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The Professor’s Perspective

One of the more nerve-wracking parts of being a college professor at a large public university is tackling the large lecture course.

My particular bete noir was New Media & Culture, an upper-level course in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where I am an assistant professor. It was my first year at the University of Minnesota, and my first class in New Media & Culture, which was my area of research. I was determined to make my students’ experience a good one—a great challenge since these 150 students were mostly seniors in their graduating semester. They had experienced at least three and a half years of incredible professors (and maybe some less-than-average professors), and a range of courses from logic to literature, astronomy to anthropology. The fact that only about half of the students in the class were actually journalism majors who had to take the course also weighed on my psyche: I wondered whether I was providing enough knowledge, insight, and context for the design, cinema studies, and engineering majors who had chosen the course from among all the courses they could be taking.

With the students’ high expectations and (presumed) high level of competence in mind, I spent more time preparing for New Media & Culture than other courses (and in this past semester, more time than I spent on my own research, which is, not ironically, in new media and culture). I had also never taught this course before and since it was my first year at the University of Minnesota, I had a particular stake in making it the kind of class that students would recommend to their friends.

Because of all of this, teaching the course was more nerve-wracking than perhaps it should have been (or for that matter, will be in the future). Fortunately, the students and I rose to the occasion, and we had long, insightful conversations about the cultural and legal ramifications of blogs; Facebook and the decreasing value of privacy; the still-existing digital divide and digital education; historical constructions of the future at the time of the Industrial Revolution; Blu-Ray versus HDDVD; cyberpunk literature and film; globalization and microfinance; electronic voting machine failures and their relationships to politics; economics, psychology, and issues of race, gender, and class, and their effect on culture at large. Although the students in the class were a diverse bunch from different parts of the globe and different circumstances, these discussions that followed my lectures were truly the backbone of this class. Leading discussions like this is the most enjoyable part of teaching for me, even though it can be difficult in classes with such large numbers of students. I was happy with that aspect of New Media & Culture. It was going well and I began to feel comfortable with how the whole course was going.

At midterm, students were required to turn in proposals for a project of their choosing that they would complete in lieu of a final exam. One of these proposals initially brought back all the nervousness of that first week of school: William, who participated in course discussions regularly and shared some strong opinions, wished to live-blog the class for the rest of the semester, with the hope of touching specifically on one major area of course discussion, grassroots journalism and the role of the blogger within modern media.

“William would not be taking notes for his own review, he would be writing about the class while I was lecturing, and putting those notes out on the Internet where the whole world could see them.”

Live blogging means writing about events as they are happening. William would not be taking notes for his own review, he would be writing about the class while I was lecturing, and putting those notes out on the Internet where the whole world could see them.

I loved this idea when he ran it by me before handing in his proposal. After all, the auditorium in which the class met had wi-fi, allowing students to connect to the Internet from anyplace in the classroom wirelessly. On a regular basis, I busted many students using it to check e-mail, update their Facebook pages, and scan headlines, so at least this would be a productive use of the technology. Additionally, it seemed like a unique opportunity to see how many of the issues we’d discuss could play out in a real-life application. Many of our readings in the course discussed how citizen journalism had given bloggers and, in CNN’s term, “i-reporters,” the power to report and interpret news, ultimately usurping some of the mainstream media’s gatekeeping power. William’s project could do the same in the classroom: By reporting on the course from his own perspective, he could essentially turn the teacher-student relationship on its head.

Wait! Would that be a good thing?

William would essentially give a play-by-play of each class with his own witticisms and commentary woven into the writing. Not only could this include a recap of lectures and discussions, but it might also include a critique of these lectures and discussions. I’m comfortable with my own knowledge and background with the subject matter, but he might be writing about what I say in my lectures, or what he and his classmates say in their discussions. He might also critique my lectures and their discussions. How would I feel if a student questioned my knowledge and approach publicly, to the worldwide Internet audience—and I couldn’t defend myself?

This was a small fear, though. Thanks to sites like Ratemyprofessor.com, that option already belongs to any student (and is used, most unfortunately and most typically, by those with an axe to grind). Unlike Ratemyprofessor.com, the great thing about what William proposed was it would be a traditional interactive blog, giving other students and me the opportunity to respond to his postings. So maybe the power would be shared. I liked that.

Yet secretly, I worried that this responsible student would become Mr. Blackwell, the arbiter of the Worst Dressed List, commenting on my clothing or demeanor. But I approved the project anyway.

