Voted-out, not fouled-out

union pic

Clock photo by Nina Weinstein

Although last week's vote was devastating for many of us, few can deny that the faculty spoke decisively in an election that had a higher turnout (95%) than any faculty election in recent memory. It may seem like cold comfort to union supporters, but I really do believe that we can be proud of the positive campaign we waged--in forums and on the listserv, we refused to make accusations, ascribe hidden motives, or question the character/abilities of our opponents. Instead, we tried to direct the conversation towards what a union could accomplish for faculty and for PSU, and to respond to questions/accusations (even when the answer was ignored and the question repeated many times).

In the last weeks of the campaign, the organizing committee assumed the attacks and accusations ("secret agendas," "retaliation" and the constant refrain that excluding contract faculty from the bargaining was somehow "dirty politics") of the most vocal anti-unionists would only resonate with those of like-mind and would either fall flat with undecided faculty or possibly even nudge a few in our direction (and, anecdotally, we did hear from three or four who were persuaded to vote YES in reaction to those tactics). In fact, we assumed that even responding to some of the most outlandish claims would make us seem as vehement (and thus irrational) as those most vocal opponents. However, if we lost as many supporters in the final weeks as it appears, we may have been wrong on both counts.

From the beginning, we certainly knew we would lose if we failed to convince our colleagues that a faculty union was right for PSU. Had the debate centered more on the merits, necessity and efficacy of unions, I suspect the loss would sit easier on many of us--we made our best case, they made their best case, faculty weighed both and decided. But that is where the takeaways from the election are unclear -- at least for me:
  • if we believe that our colleagues voted against a union in spite of the differences in tone and focus, then perhaps we need to rethink our position.
  • if, as seems to be the case, their tactics did persuade faculty who had otherwise been open to considering a union... well, how are we to react to that?
Forming a faculty union will not happen--at least not in the near-term. Rehashing what we might have done differently is useful, to a point, but only if we have the distance and perspective to question every assumption we made (and the assumptions we may be making in hindsight). That doesn't mean we can't work to make positive change, though. If we are up to it, perhaps our real challenge is finding a way to raise the level of discourse among faculty.

I had a long (and restorative) conversation with a friend who teaches at Eastern Kentucky last night. He pointed out that such tactics (even obviously fallacious tactics), and susceptibility to those tactics, are not only not rare in university discourse, but they are almost as much the norm here are as they are in the wider society.

The union discussion became mostly ugly. While I didn't exactly lose friends over it, I have less regard for a few than I once did. But attacking (or making insinuations about) the character of opponents isn't new behavior for PSU and we all share some of the blame. Every few years the faculty is called on to make some seemingly important decision: gen ed, four-credits, attendance policy, unionization.... Each time, in the midst of the more intelligent conversation, one faculty member or another rises to argue that they support position-X because they are compassionate towards students (and thus, those who hold any other position are NOT compassionate), or they oppose position-Y "because I, personally, enjoy teaching," (and thus, those who hold any other position do NOT enjoy teaching). When we simply move on to the next speaker and allow such manipulations to pass without remark we are complicit in what amounts to a discourse foul. When enough of those fouls pile up, we lose the ability to have real debate, much less dialectic (a concept that was, ironically, much invoked early in the union discussion, but mentioned more rarely when anti-union folks developed an offensive strategy).

If just one of us chooses to confront colleagues when red cardthey commit such fouls, they will almost certainly be dismissed as a sort of crank. But if enough of us make it a point to call out fallacies when we see them...well, we'll probably still be ignored by many, but we may actually create a PSU culture that encourages more colleagues to argue the merit of ideas...and to question those who rely on emotional manipulation.

And in the end, maybe THAT's one way to improve faculty engagement in governance -- more people may be more willing to do more work on more ideas if they are less likely to have their character attacked in the process.

