Austerity Blues

As you may have noticed, all of CUNY is operating on a shoestring these days. Barefoot, even. That means that we’ve lost funding for a Director of Undergraduate Studies position and thus have no one to mind this particular store.

Nonetheless, there are valuable resources for instructors of 304*, 306, 307*, and 252. Especially for first-timers, there is a wealth of material to get you started, from syllabi to assignments to examples of student work. Feel free to reach out ( if you’d like to join one of the “groups” for each course: no promises, since this is strictly pro bono and volunteer, but I’ll do my best to connect you with what we have on the sites and with one another.

  • our site uses the old numbers for 304 (338) and 307 (395). I’ll try to fix, but see above re: constraints on time/budgets.
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There is no Being, just the Deed

For those of us with a creeping sense of being cast on the wheel of fortune, our colleague A.W. Strouse offers a welcome tonic in Gender Trouble Couplets: Volume 1. Inspired by the once-maligned form of medieval versified encyclopedias, Gender Trouble Couplets renders the first chapter of Butler’s now-foundational analysis with formal rigor and crisp wit. If  verse encyclopedias bore “witness [to] the reluctance with which prose was accepted,” Strouse demonstrates how a return to the sensual experience of verse can help us appreciate Butler’s precise philosophical prose in a new way. Have a look here, courtesy of the fantastic Punctum books:

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In the news, but not of the news

In his recent essay “William Wordsworth Saves the Internet,” our colleague Fiore Sireci shows the value of public humanities for cultural criticism. Sireci works at the intersection of Romanticist literary criticism, book history, and the digital humanities to show us how Romantic poets plugged into (and unplugged from) the “internet of the time”: that “global torrent of information” emanating from late eighteenth century broadsheets, chapbooks, newspapers, magazines, and public readings of “the news.” By “listening to common folk” and re-immersing themselves in the natural world, Sirechi writes, Wordsworth, Blake, Smith, Coleridge, Thoreau and others found “a way forward” into the “space of cultural memory” via “its primary vehicle, poetry.”

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the last class: whew.

Our hair is all on fire right now, but I wanted to send a quick reflection on the problems and potentiality of the last day of class. It’s so easy to let this day slip through our fingers: we’re tired, the students are tired, c’mon, I ordered donuts, so what else do you want from me?!

I do really believe, though, that the last day can give a sense of closure to the intellectual project of the term and, also importantly, say goodbye in a way that conveys the weird mix of intensity and evanescence that commingle in commuter-campus seminars. Here are some of the things I did yesterday to send my students off. Try any of them that strike you as useful:

  • have each student give a “lightning talk” on their final project. It took me a long time to realize how stupid it is to have all the students give me their work on the last day of class but have no idea what their peers have done. So I go around the room and have each student give an ungraded, no-stakes two minutes on the process or the product of their final paper. I prompt them in advance that it’s great to give a sketch of their argument, but also great to talk about an epiphany they had about an alternative topic, an interesting scrap of research they found, a frustration they experienced in their research, an insight into their time management, and so forth.
  • go around the room and have each student in turn orally “tweet” on something they learned. I never actually type or post anything, but have them utter something like 140 characters on anything that occurs to them that they’ve learned. It’s really fun and usually goes around the room at least two or three times. In the aggregate, it’s a great bit of informal “assessment” of their experience of the form and content of the course.
  • talk about further reading and study: sort of like NPR podcasters, I give shout-outs to colleagues in English who teach in proximate subject areas and urge students to go find them. Especially important at a campus like ours, where students have few good ways to get to know us personally. And yes: I shill for PT faculty as well as my FT colleagues, I promise! I also talk about critical and imaginative works students might read to extend the kinds of questions and thinking that we’ve been doing. If I’m on my game (which I haven’t been this term), I’ll generate a bibliography and post it as a final post.

There are lots of other good ways to spend the last day. If you haven’t seen this video of Paul McPherron’s approach, check it out as well.


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“ungrading” in the classroom

[cross-posted with ACERT]

The following recap was written by Philip Johnson (Graduate Center, WAC Fellow)

On March 7, the Lunchtime Seminar turned to the idea of ungrading, as a means of questioning not only how we grade, but why we grade in the first place. Could there be better practices for encouraging deep learning on the part of students?

