Virtual Residency 2020

MayResidencyI first realized that we would likely need to have virtual residencies this summer while I was at AWP 2020 in San Antonio. Those of us who went had many conversations about COVID-19 and what it might mean, though at that point in early March everything was uncertain. At the Low-Residency Caucus panel, several directors were worried about what they would do if they couldn’t hold their on-campus residencies. It’s a vital part of a low-residency program, and for many programs it is required every semester and part of their classes. Our program at Mississippi University for Women is set up so that the residencies are separate classes. I knew I could have students active in the program without making them come to campus, which was a huge advantage, but I also knew that I had students in the program who needed a residency to graduate in August, so I would need to offer one. We actually had 28 students who needed residency and had already planned to offer two at different times, so that we could accommodate everyone’s schedules. We can’t do that all the time, but it made sense this year.

With that in mind and as soon as we learned Spring semester classes would all be moved online, I began planning to have our first Full Residency in May as a virtual residency, still holding out hope that in July we could be on campus. Soon enough, we learned that all on-campus summer classes would have to be online. This week, we’ve been doing the residency with 20 students and 5 faculty, all in Zoom. We’re trying to do the same things we normally would do, and finding there’s a few things we can’t do as well and a few things we can do better.

Workshops

Every morning, our groups meet for 2 hours to discuss student writing. Each workshop has 5 students, so each day 2 or 3 students’ works are discussed. The workshop groups are formed with a mixture of people from different genres and classes, so the feedback students get isn’t the same as they would have gotten during the semester. We hope there’s been some revision since the semester class, and we don’t expect revision (for the class) after this workshop, which frees us up to have a different kind of discussion: not just ‘what needs to be fixed in this piece,’ but also ‘what kind of writing might this writer want to try next’ or ‘what could be different in the next piece they write.’ We use Zoom a lot in our program, so everyone is used to it. Though we can’t meet in the same room and we can’t all share coffee from the same pot, we can have the same kinds of discussions.

Seminars

In the afternoon, we have an hour and a half for seminars by faculty or roundtable discussions with students. These are on professinal topics like issues in the writing life or craft discussions. We had one on teaching a community college, one about book publishing, and one on nonlinear narrative structures, for instance. These are very much like our usual seminars, the only difference is that we probably have more of a prepared talk and a little less discussion, though discussion on Zoom, even with 25 people, has gone pretty well. One thing we’re able to do that we haven’t always been able to do in the past is to bring in more alumni. Yesterday, we held a roundtable discussion with a group of alumns on the Post-MFA experience. Alumni and other students in the program have also been invited to other seminars, and though not too many have taken us up on that (maybe due to the time of day), it’s nice to open up part of our residency to those who aren’t in the class.

Readings

Thanks to advice from Andrew, one of our students who works at another college, we were able to figure out how to stream from Zoom to Facebook. Before learning about that, I had thought about subscribing to StreamYard to do the same thing. (It has some advantages, like allowing you to stream 2 places at once and allowing up to 6 people to be on screen at a time, but also some disadvantages, like only allowing 10 people at a time to be online together — everyone else would have to watch on the live stream). We’re able to have alumni and far-flung faculty and students participate in the readings, and we’ve grown a pretty big audience (compared to live in-person events). Family and friends of the students who are reading can participate, as can alumni, prospective students, and current students who are not at the residency. We’ve had to learn about lighting and such, but we’re not trying to look super-professional, so we make do with what we have.

Thesis Defenses

As always, we hold our thesis defenses at residencies. Since these are all virtual, we’re able to bring in committee members who live far away, and we’re able to be a little more flexible with scheduling. A couple of theses might be done outside of a residency this summer. The conversations we havve about theses have been every bit as good as they would be face to face. The only real issue is signing the signature page: we’re mailing that around to the committees, which shouldn’t be a problem.

