Miss (Lazy) Piggy

The fifth chapter reading from my Blendkit2014 class discusses “hallmarks of quality” in online and blended courses.

Basically, there’s no One Size Fits Most quality control model for blended classes because standards vary from course to course, semester to semester, student to student. Essentially, if some grand set of standards were created, by the following semester they would be obsolete for various reasons, among them the evolution of the technology used to facilitate learning.

What the chapter argues most strongly for is communication between faculty members about best practices.  The chapter notes course instructors should “solicit peer review of specific resources, activities, or assessment strategies” in order to improve. Communicating with my colleagues about what works and what falls short is something I started doing when I began to teach over a decade ago. I did it because I felt inferior. Because I hadn't spent nearly a decade student teaching before I got my first tenure-track position. Because I didn't spend nine years on a PhD. I student taught for one year. And I didn't have to take the ubiquitous "This is How You Need to Teach" graduate course in order to teach. How I got so lucky, I have no idea. But this bit of luck left me feeling like I was swinging for the fences without knowing exactly where The Green Monster was located.

So I’m all for sharing. What I hate is when we share, and I change, but everyone else goes right on doing the same ole thing.

Case in point: Miss Piggy—a former colleague who, though she was thin as a rail, looked so much like the Muppet that I couldn’t stand to make eye contact with her, lest I inquire about her lopsided relationship with Kermit.

Miss Piggy’s favorite pastime was to complain about an ethnography project she assigned to her freshmen writing students. She made the information about the assignment—lecture, PowerPoints, examples, links—available for students through the online platform used by the College. Yet every semester she would give that high-pitched "hurm" and complain her students “just didn’t get it.”

After three years of her bitching and moaning—which inevitably found me cornered in a stairwell while she gesticulated and huffed—I  finally asked if she wanted me to review the directions for the assignment and help her identify any shortcomings.
She gave me that famous Miss Piggy scowl. And said, “Why do students need directions?”

No joke.

I modified my question and framed it ineloquently while using the phrase “guidelines by which to complete the research and writing.”

The scowl remained, this time coupled with the downward nose-bend. “If I tell them what to do, I’ll be doing the work for them,” she finally said.

It was hard to take Miss Piggy seriously.

Especially when she was out of touch with quality control in her pedagogy.  She deemed even the mention of explaining an outcome, goal, or expectation beneath her.

Miss Piggy is not alone. There are hundreds of instructors on University, College, and CC campuses that feel like students should “just know.” They should “just know” how to navigate an online platform. They should “just know” good writing from bad. They should “just know” that the liver is not an organ in the neck.

I wonder where all of this “just knowing” should come from.

Chapter Five asserts “it is the lived experiences of the students and teachers, their actual interactions, in which teaching and learning are made manifest.” If this is the case—and I believe it is—Miss Piggy and her fellow players need to, as Grandma would say, “Git down offa their high horses.” The students, though they may be incapable of whipping up an ethnography of their own extended family, are sometimes the best teachers a professional educator can have (and so says the chapter). They adapt to technology more quickly than those of us who remember our first typewriters with near-sexual fondness. They were born into a world of .com, and are capable of using tools older instructors find frustrating. Instead of seeing them as peons who benefit only from expostulations from the mouth of a Muppet pig, perhaps they should be seen as potential equals who need a little guidance. Otherwise, when we forget to open a drop box or close a unit prematurely, we might find them looking at us and saying, “You’re the one implementing the technology, so shouldn’t you know how to do this?”

People—professionals and novices—learn through experience. We internalize what we’ve learned and we change things (hopefully for the better). If those things fail, we try something else. We don’t continue to use a failed model and expect a different result each time. That’s insanity.

But to admit that what we’re doing is failing, or falling short of “good” teaching, is perhaps difficult for Miss Piggy and the other Muppets, perhaps because they’ve reached a point in their teaching careers that to admit failure is to admit they really hate what they do. And that admission is scary because then the students may not be—gasp!—as stupid as Miss Piggy wants us to believe.