Jeff Allred (English) kicked the seminar off by posing three questions to the room, as a think/pair/share exercise (quickly becoming a favorite ACERT activity):

  1. Why do you grade?
  2. Do you have any memorable (positive or negative) experiences of being graded?
  3. What would happen if you graded less?

Answers to these questions varied greatly, but the overall trend was towards seeing grading as onerous (for teachers and students), but necessary – or at least mandated.

A growing academic discussion centers on the idea of ungrading. Jeff highlighted three helpful resources:

Jeff also flagged the ongoing Twitter discussion, using the hashtag #ungrading.

Next, Austin Bailey (English) described his process of introducing ungrading into his courses this semester. At the beginning of his talk, he offered the important reminder that ungrading is no magic pedagogical solution; his approach is of experimenting with the idea, exploring the changes that it effects within his classes.

Austin found inspiration for his experiments in Cathy Davidson’s idea of the deficit model in higher education. Instead of treating grading as an exercise in deducting points for lack of knowledge or ability, can we find other language and other models by which to capture student progress? Austin’s approach this semester involves basing final grades in two student self-assessments. At the midway and end points of the semester, students submit written reflections on their work through the course, as well as a tentative grade (of their work overall, not of any particular piece of it). The final course grade is the product of an agreement between Austin and the student. As he states in course syllabi, this means that Austin does not have final say over student grades.

This approach drew a lot of interest and questions from seminar participants. We hope to welcome Austin back to ACERT before too long, to find out how his ungrading experiment worked out over the course of the semester.

Finally, Allen Strouse (English) started by sharing some of the theoretical underpinnings of his pedgogy. He highlighted Ivan Illich’s notion of counterproductivity, the idea that even generally beneficial and benign institutions, such as schools and universities, undermine this beneficial public role as they become more and more institutionalized, and focus more and more on self-perpetuation. Allen sees grading as a good example of this; as we discussed at the beginning of the seminar, many of us view grading as required, as opposed to necessarily beneficial.

Allen shared various approaches to ungrading. One that caught the interest of a lot of people in the room was the practice of only assigning grades of A or B to written work. Instead of assigning lower grades, Allen offers students the chance to use his feedback to revise the paper, until they receive a higher grade. They can continue to resubmit their work until it is strong enough to receive a high grade.

These talks generated lively discussion, and a lot of questions about implementing different ungrading practices. An important thread across this discussion was how to take these practices, mostly developed in relatively small English classes, and apply them across disciplines, course levels, and class sizes. The pedagogical rationale behind ungrading should apply to diverse setting, although the actual classroom practices need to be adapted to the specific setting.

Check out presentation slides from the event below:

Jeff Allred

Austin Bailey

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capstones: thinking about final projects

Full disclosure: this post will be especially relevant for 252 instructors, but I hope it sheds light on the issues all instructors face in planning, executing, and evaluating final projects in English courses.

I’m teaching ENGL 252 for the first time, and I’ve found it stimulating and challenging to work with students at a prior stage in the curriculum to my usual 300-level service courses (320, 306, 321) and more advanced topics courses. The biggest challenge has been to teach them how to do things that I generally assume (perhaps wrongly) that they’ve already mastered: namely, dreaming up an original research topic, finding appropriate sources, digesting those sources, and constructing an argument that marshals the arguments of others (i.e., professional critics) rather than being dissolved into them in a synthetic or summary mode.

I thought about this a while and considered an assignment that terminates in an annotated bibliography, along the lines Brian Croxall has laid out. But I wanted something that pointed a bit more aggressively to the endpoint of the robust term paper that we all want upper-level majors to be competent at producing. So I started thinking about my usual practice: what’s wrong with it in absolute terms, and what aspects of it are particularly inappropriate for 200-level students in the major.

In a nutshell, it struck me that my usual approach emphasizes a high-stakes product–a 15-pager grounded in an original argument and self-directed research–while glossing over the process. If I’m being honest, I tend to drop the assignment on students after the midterm with minimal fanfare and with insufficient context. I do provide a generic guide to research and some suggested topics, but given the relentless pace of the semester and anxieties about coverage of content, the writing process often gets short shrift. And the majority of students procrastinate and then freak out in the form of a Red Bull-fuelled binge of writing (and panicky Google-centric “researching”) that yields a shambling mess that I very minimally mark and they rarely even bother to pick up.

