Online Identity Class: Week 1

Graphic syllabusNote: As part of a College Teaching and Learning class in which I am enrolled, I will be reflecting weekly on the course I am teaching. I will likely withhold some details and information from these public blog posts to respect the confidentiality and sanctity of my classroom but I hope to be frank about my own actions and emotions as I teach this course for the second time.

The first week seemed to go reasonably well and I think we’re off to a good start. Specifically, I was relatively pleased with the second day of class when we really began to explore the material in earnest as nearly all of my students seemed to have done the reading and brought their materials to class. This is an improvement over last year but I do not attribute this difference in behavior to a difference in the kind or quality of students. Instead, I attribute this change to the fact that I was explicit with them about the need to read before class and bring the materials since it took them a few class sessions to catch on last year. Directly, forcefully, and repeatedly addressing this point on the very first day seems to have paid dividends on the second day of class.

The first day was a typical introduction to the course and its content.  Instead of just reading the syllabus, however, we began with an activity intended to introduce the ideas of the course. Last year, I handed every student a piece of paper with all of the fields and options on a Facebook profile (name, sex, relationship status, etc.) blank.  This year, I brought large sheets of blank paper and asked 1/3 of the class to write/draw their MySpace profile, 1/3 to write/draw their Facebook profile, and the remaining 1/3 to not write/draw a profile at all.  They then used these to introduce themselves to the class and I used these as springboards to discuss how their profiles (or lack thereof) influenced how they introduced themselves, how the options in the software limited their choices, and how these profiles shaped their options for self-presentation and identity. While I enjoyed the extra creativity and expression allowed by this year’s exercise and I am very happy to have tried it, I prefer last year’s activity as it was simpler and it still got the point across.  I also think that some of my students may believe that their effort in writing/drawing their profile was wasted effort (and given the limited, one-time use we made of those documents I tend to agree with them).

For the second day, we discussed our first reading which was a chapter out of Allan’s Contemporary social and sociological theory: Visualizing social worlds, a sociology text book. The reading was an introduction to symbolic interactionism, the big sociological idea on which much of the class is built. We approached this discussion first by breaking into groups (I print little pictures on top of my handouts that indicate which group a given student belongs to; the theme for that day’s pictures was PacMan with some handouts had PacMan, some had a ghost, some had a cherry, and the others had a strawberry) and answering the questions on the handouts as groups. After spending time on that, we drew back together as a class to go over our answers and pursue further discussion. There wasn’t as much discussion as I would have liked in the groups or afterwards in the larger class and I’m not sure if it’s because they are all unfamiliar to one another, this is a different kind of class structure for them, or if there are other reasons.  I’m not worried and I think it will just take some time for them to loosen up, become familiar and comfortable with one another and with me, and figure out how the class works.

At the end of both classes, I conducted quick assessments (“Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs)” in the local parlance) of my students’ knowledge and comfort. The first day I handed out blank notecards and asked them to write what they expected to learn in this class on one side and any remaining questions about the class on the other side.  The second day I asked them take a few minutes to write down what they had learned that day.  Both assessments were anonymous as they’re not intended to be graded or part of their formal assessments. The assessments gave me a good look into my students’ heads and helped me understand better what they got out of each class and where they’re at with the material and the makeup of the class. The first assessment allowed me to quickly address (via e-mail) some lingering questions about the class structure even before we met for the second class session. The second assessment reassured me that despite our quick pace and the relative quiet of the class during our discussion they were really picking up the big ideas. More importantly, one of my students shared with me some very important information that probably would have been very difficult to share if I were not employing these semi-structured assessment tools and now I’m in a position to act and help this student.

Their first assignment was also due on the second day.  I asked them to:

Describe your own ideas about identity and how you understand your identity in a reflection paper of 1.5 – 2 pages. Your paper should answer questions such as (a) Who am I? (b) How do I know who I am? and  (c) How do others know who I am?  There are no right or wrong answers to these questions but to earn a passing grade for this paper it must be clear to me that your answers are honest and the result of reflection, thought, and introspection.

A few students did not turn in this assignment in the manner in which I specified so I’ll need to stress to all of my students how I want assignments to be handed in (using the “Assignments” section of our online course management system). More importantly, a few students did not turn in the assignment at all so I need to intervene with students quickly to find out what is going on and if there are ways that I can help them.

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