The Pens of Blue Hens: Four Lessons from the Trenches of Online Teaching

By William Repetto

Over the winter session, we first-semester TAs took some time to reflect on our experiences. Our conversations covered not only English 110 conceptually as a course, but also the nuances of meeting every day via Zoom and interacting conversationally primarily on Canvas. As a final post for this column, I thought it prudent to share our reflections, which I hope will offer insight for navigating the spring semester. Hopefully this will be our last semester of mandatory distance learning and teaching. Ideally, however, our insights will be applicable wherever the computer becomes the primary medium of teaching.

Breakout… but…

In our super-section of English 110, each TA was assigned a group of three or four students to work with throughout the semester. For portions of the class meetings, we would meet with these students as a small cohort in Zoom breakout rooms. Though it took time for familiarization to grow, the breakout time was well-spent. One of my colleagues quipped that in the main Zoom room before the breakout sessions, “it was definitely really hard to tell if they were engaged or not.” Yet, when we returned to the main session after breaking out, this TA felt comfortable calling on one of their students to say, “hey, you had a really good point about this; why don’t you share that?” In other words, the Zoom breakout rooms functioned as an appetizer for generating meaningful discussion when the full group was together.

One caveat we would add to breaking out, however, would be to keep the breakout rooms consistent. We experimented with rotating groups of students so that people from the class engaged with new faces and more learners. The TAs I reflected with, however, preferred when the breakout room group was consistent because, as one stated, “It made it more conducive to get to know the students; it felt more personal.” In a phrase, this TA added, “I preferred my small group.” It seems that the online breakout room does not make a good media for quick icebreakers before focusing on a task at hand. Our advice then: break out! … but keep the student cohorts in the rooms consistent.

Chat

I espoused the virtues of the Zoom chat function in my first post for the column, so I don’t want to dwell too much on it here, but I would like to add two quick reflections. A fellow TA mentioned that during in-person instruction they would get to class early in order to make new friends or catch up with old ones. Such informal connections between classmates and friends obviously do not get their proper moments in virtual learning. I personally found such interaction integral to my college experience – in both undergrad and in graduate school – so a substitution should be worth considering.

You could schedule a five-minute informal discussion to start the course, or, as I opine, allow the chat feature to be the space for that. Not everything the TAs or students contributed to the chat was prim, proper, or laser-focused on writing, but, as another TA mentioned, “The chat function was a way to get to know each other in a way we might not have been able to in person.” That same TA added that the chat “was one of the unexpected ways we built rapport” and “it offered another kind of anonymity” because the TAs could vocalize any general concerns or specific questions that came up.

So, the chat can seem messy and off-topic, but be sure to maximize its potential; it certainly helped us.

Canvas about Canvas

We TAs loved Canvas. We used it primarily for reading student work and providing feedback in the absence of printed copies, but Canvas also kept us organized and on schedule. One TA said, “I did like the modules that you could click through in order to find what you had to do that day; I thought that was pretty helpful.” Another added that it was excellent for giving feedback; “especially with longer comments, I found myself speaking better to the strengths and weaknesses of students’ assignments like that versus trying to talk about it in person.”

One TA remarked, however, “I wonder if we had talked about assignments in class and brought up different trends we saw in the assignments enough.” Hence my advice: canvas about Canvas. With a large portion of a class held on a learning management system and the other biggest component happening on the Zoom interface, it might be easy for the illusion to arise of two separate courses – one where the student attends and listens and another where the student checks things off and submits assignments. A way to avoid such an illusion, as this TA implies, is to check-in often with students about how they are finding things on Canvas.

Align

Alignment is a buzzword is self-help literature, but let’s define it as the competent mobilization within one person or among a group of people toward a purpose. It is a bit of a catchall, but I believe it will suffice as a summary for the advice presented here as well as a last thought for this column. Communicating the expectations of breakout rooms, of chatting, of Canvas is key to keeping students, TAs and professors alike aligned. As said, alignment functions on personal and group levels. More than anything, the virtual environment seems to ask educators to find alignment in their own lives – where do I draw the boundary between work and personal wellbeing when everything happens in my house and on my screen? The virtual environment challenges educators to align our own expectations with those of our students – when are a couple of “video off” and “mute on” moments required to kindle further learning? These are questions we might not have asked ourselves only a year ago, when we already may have considered ourselves out of alignment, but during the pandemic more than ever, alignment should be sought and continually revisited.