At first, I avoided reading his postings About the time he started to blog, spring fever hit the class. Absenteeism rose, perhaps in reaction to the very long Minnesota winter than was just beginning to break. Discussions became less engaging, perhaps because students’ thoughts were elsewhere, perhaps because one of the more lively participants was busy typing instead of talking, perhaps even because everyone was aware that their spontaneous conversation could be recorded for posterity. About the same time I was hit with a virus that left me almost entirely without a voice for a week. William requested that I read the postings as he did them—and respond in his “Comments” section whenever I liked—rather than wait until the end of the semester to read them all at once when the teaching assistants and I formulated final project grades.

So, after a little prodding on William’s part, I began my reading. Here’s what I read on the day that I showed up with hardly any voice to lecture:

Dr. Stern really can't talk. She sounds like Haley Joel Osment saying, "I see dead people," in The Sixth Sense.

It was probably apt. He wished me well in the blog and I responded with thanks for the good wishes.

I eventually read all of the entries and responded to a few posts, too. Generally, William both encapsulated the classes and lent his own (often strong) opinion in a voice that was uniquely his own.

I often felt like I was under a microscope, my every movement exposed:

Dr. Stern walks in at 11:10 am. She has a habit of doing that.

The course began at 11:15, and yes, I usually liked to arrive early enough to get my audio-visual aids set up and to say hello to the teaching assistants, but it was strange having my entrance time noted in all the blogs. What if I was less than punctual at some point? And it was published on the Internet for all my colleagues (and the Board of Regents) to read?

But his commentary was fair for the most part. If anything, he was overly kind to me.

We're talking about how to bridge the digital divide in Africa. We've spent about half an hour on one slide which proves (probably) how useful a good slide is.

And another morning:

Oooh the class is empty today, and Dr. Stern is PO'ed, for good reason. There's about 90 people not here ... and let me say it's NOT because of Dr. Stern. It's mostly because they're lazy bums. It's a gross, wet day out, so why bother coming to class?

Okay, somewhat kind.

He tended to be a little more harsh with the couple of guest speakers, and now I worry that they will read it and won’t return next year (though perhaps I should question whether to invite them back, given his criticism in the blog). Here’s a small part of his critique of one of the speakers, “Catherine,” who spoke after my lecture—apparently rather loudly into the podium’s microphone—on the digital divide. (William tends to use sarcasm a lot to make a point, and he certainly did so here):

And Catherine is YELLING AT US THE WHOLE TIME, LIKE SHE THINKS WE'RE DEAF OR SOMETHING. It's not as if there's a microphone at the podium or anything...

I didn't buy Catherine's example about New Orleans and how people who had cell phones or other IT devices were able to get out of town before the floods hit and that this digital divide was a major cause of the catastrophe. This was CLEARLY a governmental issue and a lack of response, especially given how much time there was to actually take steps... There could have been some army vehicles with loudspeakers, and people would have been heading for the hills, so to speak...

....I'm disappointed with this class, especially given that the only interesting discussion came from a few smart students' questions actually provoking it, and not originating from the speakers themselves.

And another guest speaker, a former New York Times reporter who is now a Minnesota-based advocate for citizen-produced media, evoked this comment in the blog:

He was formally a reporter for the New York Times, which IS a big deal. And most importantly, he writes articles for the Rochester (MN) Post Bulletin! And that's a big deal because I live in Rochester at the moment. I can't imagine what it's like to go from the NYT to the Post Bulletin in Rochester, MN. I also can't imagine WHY you would do that.

I also worried about William’s critique of other students’ comments in the blog. William had little patience for questions he deemed stupid:

Questions opened to the floor, and as usual, the guy sitting behind me (whose name I don't really know), asks a question. It's a question on objectivity in journalism. Now, I don't know about you (whoever "you" may be), but this objectivity question has been done to death.

“Blogging means an individual’s view of the world, and one that is not necessarily even-handed or understanding.”

William is, of course, doing his job in writing a personal reaction to the course as it’s happening. I would have done it differently, recognizing that some students need to reach conclusions themselves by asking questions. But I can see William’s point of view—he already knows the answers, and it pains him to sit and listen to others work them through. This is what blogging means: an individual’s view of the world, and one that is not necessarily even-handed or understanding.

Often William admonished the entire class for engaging in what he thought were stupid discussions, or in a more recurring theme, not showing up at all:

About two-thirds of the class is here, which, I admit, is more than I thought. You'd think that paying loads of tuition money would be encouragement enough to come to class, but...

I think I know what the problem here. It's because most students aren't actually paying any money. It's all loans, so they don't feel like they've really lost any money, yet. Well, it's a theory anyway.

Fortunately, he never used names, and he did offer an opportunity for feedback, and I was prepared to respond to any true instances of unfairness, but it was not necessary.