Hanging Out

This is the biggest sacrifice of going online. We don’t eat meals together and we don’t just hang out. No one but me had to sweat in an un-air-conditioned academic building over Memorial Day weekend (when they almost always turn down the A/C). No one got to see the campus groundhog (not a mascot, just a critter that we’ve sometimes seen lurking around the building and which I saw one night this year while walking the dog across campus). No one did early morning yoga on the lawn or got up to go exploring at the wildlife refuge, and no one went to Waffle House or out to the bars late at night. At least not together in our little college town.

Instead, we reserved a couple of nights as Socials (instead of readings), and we invited alumni and others to join us for one of those nights. Another night, we had a practice reading to try out streaming to Facebook, and we took a break on Memorial Day night as we often do. I’ve encouraged the students to have their own Zoom or other video get-togethers, so they can meet in smaller groups the way they normally would without my planning it or even knowing about it. I hope they’ve done that, but if they haven’t, I’ll also understand. We all know about Zoom fatigue, and when most of our days (for over a week straight) consist of at least 6 hours on Zoom — I’m glad we have meal breaks so we’re not constantly online — I know most of us are exhausted and ready for the residency to be over, which is just like an in-person residency when on the last day we’re all utterly exhausted, energized, sad to be leaving, and still happy to be going home.

Last night, after our final reading, I invited students to stick around in Zoom for awhile to chat. Not everyone did, and I get why they may have wanted to spend time with family or just be done with Zoom. But those who stayed had a good time talking for another half hour or so just amongst ourselves. The general consensus was that the virtual residency had gone surprisingly well. Some even preferred it to the on-campus residency, though most would have preferred to come to campus if they could. Still, they felt the level of social interaction was as much or more. Some of the workshops kept their Zoom meetings open for informal discussions long after the workshop had ended each day. Everyone was involved in our gatherings, and no one just rushed off to dinner or to their rooms. Though they couldn’t hang out late at night downtown, they also said they were probably more focused in their workshop discussions.

Would I do a virtual residency if we didn’t have to? I don’t know. It might be an option to consider at least for the part of our group for whom travel to Mississippi is an economic or scheduling challenge. One of our group this time had a medical emergency in her family, and being in a virtual residency allowed her to be near her family member in a trying time, while still keeping up with the residency — she probably would have had to go home if she’d been on campus. I expect we’ll need to continue to use some of the strategies we’ve developed this year under COVID-19, and we’ll also be very glad when we can be together in person. For some students, though, the virtual option may be the best.

Groups in the Social-Distanced Classroom

Last week, I posted some late night musings on how a face-to-face classroom might be different under social distancing. I was surprised at the number of people who viewed that post — nearly 100 in the first day. And because I can’t ask questions like that without searching for answers, I’ve begun collecting some tools and brainstorming some ideas for how we could do group work in a social-distanced classroom.

I will continue collecting these tools on my discussiong group for my textbook,  A Writer’s Craftsince I am thinking primarily about how creative writing can be taught using something like the group work I’m used to doing. Even trying to wrap my brain around this, though, has me thinking about how much more efficient it is to have students sit next to one another and talk. I can give them index cards with instructions, and I can pass those out rendomly to different groups to get them through a prompt. Or I can have them all write the same prompt individually and then turn to a partner or a group and share what they wrote. It all seems effortless compared to exchanging even short files with partners in a digital forum. But you have to sit exchange paper or sit near someone and talk: in either case, you’re also exchanging germs.

Lecturing can be deadly in a creative writing class, though, since it thrives on active learning. Students learn to write by doing, not just by being told what to do. While I’d love to find a way to electronically pass index cards around groups of 2-4 students (not share with everyone at once, but pass messages around a group), and I’d love to find a way for students to talk in a group without actually talking (since we’ll be in the same room but too far away from each other to talk quietly), I might be willing to settle for some other activities for students to do to break up a lecture and get them writing and thinking together. That’s why I’m looking for active ‘toys’ that can be adapted to creative writing tasks. Here’s what I’ve found so far. If you have suggestions, please let me know!

Hypothesis looks like a great way to read and comment on texts together. The text needs to be either a PDF or a web page. It might be good for making comments on a draft the student saved as PDF (as long as that isn’t public) or on a poem or story in an online journal. The group can write annotations of text to critique it or they could write creative annotations to respond to or make found poetry or found art out of something online.

