I just got back from another fantastic research trip in the UK. I spend quite a bit of time there, probably anywhere between 6 to 8 weeks during any given year, mostly in Cornwall and London. Of course for my teaching needs, I always make sure that I have access to an Internet connection. This time, I learned quite a bit about online teaching capacities in countries that aren’t quite as well served by fast internet service. In both Cornwall and inland and I had many internet related problems. Sometimes it was slow, sometimes the wireless connection the house where I was staying could not handle three computers at the same time, and of course, this affected the way in which I teach and work. I found it was very difficult for me to access my learning platforms, and it was extremely difficult for me to download papers to read and grade. I felt quite frustrated. If this is my experience in Britain, I can only imagine what things must be like for my students, many of whom are in the military, or maybe doing their own travel somewhere for work or play. You know what always loaded, though, was Facebook! When I couldn’t get into Blackboard or ANGEL, Facebook always loaded quickly and easily, and allowed me to use the very basic interactive features that I needed. Hmmm. This might make us want to think about the kinds of platforms that we use, the kind of features we add to our courses. We need to push for versions of them that are mobility friendly, and easier to use on less robust systems. This way, we can keep online learning as accessible as possible.
Although I have written before about the ability of online courses to reach underserved populations, I wanted to take a moment here to stress the potential of online learning to educate women. We know that the key to enriching communities and increasing economic development is educating women worldwide. I know in my own courses that I teach a lot of women. Some are older and making life transitions, some are young mothers or mothers with several children who can’t afford childcare. Some are grandparents entering the world of higher education for the first time. I have amazing women in my courses who, because of the nature of the online classroom, may be encouraged to find and use their voices, instead of feeling intimidated by the classroom experience, as many are. Think of the potential impact for educating women on a global scale in hard to reach areas with online or particularly mobile technology. I certainly like knowing that I might be making a difference close to home.
A while ago somebody pointed me to this article at the Chronicle of Higher Education purportedly written by somebody who makes money writing term papers and theses for students. About the only thing that I found surprising in this whole article was that this person used the title of my blog, and referred to himself as an “academic mercenary”. I really didn’t want my reputation and good name sullied in that manner, so I sifted through the reader comments with the intent of leaving a clarification, and there was the usual lot of condemnation, shock, horror and awe. Several commenters pointed out the terrible state of the academic industry, arguing that if professors were only better, more diligent, and worked harder to establish personal relationships with their students more of these rogues would be caught. To those writers, I give a hearty two fingered salute and a round of “bite me.” Naturally others were laying the blame on the economics of academia in general, poor standards, commercialism, the market economy in education etc. etc.
So here’s the thing: we can dig for the answers all we want, and go around assigning blame, but the fact of the matter is that cheaters are going to cheat. I like to say that detecting plagiarism is one of my superpowers, and it is. I’m very good at spotting it. I also work hard to try to design assignments that will be less easy for students to plagiarize. I make them complicated, I like including creative elements, and opinion sections. But if a student is going to pay somebody to actually log in and take my class, yes, that is going to go entirely unnoticed. Frankly, under those circumstances, the student wins. Or loses. Of course I think they lose, because I like to think that one gains something through the educational enterprise, but not everybody is as idealistic as I am. Frankly, I accept that, and I realize that my students are there to get a qualification not because they are deeply in love with the Humanities. If I can make them love the Humanities or Anthropology by the end of the term, fantastic!
You will always have students who will pay to get out of work, who will go the extra mile to plagiarize and cover their tracks, to have somebody else log in and take a test for them. When I suspect something is fishy, if I can catch them, then great, justice has been done and I go after them with no quarter. But at this stage in life, I have come to accept that are unscrupulous people out there who do not share my values, and there’s only so much that I personally can do about it. If somebody chooses to cheat, I’m not going to take that on board as a personal failure as a professor, and shame on anybody who tries to leverage that sort of accusation on the hardworking academics out there today. I suppose if it’s every other student all the time, you might wish to consider your teaching strategies and engagement, but in general, people cheat because they are dishonest and taking the easy way out. It’s always been like that, and it always will be. If, through my teaching, I can get my students to feel confident about their abilities and responsible to me and their classmates, then they might see my class as less of a hoop to jump through and more of something they feel personally invested in, and that just might make a difference.
