Back-to-school checklist

Although the weather continues to be hot here in Washington D.C., summer has come to an end for the students and workers of Howard University. I attended the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting just as school was beginning. This conference is spectacularly ill-timed to take place right before or during many schools’ first week of classes every year. I cancelled  my first day of classes and taught two days later after getting off a red-eye from the West Coast at 6am.

Regardless of  how you spend the last few days of summer, you may feel overwhelmed by the administrative details associated with resuming classes and committee work each fall. Because I think there are few life-problems that a good list can’t help address, I created a Back to School Checklist this year to help me remember some of the details that need to get taken care of for a smooth start. Feel free to adapt it for your own purposes as you like, I know I’ll be adding things as I remember them. And if you’re really list-crazy, take a look at the fun ones available at Knock-Knock (I find their “Pack This!” list particularly helpful). Or check out Atul Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto – if nothing else, it’ll make you glad you don’t have to worry about whether you left a pair of scissors inside the last person you did surgery on before sewing them up.

 

Back to School Checklist

Classes

  • Confirm class time and space
  • Check audio-visual supplies: screen, projector, speakers
  • Finalize Syllabus
    • Update readings
    • Add new dates for each class meeting that correspond to this calendar year
    • Look at campus academic calendar and add dates to syllabus as needed (campus closed, last day to drop, etc)
    • Update assignments
    • Schedule guest-speakers
    • Schedule office-hours
  • Create course website (Blackboard, etc)
    • Make sure that enrolled students are in the system
    • Add syllabus
    • Upload readings
    • Set up places for students to turn in work for each assignment
    • Set up gradebook
    • “Publish” site so it is visible to students
  • Create attendance sheet
  • Create sign-up sheets (for example, if students will each facilitate a day of classroom discussion)
  • Order required books at campus bookstore
  • Put required books on reserve at campus library
  • Add chalk, eraser, or whiteboard pens to teaching bag as needed
  • Add paper and pens for big nametags on desk as needed
  • Prepare lesson plan and slides for first day of class. Make time to:
    • Do names and/or ice-breaker
    • Introduce self
    • Introduce class – with hook!
    • Review syllabus – use screenshots of book covers when possible
    • Sign up for assignments that are date-specific
    • Take attendance
    • Collect information of students hoping to get in to class

 

Research Assistants

  • Get students signed up for independent study classes as appropriate
  • Create proxy library accounts that let students check out books to my library account
  • Schedule first team meeting with students
  • Reserve room for team meeting
  • Prepare for first meeting
    • Review and organize prior student work
    • Prepare list of projects and tasks to be divvied up amongst group. Decide how many people are needed for each project
    • Create agenda
    • Create sharable to-do lists and timesheets
    • Update IRB “how to” document that details what students need to give me in order to be approved by the IRB as research assistants
    • Update all other “how-to” documents as needed to support student tasks
    • Select and upload introductory readings to help frame research tasks
    • Add students to Google Drive folder that houses group files
  • At first meeting
    • Introductions
    • Background on research projects and descriptions of tasks
    • Divide up tasks
    • Describe optional events happening this semester that students can participate in as part of their weekly hours to supplement their learning
    • Share contact information
    • Assign background reading
    • Give overview of the IRB and the describe the documents students need to provide to be approved by IRB as research assistants
    • Get familiar with the documents in the shared folder on Google Drive
    • Review project communications and tracking (to-do list, hours sheet)
    • Schedule training for students with librarian on how to find scholarly articles
    • Pick weekly meeting time
    • Schedule meeting between each project group and myself to provide training about how to get started with their task

 

Other

  • Add campus calendar dates to personal calendar (due dates for grades, last day of classes, etc)
  • Add dates on department calendar to personal calendar (faculty meetings, report due dates, etc)
  • Make work plan for year/semester
  • Post office hours on door
  • Return or renew library books
  • Clean office!

 

 

“Toxic tour” of Baltimore

Last fall Mike Ewall and Dante Swinton of Energy Justice Network led my students and me on a “toxic tour” of Baltimore. Toxic tours are one way that environmental justice activists do political education. They involve bringing politicians, environmental agency staff and others into the communities where activists live and/or work to build awareness of the problems there and find ways to support local activists in trying to solve them. In our case, Mike and Dante led the students in my fall Environmental Inequality classes to see some of the contested sites where they work. This gave the students a better way to visualize the things we had been reading about, and to learn about their local applications.

