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I finished setting up my three asynchronous classes for the spring semester of 2021.

To be fair, one of them, the second half of the art history survey, was copied over and updated. But I had to change the assignments because what I did last time was connected to the face-to-face meetings I had interspersed throughout the semester. For the most part, the links and discussion prompts did not change much. However, I did make some changes to the course in order to fit in more decolonized and diverse material.

The other two classes, African-American Art and Art of the Medieval World, had to be built from scratch. I had to rethink the course objectives (though I had devised them for when I proposed the courses), decide on what they needed to watch (from smarthistory) and read, and do, especially in terms of written or verbal assignments.  I've got a pretty lively assortment of options for students: games, debates, critical analysis papers, pilgrimages updated to the modern world, and blog entries on African-American artists.

I was thinking, however, that while I will need to check into each class during the semester as we roll, and I have to grade all those "lively assortments" of assignments, the classes are all done. I might have to put up some videos to explain concepts that aren't clear to students as I read through their discussion posts and learning journals. But the content is up. It's there. The intellectual ideas with which I want them to wrestle are set up and ready. I'm just waiting for students!

This strikes me as very different from how we normally prepare for the first day of classes or how we make up a syllabus. The syllabus tends to be the skeletal bones of the semester. Then, as the semester rolls along, we add the organs, the muscles, and the skin to the bones. In asynchronous teaching, I have the full "bodies" of my classes already done. Except for the actual teaching. The table is set, to use a different metaphor. It feels good. It feels different.

I wonder, though, if this kind of preparation for a semester is so foreign, so different than the way syllabi are traditionally created, that some faculty don't take to the online asynchronous class design.

What say you?

In my last post I talked about the importance of grouping material  into modules. It helps organize your class and students can more easily navigate where they are in the course. If  you go by weeks only, it can seem to a student that it's endless and they might not see the cohesion  you have planned.

After setting up the modules and goals for those units and the course as a whole, you need to think about different "presences." Today we will talk about Instructor presence.  How do you, yourself, connect  with students In an asynchronous course when you are not "live?" Since you will not be  requiring all of your students log onto their computers to gaze at you in a box, you have to find other means to engage with your students and to be present with them. The good news is that you can.

How can you still be present when you can't be in person?

Yesterday I was talking to a student who had one of my classes in the fall and  is in another one this coming spring. I told him I'd teach it the  same way, asynchronously. He tilted his head back and said, "Thank GOD! I wish other faculty would stop making us Zoom!" So take that for the anecdote that it is.

In any case, I plan to make my presence known in several ways. After deciding on the content of the module, I will figure out what is lacking or what ideas or images are particularly difficult, thorny, or if there just isn't enough information out there  to fully cover the artist. Unfortunately, I am finding that is the case with many African-American artists from the nineteenth century (like, no smarthistory.orgentry on Edmonia Lewis!? Come on, now!). Thus, I plan to make a narrated PowerPoint presentation on some artists for whom I have not found enough material to cover completely. But most of the content IS found on smarthistory.org and other educational sites. There  is a lot of  content out there, for free, if you take the time to search for it.

I will also record  videos of myself  introducing the course and each module. I also end each module with a  wrap up, but do not record those until I see what comments  students make as the class begins and rolls. These videos are a way to get your personality across and connect with your students.

But perhaps the best way to connect with your students  is through the learning journals. I find that this is one of the most important  elements  to an asynchronous class, especially at the undergraduate level. This is a  space where students reflect on their learning, ask  questions,  or just comment in general on how their experience in the class is going. Last semester I had many students on  my evaluations (yes, I know, I still read mine) talk about  this  feature as very important to feeling connected to the class and to me. I offer a few prompts, but usually I want students to set the tone and the topic. I want them to feel free to write anything - and I mean anything. It can be content; it can be personal. And I answer  every single entry. Every. Single. One. It's  a lot of work, but since my classes  are completely ready to go on Day  1, I don't have to "prepare" for each day the way I would for a more traditional face to face class. My time is taken up with responding to these learning journal entries. I learn so much about my students in this format; it's so important!  If you have not  tried this element of an online class, I urge you to do so, but you must make the commitment to write back to the students. Otherwise, your presence will not be felt.

