Every time you fiddle around with anything, the world changes.
My US2 class is finally up and running, though it still needs some filling in. At least the ground work is done and the structure is set up. I’m one of those people who works from the top down. Once I’ve got an outline, once I’ve thought through all the general twists and turns of where I’m headed, the rest is just grunt work. Thinking is hard; working is easy.
I’ve taught this class before, but never in this format. I’m teaching it from Home Campus, where I am the only dancing bear in the circus – there is just me, alone in a room, staring at a video camera and a couple of screens. On one of the screens I can see myself. The other is divided into three parts, and on each part is a group of high school students almost 300 miles away. In between us is another campus – they take the feed in from the three high schools and send it down to me, and vice verse. It’s an interesting set-up.
One of the things I learned from having US1 in this set-up last semester is that having discussions in this format does not work. For one thing I can’t really see individual students – they’re just moving blobs at the distance I have to stand from the screen. And for another, they can’t really interact with each other very well because of the mechanics of actually speaking in class, combined with the small lag times that you get with this sort of arrangement. So discussions always ended up as me asking each student individually what they thought of the readings. That's not a discussion. That's an oral quiz.
This semester I decided I would move the discussions online. The university has a system set up expressly for that sort of thing, and I have made use of it before for other classes. It works pretty well, once you get the students started on it. You have to make them post things across multiple days, because otherwise people just swoop in, post stuff, and never return – but that’s not that hard to arrange.
The problem is that once you decide to organize things this way you have to have some formal rules governing the process. Students have to make X number of posts and each post has to have A, B, and C in it, and so on. This is a lot more work than the previous discussions, which were (or should have been) – wait for it – discussions. People talking.
And if you’re going to make them work harder, you have to give them appropriate credit for doing so. This means raising the share of the total grade that discussions are worth, devising grading rubrics so you can evaluate the students' effort and grade them appropriately, and so on.
And if you are giving more credit for that, then you have to give less credit for something else. You can only have 100% of a grade. If discussions suddenly go from 10% of the grade to 40% of the grade, something else has to be worth less. In that class, there are only exams besides that. There used to be three of them, and they were collectively worth 90% of the grade – but now they’re only worth 60%.
And if you are going to make them worth less, then you have to restructure them to reflect that. This means making them a bit smaller – though not too much smaller, because you want them to keep working and learning, and if the exams get too small then they become quizzes which are a whole different animal when it comes to pedagogy and assessment.
And if you make them smaller, then you can have more of them to balance that out. So now I have four exams, each worth 15% of the grade – half of what each exam was worth before.
And if you have more exams, then you have to rejigger your break points. Each exam covers one unit, and each unit is a coherent story. Where do you draw the lines? The new line was fairly easy to figure out, actually. I’ve long been unhappy with the post-WWII unit, since it seems to me that there ought to be a break point around 1970 – the quarter-century after WWII is a very different place from the half-century since. But that means taking the 50s out of the middle unit and that squashes that unit of the class, so I have to move that break point back from 1917 to 1900. It makes that unit a different story, having it run from 1900 to 1945 instead of 1917 to 1960, but no less a coherent one. It also makes the first unit (1865 to 1900) a different story as well. So everything has to be refocused as well as rejiggered.
So I start with one decision (“You know, the discussions would work a whole lot better online – I should try that!”) and everything else just cascades down from there.
All of life is pulling at loose threads and then wondering what happened to your sweater and why there is a pile of yarn on the floor and where did that breeze suddenly come from, anyway.