We started at the Wheelabrator Baltimore trash incinerator. We were immediately reminded of the environmental justice slogan that defines the environment as “the places we work, live and play” by the sight of families picnicking at the park directly adjacent to the incinerator. We moved on to the site of a proposed new incinerator (for trash, tires, shredded cars and wood waste), a coal and steam-fired electrical generating station, a closed hazardous waste landfill, the port (piled high with coal), the nation’s largest medical waste incinerator and a municipal waste landfill, among other industrial sites.

Since our visit, the proposed new incinerator that we learned about has been defeated, at least for now. Baltimore resident Destiny Watford, co-founder of the student group Free Your Voice, became the 2016 recipient for North American of the international Goldman Prize for her leadership role in the campaign.

My students got a lot out of the trip. They had read about the problems of industrial pollution and the people who live right next to polluting industries, but walking those landscapes seemed to make the issues much more real for them. For my part, I was saddened to see again in Baltimore many of the same problems I am familiar with from my research in California. It’s one thing to know about national trends, and another to see for oneself that they are, indeed, national.

The photos below show some of the places we went. They depict Mike Ewall and Dante Swinton from Energy Justice Network, as well as my students from Howard University – Olivia Byrd, Jesse Card, and Gerlene Toussaint. Sign up for the Energy Justice newsletter or “like” the Free Your Voice Facebook page to find out how you can plug in.


DSC_0107DSC_0083DSC_0045DSC_0021DSC_0003DSC_0163DSC_0052DSC_0064DSC_0070DSC_0066DSC_0061DSC_0102DSC_0072DSC_0087

 

Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates with Introduction to Sociology students

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 10.11.14 PMI assigned Ta-Nehisi Coates’s award-winning book Between the World and Me to my Introduction to Sociology students during both the fall and spring semesters of this last academic year. In both classes it was the last assigned reading. The book gave me an opportunity to do a number of things:

  1. Build on the conceptual work we had already done by training students how to identify sociological concepts when they are presented in different language than what they are learning in the classroom
  2. Show how ideas we are learning about in the classroom circulate in the real world
  3. Provide space to reflect on racial inequality as experienced by Coates’s life story and his efforts to pass on his knowledge to his son, for whom the book is written.
  4. Learn a bit more about Howard’s history and help students get excited about using their time there to learn and grow (Coates attended Howard University and writes glowingly about his time there in this book)

The first time I taught the course, I had students practice identifying concepts we had learned about in the as they appeared in the book. I used a variation of this worksheet to do so. After they worked on this task in small groups, I had students read the passages aloud and describe which sociological concepts they thought each illustrated. (This led to one of my favorite moments in that class when the students broke into spontaneous applause at the conclusion of a particularly impassioned reading).

Here are the concepts they worked with:

  • essentialism and anti-essentialism
  • intersectionality
  • structural racism
  • structure and agency
  • race as neither “essence nor illusion” (from Omi and Winant)
  • monolithic
  • race vs. class

Here is one of the excerpts they analyzed (from p. 103):

It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.

The students discussed how this excerpt illustrates the concept of structural racism because of the way that the disproportionate death of black Americans at the hands of the police is not dependent on individual racist intent of any single police officer.

In the second version of the class, which was much larger, I read the excerpts aloud myself and we discussed them as a large group without the benefit of small group work first. I also showed this video of Coates speaking about his book. I thought the video would help bring the text alive and underscore that authors are real people, just like them.

Next time I teach a small version of the class, I’ll return to having the students fill out the worksheet I provide in small group, followed by large group discussions. This approach gave them the best chance to really work through the ideas and learn from how others did the same. Then I’ll consider skipping the video and instead have students read and discuss reviews of the book from a wide variety of political perspectives. I would assign at least one from the left that criticizes the book for not going far enough, perhaps written from a feminist perspective, and one from the right that sees the book as racially inflammatory in a world that is now “post-race.” This would broaden the students’ thinking about the book itself, and could also be used as an opportunity to learn about intellectual and political discourse.

