In this section, I discuss three different uses of technology across my teaching:
- Using Zoom in an online version of Intro to Feminist Studies
- Using Slack in a first-year composition course
- Using GoogleDocs in a Feminist Activism course
By reflecting on my rationale for using particular technologies, I hope to demonstrate how my adoption of technology has been driven by my pedagogical approach and goals, rather than by the technology itself.
Using Zoom in an Online Intro to Feminist Studies Course
In summer 2017, I worked as a Teaching Assistant for a pilot online Feminist Studies course, Gender and Power. As a feminist and as a labor scholar, I approached this course wary of the turn to online education, particularly within the context of the neoliberal university (for further discussion, see Rhoads, et al. 2015). However, after being assigned to this course—and knowing that online education may very well be the reality of my future employment—I was determined to learn more about the context of online education and to develop tools and techniques that would allow me to teach and engage with students in a way that aligned with my teaching philosophy.
For many feminist scholars, the relationship between feminist pedagogy and online teaching has always been fraught. Pamela Whitehouse captures this tension succinctly in her 2002 article entitled: “Women’s Studies Online: An Oxymoron?” Whitehouse argues that while distributed technologies can potentially prepare students to be scholars and activists by familiarizing them with impactful technology, online courses may not be as revolutionary as some scholars have suggested. Cherie Ann Turpin (2007) points to some of the social justice benefits of online education, such as the benefits of relative anonymity for disrupting power hierarchies in the classroom and the flexible scheduling that might allow working women or women with children to participate in courses at a higher rate. However, at the same time, she also points out that online classrooms are still shaped by dynamics of gender, race, and class and that online courses might just create a “third shift” for women, meaning that these online courses are simply added on top of the work and caregiving responsibilities that women already face.
Although I was aware of this larger conversation about online teaching in Feminist Studies departments, in my first position TAing for an online course, I was preoccupied with the practical concerns of teaching online. As an exclusively-online class, this Feminist Studies 20 course required significant and varied use of technology. Obviously, the course instructor and I used our learning management system extensively to embed course materials and assignments, to post course readings and materials, and to assess student work. As part of this TAship, I also held weekly discussion sections with students using the online video conferencing software, Zoom.
I had used Zoom previously to hold online one-on-one writing tutoring through the Santa Barbara City College Writing Center. The Learning Resources director at SBCC at the time was adamant that technology should only be adopted if it supported teaching practices that were already known to be effective—that is, the pedagogy must dictate the technology, rather than the other way around. For this reason, the digital tutoring sessions at SBCC closely mimicked in-person tutoring, using parallel digital infrastructure to complete an intake and to work through the material with the student. After just a few online tutorials, I could see just how important this approach was for ensuring that the online sessions were just as effective as their in-person counterparts.
As I approached my online course, I found this sentiment reflected in the feminist pedagogy literature as well. For example, Nancy Chick and Holly Hassell (2009) discuss the importance of prioritizing sound feminist pedagogy when developing online courses:
Our present concern is to emphasize the importance of building the pedagogical framework and then bring the technology into that framework. Too often instructors defer to the technology and even instructional technology staff because they’re experts in the technology, but we’re the experts in both the content and the pedagogy, and a course starts there, not with the machinery. Pedagogical practices can and should drive the structure of the course, and the principles of feminist pedagogy should be present from the beginning, rather than add-ons at the end. (197)
Inspired by these priorities, I was determined to find a way to ensure that my use of the course technology was informed by pedagogically-sound practices and by my own teaching philosophy.
Although I was lucky enough to have previous experience with the basic functions of Zoom, I was not sure how to expand my skills from a one-on-one tutorial to a 20-person interactive discussion section. While preparing for this position, I did considerable research into best practices for online courses. Importantly, most of the literature I came across dealt with asynchronous courses, rather than (partially) synchronous. Due to this emphasis on asynchronous learning, I found that most of the techniques discussed in this literature were more applicable to course design decisions that fell within the instructor’s purview, such as using targeted discussion forums (Eudey 2012) or creating interactive activities (Chick and Hassel 2009). Moreover, the unusual use of group video chat meant that some arguments in support of online feminist studies teaching—such as Batya Weinbaum (2016)’s argument that disembodied instructors can depoliticize the learning environment in certain ways—weren’t applicable to my upcoming sections. As it turned out, many of the most helpful practical tips came from online blog-style articles and forums. From these articles and discussion boards, I picked up some techniques that I ultimately ended up integrating into my own virtual classroom, such as sharing more personal stories to humanize myself and the course and relying more on cold calling to avoid awkward lags and silences. These sources also discussed some environmental concerns I hadn’t considered, such as placing myself in front of a visually interesting background, using earbuds with a built-in microphone to reduce background noise from my apartment complex, and placing a bright lamp behind my computer to eliminate dark shadows.