$@*&%@#! Spring Break Miracle

I thought I would put my Journalism midterm on Blackboard (our "online classroom environment")  so students could cut and paste from the fact lists in the questions into their lead rewrites. The web portal, MyPlymouth, crashed and we spent 15 minutes trying to get all but one student logged in. Finally, I had to throw in the towel and make a take-home exam.

What are the lessons I can take from this?

A. Since you can't trust technology you should make a backup exam - in other words, do twice the work ahead of time or do the twice the work after the fact.

B. It's not ITS's fault the servers crashed. Even though the classroom has 20 computers, the system was never designed to allow more than four people to logon at the same time. I should have the other students wait in their seats until the first four are done.

C. One person's Spring Break miracle is another person's March 30 nightmare or -- since the take home exam will be an essay exam--the WHOLE CLASS'S March 30 nightmare.

D. Why bother to kick the ball, Charlie Brown?

Minority Report - OR - I couldn't write my paper last night because I was in jail. Can I turn it in late?

No kidding. I had that excuse once and I think it was true because the kid's face looked like hamburger...I said no. I also don't excuse absences based on the flu or someone's desire to start Spring Break early. Less outrageous excuses: my aunt died, my grandparent died, I broke my shoulder snowboarding. I excuse those absences if they seem sincere. Last semester, one of my students' best friends was killed in a car accident in Wyoming. I not only excused the kid from class, we spent hours in my office over the next month talking the thing out.

I have a policy:

Regular attendance and active participation in class discussions are mandatory. You are permitted to miss two classes, excused or unexcused. For every absence beyond two (2), I will deduct 5 points (5%) from your semester grade. This includes absences excused by the University or your doctor.

Effectively, that means my students can have a week's worth of absences before it hurts their grade. I assume they will only miss class because they are ill or because something important came up. If they want to sleep in on a cold and rainy Tuesday morning when there's nothing due, though, that's their business. I assume these things won't happen often. Almost every job I ever had allowed me at least a week's vacation--they get one too.

And beyond the two I officially allow, let's be real, if the student has been engaged and keeping up with the work, and if they really ARE missing class for something important like a conference or a family emergency, why not cut them some slack? Unfortunately, it seems that tragedy and sudden intense illness most often strikes those who've already had attendance problems--specifically those who've already used up their week's worth of absences. Uncannily, it often strikes on or just before a day when major work was due to be handed in. For those folks, unless they can provide compelling evidence, the policy stands.

And in all cases where a student will miss a significant amount of class beyond the week allowed (say another week-and-a-half or more), I suggest they withdraw from the course and point out that their absences and missed work will make it impossible to pass. If my courses could be boiled down to readings from the book, what do you need me or the rest of the class for? This is what they call "teacher-centered" thinking...a form of thought-crime akin to "mechanic-centered" automotive repair and "carpenter-centered" house-framing and "doctor-centered" heart surgery.

My quaint policy's probably about to change. This week, one of the committees I sit on passed a policy change that would institute a University-wide attendance policy to forbid faculty from penalizing a student's grade for "excused" absences. Jail is not on the list, but "documented" illnesses, injuries, deaths in the family, sporting events, jury duty, etc., are. Not a word on what constitutes appropriate documentation. The new policy also requires alternative exams or assignments when such absences occur.

The vote was not unanimous and so this is my minority report.

I don't want to be unfair--the backers of the new policy are reacting to some ugly circumstances. In one case, a student's father died of cancer and a professor would not allow the student to make up an exam given on the day of the funeral! That's unconscionable. I think the Dean and the student's academic adviser had every right to hector the instructor for an explanation.

So the backers truly are reacting from the right place. But hard cases make for bad laws. As I see it, the issue in that case was a lack of compassion and clarity on the instructor's behalf that would have led them to consider an exception to a policy that is otherwise reasonable...and founded on experience. I'll grant that the policy will create some clarity, but it won't create a more compassionate professoriate. And that new clarity will make it easier for some students to abuse the system--after all, the policy diminishes the role of the instructor in negotiating what is and is not a legitimate absence. In fact, it creates a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate absences that implies that undocumented absences are bad--what if my best friend's father dies and I want to support him at the funeral? Emotionally, that may be just as powerful as the death of my own relative. What if I've got a bug and I'm too sick to get out of bed? Does that mean my illness was less legitimate than my roommate who saw a doctor for his sore throat? Under my policy, students have the power to decide what is a legitimate way to spend their two absences.

