The Communications Manifesto

It began over homemade Kale Caesar Salad and cafeteria-purchased Beef Barley Soup. Conversations about communication often do begin over lunch which, when you share an office suite with other professors teaching the same subject, is hardly surprising.

We are near the end of the semester, and have been reading, reviewing, commenting on, and grading student papers for about a month now. We have seen excellent results from our revised communication curriculum in terms of the writing and the process, but there is still room for improvement. We got talking about how to fine tune what we have been doing for next semester (I am teaching it to two sections starting in January), and that led into a discussion on what we want to see students achieve in their writing.

The Communications Manifesto (original draft)

We want Students to write with enthusiasm about subjects they are hungry to explore.

We want to encourage writing because there is something powerful Students want to say.

We want to hear passionate, professional Student voice, and have it explode off the page with deliberation and depth.

We want Students ready to take risks with their writing, not just play it safe with formulaic 5-para essays.

We want Students to develop their writing to include synthesis and analysis, and to move away from mere regurgitation of ideas.

We want Students to collaborate with peers, engage in meaningful feedback with work-in-progress, and strive for excellence.

We want Students to write with pride for multiple authentic audiences and encourage them to publish with confidence.

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There is more to say about each of these points. This just touches the surface of our discussion, but I love the direction we are going as a team, as a campus.

Reflect, reflect, reflect.

A rather unpleasant incident occurred this week at work. I don’t want to talk about the details; suffice to say, it involves a couple of students and a situation that escalated unnecessarily, and has left me utterly drained. It has been dealt with…hopefully without further repercussion for anyone…and it is time to let it go and move on.

But I can’t do that without a little bit of soul searching.

The truth is that when things work, or even when they don’t but there is value to students in the process or the learning, it is easy to reflect on what went well, what the challenges where, what opportunities were present or were missed, and what could be done differently. It’s much more difficult to reflect honestly when there was nothing obviously good about the experience.

I suspect that’s probably when reflection is most valuable.

And so I find myself asking what went wrong? What actions led to the incident? What could I have done differently to prevent this? And how can I take something away from all this that can be used to affect positive change….change in my curriculum? In my delivery? In my assignment?

Soul searching does help. I believe, for example, that I treat students equally, courteously, and respectfully. I grade fairly. I offer help and assistance, am open to discussion, and am forthcoming with students about my expectations and their progress. There are no surprises. And yet…I didn’t see this coming. And I probably should have and done something to prevent it.

Background

I taught two sections of the same course this semester, and in both delivered the revised curriculum I designed in collaboration with my colleagues that is intended to make the learning deeper, more relevant, and more research and writing specific. It’s a good curriculum. It needs fine tuning still, but it is solid. Across eight sections (cross-curricular programs), we received positive feedback on student self-evaluative reflections this week: they saw progress, they feel they are better writers, they LOVED the editing process (not something you hear every day), they benefited from the in depth feedback that forced them to revise their work in meaningful ways. This all reinforces what I already felt in my gut: That we are on the right track.

But one of the classes was significantly less happy in general than the other. For the most part, this particular program has somewhat stronger students. I tried to make allowances for that, adapting our course to their needs. And perhaps that is an area where there is still work I can do. I have to acknowledge, however, the role their disengagement played in what happened this week. I also acknowledge that this time of year is very stressful for students. Especially those in demanding courses. A low grade in my course puts them at risk, and I am extremely cognizant of that and take care to be deliberate in the decisions I make when reviewing student work.

Conclusion

I am not happy with the events of the week. It has been very upsetting for me, and I’m thankful for the supportive colleagues who have reassured me that I cannot blame myself. I do of course, at least a little. But reflecting on this from both my own perspective and that of the students has garnered some insights, some tentative answers to the questions I asked earlier.

What actions led to the incident? Students being overwhelmed and feeling communication is the lowest priority in a heavy curriculum; Trying too hard to provide options that recognized their frustration, but that perhaps contributed to their feeling that my class was less important or too easy, thus leading to less engagement.

What could I have done differently to prevent this? In truth, the students involved might have acted this way regardless of what I did or do. I am not the only professor to have come into conflict with them. However, the incident has reiterated the need to make the class more meaningful; I always give options, but need to recognize the specific strengths this particular group has and challenge them, have them do something that has value to them.

How can I take something away from all this that can be used to affect positive change? As I always tell my students, Fail Forward. If you can do that, it’s not really failure at all.

Change in my curriculum? The curriculum is strong. It’s working. What I do need to do is to make stronger connections between it and their program, their career. I’ve spoken to a number of people in the field who have provided me with information to support this.

In my delivery? I gave this set of students more autonomy, which actually backfired. I’m going to have a more concrete set of benchmarks for students to meet on their journey through their draft assignment; I also already had thought the time frame between draft and final was too long, and had already discussed with my team how to condense this without sacrificing the learning process. I believe having students have less time to work on revision might prove to be more motivational.

In my assignments? I always give choices, but my planned move to have students create something they can use as part of a digital portfolio is one step I am going to implement sooner rather than later.