Next time we  will talk about how to create a community presence among students through discussion boards and how to make them work and function well.

2

This was a tough semester. For students, for faculty, for staff. For everyone involved in higher education. However, I am convinced that learning happened. While many might not consider this the most rigorous of assessments,  many students in my classes noted in their own reflections, unsolicited, that they were amazed at how much they learned in courses they  took with me this fall semester 2020.

This learning happened despite a compressed semester comprised of two 6.5 week  sessions crammed back to back with one day in between. Students were encouraged to take no more than two four-credit classes each session, but some couldn't help but have more than that, especially seniors who had less choice in what courses they needed take. I heard more stories of stressed out students than ever before in my twenty-three year teaching career. COVID, lack of regular social  interaction, the presidential election, as well as the compressed semester itself all contributed to the angst.

And yet learning happened. I am more convinced than ever that the asynchronous approach to online teaching is the way  to go. Yes, students noted that they missed  in-person classes, but I also heard from many about how Zoom wasn't like in-class either. My students who told me how much they learned in my classes also recognized that the discussion boards allowed us to hear from everyone - unlike in a Zoom discussion or in a face to face classroom. Please do not get me wrong; I can't wait to be back in the classroom again. But rather than teach in a classroom with students physically distanced from each other and masked up, I will continue to design and offer asynchronous classes for the coming semester.

Many people have asked me what I do or how I approach course design, and I have decided to blog about the steps I take to create my classes over December and January. Our semester begins on Monday, February 1. If you or your colleagues are interested but also flummoxed about how to teach asynchronously, feel free to pass these posts on to them, or ask them to sign up on my blog to get my new posts.

I am not saying I have all the answers. But my students were very positive, some enthusiastically so, in sharing their thoughts even when they were not solicited. I think I am doing something right and want to share in case it could be helpful to others. I have benefited greatly from faculty development opportunities that my college has made available. I feel that posting my course design process may help others who were not afforded the chance to learn about online teaching until recently, or at all.

I will be blogging about how I build three classes for the Spring 2021 semester: History of Western Art II, The Art of the Medieval World, and a new class for me, African American Art. I'll be designing them all for asynchronous delivery.

You're most welcome to follow along!

2

When did everything change to be so individualized and about money?

I thought about this as I took my bike ride tonight. I get very nostalgic around the Fourth of July, because when I was a kid, I often spent the Fourth and a few weeks on either end of it with my now-deceased grandparents in their house outside Pittsburgh. One of my most vivid memories was the year we had a cookout of hamburgers and hot dogs and then walked down to a park - that seemed very, very far away - to watch the fireworks with other local people. Then we trudged back home, scratching our mosquito bites in the humid, but cool, night air.

Tonight on my bike, I noticed how many people were setting off fireworks in their own yards. It's not a communal activity anymore. And in my current state of Pennsylvania, we can buy them now and shoot them off in our  own yards. A communal activity is now individualized. For money that someone is making.

I remember when movies were talked about for how good a story they told, rather than how much money they made at the box  office.  It was truly about the experience rather than the bucks. Sometimes I think back to the subjects I learned in high school and college that have stuck  with me. They are not very valued  now, perhaps because they  aren't easily monetized. Hatshepsut fascinated me in the ninth grade. Maybe I am just not resilient or entrepreneurial enough, but I have yet to  find a way to make a buck off of her and my interest in her pharaonic reign. But I'm happy with that. Too bad so much has changed  even in college that nearly everything is evaluated by how one can turn  it into cash.