As for the committee, I won't rub my hands together and say I'm proud to work with these LOVELY people and then imply that they're idiots and charlatans. I'm not dismissive of their arguments, suspicious of their motives, or even unsympathetic to their reasoning. In fact, in their content-driven fields (rather than my skills-based field), a liberal attendance policy may even be appropriate. If the policy passes at the Faculty Meeting it will be because good people and worthy colleagues voted their conscience.

But this policy will hurt my students.

When I assign a final grade, I'm making a claim to the student, the university, and the world about how well the student met the objectives in my class. What if one of the course objectives is to enhance their collaborative skills or to develop workshopping skills? How do you assess students who aren't in class (or meeting with partners/groups) when those things are taking place? How do you recreate those experiences in makeup assignments? In writing classes, writing assignments are obviously the best way to assess student progress, but they're imperfect. Attendance alone is an even worse indicator...but taken together with coursework and reading quizzes and class participation, I'm confident that the grades I give are a fair representation of a student's accomplishment. If a student misses three weeks of my class, but has to be scored the same as another student who engaged daily in class, I'm no longer confident that my grade has as much meaning or integrity. In short, the student pays for the grade but they may not take away much else.

Back in the Saddle

Wow! It's been a long time since I've posted. No wonder some of the others have been so inconsistent making their own blog entries.

A lot has changed since I last posted. We lost a team member, we posted a fantastic doc plan, we first ran into trouble with the tutorials then punched through with some great ideas. Thursday, after our demo for Evelyn (which went well) I gave the lamest introduction to DreamWeaver ever.

I won't whine, but it's obvious I've been distracted by all of the other responisbilities I have this semester (search committee, GITF stuff, etc.). But I'm regrouping, refocusing, and getting ready for the final push.

First things first: this week I'll give a much better intro to DreamWeaver (using actual Word tutorial files) and we'll get the labor issue back on track.

Sequenced/Themed Tutorials

Something to chew over: what if the class broke into three teams of two for the purposes of writing tutorials. Each team of two could write a series of 3-4 related tutorials that centered on a single project. In fact, we could organize the tutorials by project. For instance, one set of tutorials could focus on using transform tools (and maybe throw in text and layers and some filters). It could start off with two beginner tutorials in a sequence, then move to a slightly longer and more difficult intermediate tutorial, and finish with a longer tutorial that showcased a few advanced techniques. Users who stopped at any stage would still learn something. Users who were already advanced could actually open the image created in the last tutorial so that they could skip the intros.

What are you thoughts? James, you're coordinating tutorials, how does this idea strike you?

BTW, if we did adopt this method, I would always have AT LEAST two beginner-level tutorials for every intermediate/advanced tutorial. Beginners are our main audience.

Standards for tutorials/procedures

These are some questions that I think we should ask as we "workshop" future tutorials and procedures.

Questions for Sample Tutorial

  • Is the title appropriate? Does it announce the topic in task-oriented terms? Is it inviting?
  • Is there any context or overview? Does it preview the types of skills learned in this tutorial? Does it explain any knowledge the user must already have or any steps the user must have already taken? Does it clue them in on the likely duration of the tutorial?
  • Is the first step appropriate (i.e. Is it too basic – unrelated – or does it assume too much knowledge)?
  • Do the steps of the tutorial adhere to a “pattern of exposition”?
  • Is the look of the tutorial intimidating (how many pages is it)? If so, how can we fix that?
  • Is the tutorial appropriately paced? I.e. is it too long, does it maintain a more-or-less constant level of detail? Does it distract with too many alternatives?
  • Is there appropriate emphasis given to warnings, tips, notes, etc.? Is there a consistent and obvious style mechanism for explaining the interface (for instance, bolding or italicizing the names of buttons, menu commands, and other official interface names? Are we using the correct names (according to the interface) and are we using likely user synonyms?
  • Are illustrations effective? I.e. is the emphasis of the illustration clear and obvious? Are there distractions in the illustrations? Are there enough/too many illustrations?
  • Is the structure of the tutorial easy to follow? Is there one sequence of steps or several? Why?
  • Is the technical level of the tutorial appropriate (and for whom)? Does the tutorial help the user to find other assistance? Does the tutorial invite users to explore on their own?