Once sections began, I experimented with creating infrastructure for the course that mimicked techniques I used in my in-person sections. Agatha Beins (2017) argues that integrating small talk and informal communication into online courses helps to create stronger online learning communities by supporting both cognitive and emotional learning. Therefore, just as I do in person, I showed up to section early, played music, and spent a few minutes greeting students and making small talk before the start of section. To my surprise, students started showing up early as well and initiating conversations with their virtual classmates. Once a critical mass of students accumulated in the main chatroom, I shared a GoogleDoc through the screenshare feature of Zoom. This Google Doc essentially functioned as our class whiteboard, containing an agenda for the meeting, reminders, key terms from the readings, instructions, images, discussion questions, etc:
This visual support gave students something tangible and shared to look at and reference, rather than just speaking to the wall of faces that populated their screens. Depending on the day’s activities, I would often make this GoogleDoc editable and send the link to the students, allowing them to type answers and contributions into the shared document as if they were writing on the whiteboard. This non-verbal participation helped students who were nervous to jump into discussion in the 10-20 person chatroom or students experiencing technical difficulties with their microphones.
Many of my in-person teaching techniques for building community and encouraging participation (such as turn and talks, informal conversations, or activities like gallery walks or speed-dating discussions) needed to be altered in order to work in this digital context. Although Zoom includes a breakout group function, the time required to set up and return from groupwork in this digital platform meant that spontaneous turn and talks were difficult to arrange. Therefore, students primarily talked to me in the group classroom or to their classmates in separate breakout rooms that were challenging to oversee. Groupwork was further complicated when students did not use all the features of Zoom, for example, calling in via phone or participating only via chat due to technology failures. Nevertheless, many students identified the breakout groups as a highlight of the online section. For example, one student wrote, “I liked the discussion sessions because I was actually able to interact with classmates. And I felt that was great because it reminded me of a normal on-campus class.”
A significant struggle I faced during this course was the short section length. In order to accommodate more students and have a smaller number of students in each section, the instructor capped each section at 30 minutes. Originally, the instructor intended that section time would only be used to discuss the readings, with no time for housekeeping or discussion of assignments. However, we both quickly realized that students had a lot of questions about logistics and assignments and, since section was the only time that students met with someone face-to-face, I became their main contact to address these questions. With only 30 minutes, we did not have much time left over after these questions to get into deep conversation. Most of the constructive comments in my evaluations had to do with this short section length. As one student wrote, “The discussion section was very well constructed, but I think if we had like 10 more minutes for each session there would be more time to have good discussions in our group breakouts.” Although these sections felt similarly rushed to me, another student expressed that they “appreciated the short discussion section due to [their] busy schedule.”
An often-cited benefit of online education is that it reduces geographical barriers (see for example, Hopkins 1996). This was especially true during this summer course, as students called in from all over the world as they traveled on summer vacations or returned to their hometowns or countries for summer jobs. Online sections also offered flexible scheduling for students, as I had a range of section times and relatively relaxed rules about switching between sections with advance notice. In some cases, this geographic distribution prompted interesting and situated conversations, as I often asked students to share where they were calling from or relate a course topic or theme to their immediate surroundings. However, this geographic freedom was also one of the most significant distractions of section, as students famously called in via video in from the bathroom, from their car dashboard while driving to work, and from a bachelor party on the Las Vegas strip–cocktail in hand.
Despite these drawbacks, one of the most significant takeaways from this digital experiment for me was the ease and success of online office hours. It was encouraging to have students join office hours from across the globe when they might otherwise be unable to access the additional support they needed. Using the screenshare and remote access features of Zoom, we were even able to look at the same screen together and to closely analyze writing or to look up resources together, just as we would in a face-to-face meeting. Office hours took place in a chat room that was public to the class (unless the student indicated they’d prefer a private meeting), so office hours provided an additional opportunity to have students learn with and from their peers. After observing these benefits, I ultimately incorporated online office hours into my future courses, even when they met entirely in-person.
Overall, I was pleased to find that many students seemed prepared and eager to engage in conversations about feminist theory that they might not otherwise have been able to. While this quarter of online teaching had a steep learning curve, I’m happy to have had the opportunity to familiarize myself with some of the theoretical and practical issues of teaching an online course.