Educaplay offers a number of games for use in the classroom. Some that seem promising are the Dialogue Game, Fill in the Blanks, Riddle, Unscramble Letters, and Unscramble Words. My main question (not having tested these yet) is whether students can create their games or whether the instructor has to create the game for students. Either could be useful, such as a fill-in-the-blanks game to create a poem with the blanks ro a dialogue game to create dialogue for a scene.

Draft is an online word processor that allows collaboration on drafts with the people you invite. This could be useful for sharing group work, especially if you don’t want to use Google Docs or Office 365.

Google Docs also allows users to share documents and collaborate on drafts. This could be used to share documents in groups and to allow readers to comment or add content to a draft. One advantage for Canvas users is that Google Docs is the default method for Canvas’s Collaborate feature

Speaking of Canvas, the Pages feature can also be used for collaborative writing. A page can be set to be editable by students. You could use the Groups feature to put students in groups and then give each group a page to compose in with the exercise instructions. They could write together on this page.

Trello is actually a project organizer for group planning, but it seems like it might be adaptable to smaller projects like group work. You can set up cards that can be annotated or commented on, and you can even create automated workflows. The free account allows unlimited users and up to 10 boards, so I could see using it for group work 10 times in one semester before I had to delete my boards. Or possibly, if I could have one board per class, and then create each group activity as part of the board, I could keep our work available all semester long. Assigning people to work on those activities might be a challenge, especially if I wanted to be in different groups each time, which I do like to do.

Quizlet seems primarily geared toward study aids and tests, but I wonder whether some of their ‘sets’ (like flashcards) could be adapted to group work. I haven’t explored Quizlet too far yet because I keep getting put off by the emphasis on learning rather than creating, but like Trello, I think somehow it might be adapted to more creative group activities.

I’m primarily looking for free tools that can be used without requiring a lot of cumbersome logins. Ideally, I could find one or two, maybe three tools to use for a few types of group assignments, so students don’t get bored doing the same thing all the time. I don’t want them (or me) to have to keep up with too many subscriptions or login information, and I do need whatever tools I use to be accessible on a phone, so that they don’t have to bring a laptop to class (though typing might be easier on a laptop). And I want to be able to adapt the same tools to an online class if we have to go back to all online instruction at some point.

I’ll keep adding to this list of tools in the discussion group on Goodreads for my textbook.

Online or Social Distanced for Fall Classes?

As our university is working on a plan to reopen in the fall, I get why we would want to do it, but I’m also wondering what it will be like to teach in a social distanced classroom. Everyone would love to be back to normal, but that’s highly unlikely to happen.

Online classes have a lot of advantages, actually. Though students won’t be able to interact in the same ways they would face to face, they can interact in proven ways online. There are asynchronous methods such as discussion boards and text-based content or recorded video lectures, and there are synchronous methods like the ubiquitous Zoom classroom.

Though moving back to the classroom seems ideal, it may actually be less interactive than online. For instance, a lot of us use techniques like group work that will not be available in a classroom where students should wear masks and sit at least six feet apart. How do we get students to interact with one another in this setting? I could lecture, but that’s not the way I want to run a classroom, especially not for creative writing. In group work, we pass texts back and forth and write on each other’s papers — that won’t be possible with social distancing.

If I’m in the classroom with students, I suspect I’ll need to adapt some online course delivery methods there as well. I could see letting students exchange writing by chat or in a discussion room. I’d love to find a tool that would make this more interactive and fun. But of course, doing that will also require that students bring their devices to the classroom so they can communicate with one another despite the distance.

Hybrid classes may be the norm, rather than the exception. Some things will make sense to do in the classroom, and some things will need to be taken online, even if students are sitting in the same room with each other. Class sizes will also need to be small, so for some classes it may be that only half the class can fit in the social distanced classroom at any one time. We may need to alternate days and find ways to include those who are off-site in our discussions. Rethinking the classroom experience may be more complicated than it was to take all of our face-to-face classes online suddenly this spring.