Questions for Sample Procedure

  • Is the title appropriate? Does it announce the topic in task-oriented terms? Is it consistent with other procedure titles?
  • Is there any context or overview? Does it preview the types of skills learned in this tutorial? Does it explain any knowledge the user must already have or any steps the user must have already taken? Does it preview any notes or cautions that the user should be aware of?
  • Is the first step appropriate to this task (i.e. Is it too basic – unrelated – or does it assume too much knowledge)?
  • Do the steps of the Procedure adhere to a “pattern of exposition”?
  • Does it distract with too many alternatives?
  • Is there appropriate emphasis given to warnings, tips, notes, etc.? Is there a consistent and obvious style mechanism for explaining the interface (for instance, bolding or italicizing the names of buttons, menu commands, and other official interface names? Are we using the correct names (according to the interface) and are we using likely user synonyms?
  • Are illustrations effective? I.e. is the emphasis of the illustration clear and obvious? Are there distractions in the illustrations? Are there enough/too many illustrations?
  • Is the structure of the procedure easy to follow? Is there one sequence of steps or several? Why?
  • Is the technical level of the procedure appropriate (and for whom)?

ATC: Help Compiler, writing teams

I'm beginning to wonder if the wiki tool will be robust enough to support our needs. I'm disappointed that there is no history function so that we can look at old versions. But I'm bothered even more by how clumsy the navigation and file management tools are.

One partial solution (at least to the navigation issue) is to create compiled Help. This is a system that can take dozens (or thousands) of web pages (and their referenced files such as graphics or video/sound clips)Â and compile them into a single compressed file that can be accessed from a desktop or over a network.That would still leave us with a serious file management problem (echos of ATC 04), but at least the finished product would be compact and potentially easy to use.

http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?familyid=00535334-c8a6-452f-9aa0-d597d16580cc&displaylang=en

I'm also taking the iniative to create the following positions in the class. Please choose one role and proceed into the Documentation Plan (see the wiki) accordingly:

Writing Team
Areas of Responsibility:

Tutorials writing leader: leads class discussion on number and scope of tutorials, assigns tutorials to various members, tracks progress.
Procedures writing leader: leads class discussion on number and scope of procedure topics, assigns procedures to various members, tracks progress.
Writing Style leader: leads class discussion on style guide issues, records and gradually compiles style guide (or at least list of style do’s and don’ts)
Design & Navigation leader: leads class discussion on individual page layout and overall organization of Help system. Works with Tutorial and procedure leaders to create site-map.
Copy Editing & Graphics leader: leads class discussion on developing peer editing and individual editing practices. Assigns editors and tracks progress. Also works with Writing Style Manager to develop standards for screen shots and other graphics, then checks all topics for compliance.
Tools and Testing leader: leads class discussion on authoring tools, file management, and similar issues. Responsible for overseeing final testing and corrections of all links/functionality.

Use your blogs as the ongoing repository of information for your area of expertise. Be sure to check other blogs VERY frequently for updates.