The view from faculty seating – HU Commencement with President Obama

Last Saturday Howard University hosted its 148th graduation ceremony. I donned my (borrowed) academic robes to celebrate our graduates and hear President Obama, our commencement speaker. I’ve shared my snapshots below to convey what it was like to attend and participate. They show: workers setting up for graduation during the last week of the semester, getting through security and onto campus on the day of the ceremony, faculty waiting for the event to begin and then processing into the the yard together, President Obama being “hooded” while he receives his honorary Ph.D., and the commencement ceremony. The last photo is of Sociology graduate Diamond Crumby showing off her awesome cap. Congratulations Diamond and the Howard class of 2016!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For the full text of President Obama’s commencement address, click here. For video, click here. And for summary and analysis, try the following:

Classes are over now, but next year I plan to show the President’s commencement speech toward the end of my Introduction to Sociology class. I’ll ask the students to analyze it according to sociological concepts we’ve been learning (structure, agency, social stratification, intersectionality, theories of change, American individualism, etc.). Then I’ll have them chew on a few of the wide array of responses to his speech listed above. I like doing these sorts of activities to underscore how the concepts we are learning in the classroom get used in the political world, even if they are not always referenced by the same names. If any of you do something similar with the speech, let me know how it goes. I won’t be teaching Intro to Sociology again until next spring, so there’s plenty of time to build on your experience.

Teaching “Making California”

This spring I taught a new class in the Community Studies program at UC Santa Cruz called “Making California.” Overall, the idea was to teach students about key moments in the history of California in order to help them better understand and intervene in current events. I used C. Wright Mills’s concept of the sociological imagination as a foundational theory to help students understand how individual lives are shaped by the broader historical and political context in which they exist. We also paid attention to how social movements have, in turn, helped people to change the political context in which they live. A second key theme of the course was California’s racial history and recent transition to  majority people of color state. Finally, we spent a lot of time thinking about California’s role in the nation and world. This meant we read about both how the state has influenced events outside of its borders, as well as been influenced by the broader world.

For the core class assignment, students analyzed a key moment in California’s history by explaining what happened, what led to the events described, and the current relevance of those events. They were tasked with writing for a public audience, and crafting an introduction to capture a reader’s interest and draw them in to reading the rest of their essay. Students presented their work orally, and in historical order, at the end of the course. In this way we created a partial, “People’s History of California.” The written component of the assignment took the form of multi-media essays they wrote on websites of their own design (more on this assignment in my next post). This assignment was inspired by conversations with Ildi Carlisle-Cummins about how we could incorporate her new project, Cal Ag Roots, into the class. The launch event for Cal Ag Roots will involve telling the story of three key moments in the history of California agriculture. So, several of my students chose her stories as their “historical moments” to work on for the purpose of the class assignment. Their work therefore supplemented her own background research on these three key moments.

I drew on syllabi developed by Julie Guthman and Lindsey Dillon to help structure the class.  See my own syllabus below.

The last-day-of-class student conference: part 2

This post is a continuation of my last post on “The last-day-of-class student conference.” That post provides an overview of the project, in which students participate in a student conference modeled after a poster session at an academic conference. This post gets into the details of how to set up the event.

Few teachers have a lot of extra time to invest in event-planning, so I offer my experience here. The colleagues who guided me in shaping the assignment emphasized that planning the conference can quickly get out of hand and helped me minimize time spent nailing down logistical details. Thanks again, Ariana Kalinic and Christie McCullen!

Event planning

  • Find a location to host the event early. The campus space that I wanted was booked very early in the quarter, and many other campus spaces required use-fees that I could not provide. Sociology staffer Barbara Laurence helped on this front by suggesting, and securing access to, our department lounge. This turned out perfectly, as it made it easy for people from my department to stop by the event without having to leave the building.
  • Provide refreshments! Food makes the space more sociable and sets it apart from a regular classroom experience. My department provides $50 of funds for each class to work with. I chipped in an extra $25 so we could have coffee, tea, and snacks provided by the campus coffee-shop downstairs. Barbara Laurence took care of this for me, too. Thank you Barbara!
  • Tell guests to arrive 20 minutes or so after the event begins, to give the students time to set up their posters, as well as time for yourself to make any last announcements.
  • Make a plan for displaying posters. I told my students that at least some of them should design their posters to be able to stand on their own. These we put on a table. The rest went on a the walls or on a few easels provided by the department (thanks Barbara!). I brought blue, “paint-safe” tape to use on the walls. Unfortunately, it had very little sticking power. Many of the posters drooped or fell down and needed to be reaffixed during the event, oh well.
  • Make a plan for presenting the posters. I originally thought I would divide the students into three or four groups and have each group stand next to their poster during a pre-assigned time. This seemed excessively complicated, however, so I instead followed Christie McCullen’s advice and told everyone to spend half the time at their own poster and the other half circulating. That worked just fine.
  • How long will the event last? I had a three hour time slot to work with, but chose to use 1.5 – 2 hours instead (I set an explicit time at which the event would end, but have since forgotten exactly how long it was). There was just enough time to evaluate the work of all 40 student, but the event was was also short enough to sustain the group energy for the duration.