Using Slack for First-Year Composition
Coming out of the online-only Intro to Feminist Studies course, I was keenly aware of how much time I spent attempting to track ongoing conversations with students—searching back through emails to find previous conversations, sending students links and resources they struggled to locate on the course Moodle, and trying to identify which random Yahoo email belonged to which student. I also noticed that I spent a lot of time answering the same questions over and over again for different students, particularly because the student’s had few opportunities to interact or to contact and discuss ideas with each other. The infrastructure of the course and the learning management system established me at the center of the course, reducing opportunities for students to learn from each other. With these limitations in mind, I was eager to develop a more “constructivist” approach to Writing 2, that is, one that decentered my role as the transmitter of knowledge, encouraged peer-to-peer interaction and learning, and promoted student-centered learning practices (for more discussion of constructivist pedagogies, see Sherman and Kurshan 2005; Rudestam and Schoenholtz-Read 2010). I therefore began to experiment with the digital platform Slack in my Academic Writing classes as a solution for managing course materials and facilitating student communication.
For my first-year composition courses, I used Slack most frequently as a Direct Messaging system. Using Slack as a Direct Messaging system had several benefits. One of the most useful features of Slack for this purpose was that it created a single discussion thread with each student. This made it easy to track conversations and to reference previous discussions, something I often did while commenting on or grading student work (ex. “You’ve really strengthened your thesis since the draft you ran by me in Week 2!”).
I often used Slack as a medium for exit messages or follow-up reflection on writing feedback. For example, I often prompted students to use Direct Messages to update me on their progress on assignments or to tell me what their main takeaway was from the day’s class. The screenshot below shows how I use this technology to support students in processing feedback and articulating a revision plan. After handing back a major graded draft, I asked students to read my feedback closely and reply to the following questions:
- What specific skills or techniques am I am asking you to develop? Why do you think I’m asking you to focus on these specific things? How would these changes affect the reader’s experience?
- If you ended up revising this paper for the final portfolio, what changes would you make (list everything you’re thinking of)?
- If you didn’t end up revising this paper for the portfolio, what takeaways from these comments will you apply to your portfolio or other writing you’ll do? ]
- Show me an example of a change you could make based on this feedback. For example, you could revise a topic sentence, write a couple sentences to beef up your intro, re-analyze a quote, etc.
- How can I help you? What questions do you have about this feedback? Do you need any clarification or resources for how to make the suggested changes?
As students sent their replies via Direct Message, I could quickly monitor incoming responses on my laptop to quickly identify and address recurring questions with the group. Even better, I was able to follow up on student comments and concerns in a streamlined way between class meetings. This was particularly helpful when students raised questions about assignments that were due before the next class meeting.
I found that students were much more likely to contact me with questions and work-in-progress while using Slack because the app is as easy as texting and didn’t require them to write a formal email. While I do think it’s important for students to learn to write formal emails (in fact, that’s something we discuss extensively in the course), the informal messaging of Slack made it possible to have actual back-and-forth conversations. When a student and I happened to be online at the same time, we could even engage in synchronous conversations in more of a chat style, using questions, short replies, and sometimes even emojis. Slack was explicitly mentioned in quite a few of my written evaluations across the three quarters, for example, when a student in my Winter course wrote, “As a student who doesn’t enjoy writing very much I thought Rachel was a phenomenal teacher. She was always prepared and available when I needed via Slack. She helped me become a better writer and begin to like a subject I didn’t care for.”
Beyond the ability to Direct Message with me, students were also able to converse with one another, either through Direct Messages with peers or through group messages. This peer-to-peer infrastructure allowed students to brainstorm and solicit feedback from their peers without my oversight. As the Slack administrator, I could see from the workspace dashboard that students used Slack to send between 500-1000 Direct Messages every week—well beyond what they were required to do in class. One student in my course wrote, “The use of Slack was very helpful to be able to communicate with peers and get more feedback. From this class, I learned more about myself as a writer and I am very thankful.” This peer-to-peer technology was also helpful in more extreme circumstances. For example, several commuter students were unable to reach campus due to the Fall 2017 Thomas Fire and the deadly Winter 2018 mudflows. Due to the Slack infrastructure and the Zoom office hours mentioned above, stranded students were still able to keep up with the course content and complete peer review assignments with classmates.