It would probalby be easier to be all online, but we’d miss the connection we have with students when we meet physically in one place. Whatever happens, we’ll have to do everythign we can to maintain that connection, and whatever happens, we’ll need to use every tool in our took kit (and then some) to keep communication open whether that is in the classroom or online. It will take a lot of creativity to make next semester work, but the best part of that is that the lessons we learn from teaching under COVID-19 are ones that we can still use when life truly goes back to normal.

Why Brag About Publishing a Poem?

Bragging is not something that comes naturally to some of us — then there are those who do it all the time and drive the rest of us up a tree.  So it doesn’t go without saying that you should brag about every poem that you publish. For some, it may seem ostentatious. After all, a poem is a page, maybe two or three, so getting a page published might not seem like such a big deal to fiction writers who publish maybe 15-30 pages at a shot. But a published poem is a publication, and there are several reasons I’ll post about it on social media (which feels like bragging).

  1. First and foremost, every post about a magazine is like a little ad for that magazine. I want people to know where I’m publishing. I want to them to go out and read and support the magazine. Maybe someone will buy a copy or maybe someone will visit the site and ignore the ads (if there are ads). I want people to read my work, but I also want people to see the other writers in that magazine and read them, too.
  2. I’m a professor, so I want my students to see that I’m publishing and where I’m publishing it. We should always try to be good examples for our students, and we should let them know that publishing doesn’t magically happen. We also have to work at it, so every publication counts.
  3. I work hard at writing and publishing, so I deserve to let people know. “Black Racer,” the poem that was published this week in Valley Voices had been turned down by four other journals. That’s a pretty good response rate. Often a poem has been to more before ever getting accepted. “A Necessary Lie” was accepted on its 8th trip out the door in two and a half years (I don’t do many simultaneous submissions, so it can take awhile). “The intergalactic traveler makes a Kroger run” got accepted by the first journal. That’s rare.
  4. Both of these were picked up by Juke Joint, a great online magazine I’ve been sending to for a couple of years, and each time I’ve gotten rejection letters with encouraging comments — until now, when half my submission (2 poems) was accepted. Again, that’s a pretty good track record, so why not celebrate?
  5. Celebrating the successes, even when that is a poem here and there, keeps you honest. It’s a reminder that as great as it feels to have your work in print, there is still more work to be done: more poems to write, more poems to submit, more rejections to catalogue and more acceptances to hope for.
  6. For every success, countless poems are returned to us. Poets and writers know the odds at most journals are stacked against us. Posting about our successes serves as a reminder to ourselves and to other writers that those successes do happen.

Do I want you to think I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread when I post about a poem that has been published in a magazine? Of course not. I know there are many more imporant things in the world. But if it gives someone the incentive to read or if it gives someone else the incentive to keep sending out their work, then it’s worth it.

Why We Teach

In this era of COVID-19, it can be easy to lose track of the big picture and get caught up in all the details. I was reminded of this the other day, when a former student, who I hadn’t heard from in a decade, posted a comment and tagged me in Facebook. She mentioned something I had said (yes, it was a compliment, not a complaint). We commented a little back and forth, and another student chimed in, mentioning another class.

What this reminded me of is something I have always felt. We teach, not for the class or the test or the essays students write, but for the future. I care more about what a student will take from my class four, five, even ten years later, though more times than not, this is something I never know. It’s rare to see a comment like this or to run into a student and have them tell you in person. And that is how it should be (though it’s incredibly rewarding when you do hear from students).

Education is not about immediate or even tangible results. Of course, we give tests and papers, and we want to push students to excel and we want those tangible results. But the bigger point is what happens later. It’s great to see our students succeed after they graduate, and it’s great to find out that something we said or taught mattered. I try to remember that students who struggle in a class, who may earn a B or C or even lower, may still be the ones who get the most out of it. They may not be able to show ‘mastery of the material’ during that semester, but if something sticks with them, then the seed is planted and they will benefit in some way, someday, maybe in unexpected ways.

