Where do you get stuck?: Process-oriented planning and organizing for teaching

I wanted to finish this PALS post yesterday but here it is today, and I have had trouble focusing on a topic to write about. It’s not because I don’t have a lot of ideas swirling in my head. Rather, I have been using much of my teacher brain the last couple of weeks to focus on course planning and organizing, and I just can’t get those swirling ideas about actual teaching to settle. So I have decided to lean in and write about the process of planning, and some ways I have tried to be a little more reflective about how that process works for me, or more specifically, where my process often breaks down.

I will spare you the details of my current course prep because they aren’t that exciting (my brother on the other end of the phone this weekend as I talk about my planning: “Brie, I literally stopped listening.”) But I am probably doing the most planning/organizing/figuring things out/being confused about how things work that I have done since the first year I was a teacher — oh, blessed be those who have never written an assignment sheet before. My circumstances this year are unique to my situation: new job, new education system, newish country, etc. However, I think some of my reflections might be more universal.

First, this post is written in part to recognize all of the administrative/planning/organizing labor that we have to do as teachers. That labor is often not thought of as an important part of the job of teaching. I’m not specifically talking about the kind of planning that involves envisioning texts for a course or making sure the course assignments meet the learning objectives. Rather, I’m thinking of things like posting to learning management systems, keeping track of add/drop dates, getting your room changed because the assigned room isn’t big enough, and so many more. Of course, every job has these more mundane but time-consuming aspects. However, whenever I had an office job, that kind of work — scheduling meetings, updating calendars, communicating with team members effectively-— was considered part of the work that I did. Whereas, now I have trouble giving myself “credit” for that work. I will feel like I have not accomplished much that day if all I did was put up course content on the LMS and finish planning the schedule for the semester.

For me personally, feeling like I didn’t do enough work makes me feel kind of bad about myself, which leads me to other kinds of time wasting/unproductivity. I have to feel accomplished to stay in an accomplishing-stuff zone, so not acknowledging organizing tasks as work has negative effects on what I achieve generally. In a broader sense too, we need to acknowledge all of the work of teaching and talk about it too. We need to talk about it to each other and also to everyone else we know. I don’t think people know how much and how many kinds of WORK go into teaching, and maybe being just a little louder about it would help us value teaching more and show that value with things like higher pay.

The increase in my need to organize and plan this semester got me thinking about the process of completing those kinds of tasks. One of the reasons that I like writing about teaching is that I love process. I like to think about how I get from point A to point B. But I, honestly, except for buying a lot of paper planners, have not thought much about my own process for getting mundane things accomplished. I have thought about my process of writing, certainly, and researching, but I haven’t dissected the process of me writing an email to the class, for example.

When I did break down the process a bit, I started to notice a few places in the process where I routinely get stuck. I don’t really have any solutions for dealing with these places yet, but it has been helpful to pull back and just explore a bit where I get frustrated and think about why that is. What follows are a few of my “stuck places”:

  1. Too many ideas. I love to generate ideas. I have a lot of ideas. But often I start too many things at once and that doesn’t allow me to focus on finishing them. See number 4.
  2. Not understanding how long things take me. I regularly block on 25 minutes for things that take me 3 hours or a morning for things that take me all day. Over-estimating what I can accomplish makes me feel unaccomplished when I can’t get everything done.
  3. Not being able to vary the intensity of my work. I was never a very good skim reader. And I’m not very good at knowing what kind of focus I need to put into something. I’m either completely focused or metaphorically picking dandelions. Putting a lot of effort into everything I do work-wise might sound like a good thing, but I have found that it can make things take way longer than necessary. See number 2. Yes, I can beautifully format a table in Word, but what if I just didn’t?
  4. Getting over the finish line. I have a lot of things from drafts of assignment sheets to academic articles not just half done but more like 75-90% done. Part of the procrastination here is trying to do too many things at once. See number 1. But another issue is once things are finished then they have to go out into the world. That is super scary with academic articles, but it is also even a little scary with assignment sheets.

I don’t want to suggest that my goal here is to “fix” these things and become a more productive worker. I see you, capitalism. But recognizing them and learning to troubleshoot a bit might give me more peace as a worker. Or at least be just a tiny bit less hard on myself.

What are your process concerns when it comes to work? Where does your process work well, and where does it break down? Comment below or tweet us with thoughts!