I'm glad I grew up when we all collectively listened to the car radio. There were no individual airbuds to plug into our ears. Instead  we collectively turned up the volume on Boston, Zepplin, and American Top 40. I liked it when the collective buzz was all about Star Wars, not because of the money it made, but because the story just blew our minds. I liked that we all collectively went to the movies and watched it, and did not individually queue it up on our own Netflix accounts.

Forgive me if I'm a bit melancholic and nostalgic tonight; since my grandmother and last remained grandparent died two years ago, I find myself unusually wistful on this holiday. I realize the Fourth of July is not usually a holiday in which one battles emotions. But I do.

I wish everyone a Happy Fourth, and I hope you're enjoying and celebrating with  lots of people - in a community of friends and family.

I've not been writing much on the blog and to my subscribers, I apologize. It's been a long, agonizing year, with an "academic program prioritization" process that led to my major being cut from our college. I will continue to teach, albeit not to art history majors. Now we've made it to the end of the Difficult Year and I'm resetting the blog and my priorities in my position at the college.

Today's post is about setting assessments that don't match learning objectives. I did that for my "finale" for my nineteenth-century art class this past May. I did not want a memorization exam. Although such exams remain the bedrock of much of higher education assessments, especially for art history, I don't find that it tells me much about how much students have learned from my classes, particularly the nineteenth-century art class. In that course, I emphasize that I want them to learn visual analysis: to look and to observe and by doing so, to come up with a thesis of potential meaning just from the formal elements in the painting. For instance, in  Courbet's painting The Stonebreakers (seen below) the meaning of the painting can be gleaned from visual analysis.When we examine this painting in class, I ask the students to tell me what they see. They answer with such observations such as: their backs are to us, so they do not seem like individuals; one seems young and the other older; they have frayed work clothes; they are doing hard labor of breaking up stones; they seem in a closed-in space where the only light is in the upper right corner, and out of reach.

All of that is correct. And what that leads to is a thesis for the painting that is this: the men are trapped, in a sense, in labor that will continue. The younger man will continue working until he, too, is like the older man, unable to carry heavy rocks, and instead will kneel to chip them into smaller rubble. The cycle will continue, for there is no "escape" spatially in the painting for these men. There is no social mobility, no "changing careers" or "moving up."

That is all learned by visual analysis, and trusting that observations can lead to these kinds of potential meanings. Of course, art history is more than just this, and we talk about how one would solidify such an interpretation:  by researching to find out more about when roads were built, who built them, what was working culture like around 1850 in France, etc. But you can get started with interpretive analysis from just looking.

For the "finale" of the class, I decided to make a "Jeopardy!" type of game. There are lots of free templates on the web that will allow you to make a game of whatever topic you desire. We played, and I was dismayed. They did not remember titles of paintings, or some of the dates, or some of the names of painters.

But then we got to "Final Jeopardy." Each "team" was given a painting and they had to tell me everything they remembered about it, using visual analysis. I gave each team a chance to talk about the painting and then we had their answers.

They remembered so much. When the assessment matched the learning objectives - it seemed like magic.  Of course, it was not magic; in class after class after class I  structured our time to give them chances to build their visual acuity and trust that they could - and would - learn what the paintings were seeking to tell them just by looking, carefully, at what was placed before them.

I will admit to not being an assessment guru. My assessments often miss the mark in terms of what I have been teaching them. But this time the starkness between "trivia"-like answers versus visual analysis of entire paintings helped me see that it is so important to line up assessment that will focus on what you were seeking to have them learn. I really do want to know what they have learned. It's just so often that the assessments I have been told to use don't do that.

Do you teach and have an assessment that works well? How does it match the learning objectives you have for your course?

Students: how would you like to demonstrate what you've learned in a class? An exam? Something else? I would be curious to know!

1

As a faculty member, is there such a thing as caring for your students too much?

