content and trigger warnings

The following are notes for the introduction to a panel I organized on content and trigger warnings at ACCUTE 2018.

We’re here today to talk about what has become an increasingly controversial idea: trigger and content warnings in our classrooms. I proposed this panel in the wake of some fraught discussions in my own department that got me wondering if we’re even all speaking the same language when it comes to trigger warnings. In a department meeting just before I went off on maternity leave, a colleague asked that we take a department stand to bar trigger warnings from our classrooms. I was shocked that this was seen as necessary, but I suppose I shouldn’t have been. What one teacher sees as a gentle heads-up another sees as an act of silencing or even censorship. The ensuing discussion was fraught, and it seems to me like – both in this small example and in larger online discussions that some of our panelists will reference today – we haven’t yet come to a common understanding of what a content warning is and how it functions in the classroom.

I do use content warnings in my own teaching. I came to it several years ago after a semester teaching Dave Eggers’ autobiography, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, in a first-year literature class. The text begins with a painfully graphic depiction of Eggers’ parents nearly simultaneous deaths from cancer. I knew it was difficult to read – it’s supposed to be, in the context of the book – and I knew it reminded me viscerally of losses in my own life. But in that class, I had two students with a parent who was dying or recently had died of the same cancers as in the book. For those two students, the experience of sitting through a close reading of that content was not tenable. They both asked to be excused from class on the day we would discuss those scenes, and they both asked to write the assigned paper on a different book instead. These seemed like reasonable accommodations to me; what didn’t seem reasonable was the obvious distress one student had worked herself into while waiting to talk to me about the issue. That is when I decided to start giving students a brief heads-up about textual content that may be difficult at the level of the syllabus, with the intent of setting up the expectation with students than I am here to guide them through the process.

The conclusion I came to, for me, is that my (frankly sometimes arbitrary) text selection isn’t worth more than a student’s well-being. When I say arbitrary, I don’t mean that flippantly, but there are hundreds of books I could choose to teach about unreliable narrators and the slippery notion of truth: I use Dave Eggers’ book because, among other things, it is pleasurable to teach. Does that outweigh a student’s discomfort?

GIF reactions as classroom feedback

(One time I wrote a Tweet that went viral.)
[Today Show host showing image of Brenna’s tweet and exclaiming, “This woman is not famous.”]

I have started using GIFs in the classroom as a way to evoke immediate feedback from students on lecture content and assignments, as well as reflective reactions on the semester as a whole.

Depending on your LMS, compatibility with GIF embedding can vary, but it’s extra easy to do if you use a Twitter hashtag, Facebook group, or Tumblr site as a classroom resource. And a particularly easy WordPress solution is to use a plugin like Comment Attachments (which, shockingly, allows commenters to add attachments) and then limit the allowed file types to GIFs only. You can see what that looks like on this post.

When I taught Fandom Studies, I tried using Tumblr as an LMS, to limited success, but it does mean that some of my animated GIF course evaluations still live. This is the post I made when I assigned the task, and here are two example student posts: one and two.

In courses where students really embrace GIF reactions, it can be a tremendously effective way to check the temperature of a class: send me a GIF that shows how well you understand the topic / the assignment guidelines / my feedback, for example.

In terms of accessibility, it’s a great idea to get students into the habit of describing images they use. Typical convention has them placed within square brackets for screen reading software to differentiate from the main text.

tech bans are always already ableism

One of my less popular assertions has always been that banning digital devices from our classrooms is an inherently ableist move. It’s been gratifying to see that position being publicly asserted, most recently by Jesse Stommel on Twitter. The conversations have been great, not least because Stommel has lots of student (and former student) followers who have been able to weigh in.

My central thesis is that if you only allow students with documented learning disabilities use tech in your classroom, you are (a) forcing students into a situation of self-disclosure to all their classmates and (b) not showing awareness of all the students who slip through the documentation cracks but know well what they need to best define their learning.

It’s worth remembering that, if students weren’t diagnosed while in the public school system or their diagnoses are old, the process of testing into Accessibility Services in the postsecondary level is incredibly high. Especially for older adult learners, this is a major barrier to accessing help in students who very likely have already developed establishing coping strategies that work for them. We need to recognize that our needs as instructors don’t supersede those of students, even when those needs are not formally documented.

I understand the arguments about distraction, but like Stommel I question whether it is possible or even desirable to excise all distraction from the classroom. When I was an undergraduate, I had no easy access to handheld tech, no Facebook or Twitter, and a Nokia candy bar that had alphanumeric texting and one game (Snake!). I had absolutely no trouble distracting myself and the people around me: passing notes, staring into space, reading, drawing, eating, doing homework for other classes, and straight-up chatting. I learned to manage the free reign of my environment and my distractions, and I didn’t piss my professors off all that often (I don’t think).

When I was newly hired at the College, I went to a PD session about distracted learners. We were given a list of items like the above and others — left early, arrived late, etc. — and asked which ones we had done in class when we were students. I ticked off all of them. I mean, I was a postsecondary student for nine years: I definitely scarfed a few cheeseburgers, fell asleep, spilled water, or slipped out of class on more than one occasion. Reporting back to the group as a whole was one of the most instructive moments of my teaching career: everyone else claimed they had never done a single thing on the list.

Not. One. Person. would cop to any of the behaviours on the list. That’s when it crystallized for me: we forget what it’s like to be a student. And that, I think, is what it’s so dangerous to police student behaviour, especially when it comes to making decisions on students’ behalf about what learning looks like for them. I’m not convinced we remember well enough to know.