Finally, the most important use of Slack was requiring students to post their work-in-progress—their scaffolded project builders and multiple rough drafts—to a public channel. This public dropbox feature allowed students to have a sense of what their classmates were writing about and how they were approaching the assignments. Although being required to share work publicly initially created a lot of anxiety in students, I asked students to share their work in this way because it aligned with the learning objectives of the course in three ways:
First, I hoped that asking students to publicly post their writing would help disrupt the idea that writing as personal and private. As most of the students required to take this first-year compositions course have had negative experiences with writing or have been told that they are “bad” writers, a significant goal of the course is supporting students in working through the self-consciousness that often keeps them from fully engaging with writing or from asking for help. To recognize the enormous vulnerability and bravery of sharing work-in-progress, the first person to post each minor assignment got a package of Icebreaker mints and a round of applause for their bravery (Much to my surprise, across three quarters, a different person posted first for each assignment).
Second, by requiring students to confront and address an audience beyond just their instructor, I hoped they would come to truly understand their writing as social and rhetorical (Roozen 2014), a major threshold concept of the course. Student reported that needing to address this dual audience encouraged them to write more deliberately–explaining complex concepts more fully, and making concentrated efforts to capture the readers’ attention.
Third, I hoped this public channel would encourage students to “read like a writer,” an approach advocated by Mike Bunn (2011) who suggests that writers should analyze the work of others to figure out why they made certain rhetorical choices and to identify key conventions that could be effective in their own writing. Even though we read Bunn’s article in the first week of the class and talked at length about how writers read and analyze sample writing to inform their own approach, students were still hesitant to admit they looked at their classmates’ drafts in the public channel. For example, after posting our second public assignment, I asked my students whether any of them had looked at their classmates’ drafts (which they obviously had because many of their assignments followed similar structure and formatting). The students quickly responded, “Oh no! We’d never do that!” This led to a critical conversation about how important it is to use these resources and to recognize and assess the conventions of any writing genre. By the end of the quarter, many students freely stated that they used these public channels whenever they got stuck on an assignment. For example, one student wrote in her Spring Final Portfolio cover letter, “I learned that it’s okay to share your work with others, even if it’s not finished yet, because different people may see things that you hadn’t even noticed before. I learned that looking at other people’s work helps you create your own work. When I felt stumped, I would go onto Slack to look at other people’s writing, which helped inspire me and give me new ideas.”
Using Collaborative GoogleDocs for Feminst Activism Course
In the case of Doing Feminist Activism in the Age of Social Media, teaching a class on feminist activism—particularly with an emphasis on digital tools—did not seem to lend itself to traditional methods of inquiry and writing. One major objective of the course was to disrupt the commonly-held belief that activism occurs spontaneously or individually. Throughout the course, we looked at academic sources, news articles, and archival materials to examine how activism requires extensive planning, cooperation, and multifaceted messaging. We also analyzed the ways that feminist activism stumbles, for instance, by failing to take an intersectional approach, by reproducing neoliberal and postfeminist ideologies, and by failing to pair social media activism with tangible, real world outcomes. Armed with these critiques, students quickly became proficient at tearing apart and critiquing every campaign they came across. Given their comfort with critique, I also hoped to show them that organizing was incredibly challenging and slow-going work. Thus, instead of having students write a traditional term paper at the end of the quarter, I asked them to actually put together a campaign, agreeing on an issue relevant to the UCSB or surrounding community and working together to develop an activist campaign to address the issue. Part of my motivation was to use project-based learning to encourage students to actually apply the critiques they had raised to a new situation. Maggi Savin-Baden (2007) argues that project-based learning allows students to go beyond rote memorization and to apply their knowledge to “authentic” situations. Reeves et al. (2002) additionally suggests that effective project-based learning must have “real world significance, be ill-defined, comprise tasks to be investigated over time, examine the task from different perspectives… create polished products and allow diversity of outcomes” (564). This final project was thus deliberately incredibly open-ended, leaving students significant leeway to determine the focus, scope, tools, and approach they would use. For both myself and my students, the idea was both exciting and scary.
After reading about how a consensus building process was used across different activist efforts to narrow down ideas, we decided to use this process to identify the focus of our campaign (for a discussion of consensus building, see Seeds for Change 2010). I worked one-on-one with a student who was planning to work in community organizing to get her comfortable leading a consensus building exercise with the whole class. Through the process, students ultimately decided to create a campaign advocating for the strategic use of trigger warnings across campus (For class minutes about the consensus building process, see https://goo.gl/gyELBE). After deciding on a focus and sub-categories, students broke themselves into different learning communities focused on different content areas and audiences related to the campaign. As Whitehouse (2002) argues, learning communities occur when “a group of people come together to work toward some goal that is both shared and individual, which leaves much space for individual interpretation” (215). For the duration of the project, students worked in these learning communities to develop pieces of the project while also making use of daily check-ins and digital infrastructure to share information with the larger group.
