Sunday, December 16, 2012

Teaching loads: sessionals vs. regular faculty, UVic English

Who does more teaching in the UVic English department, sessional instructors or regular faculty, and what distinctions are there in their teaching responsibilities?

At this point I don't have the data to compare ourselves against other departments at UVic, or against English departments at other Canadian institutions, but in time I hope to obtain that information.

All data is current as of December 16, 2012. Note that I'll be talking in terms of sections rather than courses (since we teach multiple sections of many courses), and that I'm not distinguishing between 300- and 400-level courses, because our program considers them equivalent. Also note that I'm excluding courses taught through the Faculty of Engineering by instructors associated with English.

As well, I use the terms "sessional instructor" and "regular faculty," even though there are distinctions within each category, and some overlaps between the categories. Another day I'll talk about some of those issues, but for today I want only to consider them as distinct categories.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Literature, in composition

Over the next while, I'll be writing a series of posts about ENGL 135, the main composition course at the University of Victoria. I'm the coordinator for the course, after having acted for one year as the Writing Advisor responsible for our department's writing courses (excluding our Professional Writing minor), and having spent the previous four years working closely with the previous Advisor to develop and modify the course. The actual Advisor is the one with authority over the course, but because of my experience coordinating and teaching the course (11 sections over the last three years), I've got lots to say about it, so I'm going to say some of it here.

In 2012/13, we're running 58 sections of ENGL 135, one of them online, that are being taught by 25 different instructors (23 of whom are sessional, offering 55 of the 58 sections). There's an enrolment cap of 36 students in each section, that's exceeded only in extremely rare circumstances. It's mostly a "writing across the curriculum" version of first-year composition (WAC), with a heavy emphasis on "writing to learn" activities: and yes, with 36 students, it's unwieldy at best.

Enough background: on to the actual post.

I gather that there has been some discussion recently of whether the course (as currently designed) could include a literature component, and whether it might be a good thing to include such a component. In brief, it's sometimes said that English is the one discipline excluded from the current version of the course, and that there are arguments for viewing a late-term literature unit as a kind of "reward" for both students and instructors.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Composition MOOC

Until I see someone – and it might be me – teach composition in a MOOC-style environment, I'm going to assume that it's impossible and/or doomed.

Before you write me off as opposed to large-format online instruction, let me first briefly explain the ways in which I think MOOCs can be terrific:
  • I can't imagine a better way to teach committed students about subjects easily rendered in visual form: circuitry, programming, suturing, pharmacology, and so on; and
  • I'm absolutely convinced that it's possible to teach deeply committed students about subjects NOT easily rendered in visual form: sociological principles, political philosophy, biological taxa, stages of human history, literary form, and so on.
But I'm not the least bit ready to accept, on no more than a purely theoretical basis, that unengaged students will ever be persuadable through MOOC-style learning to focus on a subject whose content is innately unattractive to them.

St. Patrick's Day Party Gone Awry
By user Eilonwy77, at
Bring on all the testimonials you want to: humanities graduates with great jobs; executives saying that while job training can happen at work, writing ability is golden; science professors bemoaning the writing skills of their own best students. None of that matters, because really it's not a student thing.

Every teacher of English has the same experience. Each time you're introduced to someone new, the odds are excellent that you'll hear some version of “oh no, I'll have to be careful about the way I talk!” Get into a conversation about the details of your work, and more often than not you'll probably hear someone confess – wistfully, faux-cockily, worriedly – something like “I was just never good at English.”

In sum, people are afraid of writing courses that aren't courses in creative writing. They're never, ever going to sign up for a composition MOOC, because enrolment in composition courses depends on coercion and institutional compulsion, and MOOCs have no hammer.

However, my university is considering – hopefully just as part of a strategic exercise – moving its composition courses toward something MOOCish. In other words, suddenly there'll be a hammer, so the focus moves away from recruitment and toward assessment. And that's a seriously thorny question.

Dr. Kristin Sainini is teaching a “Writing in the Sciences” MOOC this fall, with 30,000 initial registrants, so that's something to keep an eye on. MOOCs that have engaged with the question of writing have emphasized peer evaluation, in something of a throwback to Peter Elbow's 1970s classic Writing Without Teachers, but my university – like many others – prohibits instructors from using student evaluations in the calculation of final grades. If a course will ask 300 students to become better writers, those students will have to write texts that will need assessment; the instructor won't be able to do that volume of grading, so the only option would be graders or teaching assistants.

Got any research supporting the idea that writing instruction should be kept separate from feedback on student writing? Well, if you do, then you've got the first piece of evidence that might get me to think that a MOOC-style composition course could work. Wow, do you ever need to come up with more evidence, but it'd be a first step.