Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Deceiving Your Students

I came across an article this afternoon about "ghost students" that I have found rather disturbing. A ghost student, for those of you who may be wondering, are instructors who pretend to be a student participating in an online course. The student does not exist, except in the instructor's imagination. Instructors who have tried this approach assert that this act of deception enables them to get to know their students better. They also claim that the insight they glean from being one of the students enables them to create a better and more successful learning experience for the student. But is the deception regardless of the possible benefits justified?

I've been thinking about the ghost student issue from both sides - as a student and as an instructor. As a student, it takes me some time to trust the instructor. This likely stems from my experience as an undergrad when the instructors did everything in their power to weed out those who couldn't hack it. Finding out that one of the students was actually the instructor would put the final nail in that coffin. It would be difficult for me to rebound at this point in my academic career and learn to trust my instructor again.

When I put on my instructor hat, I have problems with ghost students, as well. I want to get to know my students as myself, not by being someone I'm not. If the only way I can make connections with my students is by posing as a student, then I need to reflect upon my teaching practices to determine what I could improve or change. I'm also certain I would say something that would suggest I was somehow listening in on the students' conversations. From my own experience, this does not sit well with students. If they believe they are communicating in a private forum, they are very unhappy and often become paranoid when there is a leak.

If deception is the only way to foster a successful online learning experience, then maybe educators should be looking toward alternative forms of teaching and learning.

It's All About the Experience

There's not much excitement in my life these days, so when the opportunity to do something "different" comes along, it's hard not to jump at the chance, regardless. Last night, we drove almost 20 miles along twisty roads in the rain to see the movie "Wendy and Lucy" in one of the smallest theaters in the world. The theater was nestled back off the side street in such a way that we drove past it a couple of times without even noticing it. Even though it was Memorial Day and Nashville was teeming with tourists when we arrived, the feel of the place changed a little after 5:00 p.m. when the town rolled up the streets for the day. It made me wonder what life was like for the residents.

The Lotus Petal Cinema is small - two people can barely fit into the space designated as a concession stand. After paying for tickets and assorted munchies (the theater offers an interesting snack selection; they will even put nacho cheese sauce on your popcorn!), we entered the viewing area of the theater. Thirty-five theater seats are nestled into a small room with blond paneling along the side walls. The area surrounding the screen is painted black. Typically, the ads designed to entertain and inform viewers prior to the start of the movie are annoying; the set at the Lotus Petal Cinema were actually fun to watch despite the typos. My favorite slide was the one immediately before the movie started. Four or five (?) Tibetan monks in winter clothing told the audience to "Enjoy the movie!" That was a first for me.

Even though the screen is small, it wasn't difficult to become completely immersed in the movie. We were skeptical at first, but we've watched movies in theaters with broken seats, a broken furnace in sub-zero weather (no heat in the "Big Chill"), and even had everything stop half way into the movie. To me, going to the movies is about the complete experience, not just the movie itself. That's why I'll go to a theater, especially a single-screen theater, to see a movie that's out on DVD.

The movie is based on the short story "Train Choir," which is included in Livability by Jon Raymond. It took me weeks to be able to check out a copy from the library, but it was well worth the wait. The concluding story in this collection is "Train Choir," and as soon as my eyes rested on the final word, I was determined to see the movie. This story is a quiet one with not a lot of action, but packed full of heartbreak, struggle, loss, and survival. Wendy (Michelle Williams), fresh from Indiana, is on her way to the fisheries of Alaska with her sidekick Lucy, a Golden Retriever type of dog. Because of car trouble in Oregon, these two find themselves on a downward path with no relief in sight. Wendy is arrested for "forgetting" to pay for a few cans of dog food, Lucy is taken by the local pound and placed in a foster home, Wendy's car is beyond repair, and money is dwindling fast.

Thanks to the small gestures of a security guard at neighborhood Walgreens, Wendy is able to locate Lucy. After seeing Lucy in her new home, Wendy realizes that Lucy is in a better place: she has nice owners, a large fenced-in backyard, and stable home life - things Wendy can't provide at this point in time. Wendy knows she can't go back to Indiana (a phone call to her sister clearly illustrates that) and without a car and very little money, completing the trip to the fisheries is going to be a challenge. That said, Wendy does the only thing she can do; she leaves Lucy, jumps on a train, and makes her way toward Alaska.