It’s hard to remember this when we’re all struggling to keep up and to stay connected with students who are suddenly being taught at a distance. Our struggle to keep teaching and our attempts to be fair and yet to be as rigorous as possilbe will be a big part of what makes an impact. The most important lessons taught in a class are often tangential to the material that is covered. The greatest lesson can often be given just by caring enough about every student, meeting them where they are, and helping them improve. In the end, it’s not about the grades and it’s not about the degree; it’s about that human interaction, communication, and faith in each other.

A Look Back at #AWP20 in San Antonio

Receently, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs sent out a survey. They didn’t ask specifically about the conference, but their last question asked about our experiences in the past month or so. That was probably wise, since not everyone on their list went to the conference or was even planning to go, but asking that question gave me the opportunity to put some thoughts together about the conference. Here’s what I said (edited and then expanded on for this blog post):

We came to #AWP20 in San Antonio, and I felt AWP did the best they could with the information they had at the time. In hindsight, events like ours should have been cancelled in February, but with two days’ notice and everyone scrambling to cancel hotel and airline reservations (when it wasn’t yet clear that could be done), and with product shipped to the book fair, it was right to keep the conference on for those who wanted or needed to come. We haven’t heard of anyone getting sick from attending, so we apparently dodged that bullet unlike some other conferences at about the same time. I don’t blame AWP. If the national response had been clearer, they would have known in plenty of time that they had to cancel, and they would have done it.

Of course, everyone knew that the virus was out there. What we didn’t know was that what we had been told was wrong. We were given the impression that the virus was contained in a very few places and most of the U.S. was still safe. That was clearly incorrect. What we learned two days before the conference was that someone from an air base near San Antonio had been released from quarantine, stayed at a San Antonio Hotel, and then tested positive for the virus and sent back to quarantine. What we should have known was that the virus was out in places like Boston and New York, not just isolated in Seattle and a few people in quarantine. We should have known that travelers from Europe and the Middle East, not just from China, could be carriers. We should have had testing that would have let us know the true risks of public gatherings. We were just starting to learn that on March 2 when the news broke about the sick woman who had been released into San Antonio for about 24 hours that weekend and when the mayor of San Antonio declared a medical disaster (to keep other quarantined patients from being released).

I am glad for the many people who stayed away from the AWP conference, and I’m glad that AWP allowed anyone to cancel their registration at the last minute, which made that possible. I am glad that half our group went to the conference — we had a great, if surreal, experience, and none of us caught the virus or spread it. But we could have.

With better information, we probably would have made different decisions, but actually with better information, we wouldn’t have had to make a decision. AWP wouldn’t have been one of the first groups to face a decision about their conference. They would have known the risks well in advance and been able to cancel responsibly with enough time to give everyone a chance to cancel reservations or not ship their merchandise to the conference book fair. There would have been a national order to limit social gatherings that would have forced large conferences to cancel or postpone. That still hasn’t happened, but states and most groups have stepped up and made the difficult decisions anyway.

#AWP20 was right on the cusp of that happening. While we were in San Antonio, we learned that South by Southwest had cancelled. Other major events and venues soon followed, including the NBA and NCAA basketball tournaments. If our conference had been a week later or if we had gotten good information in the weeks leading up to the conference, we would have been one of the ones to cancel instead of one of the last to go forward and make the best of things. I’m glad we did what we did, and I’m very glad the virus didn’t seem to be spread at our conference, as it was at CPAC, AIPAC, and BioGen, other prominent conferences held about the same time. But I wish that we and all the other conferences had been given the information we needed to make better decisions, and I really wish that the U.S. response to COVID-19 had been led by science and testing and not by misinformation and denial.

@ATThelp Conclusion

After playing phone tag with Delva, we finally connected. At first she didn’t seem to understand what the problem was, but after I explained the delays we had encountered with our upgrade to fiber, she said was able to offer a $50 credit. It took over a week after our installation to get through to someone who would actually do what had been promised, but it has now appeared on our account. And we did get our upgrade to fiber internet, which is working very well (and the installer was great). So that closes this chapter in our ATT story.