursework in early semesters were slightly less likely to return to school in subsequent semesters, and students who took a higher proportion of credits online were slightly less likely to attain an educational award or transfer to a four-year institution.'” So, we are actually putting our students into more online classes that make them less likely to finish overall. In fact, they are not only less likely to finish, but they are less likely to succeed at that specific class or come back for later classes. As well, a different study pointed out similar problems for online students: “‘While advocates argue that online learning is a promising means to increase access to college and to improve student progression through higher-education programs, the Department of Education report does not present evidence that fully online delivery produces superior learning outcomes for typical college courses, particularly among low-income and academically underprepared students. Indeed some evidence beyond the meta-analysis suggests that, without additional supports, online learning may even undercut progression among low-income and academically underprepared students.'” This is disturbing to me, as this is exactly what I teach at least half of my schedule each semester in – the online environment exclusively. I know that success in an online class is difficult, although I have actually been slowly improving the success rate over time in my online sections. I think I’ve finally hit a good sweet spot with the online classes right now, and I’m less in need of fixing them at the moment. I do, however, agree with the very end of the article that says that what is often missing from the online courses is the “personal touch.” That is the only part of the class that I would like to change, as I need a way for me to be more active in the class right now. I can direct from the point of putting in Announcements and the like, but I do feel that I get lost in whatever the day to day activities are. I need to design some part of the class that has me participating more directly rather than leaving it up to the students. Otherwise, I do think I’m doing pretty well in this part of my teaching career.
OK. I think I’m going to call it a night here. Any reactions?