The only blog entry that truly disappointed me followed a class where I felt I’d done a really nice job of boiling down the crucial developments of globalized media technologies’ effects on world economic policy and explained how a glaring digital divide still existed even in Minneapolis; I’d spent hours adding nice audio-visual elements to my PowerPoint and looking for current examples that I thought would really engage students with the topic and keep them interested. In general, I felt the discussion had gone well. When I anxiously called up William’s blog later that day to see if he’d agreed, there it was:


He barfed during the night. Twice. Both times he had to make it known that he was going to barf by heaving quite loudly prior to barfage (I realize that's not a word). This gave me enough time to be startled awake and fling him off the bed. Anyway, if he had barfed at, say, 11pm and then at 11:30pm, I'd be just fine.

But no.

He barfed at 2:45am, and again at 4:45am. If he weren't so cute, I'd probably be eating shih-tzu casserole tonight. 

As a professor, I felt like a failure for not being able to engage this student, but as a dog-owner myself, I relate.

I think that all professors with large lecture courses will tell you that it is sometimes frustrating to stand in front of a mass of people and wonder what they are really thinking. Are they listening? Am I making sense at all? Is my fly down? In the end, William’s live blog project provided me with the rare chance to actually know the answers, and I feel that I’m a better teacher for it.

And yes, he did get an A on the final project.

The Student’s Perspective

This is like being back in the classroom, entering yet another blog entry into the University of Minnesota’s blog space, “UThink.”

But I suppose this needs an introduction of sorts.

“I have lots of opinions, too, about all sorts of things, and I wanted people to read them.”

I don’t like blogs. There: I’ve said it. I don’t like them. People have all sorts of opinions about all sorts of things, and most of the time I don’t want to hear them. But, it suddenly occurred to me during a classroom period in the spring of 2008 that I have lots of opinions, too, about all sorts of things, and I wanted people to read them.

I suppose this needs an introduction, too.

It’s my final semester of my undergraduate degree. To meet all the requirements to graduate, I’m taking several courses, including a journalism class titled “New Media & Culture.” This class covers a wide variety of topics, including Facebook and MySpace, digital divides, Blu-ray, cyberpunk, race, gender, voting-machine failures, shih tzus (admittedly only when I would talk about my dog), and—yes, blogging (a word that as of now still isn’t recognized by the latest version of a rather famous word-processing program—shockingly). Half a semester flashes by, and our final project proposals are due. Our professor, Dr. Shayla Thiel Stern, gives us three options: We can create a research project on anything related to class discussions. For example, one student came up with a project on music piracy in China, which was related to a discussion of Apple’s darling, the iPod, that took place during one particular class period. If the research project doesn’t appeal, we are given the option to design a Web site that takes advantage of “New Media” in some way. Or, three, we can come up with our own idea and see what the professor will say...

The temperature is increasing as spring wears on, my desire to graduate is ever growing, and at this point the idea of a research project makes me balk. And designing a Web site? That is only going to happen if I pay someone. This leaves just one alternative to run by the professor. (Actually, it probably left many alternatives, but for the sake of drama it’s just one.) Yes, blogging. What if I live-blogged the second half of the semester, creating my blog about the class while in the class? I run it by Dr. Stern, expecting to be shot down immediately. After a moment’s deliberation, she says yes, though I could swear that I see a little squirm there.

So, the mission began as follows: I would live blog all fifteen classes that comprised an entire half semester. The purpose? Well, here’s my project proposal in full, the exact one that I submitted to Dr. Stern after she agreed to it. (OK, so in the interest of full disclosure, there are now some grammatical corrections. Sorry!)

I could tell that Dr. Stern wasn’t initially too comfortable with the idea, despite her acceptance, as she wondered about the possibility of my writing all sorts of evil things about her dress sense, or her walking manner, or the way she giggles (yes, she giggles). But no, that wasn’t the point. Journalists are supposed to be held to very high standards by those who read them, but aside from the students, who else holds teachers to similar standards?

Each class, laptop in lap, I took notes, and, for the most part, I was able to pay attention to what was being taught while typing as fast as William-ly possible. Some days were easier than others. Nobody wants to read a boring play-by-play of exactly what went on, so I did insert some useful (or perhaps not so) entries in the blog, but if it were a complete bore to read, nobody would continue to do so.

That said, this leads me to my biggest regret: I did not push my fellow students hard enough to reply to my blog. There were approximately 150 students in the class. During the entire half semester I had just one student response, and it was a fabulous one, one that really questioned my perspective on journalism (see comments on the April 8, 2008, entry). Despite this, I was not deterred from my project and succeeded in blogging each class. And I’m glad I did. I felt as though it was rewarding not just for me but for the professor (and, I like to think, for some anonymous students, too). The blog stands as a record of what took place, and nothing, save the Death of the Internet, can change that.