Circling back to tech bans, there are compromise solutions. If you use a horseshoe shape for desks in your classroom, you can ask students using devices of any kind to sit in the outside ring, for example. Working with students to set expectations for the classroom environment can help to: students are really good at articulating what respectful classroom conduct looks like to them (though you have to be willing to hear them tell you what *your* behaviour should look like to signal respect, and sometimes that is eye-opening!).

But if you’re someone who relies on a tech ban, maybe you need to think through why you have it. What is the larger goal, is it reasonable, and is there another way to go about achieving that goal?

adding captions to YouTube videos

Consider this, like, a gentle hack to create accurate closed captioning for video blogs or video lectures. The first step is to upload a video to your YouTube account (I prefer to leave them unlisted if I’m posting to a class space and don’t need the video to be searchable).

Once uploaded, select “edit video.” Select “transcriptions,” and you’ll be prompted to set your language. Canadian English is an option, which is nice, but I’m not sure it has any impact on the captioning. It’s worth noting that automatic captioning is only an option for videos in the following languages: English, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Under “transcriptions,” find the one labeled “automatic” and click the arrow next to “published.” Then hit the “edit” button on the top right of the page. This allows you to edit the machine-generated captions, add punctuation, edit out your filler words, etc. Make sure you save your changes before you exit the video editor.

Video with sample captions. The first five screens of captions have been edited, while the final two screens show the machine captions as they are autogenerated.

tales of podcasting

As soon as I started teaching in an online context, I busted out my microphone and started podcasting. I knew I didn’t want my lessons to be text-based — I had taken online and distance courses and found that was not a style of learning that served me well. But I also didn’t think it was realistic to produce a weekly video lecture, nor was it necessarily desirable for students on the go.

(I realize I’m saying this on an almost entirely text-based blog. I contain multitudes.)

Enter the podcast.

My early podcasts were rough: probably too long, and definitely dull. Over the years, I’ve learned to keep my podcasts to about 30-45 minutes (I don’t expect face-to-face students to tolerate more than 30 minutes of straight lecturing; it would be unreasonable to expect it of my online students!), to use music cues and breaks to separate sections so it’s easier to listen to in chunks, and to offer both streaming and downloadable options for students to use (I get pretty much 50/50 take-up for the two methods).

My students have had a lot of positive things to say about podcasting as a tool. Busy parents listen to lectures while they ferry kids around; athletes listen while they train. I love the intimacy of talking about nuanced, challenging lecture material in my students’ ears. And I can see clear evidence of lecture engagement in their essays.

My failing to this point is on the issue of transcripts. I don’t script the podcasts — they’re more like the reflective process of a class lecture, where I select passages on a theme and riff on their connections — and that makes it difficult. I supply students with a list of the themes and passages, but there’s certainly content that gets missed in there. Ultimately, I need to prepare proper transcripts, and I will — it’s always an issue of time, and I don’t have the easy workaround for podcasts that I do for video blogs.

I’m thinking of using PD time and money this summer to use a service like Trint to produce transcripts, provided I’ll be teaching this course again (and here as always the mercenary realities of course scheduling and commitments and release butt up against my UDL ideals — was it ever thus?).

(If you’re curious to hear what one of my podcasts sounds like, you can check a sample lecture out here. And don’t say I didn’t warn you: it’s a barebones affair. But I own a good mic.)

weekly videoblogging to improve engagement in fully-online classes

If there’s one struggle that seems to be universal to the experience of online teaching, it is anxiety about engagement. For those of us trained in the face-to-face environment, knowing whether or not students are engaging with the material in online spaces can be really difficult. Sure, depending on your LMS, maybe you can track them Big Brother-style or use tools to reward participation (or, more often, punish lack of participation). But for the most part, these strategies don’t help us retain, they just make it more easier to see when a student has disappeared.

We know that classroom community can be an insulating factor in favour of retention: when students care about the classroom environment, the people in it, the shared experience, they’re more likely to commit to attend.

I’m deep in the realm of anecdata here, I admit, but in the last few years of my online teaching I’ve seen an uptick in students checking in regularly and making it to the end of the course and the major change I’ve made is that I now post a weekly videoblog in the announcement schedule, on a regular schedule, that just runs through the week that was and the week that is to come. I talk about what they’ve just handed in, when they can expect to see marks back, what they’re about to hand in, offer any last minute tips, and give some global advice or a general look-ahead.

Those nuts and bolts aspects matter, I’m sure, but I think the thing that matters more is that once a week I am not bot-professor but instead a living, breathing, human person in meatspace who cares about them for real.

I’ve long felt baffled by the continued dominance of text-based teaching in many online environments, where students are treated to a weekly set of lecture notes and a quiz and that’s that. Students are often complimentary that I offer podcast lectures, video segments, and notes — as well as supplemental content from across the web — as ways into the material. So I’ve understood for a while that those tools help students see me as a real human being and our relationship as legitimate as any they have with a professor in a face-to-face interaction.

But something about the weekly check-in — recorded off-the-cuff in my office on my laptop webcam, with some hasty notes, a joke or two about the weather, and a smile — has humanized me to students and improved our communication overall. I often have a deluge of messages in the twenty-four hours after posting a videoblog, and often not strictly about course material: they ask about the office decor, if my scratchy throat this week means I’m getting sick, or about the weather in my part of the province.

In other words, we’re finally having the chatter I share with my face-to-face students in breaks and before class. I’m grateful.