It does increase your workload. Just today - one day - I had a student who told me he forgot to print out his paper last week, could he still turn it in? Another had sent it to me but forgot to hand it in out of his backpack. Another just had back surgery and has been out and missed the start of our Reacting game. Another has had serious issues with her anti-depression medication and has gotten behind in class. Another one today was in the hospital with issues related to a kidney stone.

Then there is the student who has missed a total of nine classes and the last three. I don't have the energy to chase after him. I noted another one with just about as many absences who got up and left the class to go to the bathroom about half way through the 90-minute course period. I don't think he came back. But I had 23 or so other students to try to engage and mobilize for learning.

It's the end of the term. We still have two and a half more weeks of teaching to go before the finals/finale period [I abhor the notion of a class having a "final" so I use the term "finale" which my friend Tony Crider has written about before].

I continue to try to think up engaging material for my students, while at the same time covering my material and trying to gauge that they are learning. And I still want to help them all. But sometimes I get overwhelmed, too. There are so many needs and so many issues and so many difficulties.

I realize I could stand up at the front of the class, not say hello to my students, and lecture to them. Let them learn or not - who cares!?!?  And yet, I care. I care about the student who needed to get to her doctor to have her medication changed. I care about the student who has missed 9 classes. I care about the student with the back surgery and the one who was in the hospital today trying to find out what was wrong.  It's more emotional work to care [which is sometimes undervalued and under-recognized in higher education]. It's more work, period, to care.

Yet I do believe that caring about students helps them learn. And my business is teaching. And learning.

 

There has been a litany lately of stories, commentaries, and op-eds that basically sound the refrain that professors have a lack of trust in students. There has been a report of a professor at Howard University, who has a stated policy on his syllabi that if there is a family death/funeral on an exam day, too bad. Another story reopened the debate about laptops being used for taking notes (there had been other studies saying that hand-writing notes in class is better) and then the usual refrain about whether or not laptops should be banned. These are extreme stories, but they have at their core the same message: students are not to be trusted.

The core message is also: we as faculty know better than you.

But do we? Do we really know what students are doing when they are not in our classes? All that "outside the classroom reality" does impact them when they are with us for our 3 hours (or so) a week. Do we really know the familial, financial, and personal stresses they are balancing? Could we try to be a little more generous about why they are on the phones or why they miss class?

I am not saying that I am always understanding. I had a frank talk with my classes this past week about how distracted I get when a student is checking his or her phone in class. I am trying to connect with every student in every class (which may or may not be a ridiculous goal, but I hold to it anyway), and when a student is on his or her phone, I get pulled "off my game." My students seemed to understand that. I tweeted last weekend about how I view my students as collaborators in the classroom, that we are learning together. A student from one of my classes saw that tweet and "liked" it.

But to be truly co-collaborators with our students, we have to trust them. I know that sometimes they do not read for class. They procrastinate. I try to set up my classes so that they want to read article or at least see why I am asking them to do it. I want them to want to start the paper earlier. True, not every student will, all the time. But I am willing to trust them to do the right thing most of the time. If they sometimes "get me," so be it. In fact, it is they who are missing an opportunity.

At the end of the day, I make the decision to trust my students and if they are not doing what they should be in class - and to my mind that means coming to class, being attentive, engaging with me and others and the material - then I talk with them. Because in partnerships, both sides try to meet each other in the middle. Since as the professor I have more of the power in the relationship, I feel it's my duty to take the first step and demonstrate my trust of them in the classroom.

Students, I am very interested in hearing from you: how do faculty demonstrate trust to you, and if they do, does that affect they way that you learn?

Another season is in the record books for the McDaniel College Green Terror Football Team. It was not the record that we were all hoping for, and I was not able to travel to the last game, which was away. But I watched it on the livestream, and once again I marveled at the grit, resilience, and indefatigable spirit of the players, the coaches, and the fans - parents - who I knew were in the stands. I've come to love all aspects of the culture of this game, but it's the people who make it the best.

