In my teaching, I aim to help my students with the immediate necessity of learning course material while incorporating other important skills and knowledge that I think will help them in their other classes as well as in their personal lives and in the workplace. I see the following methodologies that I use as interlocking components that together fulfill my goal of creating transformative learning opportunities for students in all of the classes that I teach.
Based on my own hard fought acquisition of good and effective note taking skills and my experience with using those skills in academic and workplace settings, I knew firsthand that note taking is important for successful students and professionals. Also, I have observed how many City Tech students of all standings lack these foundational skills. Therefore, I have slowly integrated more and more note taking skill building into my classes. For example, my most recent ENG2420, Science Fiction class featured early lecture modules on different note taking strategies. These alone should help students who want to learn. However, I wanted to incentivize their learning these skills by creating two major grades in the class–a midterm notebook evaluation and a final notebook evaluation. Throughout the class, I reminded students how good note taking will also serve them well on the weekly reading and lecture summaries they write on OpenLab and on their studying for the final exam.
Writing and Composition
In addition to teaching students principles of rhetoric and audience awareness, I have students do a lot of writing in my classes. Of course, research shows that students today are likely doing far more writing than students were doing 20 years ago largely because of their reliance on digitally mediated communication platforms and technologies. However, I ask students to write more formally (this can, of course, vary by the type of task, project, or deliverable) and to perform cognitive work with each iterative writing assignment.
For example, I assign students to make notes in most of my classes. Each week, students are then asked to summarize their notes in a 250-word minimum essay posted as a comment on our OpenLab site. They are taking the bits of lecture information in their notes and then expressing them in sentences and paragraphs. This is active cognitive work that helps them retain what they have learned while giving them the additional benefit of extra writing practice, which has been shown to improve writing acumen better than formal lessons in writing, such as grammar drills.
Similarly, I have students create job application portfolios in ENG1133, Specialized Communication for Technology Students. In addition to the writing that students do to create the final deliverables or documents, such as a resume and job application letter, I ask students to write about their career goals, what they are currently doing to achieve those goals, analyses of the companies where they wish to work, etc. Writing about these things provides students with active engagement of the thinking that goes into finding a job and starting a career while also giving them additional writing practice.
In other assignments, such as presentations or multimodal compositions using YouTube or Twine, students write the scaffolding components that make those things possible–outlines, pitches, scripts, beat sheets, storyboards, abstracts, etc. Throughout all of my classes, I remind students that writing and communication in general are key to everything that they do and that they can leverage writing to accomplish so much if they embrace it and repurpose it to their ends.
“The street finds its own use for things.”
This aphorism appears in much of the science fiction writer William Gibson’s fiction. It’s a simple idea that people can and will find other uses for the tools and technology that we use. For example, a hammer can drive nails, but it can also be used as a weapon, paperweight, door stop, gavel, counterweight, etc. Similarly, an iPad was originally designed primarily as a device for consuming media, but its potential for creating media quickly became one of its strongest selling points and even spawned a specialized line of “Pro” designated models. For my students, I often refer to this saying to remind them that they have the power to repurpose, reimagine, and reclaim the hardware and software that mediate our lives and work. But, they need to acquire deeper understanding of how those tools work in order to imagine other possibilities for them. Essentially, they should not be bound by the dictatates of convention or user manuals. Through the acquisition of knowledge and its application to achieve their goals with the tools that they have at hand, they will attain a greater level of control over the tools that they can use to achieve their goals.
Peer Review and Feedback
In all of the major writing assignments, I build in time during class for students to give peer review and gain invaluable feedback on their writing and other compositions. I build in time to teach peer review principles–spending more time and building more scaffolding in ENG1101, English Composition I than in ENG2570, Writing in the Workplace. Also, I encourage students to ask for feedback from friends and relatives with the promise that incorporating additional feedback into their subsequent drafts will earn them a higher grade. During studio time, I provide feedback to students as well. In small classes, I give substantive feedback to everyone on a regular basis, but in larger classes, I give targeted feedback. Also, I invite students to email me excerpts from their papers for additional feedback on a section or paragraph. The principles of peer review, I tell my students, can be used for other work that they might be doing in other classes or later in the workplace.