Hello again! Here we are at the start of another term, and it’s time for me to make yet another of my all too infrequent blog posts. Last term was unbelievably busy, and I feel as though I have barely had time to catch my breath between the end of Fall term and the start of Spring term. Over the past two weeks I’ve been working hard at putting together my courses for the term, and doing my usual round of reconsidering and redesigning where necessary. In a previous post I mentioned an experiment I was running in all of my courses for Fall term where I increased the amount of discussion, and cut down on the extra writing assignments per term, with a greater emphasis on only two significant assignments, a midterm and a final. I have to admit, that I am, for the most part, extremely pleased with the results of last term. My students enjoyed the extra weekly engagement, and for the most part put a lot more effort into their final projects. One of the extra discussion requirements was a personal response post that each student made to the classroom expressing their personal reactions to the material each week. This had a very nice effect of producing more intimacy in the class, and a greater sense of community. It also seems as though the students took more time with their final projects, and several of them came up with very engaged and creative assignments. A winner all the way around, right?
Not entirely. There were two classes where I found that this approach did not at all lead to greater student engagement. In fact, I was very disappointed with these courses in general, and they were for the same school. I needed to pinpoint what was going on there. Why did the students not do as well? Why were they not as engaged? In one instance, there were some administrative problems that caused frustration for both the students and myself right off the bat. This is never a good way to start. However, the platform that these students are using is much more limited in range than the other ones I use. The students don’t have any online tests to take in addition to their written projects, which is a feature all of my other courses have. This is the only significant difference between them. I’ve concluded then, that these courses simply did not use enough teaching modalities. I think we really need to make sure that we’re mixing it up in our online classrooms. So this term, I’ve added a whole new section of media and lectures to supplement their reading, in addition to the content links I have already put into the course. Some of these will now be required, some will be just suggested. What I’m wondering is whether not the addition of the media will stimulate them sufficiently into a richer learning experience. I’m betting it will.
Of course we need to consider course design when considering what we do with extra content. Putting extra content into a course won’t really do much good if the students are not directed or inspired to engage with it, or if it visually appears incidental to the actual course content. It will just look like a bunch of links to students, and there’s every chance they will ignore them if they think they can do so and still get through the course requirements. Put your optional material in a place that will look appealing to students, and where it will be more integrated into the required reading. I realized that in one of my schools, the extra content was in a place that was easily overlooked, and I have changed that for this term. In the courses where additional content was more central to the course design, students are much more interested and willing to look at it. Naturally, I always love to hear your thoughts on these matters.
I started this blog because I am frequently asked how to get into the online teaching game, and I really do want to help people. Problem is, it isn’t as easy as it was and it takes a lot of time to develop a portfolio. I went into this pretty early with a bit of course design and teaching under my belt, so I was able to build a career based on that. Recently I have been asked by quite a few suffering colleagues for advice and to throw them a bone if I have extra courses, and I can do this if they are available, but times are tough. While I can talk someone through what I did and how I developed my career over the course of a few years, I can’t replicate that for them. But I can share some tips about how I have maintained employment as an academic…
Any rudimentary study of economies will show you that those that are highly specialized in only one industry are doomed, and that works on the individual level as well. Going into grad school to get a silly degree I decided immediately that I wanted to be employable so I took every opportunity I got to develop marketable skills. Mostly, I organized conferences from day one. I did several of them ranging from standard academic conferences to film festivals and have done many of these through the course of my career. I also took courses in and developed specializations in areas like festival and food on both a theoretical and organizational level and I read up on issues like display and representation, also cultural policy. So, when I was hired at a University, I was hired to develop programs that would help bridge academia with policy makers and those driving development because I had already developed a CV with those skills in them in addition to my research interests. While I was there, I took many other opportunities to develop skills: I provided content for cultural festivals, curated exhibitions, sat on race relations committees, organized more conferences, used my position to do consulting for tourism and heritage agencies and, when the opportunity arose, I helped to develop an online MA. Not only did I get useful pedagogical training, I learned how to teach specifically online and how to navigate all sorts of Learning Management Systems which I can now do like a ninja. Turns out I’m also good at it, so when I saw the opportunity to create a life for myself that fit all the other things I wanted from life, I worked it. I set goals and targets and met them. *But* I spent my 20s and early 30s working my ass off developing an extremely varied CV in addition to maintaining an active publishing profile.