Miss Piggy's ethnography assignment made me panic over ponder the quality of education her freshmen were getting in comparison to my own students. She had spent years on her dissertation, had been a student teacher for longer than I was in graduate school, and used the word "pedagogy" before I even knew I had one. Clearly, she was better/smarter than I was when it came to handling students. Chapter Five says comparison is a natural instinct, that “there is likely always to be some degree of comparison since it seems that there is always someone concerned with whether this course is ‘good enough’.” Though this phrase seems to imply there is little validity in panic comparing and making judgments of quality, I know bullshit when I see it.

And what I saw was one lazy Miss Piggy.


And Then They Made Me Their Chief

Here’s a tid-bit from Chapter 4 of the Blendkit course I’m taking at UCF:

Traditionally, in a lecture format, the instructor provides motivation (scheduled class time) and content in pre-planned units according to the course’s relation to the program of study. As information has become more public and distributed, the role of instructor as organizer and dispenser of information has shifted. Learners can readily access online lectures, articles, podcasts, and other resources to augment the information provided by the instructor.

This passage made me think of the hunter-gatherer dichotomy. Here are all of my students, running across the open plains of information, flinging their spears and shooting arrows at the mastodons of knowledge. And when they bring back the carcasses, it’s my job, as their chief, to help them parse, digest, and assimilate that knowledge. To make sure that what they’re doing with it will benefit the tribe.


I want a headdress. And a sweat lodge in my classroom. 

I also want an App for my class.

As in, “Are you taking English 1101 this semester? There’s an
App for that.”

The Blendkit2014 chapter suggests
Online materials are central to a blended course’s success, and the students’ work online must be relevant to the in-class activities. I want to take this one step further. I want my class to be relevant to their lives, thus making the class central to their success as hunters.

And hunters need Apps.

And I’m not talking about all of the Apps that would just “help” them in college in general.

Blackboard has an App similar to what I want, but my College hasn’t subscribed to it. So, as a good chief would, I'm doing the equivalent of a rain dance, asking the mother goddess to send me an App to strengthen my tribe.

I want my hunters to be able to whip out their Smart devices—at the beauty salon, at their kids’ t-ball games, while they are running through the prairies of information—and dazzle the other hunters with their accuracy at spearing a mastodon. When someone says, “Hey, what’s that App?” I want my students to say, “It’s my English class. I just read ‘Shooting an Elephant.’”


Ice Moustache

This week’s BlendKit chapter covered how to assess student learning. Ah assessment. How I love that word. My introduction to classroom assessment happened not long after I was hired at The School That Shall Not Be Named, and my Chair handed me a CD Rom with the label “Ass. Docs.” 

Yep. Thankfully, it was not a CD of strange MLA porn.

I’ve learned a few things since then. Mostly that when someone hands you a CD Rom with the label “Ass. Docs.” you should expect him/her not to be around much longer. And he wasn’t.

Then came his esteemed successor—Shriveled Spider—who had our division juke stats for assessment. Ass Docs indeed.

At my new institution, assessment is taken a bit more seriously. They have standardized tests in place that gauge student learning. Plug the assessment into your course, viola!

Still, these assessments are typically multiple choice exams (MCEs). So I stopped and pondered when I came across the following passage in my chapter reading this week:

“Despite the importance of real life application of knowledge and skills, perhaps the most common type of assessment is still the traditional multiple choice exam.  Placing such tests (or non-graded self-assessment versions) online is one of the most popular approaches to blended assessment of learning.”

Why is this the case? If educators—and assumingly administrators who used to be educators—realize the MCE runs a distant second to assessing students’ application of knowledge and skills why not chuck it and create/implement assessments that completely apply to what students will be doing in “real life”?