I provide substantive, written responses to student work to highlight those parts that work and offer suggestions for improvement. I encourage students to think about their major projects as having more uses than earning a grade. While a grade must be given, I want to help students conceptualize how their projects contribute to their learning and can serve other purposes to demonstrate their knowledge, critical thinking, and communication skills to other audiences (e.g., as part of a portfolio or job application package).
On low-stakes assignments, I grade based on student effort and engagement. I explain to students that this work helps them develop their thinking, engage the ideas of the class, and prepare them for the larger projects in the class.
On major projects, I rely on the rubric shown below, which was developed by Georgia Tech’s Writing Program and is described in “A Programmatic Ecology of Assessment: Using a Common Rubric to Evaluate Multimodal Processes and Artifacts” by Rebecca E. Burnett, Andy Frazee, Kathleen Hanggi, and Amanda Madden (Computers and Composition, no. 31, 2004, pp. 53-66).
Importance of Self-Directed Learning and Studio Time
Each of my classes include one or more major research-driven projects. Instead of defining the subject of my students’ research projects, I frame them so that students can use the project as an opportunity to demonstrate learning about something that has personal or professional importance to them. I encourage them to make these projects useful to them outside of the class. If they need a writing sample for a graduate school application, they can use the research project as a way to create a first draft. If they want to add a post to their LinkedIn profile relating to their career, they can use the research project to do the necessary background reading to write an informative and citation-rich essay. The idea is that I can guide students through creating the types of documents called for in a class’ learning outcomes while leveraging their curiosity, interests, and personal goals to make the project meaningful to them. I teach them how to do the necessary research and where to look online and in the library stacks for the knowledge that they seek. Then, it is up to the student to follow up with these resources. I set aside time in class for students to do this research on their own. I circulate to provide further guidance and assistance. Building on note-taking, summary writing, and professional style citations (e.g., MLA, APA, etc.), students take part in self-directed learning while doing the research for the project.
Relating to this self-directed learning is studio time in my writing classes. In ENG1101, English Composition I, there is the additional contact hour, which can be used for writing, peer review, and other hands-on work that supports student writing skill building. In my Professional and Technical Writing classes, I build in studio time for students to work on projects individually and in groups. I circulate and respond to questions from students while the class works on a project. This gives students additional time with a desktop computer and it allows me to provide help in a targeted manner as one student’s research or writing question tends to be unique. However, these targeted responses do reveal patterns that I can then bring back to the class as a whole.
Digital Literacy as Consumers and Creators
It should be even more apparent now than before following the pandemic lockdown and the shift to distance education at CUNY that is vitally important to our students that they acquire greater digital literacy both as consumers and creators. In their roles as consumers, they need to be able to evaluate the information that they read, hear, and watch. Being isolated during lockdown and after in the era of social distancing, their interaction with others and the world is largely mediated by the Internet, computing technology, and wireless connectivity. Teaching students about the digital communication and browsing apps that they use helps them acquire some critical perspective to evaluate their relationship to it. Similarly, their role as creators using digital tools requires its own critical edge so that they use tools meaningfully (e.g., choose the tools deliberately to accomplish specific tasks) and knowingly (e.g., should you be concerned that TikTok is owned by a Chinese-based company?). Building in some discussion in lectures helps students navigate these issues and acquire more digital literacy. Also, it signals to them that there is additional learning that they should do on their own to understand the digital tools and resources that they rely on.
Lead by Example
I tell my students that I would never ask them to do something that I haven’t already done myself at least once. I try to establish rapport with them by acknowledging they are in a similar situation as I was at an earlier time. As a former student, I’m aware of the difficulties in understanding assignments and aiming to accomplish a project to a professor’s liking. Therefore, I build in examples into my lectures. In some cases, as in ENG1133, Specialized Communication for Technology Students, the class and I will develop basic versions of documents together–I use the lectern computer while they work at their desks. Classmates help one another while I circulate around the room to make sure everyone leaves class knowing what a particular document should look like and what it should address as per the assignment’s guidelines.
In another example taken from ENG1710, Introduction to Language and Technology, I provide students with a sample research essay that I wrote, a public speaking script based on the essay, a PowerPoint to accompany the script, and in class, I deliver a presentation using the script and the PowerPoint. These things the students and I dissect and discuss so that they understand what they should aim to do on these projects in the class as well as what they should be thinking about as they are doing the self-directed learning that accompanies their research.
