A Course in Contemporary Novels

Last spring, a student came to my office, discouraged with the slated course offerings for Fall 2015. “I’ve taken all of those classes,” she explained. “And I want to read books. Novels. Lots of them.”

Naturally, I offered to design an independent study course in contemporary long fiction.

We discussed what she had read and what she wanted to read, and I set about pulling together a list of novels. I’ve taught some of them several times; others, I’ve read only once, years ago. The result? The following eleven novels, grouped into three clusters…

five novels including Kindred push never let me go

1) Coming of age as a child of color

  • The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  • The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  • Push by Sapphire

2) Navigating the world as a minority adult

  • Passing by Nella Larsen
  • Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo by Ntozake Shange
  • The Brief and Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
  • The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat

3) Surviving postmodern dystopia / science fiction

  • Kindred by Octavia Butler
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I ended up, consciously, with ten authors of color and, mostly consciously, with eight female authors — probably my research interests in gender studies made me think of more books by women. Also, to be completely frank, because independent studies don’t yield any teaching credit or additional pay, I want to cover texts that I don’t mind re-reading, and for me, that means no Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, or Philip Roth!

Any suggestions for complementary or contrasting novels?


Free Freshman Year?

young woman writing in a notebook next to a laptop computer

CC licensed content from CollegeDegrees360 at https://www.flickr.com/photos/83633410@N07/7658219802

Yesterday I came across an article called “Free tuition your freshman year? It’s possible at Texas State,” a popular public university south of Austin, TX.

It sounded amazing, but after I finished reading, I was a little let down.

You see, the plan is for students to enroll in free MOOCs, massive online courses, and then take either an AP (Advanced Placement) or CLEP (College Level Examination Program) exam in that subject area to earn college credit. The MOOCs are free, but the exams are not:

  • $92 for each AP exam, plus any fees from the testing center
  • $80 for each CLEP exam, plus any fees (Texas State adds on $40)

If a student wants to earn at least 30 semester credit hours, a full freshman year at most Texas colleges, s/he would need to do well on at least 7 CLEP exams (high scores on the College Composition exam, for instance, can result in 6 semester credit hours) and as many as 10 total. Choosing the right AP exams could yield even more college credits; by my calculations, a student who does well on the AP Biology, English Language and Composition, Spanish, and U.S. History exams would walk into my university with 34 hours from just 4 exams

Don’t get me wrong: $368 – $1200 for a year of college credit is a total deal. But I feel like the program may mislead students into thinking they must take classes in order to take these exams, and that’s just not true. There are open testing centers all over the U.S. where anyone, including non-students, can sign up for testing, present valid ID, and send scores to their preferred college or university.

Could the MOOCs be great review for students who have been out of school for a while? Yes. Texas State is targeting older, working adults. Should the MOOCs include the same covered in a classroom that students need in order to pass a CLEP or AP exam? Sure. Is this a good way for students to get up to speed at a relatively affordable cost? Definitely.

I guess my disappointment comes from the fact that the option to earn college credit from standardized tests is nothing new. With a library book and some Khan Academy videos (heck, they have a whole section on the AP Art History test), many folks can master a subject enough. But folks have to KNOW about the option. Promoting and marketing credit-by-exam to specific populations is a smart move. If Texas State clearly tells students the costs of the exams and the scores needed, it could be the push that some people need to go to or go back to college.

Frequency of Contact for Online Courses?

At the start of a new academic term, I always wonder how often I should e-mail / tweet / message students in my online courses.

How much e-contact do students expect (or even want) from their instructors?

close up of someone checking a smartphone

morgueFile photo from http://mrg.bz/meux3M

Typically, at the start of each new week, I post a description of the activities, assignments, and deadlines to the news forum in each class and automatically broadcast that message to all enrolled students’ campus e-mail addresses. I will admit, too, that I have taught certain courses so many times that I have standard messages (some of them several paragraphs long with embedded images) ready to go out for week 5 or week 10.