Given this complex individual and group infrastructure, we ended up using GoogleDocs extensively as a tool to integrate and keep track of the moving pieces of this campaign. Additionally, because many students were graduating at the end of the session, we agreed that the product we produced needed to be clear, accessible, and easily shared with other people who may be interested in actually implementing the project in future quarters. One student, who volunteered as the communications and infrastructure manager, created a planning document that divided up the tasks and each team began work on their individual or team sections (For an in-process planning document see: https://goo.gl/mqf5dD). The collaborative digital tools of GoogleDocs helped students to fulfil the definition of learning communities advocated by Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt (1999) by encouraging active interaction, collaborative learning, socially constructed meaning, resource sharing, and mutual support and encouragement. By the final day of class, students compiled their work into an overall Campaign Statement that outlined the mission of the campaign and included targeted outreach plans to approach different constituencies (For a link to the near-final version of the Campaign Planning Document, see: https://goo.gl/9MgjxN).
This project was an incredibly valuable learning opportunity for me because it highlighted many of the practical difficulties of doing collaborative work in a classroom setting. While I anticipated that this project would be a welcome alternative to exams and traditional research projects—and one that was very much in keeping with the course themes—I found that this non-traditional assignment made many of my students incredibly anxious. However, this anxiety wasn’t due to the difficulty of the task, but rather, to the uncertainty of the assessment. While my main priority was giving students the chance to try out of some of the tools we had discussed and to witness the sheer amount of researching, decision-making, and collaborating that goes into organizing, my students’ main priority was getting a good grade. I planned to do contract grading for the final project to mitigate some of these stresses and to practice the consensus building process that students would need to use for the final project. Ultimately, the students and I mutually negotiated a grading contract for the project that stated that if students were present and contributed in good faith every day of the final project, they were guaranteed to get at least an 80% on the final project. We decided that the additional 20% would be determined by the quality of their contribution to the project and the detail and thoughtfulness of their reflection about the course and the final project. The process of creating a grading contract was very effective in some ways, such as giving students more control over key pieces of the grading schema (Shor 1996) and “uncover[ing] the mystification of institutional and cultural power” that is typically present in the grading processes (Elbow 2008). However, I hadn’t anticipated just how much grading concerns would continue to haunt the project. I found myself spending a considerable amount of time answering questions about assessment and assuaging student concerns over grades. I also found that, when freed from a rubric or strict set of grading specifications, students struggled to figure out what to do to approach the problem and repeatedly asked me what steps they should follow or if they were doing the project “right.” In fact, because so many class assignments are narrow and well-defined, I think many students actually suspected I was simply withholding information about the best or easiest way to approach this assignment. Despite these uncertainties, for the most part, the project seemed to be positively received by students. In the evaluations, one student wrote, “Final project was a great way to use info we learned with the tools we learned. Challenging but doable!” Another indicated that the final project was the most productive assignment in facilitating her learning because “it has a real-world application and I feel like I learned transferrable skills.” For one student, enjoying the final project meant overcoming her initial discomfort; in her evaluation, she wrote, “I was pretty scared but it was great.”
Two parts of this project were particularly exciting for me. The first was the initial student-facilitated consensus building process that required students to actually fight for a project and approach that satisfied everyone in the room. The second was the sheer amount of work that was produced when students worked collaboratively, rather than independently and competitively. After so many quarters of grading 60 near-carbon copies of the same paper on the same prompt, I was thrilled to see what could happen when assessment criteria were changed to measure what students could accomplish together. While I am happy that I tried something new and collaborative, I know I will have to think critically about how to execute this project in the future to ensure that it is better supported and integrated in the course. One student suggested that the final project started too late in the session to really feel complete by the end—a comment that I completely agree with, especially in the rushed 6-week Summer Session. If I were to do a similar project in the future, I would integrate it throughout the course, perhaps scaffolded to match the theme or content of each week. It will also be interesting (I think in an exciting way!) to imagine how to adapt this project further from a small seminar to a larger course.
 On the last day of the quarter, the students and I had a symbolic ceremony where they became the collective “owners” of our digital documents in order to carry the work forward. Unfortunately, in the process of digitally handing off ownership of this work, I lost easy access to the final, cleaned-up version of the campaign.
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