First, appreciation must go to the coaches, chief among them Head Coach Michael Dailey, who said yes from the start when approached to have a female art history professor as the first faculty mentor to the team. We reminisce now often about how we were going to "figure it out," and we have. I'm grateful for his patience, his answering of my thousands of questions (I am an academic!), and his embrace of just about every one of my ideas. I have made it a point to get to know the other coaches a bit better this year, though I could have done more on that score. Yet, I know how busy they are.

Second, the parents have been fun to get to know, too. What a hardy bunch! And these people know how to party! I can't name names, but I have been gifted with more sausage, sweets, and alcoholic shots than I have ever in my life. At first, it was overwhelming and I did not know what to say or do, which makes professors as a rule uncomfortable. But as I try to tell my students: lean into what makes you uneasy and take a risk. I am glad that I did so because interacting with the parents has been a joy I did not anticipate when I took on this role.

And finally, but certainly not last, is my appreciation for the students. Among the graduating bunch this year are some of the first players who sought me out when I did not know what I was doing. I don't know why they trusted me, as I hardly think I gave off an attitude of confidence about my role. All I can think is that my desire to help and to support somehow came through. And I listened. By listening I learned so much. Because many people read this blog and because it's public, I will not name their names. However, they will always be among the most important students in my twenty-year teaching career in higher ed. They (hopefully) know who they are. They made me a better professor, by helping me see how they came alive in debates, games, and other active learning in the classroom. Several of them taught me about what it is like to be a black young man navigating today's society and some first-generation students shared with me the angst at the costs they were incurring. They taught me about grit and resilience, which I have blogged about here before. They taught me collectively about teamwork and why that is important.

In the end they have offered me a new way to express my creativity as a professor, a (sometimes) administrator, and a speaker on student athletes and teaching and learning. I've been given a new outlet for the next few years to help guide and shape higher education, specifically on how institutions can better support student athletes holistically at the (NCAA) Division III level. I've spoken at a few institutions, have a book proposal in about my experiences, and will be speaking at the NCAA's Annual Convention in January.

To the entire McDaniel College Football Team: a huge thank you from the faculty mentor. Thanks for making me a member of the team. And when is Spring Ball?!?!

The 2018 Team (photo: Katie Ogorzalek)

I have been thinking about the issue of helping students with issues and problems that are not always academic in nature. Students might come to faculty with issues about their personal lives regarding relationships, finances, identity; the list can go on. This type of listening is often referred to as "emotional labor" and is sometimes required to be done at colleges and universities. Often it is noted that this work is  disproportionately performed by women, and it is often not compensated financially. While harassment and other forms of discrimination also happen in the academic world that disproportionately hinder women, I am referring specifically to "the invisible labor of mentoring students [that] isn’t rewarded in the tenure-and-promotion process" that is discussed in this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education. I would argue that this invisible work is not academic advising. This work goes well beyond the role of academic advisor.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately, for my work as the mentor to the football team has me often wading in waters for which my Ph.D. did not give me much training. And it is work for which I am not specifically financially compensated by my institution. It could, of course, be lumped into that catch-all of "service to the institution," which can mean anything from committee work, to participating in faculty or administrative searches, to advising, and to participating in any number of "ad hoc" groups.

For me, this diagram offers a different way of thinking about my mentor work:

Related image

While I still believe that it should be compensated financially in some way, I am finding that there is a reward - an intrinsic reward - in doing this work. The gratitude that is expressed to me by my students when I listen to them and help them form a plan to fix whatever problem they are having reminds me why I teach at a small school that says we genuinely care about students. We are part of the Colleges That Change Lives book and the website for CTCL has this quotation for our entry:

“This [McDaniel College] is a community of nice, earnest, unassuming, quietly self-assured teenagers who realize they are getting a first-rate education and who regard their teachers as their friends and mentors.
Colleges That Change Lives

I am proud to be a part of that. While I work to make sure that the mentoring work that I am doing will one day be financially compensated, I will continue to realize that I'm in the sweet spot with my role as faculty mentor to the football team. I am good at it, it's what the world needs right now (at least on my campus), I can be paid for it (though my pay is for my teaching primarily), and possibly most importantly, I love what I am doing. As the diagram above shows, it's my profession and vocation, but it's also my mission and passion. They all align to that sweet green star that reflects my purpose.