William Repetto is a PhD student in the English department at the University of Delaware. He is also a TA and writing center tutor. William earned his MA in English at Villanova University after completing a bachelor’s in history at La Salle University. He wrote three theses at La Salle covering frame narratives, the influence of American culture on Japanese cartoons, and The Adventures of Tintin. His master’s thesis gave a comparative reading of Wallace Stevens and David Foster Wallace to show how conceptualizations of spirituality versus religion changed over the course of the 20th century in America. While at Villanova, he also received an entrepreneurship award and small grant for his work on diversity and inclusion at their Falvey Memorial Library. William has formerly taught English composition classes at Eastern University and English as a second language classes at La Salle University.

Congratulations to William Repetto!

Big News: An article by Bill Repetto, who has been writing a column for onehundredten.org about his first year TAship, will be appearing in Threshold Conscripts, a book project to be released in the spring of next year by WAC Clearinghouse. The article is titled “Redefining RhetComp Professional Development,” and covers the tension between obligation and freedom experienced as a first year PhD student at the University of Delaware during a global pandemic.

William Repetto is a PhD student in the English department at the University of Delaware. He is also a TA and writing center tutor. William earned his MA in English at Villanova University after completing a bachelor’s in history at La Salle University. He wrote three theses at La Salle covering frame narratives, the influence of American culture on Japanese cartoons, and The Adventures of Tintin. His master’s thesis gave a comparative reading of Wallace Stevens and David Foster Wallace to show how conceptualizations of spirituality versus religion changed over the course of the 20th century in America. While at Villanova, he also received an entrepreneurship award and small grant for his work on diversity and inclusion at their Falvey Memorial Library. William has formerly taught English composition classes at Eastern University and English as a second language classes at La Salle University.

The Pens of Blue Hens: Re-defining “Library”

By William Repetto

I’ve written elsewhere in defense of libraries. I’ve also used their services as an instructor before – Connelly Library at La Salle University in the English as a second language classroom and Warner Memorial Library at Eastern University in the composition classroom. I cannot say enough positive things about my experience as a graduate assistant at Falvey Memorial Library of Villanova University. I certainly never thought that I would see a day when “library” itself called for re-definition, certainly not as it has during the coronavirus pandemic. I found, however, that during our library session of ENGL110 with special guest speaker Assistant Head of Instructional Services Meg Grotti, we were calling for our students to do exactly that: re-define what’s meant by “library.”

The exercise that our du jour instructor Meg Grotti set up for us pertained to the course’s researched paper. The exercise was divided into two appropriately titled parts, “Part A: (Too Much)” and “Part B: (Too Little).” There was no middle section, or Part C, called “Just Right.” Part C’s conspicuous absence contains a powerful message: it’s rare in scholarship that you’ve got just the correct amount of information/data, and your thoughts are fully confirmed. The students were to fill out a matrix of questions that offered guidance for either narrowing down or expanding a topic. The worksheet covered such questions as, “what specific part of your research question/topic interests you the most?” and asked students to “critique your words… play around with these new terms mixed with some of those you started with.”

My group’s topics included food waste, children’s literature, and medicinal marijuana during the coronavirus pandemic. By filling out our matrices, we discovered that two of these topics required narrowing down and one required broadening up. Can you guess which? Irrespective, the exercise generated a conversation among my small TA group, a conversation of pedagogical import for research generally.

I started that conversation (drawing on the concept of the Burkean parlor) by saying that research can be a lot like walking into someone’s living room during a dinner party and trying to get caught up on the conversation, and my group quickly pointed out how, in the case of their topics, catching up on the conversations would require thinking geographically, psychologically, and across populations. From there, we dove into the particular work required to get caught up in an academic context; specifically, we highlighted the importance of keywords and finding the right database/journal.

The exercise, then, forced us to think both conceptually about research and practically about getting research done. The genius of the exercise runs much deeper, though. By showing what UD’s library still offers and the functions it still serves, the exercise taught us three important things about how to view libraries in a new light in a pandemic-stricken world.