Overall, in some ways I’m glad that Dr. Stern was a little apprehensive about my undertaking the blog. Though I knew, based on the first half of the semester, that her teaching standards were already high, perhaps knowing that I would be poking my nose around more than any of her other students had ever done would guarantee that the latter half of the semester would be as informative as the first. I wonder, then, just how teaching standards in general might change if other classes were documented in such a way.

As a student, one hears a myriad of comments from fellow students about their professors, ranging from: “He makes up the grading while he goes along!” to “The TAs just suck! They can barely even speak the language!” to “Gosh.... He looked at me funny at 10:17am. Did you, like, see that?” I wonder, then, just how teaching standards in general might change if classes were documented in such a way where there are rules to how you express what you saw or heard in the classroom. Would standards improve? I like to think so.

To return to the pointlessness of the feedback sheets, let’s look at an analogy. Yes, yes, I realize everything is what it is and not another thing, but bear with me here. I’m using this analogy to illustrate, not to draw any conclusions, OK? Let’s say you’re watching a movie, and it’s fantastic. Right up to the end. When it stinks. I mean really stinks. What do you leave thinking about? The awesomeness of the movie, or the stinkiness (a word I just made up) of the ending? Right. The last thing your eyes take in is the part that is most prevalent in your mind. Yes, the movie is great, but that ending.... Oh that ending! Bah! (OK, I drew a conclusion, sorry.)

Thus, ’tis the same way with those blasted feedback sheets. I’ve watched students filling them in (yes, naughty of me, I know), and aside from really general issues or really general positive feelings, e.g. “I really liked the class, it was great,” it’s the latter classes specifically that tend to stick, and students like to judge based on what’s freshest in their minds. I’m one of those students, I admit it. I can’t remember what I ate the previous night, let alone how a class period progressed four months ago, what else am I supposed to do?

“It’s a little tough to give a class 100% if you’re busily smacking laptop keys every period.”

But, this begs the question of implementation. I don’t think it’s fair to expect students to live-blog every class like I did. Even I will be the first to admit it’s a little tough to give a class 100% if you’re busily smacking laptop keys every period. And in some classes, laptops are not permitted, so what to do? Well, how about this for a proposal of Version 2.0 of The Blog Project: The administration would randomly pick three students per class per semester who are to turn in, independently, a paragraph every four weeks. Nothing particularly long, but still documented “evidence,” so to speak, of the goings-on in the classroom or any concern. These students wouldn’t necessarily need to know which other students had been selected. That said, abuse of any system is possible, so even if the selected students collaborated to incriminate a professor, the rest of the classroom could be called to task to support any accusations or concerns. Of course, these paragraphs are just for administrative purposes, and would be as anonymous as those (blasted) feedback sheets. It’s a professor’s responsibility to report any student disturbance to the administration. Is it not fair to say that a student could have the same critical eye on his professor? We’re not looking to lambaste anyone here—just make sure we’re on an equal footing; positive as well as negative.

The last thing we want to do here is to make the teacher feel uncomfortable. Dr. Stern’s nervousness at my blogging each and every class while it took place is definitely founded. The more I think about it, the more I’m amazed she let me do it. So let’s tone the idea down, while implementing a new method of feedback. We can improve the quality of our classes, and let students have more say. Teachers teach, and students listen and (in theory) study. So how about we have the students do more than just be the passive audience we often make them out to be?

You can view the blog, and just how much I love my dog, here: http://blog.lib.umn.edu/gros0347/classblog/

William Scott Grose was born in London and moved to the United States when he married. In May 2008 he received a B.A. in journalism from the University of Minnesota. His interests include feature writing and reviewing, photography, the automotive industry, electronics, and the mass media. He is a self-confessed gadget nerd and constantly goes googly-eyed over the next “new” thing. He dreams of being the host on the American version of the automotive show, Top Gear, but would be happy just being a journalist.

Shayla Thiel-Stern is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota where her research investigates the intersections of gender, identity, and new media. Her book, Instant Identity: Adolescent Girls and the World of Instant Messaging, was published by Peter Lang Publishing in 2007, and she has published other chapters in Girl Wide Web: Girls, the Internet and the Negotiation of Identity (Peter Lang, 2005) and Women in Mass Communication (Sage, 2007). She has also published work in washingtonpost.com and The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, CNN.com, and elsewhere. Thiel-Stern graduated with an M.A. in Communication, Culture and Technology from Georgetown University and a Ph.D. in Mass Communication from the University of Iowa.