I loathe multiple choice tests—in college I was diagnosed with test anxiety and had to implement rituals strategies for completing MCEs. It was a rare occasion when I didn’t have a complete panic attack during one.  So I try not to have any MCEs in my classes.  However, in a writing course I just designed and built in our online platform (to be used by all faculty at my College) I had to implement two MCEs. One is to assess SLOs for SACS (so, really there’s no way around that one—the data has to be solid, unchanging, and not left up to interpretation). The other is to test for grammar—which to me is ridiculous. Grammar is not learned through rote instruction, it’s learned through trial and error. Then, we forget break the rules. Like misplaced modifiers. I’m reading a NYT Bestseller right now and on page 24, right there in broad daylight, living without shame, is an incredibly bad misplaced modifier. The author, the agent, the editor, the publisher—they all missed it/didn’t care it was there. So why, oh why, should I test my students on misplaced modifiers? Who cares if they write, “I saw a sculpture next to the man with a moustache made of ice.” I know the moustache wasn’t made of ice. We’re not on Pluto. Ice moustaches don’t exist. I’m just impressed they can spell moustache.

So why did I include the test? Simple. I’m lazy. There are ten assessments in the class—the two MCEs and eight writing assignments. Those eight assignments involve several steps and workshops before the final draft is submitted—drop boxes, peer edits, classroom presentation. I will spend most of my semester grading the writing assignments using a detailed rubric, giving grammar instruction through trial and error, and writing end notes that say things like, “If you can’t quit using the second person pronoun, you will fail the course.” I need a wee break, even if it comes in the form as a self-grading MCE.

And I’m not ashamed to admit it.

So I was very happy when the chapter reading directed me to the web-page by Bobby Hoffman and Denise Lowe. I am going to keep this little page in my back pocket as I create new, more effective MCEs.

And I’m also going to go polish my ice moustache.

And then I’m going to take my Ass Docs for a little walk.


It's Fun to Stay at the YWCA

Dear Michele Bachmann,

I need you to turn in your vagina. Immediately.

This is not up for debate. You cannot, as you did on the House floor, defend yourself as being “pro-women.”

Especially when you ranted about your plan to vote No on HR 863: “A no vote on the current legislation, which I advocate for," you said, “is a vote to stand up for the pro-life movement, a vote to stand up for traditional marriage, and a vote to stand up for the traditional family.”

Perhaps you need a brief lesson in the importance of American women: 

  • Those darn WACs helped the Allies win The Good War. You know, the war that fought against that pro-traditionalist known as Adolf Hitler?  
  • Tipsy Jamestown Women brewed beer and butchered animals to keep settlers drunk and fed. Yet, oddly, that pesky 18th Amendment? Yeah. A little known group called The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (who referred to themselves as “moral guardians” charged with protecting their families from the evils incited by liquor). 
  • Um, the 19th Amendment. Yep. Guess why you get to vote?

Or why you get to do anything besides clean your home and have your husband’s children.

When you said the new National Women’s History Museum on the Mall would “enshrine the radical feminist movement” you targeted Margaret Sanger, who founded the American Birth Control League (which later became Planned Parenthood). Labeling her as an “abortion trailblazer” really limits the scope of her impact, don’t you think? I mean, you’re completely ignoring the fact that Sanger’s revolutionary ideas were influenced by the limited life lead by her mother—a woman who birthed nearly a dozen children and had to raise them virtually on her own because her husband was a “loveable but impractical political activist.”

(I know you can relate to him.)

You’re ignoring generalizing the history that the NWHM will provide.

No vagina for you.


Every Woman With Half a Brain


Plagiarism: The New Gateway Drug

Today I was trapped in a professional development seminar disguised as an informal discussion about millennial students. Many of the other faculty members in the room were around my same age--Gen-Xers. The presenter claimed to be Gen-X, too. But when he let fly his birth year, I experienced an "Oh no" moment. Never would I consider someone born just five years after my own mother a member of my generation. I think he may have been misinformed.

As were many of my colleagues. The woman sitting immediately behind and to the right of me became indignant when the presenter said, "This is a cut-and-paste generation. They don't see anything wrong with having information on the internet at their fingertips and copying it into an assignment and turning it in for a grade." The indignant woman scoffed and said, "I just don't understand what's wrong with plagiarizing in a class that's not part of their major."