First, when one takes a tour of a library or sits through a seminar on its various databases, the perception can arise that the library is this huge repository of answers, which you must learn to navigate in order to find the answers you want. By asking the questions of us that it did, however, the worksheet also asked us to re-think this perception. Instead of situating the library as a repository of answers, our exercise made it clear that the library is as much a repository of questions as a place to find answers. Now that I put it this way, it feels an obvious truism that I should have noticed in two years of working at a library or in inviting my previous class sections to the library, but it took a pandemic, and masterful curriculum from the UD library staff for me to recognize it–I hope my students picked up on it too!

Second, and this one I have recognized before, the exercise really highlighted how the library, more than a building and a digital space, is a collection of people. I cannot remember any of the other institutions I attended or instructed at offering such a personalized trip to the classroom. The worksheet, in reference to one of our class’ specific assignments, directed us to “Look at your topic as you wrote it in [Reading and Writing Activity] #5. Are there more sub-questions to this topic that might be useful to explore?” Connections to our course like this show how the library can be defined as a team of people whose scholarship and work support the learning of all the other various departments and groups that make up the university. Whether or not we get to re-enter the physical space of the library with regularity soon, we learned that COVID-19 will not stop our librarians from that part of their mission.

Third, we learned that in its present, mostly digital iteration, the library is still a safe space. As a graduate student, I know that I feel the pressure to be “right” all the time, and I remember, as an undergraduate, the pressure to be using the “proper sources” or finding material that would impress my professors. Grotti’s visit to our class, however, showed us that the library is a safe space for exploring where your opinions have gone off track or where the thought you’re having needs further refining. Even in the library’s, and indeed the world’s, current, mostly digital state, its databases and journals are still safe spaces to be wrong, to refine thoughts, and to ultimately challenge oneself.

I’m acutely aware that the above may seem an elaborate PR piece for the University of Delaware’s Libraries, Museums, and Press. I assure you, though, that these are my genuine reflections on library day in our class. My intention is to show the many ways that libraries can be re-defined during the pandemic. These lessons can be useful across types of libraries and certainly across campus communities. I wonder if it may be useful for scholars and librarians alike to return often to these new definitions when the pandemic subsides and library doors open wide again.

William Repetto is a PhD student in the English department at the University of Delaware. He is also a TA and writing center tutor. William earned his MA in English at Villanova University after completing a bachelor’s in history at La Salle University. He wrote three theses at La Salle covering frame narratives, the influence of American culture on Japanese cartoons, and The Adventures of Tintin. His master’s thesis gave a comparative reading of Wallace Stevens and David Foster Wallace to show how conceptualizations of spirituality versus religion changed over the course of the 20th century in America. While at Villanova, he also received an entrepreneurship award and small grant for his work on diversity and inclusion at their Falvey Memorial Library. William has formerly taught English composition classes at Eastern University and English as a second language classes at La Salle University.

The Pens of Blue Hens: Zoom’s Chat Function as Serious Pedagogy

By William Repetto

[FERPA Disclaimer: both students and TAs are quoted in this article. All personally identifying information has been removed. Regardless, though, the studens and TAs quotes here gave me written consent to use their words. The symbol […] has been added to show when bits of non-meaning-altering conversation have been cut out and YT refers to me, yours truly.]

In the first post for this column, I doted all over the chat function on Zoom. I did so because I see it as a secondary locus of teaching and learning in the digital space. Students use it to candidly express themselves. TAs use it to share links pertaining to the information presented in the classroom. It has its drawbacks—some students get distracted; some TAs (including me) can be the reason why; sometimes the chat discussion takes a different course from the verbal conversation. Despite these minor drawbacks, however, I find that the chat function does much more good than harm. In this post, I will explicate a set of the interactions my fellow TAs and our class had on Zoom’s chat box to show how I think it supports—rather than stunts—student learning.

The context: the TAs had just wrapped up an exercise in breakout rooms in which we discussed the potential obstacles that students might encounter in research. Among the solutions to such obstacles, someone mentioned how tough it might become to integrate two ostensibly different topics. Our fearless professor, Dr. C., discussed at length the mental exercises one may have to use to find the common ground between two topics. Then she warned that it might be folly to try to combine two topics that are not only ostensibly different but that are actually totally incompatible, like “anime and dogs.” Well, the chat erupted to a cacophony of corrections:       

TA #1 : Anime puppies. ❤

Student #1: Nintendogs

YT: Ein in Cowboy Bebop!!