It’s easy for a student to delete and/or ignore these messages, however, and some might not even check their University accounts regularly. If this were a traditional, face-to-face class, students who attended would see and hear from me two to three times each week. I would probably remind them Monday, Wednesday, and Friday about a Saturday deadline.

I don’t want to be too annoying, either. Am I going overboard with an e-mail, a tweet, and a text 24-48 hours before a deadline? Or is such redundancy key to reach as many students as possible and to make them feel connected? It’s so easy to feel alone and isolated when you’re sitting in front of a screen typing up discussion replies!

Of course, these aren’t new questions. Research goes back well over a decade regarding e-mail contacts, but I have to wonder if different avenues, particularly ones that easily reach students’ cell phones, make a difference.

Hitting the Virtual Ground Running

Maybe it’s just me and the way I go about online classes, but folks always seem surprised when, on the second day of the semester, I’m already grading work for multiple students.

At the moment, I have 76 students across three courses (two different preps). In the core writing class, students have their first discussion forum to complete by tomorrow at 11pm. The forum includes two activities that ask students to apply and/or synthesize information from the week’s text and video lectures. If everyone completes the work, I have 48 separate posts that need reading, scoring, and responding — at least in the beginning of the term, I try to respond to everyone on everything, to build confidence and to reassure students that I really am there for them. The first posts actually came in last Saturday, before classes even started; I have commented, complimented, drawn attention to other evidence supporting their claims, and double-checked that the grade book is working every day since then.

My self-paced, upper-level, social media writing class doesn’t have deadlines until December. Still, earnest students start on the work immediately. I spent time on Monday, the first day of the term, following new professional accounts on Twitter and Pinterest and responding to tweets and pins…so students know I have found their virtual presences and can proceed confidently. One pupil already has earned 46 out of 60 points on the class Twitter project.

I also devoted a good chunk of time on the first day of classes to setting up class cel.ly accounts, composing deadline reminders as far in advance as I could (you can’t schedule past 90 days into the future) and creating an orientation video for the core writing class. Every day, I have to check my class rosters to see who has enrolled; because it can take 24 hours for a student to get access to the LMS, I email everyone a welcome note with the course syllabus, the first week’s lecture PDFs, and video links. I sent five such e-mails this afternoon.

Essentially, most of this week, when I have looked up, I have seen something like this, only with a Diet Coke, a lot more paper, and approximately 42 post-its:

Could I just wait and grade those 48 discussion posts after the 11pm Saturday deadline? Sure. If a student takes the time to do the work early, however, I feel I can take a few minutes to respond in kind, addressing the student by name and giving 1-2 sentences of “I like how you…” or “I agree…” or “Did you also notice…”

Additionally, I find that if I mark all of the submissions at once, my comments become more redundant…and every student can see every single one of my replies. Online classes can feel impersonal enough without the professor posting a canned “great ideas” 15 times in a row, and students often complain that their online instructors “don’t do anything.” 24 comments from me sure looks like work. So, yes, I’m one of those people who checks the course LMS a few times each day

I guess I want students to know that, even though we may never see each other in person, I do see, read, and respect their work. Therefore I hit the virtual ground running, and I won’t stop jogging until December.

Katrina, 10 Years Later

Google search for the phrase hurricane katrina still

Google’s suggested searches for “hurricane katrina still”

I don’t remember much about Katrina’s landfall in 2005, except that the images on the television were horrifying.

In the aftermath, I remember all four of my godchildren reporting new students from New Orleans in their classes. I remember making donations, cash and goods, to various fundraising efforts.

And I remember going to the Houston Astrodome with a friend whose company was encouraging all its employees to spend a day volunteering to assist refugees. There was a steady trickle of people going to the check-in point — nothing, nothing at all like the sea of people on cots inside.