"Oh no" moment numero dos.

I calmly turned around (read: my face immediately began to burn and I whipped my head around so fast I nearly gave myself whiplash) and said, "I just read an article about what we're really doing in the classroom. What we're really doing when we're teaching about plagiarism is teaching about integrity." (Okay, it's a blog post, not an article. Sue me.)

As I said this, my voice rose. I tried very hard to stay in my seat and not rip the face off of Little Miss Plagiarism.

Some of the other people in the room tried to come to my aid and began to make statements about plagiarism, probably because I was the only General Education person in the room--and the only English instructor--and my annoyance with Little Miss Plagiarism was pretty apparent.

To everyone but Little Miss Plagiarism who said, "But it's just words. Who cares about taking someone else's words?"

"It's intellectual property," I snapped. I could've gotten up on my I'm-A-Writer high horse and turned her comment into an attack on me personally, but by then I was so angry and fuming I couldn't even think about myself. "It's about teaching them not to steal. To be good people."

"Words don't harm people," Little Miss Plagiarism continued. "What does it hurt to take someone else's words?"

"Tell Snowdon that," I said. Granted, not my finest analogy. I probably should've said, "The pen is mightier than the sword," or pointed to The Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen or The Declaration of Independence or The Fugitive Slave Law (or any law for that matter). But by then I was willing myself not to clobber this woman.

And I suddenly found myself having "Oh no" moment number 3: She probably plagiarized her way through undergrad (maybe even grad school, too), and was voicing a "what's good for the goose is good for the gander" opinion without mentioning her goosey behavior.

I couldn't even look at Little Miss Plagiarism anymore. I was sitting with my arms crossed staring at the large screen at the front of the room where the presenter's slideshow was stalled on the big red print "'Cut and paste' mentality."

The discussion swirled around me, forming a toxic bullshit cloud that I was sure was going to float out of the room, across campus, and into the President's office so he could then say, "Thank goodness they all agree that plagiarism is a practice our students should avoid," before going on with his more important tasks. Because what seemed to be going on was lip service. I hoped my colleagues actually believed what they were saying about the necessity to keep our students from plagiarizing and not simply disagreeing to save face, but I didn't think they were. Somehow, I was sure I was the only person in the room that actually cared about language. About integrity. About thinking.

Because that's what plagiarism does--it removes the necessity of thought. It keeps the plagiarizer from flexing his/her mental muscles and turns them into an intellectual weakling. Millennials are going to end up as the generation that explains why they think what they think by saying, "Wikepedia told me."

Especially with teachers and mentors like Little Miss Plagiarism, who seem to think that intellectual darkness is fine and dandy. If I'd had my wits about me, instead of my temper, I might've hyperbolized and mentioned something about The Dark Ages.

As it was, when I finally regained enough composure to enter the discussion again, I said, "Students plagiarize once and get away with it, so then they do it again and again."

A minute later, someone else said the exact same thing. Which lead me to "Oh no" moment number 4: No one was listening to me. Which lead me to "Oh no" number 5: I was right about lip service.

The presenter interjected with an analogy: "You wouldn't steal someone's car, would you? So why would you steal their words?"

I looked down at my lap. I couldn't believe I was in a room with people who had to reduce the explanation of plagiarism to grand theft auto.

So fell my idea of the intellectual utopia. Which, if I'm being honest with myself, is an idea that began to crumble long before Little Miss Plagiarism made her comment. And it has nothing to do with millennial students. And everything to do with the fact that I seem to continually work around people who don't seem to want to be teaching. They struggle and moan and complain. And never change. They think that teaching is supposed to be easy, something they can throw together while they watch 60 Minutes.

I don't get it.

Little Miss Plagiarism finally said, "So plagiarism is a gateway drug to other bad behavior."

Yes, Little Miss Plagiarism, that's exactly what it is. Now go buy LoJack. And find another profession.