TA #1: ^ you just opened a locked box in my mind

TA #1: ❤ Ein ❤

Student #1: scholarly article about why corgis are so good

Student #1: amazing dissertation

This interaction has hearts (<3) and markers of a new language (^), and so some educators might scoff at the idea of my considering it serious pedagogical discourse. I will argue that it is anyway. The prompting of tying anime and puppies together by TA #1 allowed Student #1 to point to a particular place where one can also see the overlap. I added the example about Ein from Cowboy Bebop–a corgi in that anime series. Student #1 then dreams big about the confluence of ideas, e.g., a scholarly article or a dissertation.

We often “sell” composition courses as places of self-exploration, where one can discover their passions in reading and writing. The chat function here fulfilled that promise, and, more importantly—whether or not dogs and anime interest the other members of the class—the Zoom chat function is accessible to everyone present, so everyone enrolled can see how TAs might assist in igniting, merging, and managing interests that a student wants to follow. In fact, the conversation didn’t stop there:

Student #1 : fandom would be so interesting to do research on but there are also millions of them

[…]

TA #2 : ^^^^^ true. I’ve done fandom research before, let me know if you’d like some guidance.

[…]

Student #1: there was a UD engl110 that was centered around fan studies actually

Again, the interaction has informal markers (^^^^), but a look at the content of the conversation shows that the chat function sped up the pace of discovery for Student #1. Student #1 figured out a way to step out of the frivolousness of the previous conversation and focus energies on an important, contemporary, academic conversation about fandoms. TA #2 steps in to offer assistance and demonstrate ethos. Instead of having to wait until office hours to hear that TA #2 has experience with fandoms and discover what kind of resources TA #2 would suggest, Student #1 is informed right then and there during class time.

Finally, and curiously, the student becomes a spokesperson at the end of the interaction; Student #1 gives a plug for the entire department by advertising other offerings. Ideally, none of the students enrolled will need to take another section of ENGL110, but Student #1 announces here the other types of experts available for assistance on the department’s faculty. I am not arguing that all students immediately took note of this and will reach out for fandom assistance. I am saying, however, that the chat offered those paying attention another perspective and another tool for approaching topic selection.

The chat is not entirely devoid of flaws; take a look at this interaction:

Student #2 : is anyone else confused on this ^

TA #1: Confused on what, Student # 2?

Student #2: Fan studies and Nintendogs

For Student #2, the conversation surrounding fandoms, fan studies, and Nintendogs did not generate new ideas or new passions. Instead, the chat probably functioned as a distracting meta-discourse on Dr. C’s lecture. It should be noted, however, that I’ve removed the time stamps from the conversations. TA #1’s response came only nine seconds after Student #2 asked for clarification. This kind of efficacy likely cannot be matched in a traditional, face-to-face classroom or lecture hall. It’d be twice as distracting to whisper/speak to a TA right in the middle of a lecture (or, doubly so to ask a TA what that TA is whispering about to another student!).

I’m hopeful that a movement pushes to implement something like Zoom chat into the traditional classroom when we return to our respective campuses. I could envision an anonymous feed integrated onto projection screens for students to externalize their thoughts as a lesson progresses. This would maybe give voice to students who feel uncomfortable speaking up or who would feel “stupid” asking a basic question. As with all technologies, we’d need to smooth out the kinks—e.g., how to filter out unwanted or inappropriate content. In any event, it’s an interesting experiment in thought: how could we splice the benefits of the Zoom room back into our traditional classrooms?

William Repetto is a PhD student in the English department at the University of Delaware. He is also a TA and writing center tutor. William earned his MA in English at Villanova University after completing a bachelor’s in history at La Salle University. He wrote three theses at La Salle covering frame narratives, the influence of American culture on Japanese cartoons, and The Adventures of Tintin. His master’s thesis gave a comparative reading of Wallace Stevens and David Foster Wallace to show how conceptualizations of spirituality versus religion changed over the course of the 20th century in America. While at Villanova, he also received an entrepreneurship award and small grant for his work on diversity and inclusion at their Falvey Memorial Library. William has formerly taught English composition classes at Eastern University and English as a second language classes at La Salle University.