Thus, for this assignment, especially given the lower skill level of the students, I wanted to think about how to flip this model, putting more of the emphasis (and the evaluation) on the process and having reflection on that process itself become part of the students’ work. You can see the entire sequence here (rah rah OER), but here are the basic steps:

  • submission of research question (4 weeks from deadline): students post their questions to the blog, which we then discussed in class. In my view, making them state their topics as questions leads to more arguable topics that point more clearly to the research needed to answer them.
  • submission of “simple biblio” (2 weeks from deadline): in the wake of our session with the inimitable Jennifer Newman in the library, students submitted posts that included a simple list of cites with a reflection on the research process (e.g., what search term, what d-bases) that generated them. I then shared a summary post that called attention to exemplary efforts.
  • submission of annotated biblio (1 week from deadline): Monday, students will post pretty standard annotated biblios that should build on a core skill from the course, digesting the basic argument and methodology of new research in a given lit-crit field.
  • “pairs” conferences (also 1 week out): in the penultimate week of class, the 20 students meet with me in randomly selected pairs for 10 minutes during class time to discuss their progress. Here’s the tipsheet they have to prep for it.
  • Final project (last day of class): They have to write the first four paragraphs of a hypothetical essay, plus paragraph-long responses to each of four prompts that reflect on their research process. Here’s a link to the template they will use.

The jury is still out, obviously, but I can already say that they are getting more feedback from me (and it’s not been too onerous on me, since it comes in lots of quick sips rather than a few big gulps). And I anticipate that I’ll get the best part of the “final essay” with less of the “filler” students use to joylessly reach a page count. Finally, throughout the term, they’ve reflected on how research works, and they’ve done so in full view of peers, learning (I hope) from each other’s successes/failures.

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Student Research in the Classroom from Paul McPherron and Trudy Smoke

Check out this blog post on Macmillan’s Higher Education site by our English colleagues, Paul and Trudy, on integrating student research into the classroom. The post gives a good overview for the importance of student research as a means of engaging students and promoting “active learning.” It also links to a handful of great examples of projects aimed at students at different levels of mastery of their respective disciplines.

Congratulations are also in order for their co-authored book, Thinking Sociolinguistically: How to Plan, Conduct and Present Your Research Project.

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Alan Liu talk at the GC this Friday at 4pm

The amazing Alan Liu is giving a talk at the Graduate Center (Room 4406) this Friday on digital humanities and “critical infrastructure studies,” the emerging field looking at how the infrastructure around cloud computing and ubiquitous networks relates to the work we do as humanists. For those who don’t know his work, Liu is one of the foremost theorists and historians of the digital humanities: his “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities” and “From Reading to Social Computing” give a good intro to his work.

Hope to see some of you there.

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ACERT Lunchtime Seminar Series

I wanted to alert everyone to this term’s Lunchtime Seminar series at ACERT, Hunter’s center for teaching and learning. For those who are not familiar, these lunchtime events take place every Tuesday and Thursday for five weeks in the middle of the term from 1202 in HE 1203. They feature free lunch (yay!) and informal panels by faculty and staff from Hunter and beyond on a wide range of topics touching on teaching, assessment, educational technology, and more. ACERT tries to practice what it preaches in terms of “active learning”; thus, panels tend to put a lot of emphasis on engaging the audience in discussion and hands-on participation. So check it out. Of particular interest to English types are:

  • OER Showcase: Innovative Teaching with Reduced Textbook Costs: a handful of faculty discuss their creation of free/open textbooks
  • Learning at the Museum across Disciplines: faculty talk about how to structure visits to local museums for minimal headaches and maximal learning
  • Ungrading: Rethinking Assessment in the Classroom: three English faculty (myself, Austin Bailey, and Allen Strouse) discuss problems with the existing model of grading and explore alternatives
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my hours this term

Just a quick note to say that I’ll be holding office hours for faculty teaching 252, 306, 338, and 395 this semester on Mon-Th from 1:30 to 2:30. Stop by with any issues/problems you’re having in the classroom or just to talk about your teaching.

Also, I’ve very keen on hearing about anything you’re doing in the classroom that peers might benefit from. All of us have innovative and/or battle-worn assignments and lesson plans that never get circulated beyond the students in the class that term, and I’d like to change that for the better. So please:

  • post teaching materials to the relevant “group” on the commons
  • pitch an idea to me for this blog
  • describe something you’re doing in the classroom that I can work in to a blog post in your behalf


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