I’m not lucky to be employed, I really wanted to be. If I weren’t doing this, I might try to reengineer myself along the lines much more strictly in policy or economic development. I might need to retrain or add a policy degree to my belt if I wanted to go that route more seriously, but I’d do it. Honestly, though, if all 4 of my schools fired me at once, I would still have a job because I also have a background in market research and ethnographic methodology AND I can clean houses. I would not hesitate to go back to that in a heartbeat if I had to. Besides, it’s kinda fun.
So here’s my real advice on making it in academia: don’t even try. Sure, apply for “real” jobs and go for them with gusto, but know that they are like unicorns. Seriously! If you feel that your ego is suffering because you don’t have a “real” academic job, I suggest that you do some serious work to look at your attachment to what that means to you and how you might be holding yourself back. If you do want a “real” job, understand that the world is now full of completely awesome, hard working, neurotic PhDs. Your brilliance and publications are really not worth what you think they are. Your ability to pull in grants, develop service learning projects, network with community organizations and businesses however, much more important, even in the Humanities. You need to show that you have other skills to stand out in *any* job these days.
I would suggest two other things: One, do a serious study of your life. What do you want it to look like down to the last detail. Where do you want to live? HOW do you want to live? How much money do you want and how do you want to spend it? How do you enjoy spending your time? What are your values? What are your hang ups? Second, I’d suggest that you make a list of ALL the transferable skills you have. If you want a job of any sort, you need to sell yourself. Why should anyone hire you at all? Also, the more skills you have, the more you can chase jobs that can help you earn a buck or two. Can you edit? Can you write copy? What software packages do you know? Do you maybe need a bit of extra training somewhere to round out a skill set? I do lots of extra training on educational software and pedagogy to keep up to date, and doing this sort of thing will really serve you well. Sometimes volunteering on things to pump up the CV is really useful. I have volunteered a lot on projects in my career, and so I can now be paid for that sort of work or pass it on if I wish, but seriously consider getting involved with projects that can get you skills and get you noticed. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, ever, especially when the basket is shoddy construction to begin with.
Folks, we as academics are not special little snowflakes with fabulous gifts of intellect and insight to bestow upon the world. We are cogs in a machine, workers who are part of a big, nasty labor market just like everyone else. We just get treated worse because…we think we are special little snowflakes and so don’t behave like labor as we should be doing to secure better treatment as workers. Once you get a handle on this and realize that it has nothing to do with you or your abilities, it is pretty damned liberating. As much as I would love to do nothing more than spend my days in an archive or be writing about esoteric matters and Cornish economics, the fact is, I ALSO love to be able to travel to those archives, pay my bills and eat well, so I just don’t get to do these things as much as I would like, but I get to write enough to make me happy. I made employability a priority and it has served me well.
Here I am with Fall term and a whole bunch of online courses rapidly approaching. Of course I’m taking stock of the things which worked well, the things which worked badly, and trying to figure out how I’m going to change all of the freshly updated course shells that I have been handed. The fact that I just had one of the most successful courses ever during my summer term has given me some pause for thought about how I’m going to handle assignments. In an earlier post on this blog I discussed the strategy of using portfolio assignments instead of having a number of smaller writing assignments throughout the term, and I want to follow up on this.
My Cultural Anthropology courses have a significant discussion board requirement. You must post an original response to a discussion question, a response to a classmate, and you must post your personal responses to the material. Two requirements have done a remarkable job in boosting and maintaining classroom cohesion: the mandatory responses to the classmate, and posting your own feelings about the material. In this way, students reveal something of themselves and get to know each other better, which helps to genuinely build a learning community. I taught two sections of this Anthropology course this summer, but one of them was an intensive writing version of this course. This was a great opportunity to compare the course structure. The intensive course had two additional writing assignments over the course of the term, and a final paper that was to have been written in two stages. Overwhelmingly the students which did *not* take the intensive writing version did much better on their final projects, almost all of which exceeded the word count requirement by 1000 words. essentially, the all wrote the same amount during the term as those in the intensive course! The content of the papers was better, the research was better, they followed the directions, and the formatting and citations were fantastic on every single one. In other words, they thought it was an important project, and they took their time to do it properly. I’ve seen this outcome in other courses, and I want to think about why this might be the case for a minute.