Also, I provide students with models of different kinds of documents that I have made available on my blog, dynamicsubspace.net. Some examples include:
- Personal Cloud Storage with Syncthing and a Tiny Raspberry Pi Zero W Computer (instructions)
- Memories of Skateboarding and Nostalgic Assembly of a Re-Issued Mike McGill Powell-Peralta Skull & Snake Skateboard (instructions)
- How to Build a Sparring Lightsaber with Parts from Home Depot and Spare Parts (with thoughts on learning and haptics) (instructions)
- Neuroscience and Science Fiction Literature Bibliography (working bibliography)
- Skateboard Studies Bibliography (working bibliography)
- Undergraduate Science Fiction Final Paper, Exploring SF Themes of Human Technomediation in Blake’s 7, July 26, 2002 (research essay)
- Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Thesis, Networks of Science, Technology, and Science Fiction During the American Cold War, December 12, 2005 (research essay)
- Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Astronomy Class, PHYS 2021, Sunset Observation Project, Fall 2004 (report)
I tell students that it’s absolutely important that they learn how to join discourses or the big conversations. The most important discourse for them is, I think, their field of study. So, in my technical writing focused classes, I design their projects around them learning about the conversations in their technical field of study or specialization. This begins with learning some of the basic concepts and terms, perhaps beginning with Wikipedia. Then, they graduate to using some of the online jargon dictionaries available through the City Tech Library. Next, they use those terms that they’ve learned to find cutting edge research in journals through the library’s databases. Once they understand something about say one term, they can summarize and cite those ideas while laying the groundwork for their own ideas–their contribution to discourse.
Besides doing this kind of work in a project, I also model this for students in some classes. For example, in ENG2420, Science Fiction, I introduce students to the history of Science Fiction through literary works alongside lectures that draw on conversations fans, editors, and scholars have had about what exactly is SF. This pairs the historical progression of SF literary works with the historical progression about how people discussed what SF is and what its purpose is.
Similarly, in ENG1710, Introduction to Language and Technology, I guide students through what some might consider very challenging readings from the likes of McLuhan, Derrida, and Ong. But, I teach students how to test the waters of these heady works by turning to other sources–Wikipedia, Google, YouTube–to find out what are the main ideas that they should be looking for before endeavoring to read some of these essays. I arranged the readings specifically so that one leads to others through their ideas and citations. They learn about orality and oral culture, which leads to literacy and literate culture, which eventually leads to digital literacy and digital culture. I show the students over time how these ideas progress and build on one another in a great conversation–discourse.
Ground Practice in Theory
While many of the classes that we teach at City Tech have a stronger focus on praxis and doing, I always ground the work that I ask my students to do in theory. In the case of essay writing, I teach the fundamentals of rhetoric and audience awareness to ENG1101, English Composition I students and give a refresher to students in other classes, such as ENG2420, Science Fiction or ENG2570, Writing in the Workplace. Other classes, such as ENG1710, Introduction to Language and Technology are theory-focused, so I invert this so that students are doing things relating to what they are learning about, such as applying McLuhan’s media tetrad to dissect their favorite mobile app or developing a workflow with Google Docs to complete their final research project and presentation.
Life and Workplace Lessons
Having spent a number of years working in the private sector in IT and other jobs, I share what I have learned and continue to learn through my own research and connections with former colleagues. Thanks to the school of hard knocks, I have a lot of advice to offer students who are on the earliest stages of their career. As asides, tangents, and relevant stories, I weave some of these lessons into lectures where they might have a connection to the work that we are doing and provides them with a nugget of information that might be helpful later on when the time comes. Also, I share my own academic experiences with them so that they can interact in a more professional manner with other faculty at City Tech or elsewhere. The main idea about why I think these things are so important is that I don’t want my students to experience the same pitfalls that I did. If I can help them be more successful in their learning and their work, then I think this is an important additional to each of my classes.
Importance of Archives
I introduce students to the past through various archives. In ENG2420, Science Fiction, students can see the historical progression of the genre through the stacks of magazines in the City Tech Science Fiction Collection. Likewise, I share my Retrocomputing Collection of vintage computers and related hardware with students in PTW classes to use as a research topic or inspiration for another assignment. I believe that it is important for students to understand how our culture has developed over time and to recognize that Whig history, meaning progressing toward ideals, is not true in all cases (e.g., corporate maneuvering, acquisitions, and predatory hiring has eliminated promising products and platforms to favor those with greater capital backing).