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Creative Writing Pedagogy in Literature Courses: A SSAWW Roundtable

In November I went to the Society for the Study of American Women Writers (SSAWW) conference in Denver (which, if you have never attended and study American women writers you should because it is the best mix of scholarly rigor and friendliness that you will find). I gave a presentation on a panel about capitalism and labor in the 19th century and also was lucky to be invited to be on a roundtable about teaching creative writing in the literature classroom. I want to write a little bit about this roundtable here. It was organized by Angela Sorby and featured scholars from grad students to full professors and from literature scholars who don’t identify as creative writers to poets, fiction, and non-fiction writers. It was nice to have perspectives from scholars in different positions and also to have some time to open up discussion with the audience.

Since I’m writing this in December, I’m not sure I have the memory to give detailed overviews of everyone’s presentations but here were some of the main assignments that were discussed by the presenters:

  • Anthologies of poems that included original work by the students
  • Imitation poems where students write in the style of a poem studied in class
  • Dialogues to respond to song lyrics
  • Multi-media texts to accompany a piece of literature
  • In-class outlines of stories using the conventions of plots

While all of these approaches were different, in my opinion, the general consensus was that such projects are fun but they aren’t just fun. By giving students permission to create, they flex their intellectual muscles in ways that just consuming literature does not allow them to do. They are more inspired, more engaged, and more clearly able to understand what it means to create the works they are studying. From a teacher perspective, it seemed that many of the panelists and audience members felt a sense of freedom when they challenged themselves to think beyond the close reading paper and were occasionally surprised and often happy with the projects that students came up with in their nontraditional assignments.

That doesn’t mean that adding creative writing literature assignments is not without its challenges. One of the big topics of discussion was assessment. Do you assess the students creative writing as a piece of creative writing? Or are there other means of assessing the projects? The approaches to the assessment varied. Some of the panelists do assess the creative writing while others assigned tasks like reflection papers with the assignments and gave more weight to those in their assessment. Regardless of the means of assessment, there was agreement that what was being assessed needed to be clear to the students. It should always be apparent to the students why they are doing what they are doing. This is the case in traditional and nontraditional assignments. A great piece of advice that I once received was that you need to teach your students how to do the assignments that you are asking them to do. This is especially true if you are asking them to do a little bit out of the norm of what they expect.

Because creating new assignments can be, for lack of a better word, scary, we also discussed how to mitigate some of the potential pitfalls of the assignments. One of the biggest tips would be to think through the assignment not only from your perspective as the teacher but also from the perspective of your students. How might they see it? What are outcomes that you might not have thought of that they could come up with? I would also add that you will make mistakes, and you might not fully be able to anticipate those mistakes, but if you add time for your students and you to review the assignment and think through their plans, then some of those difficulties can be averted.

via alyssa

Two of the individual roundtable presentations had their origins in PALS posts. I talked about how I stumbled upon the idea of using creative writing assignments in the classroom when I created an in-class activity for my introduction to literature students that involved writing the plot to a detective story. I wrote about this activity for PALS here. The students that I did this activity with were mostly taking the course for a general education requirement, so I didn’t make the connection that they would want to explore their potential as writers. I didn’t make this connection even though I had already spent years telling my composition students that they were all writers. This was obviously a failure of my imagination. I think of this as my “aha” moment of how fun and useful thinking like a creative writer can be for students.

The second PALS post that was represented in the roundtable was this piece by Melissa Range. Range talks specifically about using imitation poems in the literature classroom and writes about the concept that “placing yourself in the writer’s position allows you to think about each decision she has made in crafting her work.” Additionally, Range was one of the panelists to advocate for having students write a reflection about the process of their imitation, including comparison of their work and the original.

Finally, Angela Sorby, the organizer of the roundtable, was kind enough to provide an overview of her presentation for this PALS post. Please find her explanation below:

Like Marla Anzalone (a co-presenter), I assign curated, themed micro-anthologies in a lower-division genre course for non-majors. Part of my aim is to get students to engage with poetry across historical time periods, so I require that they include—along with an original poem and three from contemporary sources—one Emily Dickinson poem. These disparate poems must form a thematic group; when I last taught the course, one young woman chose the theme “body dysmorphia,” while another, a nursing major, chose “hospice care.” Students are asked to title their anthologies; to choose illustrations; to write headnotes for each poem (including their own); and to compose an editorial introduction. This project generates a small, accessible conversation with no outsiders: the student, the chosen contemporary poets, and Emily Dickinson are all posited as working poets, jointly exploring a common topic through language and form. Rather than groping for a “correct” reading of Dickinson, students are empowered to find what they need in her poems. This is not a traditional scholarly approach to Dickinson, but it mirrors the way many passionate non-academic readers (and some poets, even in the academy) tend to read poetry.

PALS would love to hear more from you about how you teach creative assignments in the literature classroom. Feel free to leave a comment here or find us on twitter @PedagogyAmLitSt.