I don’t remember what I did that day (I think I was at a table handing out water bottles). What I remember, with crystal clarity, is a woman: tall, thin, short hair. She was standing to my left, at the end of a row of cots, while three small children played nearby. The look on her face — and she didn’t seem to be looking at anything or anyone — was not despair or anger or defeat. It was deep, profound exhaustion. She was tired. She looked like she was trying to hold herself together, arms crossed tightly across her chest, the hands resting on opposite shoulders.

That is what I remember.

SparkNotes Quashes Intellectual Fire?

From Pixabay

From Pixabay

My mother clipped a Jan. 2015 article from her local paper about a visiting English teacher / mentor who came to talk to the Issaquah School District, in the Seattle suburbs, about the problem of reading avoidance among teenagers. The consultant, Penny Kittle, raised several interesting points, but the passage below caught my attention:

Kittle said teenagers are finding ways to succeed without a lot of in-depth reading. Websites like SparkNotes provide summaries of many well-known books. Instead of poring through “To Kill A Mockingbird” or “Lord of the Flies,” students can pass exams with less effort.

“We know the kids do that, and they perform pretty well because we have a lot of bright kids in Issaquah,” Henderson said. “They do really well, but they’re still not building those muscles, so when they get to college, it’s going to be a bit of a shock.”

Technology brings many wonderful benefits, but it also provides intellectual shortcuts for American students who have been conditioned to believe that passing a test is the goal rather than experiencing classic literature, struggling with difficult words and syntax, and really learning something — getting an education, not just a grade. We teachers want students to experience the process of reading, which flexes those critical thinking muscles, not just to come to class waiting for someone else to rattle off a synopsis.

When we as readers focus on getting to the end of the chapter instead of appreciating what the heck the author is actually doing in the chapter…well, we’re going to miss out, mostly on learning about ourselves. Anyone can tell us what happens in To Kill a Mockingbird or Lord of the Flies. No one else, however, can tell us why we personally are drawn to or unimpressed by Scout as the narrator of Harper Lee’s classic novel, or how we react to Simon’s fate in Golding’s brutal allegory.

I’m used to hearing students ask, half in jest, “Is there a SparkNotes for this?” I’m certainly not against SparkNotes as a supplement to reading, as a true spark for comprehension and deeper appreciation. I’m just against the site as a substitute for hard, long effort and self discovery.

TypeForm Review

I currently use Google forms for multiple work tasks, especially gathering student feedback and quickly assessing writing samples. Most of my students will encounter at least one, if not a dozen, Google forms over the course of a semester, like the one below from a freshman-level technical writing class.

screen capture of a google form for a group evaluation

I like being able to export the resulting data as an Excel spreadsheet, not to mention sharing any particular form results with another Google user. But I always like to try out other free online form sites, so today, I’m taking a look at Typeform.

I signed up for a free account and then skipped the overview video (I always do this, to get a sense for how intuitive the user interface is). Creating a new form is as simple as clicking on the box with the big + sign and then choosing a template or “from scratch.” I counted about 37 different templates, with themes like student satisfaction, teacher evaluation, sports sign-up, party RSVP, self-evaluation, and so on. I selected the Demographic Survey and got this:

choosing a demographic survey

It was pretty easy to figure out that the next step would be “Customize this template” in the bottom right corner, and as you might expect with a template, it’s pre-populated with several questions. Hover over a question bar with the mouse, and you get a menu on the far right that lets you modify and/or delete that specific item. Click on the question bar, and you enter the editing menu, which allows you to set whether or not the answer choices are randomized or required.


Adding a new question type is as basic as drag-n-drop. With the opinion scale, I could add an image or even video, as long as the file size was relatively small — great for creating student quizzes.

dragging a new question type into the form

Once the form is ready to go, you click “Distribute” to get the stable URL and scripts / codes to add the form to a web page.

Overall, I think that the results that the end user sees would be far more visually impressive than a Google form, especially since it’s so easy to render answer choices with graphics. As someone who creates forms on a computer with a keyboard, however, sometimes I really appreciate the bare-bones options. I suspect that tablet users will enjoy the drag-n-drop functionality of TypeForm.

Interested in learning more? Check out their samples gallery.