Open Educational Resources (OER) and Zero Textbook Cost (ZTC)
Thanks to serving as the English Department’s Bookstore Liaison for three years, I learned firsthand how much our students are paying for their textbooks. From this eyeopening experience, I resolved to make my syllabi use Open Education Resources (OER) and/or Zero Textbook Cost (ZTC) materials always (or as much as possible). This serves two purposes. The most obvious is that it reduces the out-of-pocket costs of our students. The less obvious is that it dovetails very well with the needs of building our students’ digital literacy skills. When I offer students something “free,” it leads to conversations about why use these things, what are they, and who made them. It does require more work on my part to evaluate materials and find high quality work that fulfills the needs of the class, but the trade off is, I think, worth it. Also, it encourages students to learn about how to find high quality knowledge that might be hiding in plain sight or obscured behind layers of a website. The Internet Archive has been an invaluable resource. Having students seek out NYPL and BklynPL cards is also helpful–they need access to these resources and they open up learning opportunities for them beyond the needs of my classes (such as free access to Lynda.com’s training materials online through the NYPL).
Provide Information in Multiple Modalities
In all of my teaching, I anchor my teaching with OpenLab, City Tech’s opensource platform for learning, sharing, and working. I use to disseminate syllabi and assignments, provide a place where students may publish their work (thus gaining a resume building “WordPress content creator” line), and encourage feedback and conversation among everyone in the class including me.
My lectures are dynamic but follow a clearly articulated lesson plan. I use websites, videos, and demonstrations to engage students and maintain their attention. I leverage my enthusiasm about these things that I teach to increase the energy in the classroom and to show students that it is okay to be excited about learning, too.
I explain to students that they can find details about lectures and readings in multiple places and modalities. There are our in-person class meetings (pre-pandemic, of course). There is the OpenLab, where I post reminders, announcements, and other class relevant information. There is my YouTube channel where I provide pre-recorded and after-class recordings of lectures. I encourage students to share notes and audio record lectures. The idea is to help students engage the material through more than one medium or channel or location so that they aren’t hindered by a single way.
Repetition, Rephrasing, and Defining
This is one of the most important changes that I made to my lectures while teaching at City Tech. I rely on meticulously written notes and lesson plans to lead each class. This helps me stay on topic and use the time that my students and I have together to its maximum potential. I have folded into the lesson plans and my own dynamic off-the-cuff speaking to repeat key information, rephrase how I explain something–often offering multiple examples, and pausing to define keywords–first inviting students to offer their own definitions–before synthesizing their suggestions into a working definition. When it comes to keywords, I call out that I want everyone to write it down in their notes and its definition, because it will score them big money on Jeopardy. Also, I pitch this extra elaboration to them as a way to help them retain all of the lecture material, especially considering how easy it is to miss one thing due to a distraction. I am self-deprecating about it as well, saying that it has a lot to do with my absent mindedness.
Working Together to Overcome Challenges
While my syllabi provide due dates and hard deadlines, I always encourage my students to talk with me if something is keeping them from succeeding in the class. I explain to students that I don’t want things outside of the class derailing their potential for success, so we can devise a plan often reinforced with a contract to keep them on track by finding alternatives that are fair and equitable while permitting students who want to succeed an opportunity to do so.
I tell my students how I can chart my life around meeting various individuals or taking part in unique opportunities. These were things that were around my higher education student experience, but they were not required in a class. For example, I went to a talk given by Stephen Wolfram, the creator of the symbolic manipulation software Mathematica, at Georgia Tech in 1996. Talking with him and learning firsthand about the power of that software made me an enthusiast who still uses the software to this day to tinker with mathematical concepts and even incorporate into some of the grant work that I did on the NEH-funded “History of Digital Technology” project at City Tech. Or, how I spent a day talking with science fiction writer Kathleen Ann Goonan in 2004. Through our conversation, I decided to change my career goals and go to graduate school with the new goal of becoming a professor of English specializing in Science Fiction Studies. Had I not gone to Wolfram’s talk, or come to campus early before my classes to speak with Goonan, I would likely be doing other things than what I am right now. In addition to encouraging students to partake of these kinds of opportunities, I announce those that I learn about and I incentivize them with extra credit writing opportunities in which they tell me about what I missed so that I can experience these opportunities vicariously through them.