Michelle Williams performance as Wendy is powerful and painful. The viewer feels her profound sadness as each part of her plan falls apart. Williams portrays a character that is vulnerable and needs protection, but at the same time displays a strength that conveys the idea that she is tough enough to take care of herself, no matter what obstacles are thrown her way. In the end, Wendy loses it all yet still finds the courage to move forward.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Day Distractions

After being a dissertation data coding monkey for a few weeks, I thought it was time to take a break. (Translation: I'm in a holding pattern right now. The next set of data to analyze won't be collected until June 3, and everything is set for the proposal defense. So, the only thing to do is wait.) I'm not very good at relaxing, though, which means I want to go somewhere - anywhere but here. Because traveling isn't in the cards for this weekend, I did the next best thing: I read Jean Thompson's Do Not Deny Me (forthcoming). While I've been intrigued by Thompson's work before, particularly given that she lives in my old stomping grounds - Urbana, IL - this book of 12 stories was my introduction to her work. And I devoured everyone of them like a decadent box of fine chocolates.

The stories are centered around everyday life - relationships, financial problems, work-related issues, and even the dreaded midlife crisis. While this may not sound like page-turning events on the surface, Thompson's writing draws her reader in deeper and deeper with each word, with each sentence. I could clearly visualize Professor Penrose walking through the halls of a college campus building (I imagined the English Building at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Agent Roorda talking about his parents' house in Paris (IL), Mrs. Crabtree from Olney (also IL) trying to save her American dream during an economic downturn, and Claudine threatening to take her husband, Hurley, to the "demented ward" at the VA Hospital in Danville. While the stories for the most part are not directly connected, the quotidian trials the characters struggle with weave a common thread throughout the book.

The book concludes with an update on Lynn, "a model of a modern Michigan matron," who decides her husband's affairs with young grad students are unacceptable. Even though Lynn's "Untold Story" does not spin a fairy tale of the good life, it does leave the reader feeling that Lynn is going to make it after all (cue the "Mary Tyler Moore" show theme song, "Love is All Around"). This is not to say that Thompson is trying to put a sugar coating over these stories. She is not. While not overtly disturbing, the lives and actions of these characters continue to haunt the reader long after the last page is turned. However, the message that seems to be seeping through the gauze of Lynn's untold story is that despite the rough patches, these characters will not be denied a bit of happiness along the way.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Personal Explorations Fueled by Coffee

One of the first things I came across this morning as I was waiting for the caffeine to kick in was the following:

"Two things are necessary for me to be able to write: music and coffee." - Aleksandar Hemon, WSJ, 4/8/09.

This quote really struck me, because last night I was listing to Janice Ian, who was a student of the Rev. Gary Davis. Before performing, Janice revealed a bit of her story. She would go into NYC on the weekends to hang out in Greenwich Village with other poets and musicians. It was there that Janice met Rev. Davis and his wife. While Rev. Davis told Janice her hands were too small for his style of guitar playing, his wife became Janice's advocate. Without Rev. Davis and his wife, Janice's life journey would have been completely different.

After Janice's performance (she was playing backup for Marie Knight - what a voice!), I began exploring her song "At Seventeen." Here are the first few lines from the song:

I learned the truth at seventeen,
That love was meant for beauty queens.
In high school, girls with clear-skin smiles,
Who married young and then retired.

This was my high school experience to the letter. In a YouTube clip, Janice describes her battle with curly, dark hair in a world of females with long, straight, blonde hair. At this point in my curly, dark haired life, I've given up the battle - I no longer dream of being a blonde; instead, I want to dye my hair red, attention-grabbing red that cascades down my back in swirls and curls.

While Janice and I shared some common characteristics, I have yet to experience similar career influences. While my main writing focus tends to center around the world of academia, I find myself more deeply moved by poetry, prose, and art. The music and the stories of individuals like Janice Ian inspire me to hone my craft and look at my body of work through different lens.

The other day I stumbled upon an article about an exhibit at the Krannert Art Museum that illustrates ways to share research with others in a creative and unique way. And unlike traditional research distribution methods (i.e., peer reviewed journals, book chapters, etc.), it is likely that a larger body of people will experience these findings. The exhibit is titled, "Grand Text Auto," which, put simply, converts blog posts into performance art. More about this exhibit is available here. Electronic literature and gaming - how cool is that!

Another exhibit worth checking out, one which combines electronic text and art, was created by the French conceptual artist/provocateur Sophie Calle. The title of the piece, "Take Care of Yourself," which reflects the last line of an email message Calle received from a boyfriend who dumped her. In response to this rejection, Calle asks 100 women to read this rejection letter and respond to the last line. What started out as therapy became a very unique look at technology, communication, and interpretation. The exhibit has a limited showing. So if you're in the vicinity of the Paul Cooper Gallery in the next 27 days, this is work worth checking out.