Wiki

If anyone is interested in watching this project unfold, we are currently using a wiki to collaborate. You can look, but you can't touch (unless you have one of the double-super-secret password-encryption rings that my class and I forged during the last new moon). This isn't the most robust wiki platform in the world (no history of documents, for example) but it seems to get the job done.

http://en4090psuadvancedtechcomm.pbwiki.com/

Banjos

Advanced Tech Comm - The Client Interview

Whew! That went extremely well. Without getting into specifics, when I taught ATC in 2004, the client interview was the Pearl Harbor of my teaching career. My students left having been stripped of motivation and more confused about their project than ever.

THIS time, the energy in the room crackled and anyone could see that Dr. Stiller (her department is our "client" this year) and the class had an immediate rapport. My students asked insightful questions and followed up very well. Not only were they able to glean a lot of important information from Dr. Stiller's answers, I think they did an admirable job of communicating their own professionalism.

As always, I don't want to slide into the driver's seat (though I have to restrain myself from doing so), but here are some of the important take-aways I think we have to consider:

  • Our users are expressing themselves creatively. Supporting those creative expressions will be our job and we should adjust our tone appropriately.
  • Tutorials, and to a lesser degree Procedural help, are probably going to be the main emphasis for this document. We should certainly focus those tutorials around acclimating students to suites of tools and we should not be afraid to have the same tools appear in multiple tutorials (eg. layers & selection tools).
  • While Dr. Stiller's assignments are excellent sources for us to consider as we look at tutorials, we should use those assignments to build a list of important skills, THEN design the tutorials to teach those skills. This allows us to account for individual instructors who may design very different assignments to assess those same skills.

On a different note, I met with my reflective practice teaching group last Friday. Our discussion centered on ways to get at what our students know, as opposed to what they can parrot back from the readings/lectures/etc. Then, today, I was talking to my Dep't Chair about my excitement/anxiety over this class. I was telling her that--as much as I want to shove the class aside some times and start doling out tasks and organizing the project--it's critical to the success of the class for those decisions to be deliberated and arrived at by the class itself--the ultimate means of determining what your student's know. Discovering the best approach, through trial and error, is a much more valuable experience than having it prescribed in a text...or even by a well-meaning professor. She asked me to consider writing about this course and my approach for WAC next year. We'll see what happens.

ATC2006 Begins!

I couldn't be more psyched about this semester. The Clock has an incredible staff and great leadership from Sam Kenney and Brooke Thornton. The work we've begun on faculty governance is now in the hands of a very capable group of faculty, PATs, and OS. My Twice Told Tales class is very engaged in the readings and the course. My Technical Communication classes (complete with several re-tooled assignments/structures) are coming along very well.

But more than anything else, I'm excited to be a part of another semester of Advanced Technical Communication. Anyone who's talked to me for more than two minutes in the last two years knows that the first offering of that course was the peak of my teaching career to date. My current class of six was hand-picked from among the best students I've worked with in the past two years. And they're ready to go--they've even suggested blogging (why else would I be blowing the dust off of this ancient blog?) as a way to track the project over time. More than a seminar, the class is a lab. I'm there to guide them when necessary, but for the most part, they "discover" their path and they set many of their own goals. I'm not basing my high expectations solely on the Fall 04 experience, I'm basing it largely on my confidence in these six remarkable students.

This year, we're working with Evelyn Stiller from the Computer Science Department to develop a web site that will help students in the Web Expressions course learn to use PhotoShop Elements. Together, we'll be learning to use PhotoShop Elements (our subject and one of our tools) as well as DreamWeaver, pbWiki, and any other tools we need. We'll be meeting regularly with Dr. Stiller to get background, receive feedback, and apprise our "client" of our progress.

For now, we're still forming as a team. We're relying on the text to give us some background knowledge and points of reference for later on, we're exploring our own roles, we're investigating tools and the client application, we're branding our group and generally getting to know each other in this new context. If experience is a predictor, we will be a solid team by this time in two weeks and that team will become more skillful and tightly-knit even as the deadlines begin to loom large.

To top it all off, three students from the former class have agreed to visit the class this year to participate in discussions, talk about their current role as technical communicators, and generally cheer the current group on.

I love this job.