The Pens of Blue Hens: Liminality and COVID-era TAing

by William Repetto

I could begin this series of articles by reminding you that these times are “unprecedented.” I could peddle clichés about how “we’re all in this together” or about the “new normal.” I could remind you that everyone feels uncomfortable on Zoom. I believe, however, that it’s high time to accept the realities that COVID-19 has created, to stop looking at how the system has been altered, and to begin thinking about how we as writing instructors and learners can begin to leverage our fresh perspectives to re-invent what rhetoric and comp can do.

Of course, such thinking requires defining that new perspective. For me and my fellow TAs, this means recognizing and appreciating our position as virtual TAs in a digitally mediated and so-called super section of English 110. We are first-year PhD students, beginning our new graduate school adventure in a way that perhaps no cohort has before. We exist in a liminal space. We are both educators and learners, both going to the University of Delaware and staying at home, and assisting a section that meets both synchronously and asynchronously.

There are disadvantages to this liminality, particularly in the ENGL110 classroom.

The most notable limitation of liminality so far, for me, has been the difficulty in establishing rapport with the students I have been assigned to work with. We’ve met both as a group and individually via Zoom. They are inspiring students who produce inspired work. They ask questions that far exceed my curiosities when I was in their shoes. That said, however, I do not know or believe that if we passed one another in the grocery store or on the street (particularly with masks on!) that we would immediately recognize one another.

Here I should say that I have taught English composition in the past – at nearby Eastern University. It was not uncommon for writing instruction to happen serendipitously. Sure, the lectures were important and class time valuable, but sometimes topics were generated and advice imparted when running into a student in the quad or by the dining hall and café. These interactions are entirely eliminated under the present circumstances. Huge parts of writing instruction, in my mind, depend on trust; trust is difficult to establish in the same way given the impossibility of unplanned, informal conversation.

Interestingly, though, the illusion of proximity despite physical distance created by the Zoom interface creates particular advantages within the liminality.

The synchronous online sessions are meant to transplant the lecture hall to the computer screen. I have noticed, however, that students tend to arrive to Zoom lectures and participate way less formally than students in the “before times.” Our Zoom chat has become a place to discuss ENGL110 Fight Club (I can’t say any more – them’s the rules); students have adjusted their cameras to show off golden doodles and cats emoting their indifference; still others proudly display posters and banners and flags of their interests behind them in their mise en scène.

In the stress of lecturing for our instructor or in the whirlwind of facilitating for me and the other TAs, it can be easy to miss that these very informalities are loci of writing instruction. The chat function on Zoom allows students to blurt out spur of the moment thoughts without structure and sometimes without completion—this is every descriptive grammarian’s dream. They just write without the self-critical mindset that leads to frustration and writer’s block. I credit this, at least in part, to being at ease in one’s own living space. Our own pets and decorations must provide a level of comfort of expression not possible in the lecture hall or around the seminar table.

This is not, quite obviously, a rigorously scientific theory. I’d like to take the time in the remaining posts of this column, however, to explore how my continuing observations during this semester deepen my appreciation of this liminal space. I’d like to consult with my colleagues and see if our understandings of Coronavirus-era TAing align. If I do my due diligence, this series of posts should be not only an archive for future online instructors to consult but also a space for discussion, reflection, and suggestion on how we might navigate the current ENGL110 landscape.

William Repetto is a PhD student in the English department at the University of Delaware. He is also a TA and writing center tutor. William earned his MA in English at Villanova University after completing a bachelor’s in history at La Salle University. He wrote three theses at La Salle covering frame narratives, the influence of American culture on Japanese cartoons, and The Adventures of Tintin. His master’s thesis gave a comparative reading of Wallace Stevens and David Foster Wallace to show how conceptualizations of spirituality versus religion changed over the course of the 20th century in America. While at Villanova, he also received an entrepreneurship award and small grant for his work on diversity and inclusion at their Falvey Memorial Library. William has formerly taught English composition classes at Eastern University and English as a second language classes at La Salle University.