Structuring and evaluating the assignment

  • Group work or no group work? I had all my students write their papers separately so I wouldn’t have to deal with complaints about anyone not pulling their weight. But, I let students who wanted to team up on their posters do so. I told them that they would both receive the same grade regardless of who did what on the poster, so they should choose their partners carefully. I also told them they could “divorce” their partners if needed. There were no problems.
  • Give explicit guidelines about what is required on the poster, as most of the students will not have made one before. If I had more time, I would have liked to require them to turn in draft posters to be improved upon for the event itself in order to help them learn best practices of visual communication. Instead, I required a proposal and draft for the paper, but not the poster. You can see the assignment prompts at the bottom of this post, or download it here.
  • How will you grade the posters? On the advice of my colleagues, I graded all the posters during the event itself so I didn’t have to take home a pile of oversize, falling-apart posters and then return them to students. This plan required me to have brief conversations with each student in front of their poster during the event itself. I created a single spreadsheet with each student’s name and a series of criteria on which to judge their work. I quickly abandoned this approach in the chaos of the event and just gave each student a holistic single grade after I looked at their poster and heard them speak about their work. I worked my way around the room systematically, so students could come stand by their work as they saw me approaching. I also quickly figured out that I only had time for short conversations with each student, and in a few case watched them have conversations with others rather than directly interacting with them myself.

The last-day-of-class student conference: Part 1

Each quarter I try at least one new pedagogical idea in the classroom. Over time, this has given me a wide range of teaching experiences that have helped hone my style and priorities. As I continue this practice into the future, I hope it will also keep my teaching nimble and current.

Last quarter’s “new thing” was the student conference. As is often the case, I looked to my colleagues for inspiration. For this project, I drew on the experience of super-star teachers Ariana Kalinic and Christie McCullen. Thanks, you two! To pay forward their generosity, I share my experience with the assignment here.

The student-conference is modeled after a poster-session at an academic conference. Each student prepares a poster that provides an overview of the work they have conducted for their class research paper. They presents their posters at an end-of-the-quarter event scheduled during the allotted finals period. Students stand by their poster to answer questions for half of the event, and look at their peers’ posters for the other half.

If you’ve been to a million academic conferences already, this may not sound that exciting. But when we tried it in my Nature and Society class last quarter, I loved it!  Here’s why.

  • Students practice describing their intellectual interests in a semi-formal, semi-social setting. The give and take of the conversations that result introduces students to the pleasures of learning and discussing ideas.
  • The event emphasizes active learning by asking students to circulate and ask questions of their peers, rather than passively absorbing information in the form of end-of-the-quarter presentations.
  • Students get to learn from each other. This underscores that the teacher is not the source of all knowledge in the world, and conceptualizes all of the class participants as part of a learning community. Hopefully, decentering the teacher as the source of information positions students to become lifelong learners after they are no longer in school.
  • Students describe their projects over and over again as new people visit their posters. This improves their ability to concisely describe their work as they try new ways of saying the same thing.
  • Our event included not just the students in the class, but a handful of faculty and graduate students as well as some of my students’ friends and significant-others. This helped students meet other people that share their interests. I saw my students engage with these visitors about other writing they might want to read, other classes they could take before graduating, and the political implications of their research.
  • Students get to interact with more than one teacher in the same space. This let them have intellectual conversations with faculty and teaching assistants that cut across their experiences in separate, often siloed, classes.

A note on evaluations.  At my university, our student evaluations happen at the end of regular class meetings and before the finals period. Because we held the student conference during finals period, this meant that students were not able to reflect on the event in their course evaluations. To get a sense of what they thought in a systematic, anonymous fashion, I sent out a SurveyMonkey online evaluation after the class ended. Unfortunately, I didn’t get around to it until the students had all left campus for vacation. I also never sent out reminder e-mails after the first request to take the survey. So, only five students completed it. For what it’s worth, they all responded “yes” to this statement: “I would recommend the instructor incorporate an end of the quarter student conference into this class again in future.”

To give you a flavor of the event, I’ve posted photos below with the permission of the people depicted. Click on the thumbnails to see enlarged versions. Tomorrow I”ll post more information about how to set up the assignment.