May we all find a way to the green star of our purpose. And be paid for doing it. While this post doesn't advocate that this work should not be paid for, I would also say that it has its own rewards. If you're good at this work, and you're at a place that values it, I hope you'll continue to do it. And if you are a tenured faculty member, I hope you'll think about doing it. There are so many faculty on the tenure track - and many more off it - that expectations for this sort of work would be nearly abusing their roles. However, if you, like me, find yourself in the privileged position of tenured full or associate professor, think about this type of mentoring work. Because this world, and the young people trying to make their way in it, need people to guide them, friend them, and mentor them.

* After I published this post, this related article popped up on Twitter:, and my college, McDaniel is mentioned: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/showing-that-they-care-college-faculty-called-on-to-aid-floundering-students/2018/10/07/6b67d098-c6a4-11e8-b1ed-1d2d65b86d0c_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.b2771064700a

I have been teaching for over twenty years and higher education is under tremendous pressure and my college is experiencing this as well. I just started reading Jeffrey Selingo's book There is Life After College. I am doing this to try to understand the role of higher education in America now. It's very different than it was even a decade ago, and Selingo offers some context for that.

I have done a lot of reading because I want to provide the best education and experience for any student who comes across my doorway, either the doorway of my office or my classroom. Sometimes I find myself overwhelmed at the different issues I must focus on. When I have a student  in my office, or when they come to my class, I am thinking of any number of things, like:

  • "It is my responsibility to teach this student and to be sure my course helps her on her way to graduation."
  • "I need to make sure this student understands and can communicate the skills he has learned in my class in any interview situation so that he can get the job."
  • "I need to retain this student because her continued attendance at my institution is important."
  • "I want to be sure that I engage these students so that they continue to want to learn and finish their degree."
  • "I want to be sure that this student doesn't end up a statistic of the millions who have some college, but no degree and student debt."

At times all of these thoughts can overwhelm and paralyze. And nearly all of those sentences should have an exclamation point after them, because each one seems pressing and necessary and URGENT. Sometimes I think I should just teach and NOT think about all of this. But is that really the extent of my job? Just teaching art history? I don't think so. I do think that my role at a small, liberal arts college is not just to teach. It's to help guide.

And yet, the more I read about our changing economy the more stressed I become for our students. The stakes are high. More and more it seems that the value that we place on individuals is really all about money. We do not hear about movies over the weekend that were good in a creative sense, just which ones made the most money at the box office. Everything is a value exchange.

I teach art history. How do I translate that so that my students can benefit from the skills that my discipline offers, while still helping them be successful in their eventual careers? How do I do that when art history is usually the degree that is maligned, as in a 2014 speech by then-President Obama (which you can read here). Or when it's mentioned in a podcast as a major that even students police among themselves: "Why are you majoring in Art History?!" according to William Deresiewicz in a recent episode of the Unmistakable Creative podcast (you can read about/listen to it here).

My institution is wrestling with the big question of the role of our college in society, what we teach and our mission. We are a private, liberal arts college and I know we help students. I know we're important. Yet, so much is changing around us. I believe strongly in the core of the liberal arts and want my students to be successful. Ultimately that is why I am mentoring students that happen to be on the football team, because I see such potential in them, and yet also a reticence among some of them to be disciplined enough in academics to have it help them launch a career.

I'd love to hear from my former students about how their experiences launched them - or did not. What would you do differently? What do you wish your alma mater did differently?

And today, I'll decide how best to teach tomorrow, and I'll also be planning mentoring meetings this week with students. That work must carry on.

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