Most online students, many of them anyway, are working adults. A discussion board post is a writing assignment. If you give students several of these per week, they end up being treated like busy work. In one of my Humanities courses over the course of several terms I had experimented with small journal assignments in addition to discussion board posts, without assigning a significant final portfolio project. Time and again my students did poorly on these assignments, did not follow directions even when I gave them continuous feedback about what they needed to be doing. However, when I took the same questions and clumped them into two assignments rather than six or seven, the quality and attention paid to them increased significantly. Their overall grades got much better, and their course satisfaction improved as well.
Frequently in online courses we are concerned with demonstrating quality instruction, and keeping our students engaged. I think there is a tendency, perhaps, to overload students with writing assignments on top of the discussion board. I really think that if we’re going to create learning communities, that we have to allow the interactive portions of the course to really do their job, and enforce that. Every time I’ve had a significant discussion board requirement, attention and grades got better. I have no hard data on this so far, but I would love to hear feedback from other instructors.
Because they are like this, right here.
Mention online learning and people frequently think University of Phoenix. This is yet another one of those image problems online specialists face. I very briefly worked for one of those places and it was one of the worst working experiences of my life. No quality, no oversight, no academic freedom, very low pay for far too many hours, and quality control goons who would phone me to make sure I was on task. The saddest thing was, most of my students were in a very desperate place and it is clear that they had been preyed upon. I know there are one or two for profit places out there which do offer some good programs, but for people wanting to build a career teaching online, please be careful. there are plenty of 4 years and Community Colleges with fine distance learning programs. Look there first.
Here is an announcement of what I have been up to of late, beautifully laid out on the Francis Boutle Publishing website. I will be heading to Cornwall’s Tremough Campus to give a lecture on Ithell Colquhoun on July 14 as part of the Mysticism, Myth and Nationalism conference co-sponsored by the University of Exeter’s Institute of Cornish Studies and their department of English.
Additionally, I have written a short piece on Ithell’s magical studies of the hermaphrodite for the Francis Boutle newsletter. This gives only a hint of how groundbreaking she was.
Again it has been awhile since I have posted here. It’s been a busy term, I’ve been teaching a lot of classes, writing and researching. In the not too distant future this blog is going to shift a bit in topic to reflect more of my research and writing as well as my teaching. I wanted to have a more integrated approach, and show people more of what my version of the “academic mercenary” life is about. So, watch this space.
In the meantime, here is a question that surely vexes many teachers and professors today: how do we cope with the rising tide of bad and incorrect information about American and world history that is carrying away our students? Many of them are genuinely misinformed about the way the country operates and what the history of the country is. I don’t even know how to start correcting this, it’s like a wave. I am trying to keep politics out of the classroom, I don’t think it’s appropriate, but how can I begin to provide accurate information without being accused of having a political agenda? I feel as though students are constantly trying to hijack the discussion boards for political purposes, and it’s just getting worse. Do any of you have similar stories?
My terms are starting in the next few weeks and since I’m off to the UK in a week’s time, I want to get everything in order before heading off. I did a lot of tweaking and course editing at the beginning of last term, and it has left me pretty well placed, only having to make a few changes before launching everything. I can’t say enough about the value of taking time to manage courses and fix errors upfront. It will save you so much time during the term itself.
This term I’m thinking about shifting assignments. I teach courses of different lengths, some 8 week, some 12 week and some 16 week. Normally I just cram the same assessments into a shorter time frame, but I am not sure that is the best strategy. Yes, they all need to be the same amount of challenge and the assessments need to pack the same punch, but the students in my 8 week courses are very different from the students in my 16 week courses. They are frequently working adults and they have different needs, and I notice that frequently an assignment gets missed which hits their overall grades pretty hard. when I have taught with weekly assessments they also get missed or, worse, they are rushed and shoddy. I am thinking of playing with a couple of larger projects that will combine elements of smaller projects normally spread through the term that will be less likely to be forgotten in the rush of the life of a busy working person. A solid midterm and final seem to provide natural points for people to work around. What do you all do? I am also going to continue working with youtube and suggesting itunes lectures for students to listen to this term. Getting media accessibility is always a challenge, but things are getting better.
Additionally, I am really feeling for a number of colleagues who are trying to go the traditional academic route right now. It’s always tough out there, but this is a helluva time to be looking for tenure track positions. I am grateful for abundance in my work and for being able to life the unusual life I have created for myself doing this.