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Confessions of a Failed IF Blogger…

Hi folks,

I’ve been behind the rest of you all semester, both at IF’ing in class and at blogging online. The official reasons are that Berea didn’t start spring term till Feb 8 (we had a one-month J-term), and I don’t have my first IF session till end of this week.   The unofficial reason is that I am new to blogging and find this format a bit intimidating. In other words, I’m the quintessential bad student, three blogs behind and full of excuses.  Now let me try to catch up:

Integrating course content:

My class (designed as a first-year general studies course) has three parallel goals:  teaching the research paper, teaching the facilitation process, and teaching Berea’s history in the context of identity and diversity issues in the U.S.  I had hoped to somehow connect the research paper and facilitation process but finally gave up on that one (students choose their own topics, and they appear to be all over the map).  Instead, I’ve linked the facilitation sessions directly to the readings. When I taught this course last year, the main critique was that the topics, which focus on oppression, discrimination, and deeply entrenched social problems, are often depressing and discouraging (go figure).  Students suggested that I create more opportunities for future classes to explore possibilities for change and paths for individual agency. So, I am trying to use the facilitation process to do just that.  In the kick-off IF session this Friday, students will explore the concept of  “allies,” people who work from their own sources of privilege to fight various forms of oppression. Each additional IF session will then focus on different forms of oppression (race, class, gender, etc.) and the possibilities of becoming an ally on these dimensions.  The last couple sessions will focus on consequences and return to the original concept of allies. 

It took me forever to figure out how to map this piece onto an already over-full class. Thanks to Rose Ernst and Dianne Sykes for a ton of advice via email. For the IF sessions, I tried to choose readings that are fairly open-ended and provocative, rather than fact-heavy or theoretical.  I’m hoping the readings serve as springboards for larger, more generative discussions about what students can actually do to combat everyday forms of oppression. We’ll see. Students are asked to post reflections on what they learned from the discussion (see assessment part below), and I’ll obviously be listening in on the discussions, so if I think key points have been missed, I’ll use part of the following class period to review concepts.  After much gnashing of teeth, I’m actually fairly satisfied with this structure – we’ll use the larger class sessions to talk about big contextual issues of oppression and the smaller IF groups to discuss individual ways to try to deal with the issues.

The culmination of all this will not be a group or public product. Instead, the outcome will be the course final, a take-home exam in which students write about the possibilities of becoming an ally on some dimension of privilege, drawing from the readings and discussions across the term. I’ll also ask the students to write a letter to themselves, which I will mail back to them the following year.  In their letters, they must make a detailed action plan of practical steps for becoming an ally over the next year.  (If they decide they have no interest in becoming an ally, that’s fine; then their paper must carefully explain why.)  In part, the whole process of becoming an ally is hard, sometimes painful work that takes intentional effort. I’m hoping that by spending numerous group sessions with classmates discussing the possibilities and consequences of ally work, students will think more honestly, openly, and proactively about possible steps they can take.

I’m nervous about this whole endeavor but feel increasingly happy about attempting the IF process, mostly because I have ended up with a class of introverts.  Of the fourteen students in my class, only two appear remotely comfortable speaking in class, and very quietly at that.   From quizzes and written work, I know the students are doing the work and engaged in the content. But they are they shyest bunch I’ve ever taught (usually, this course is extremely lively and at times gets out of hand, due to the controversial content).   About the only way I can get discussion going right now is to do pair-share and then call on students individually.  I did a lightning round on topics I know they care about, and they all but whispered to one another in their two corners.  If this were someone else’s class, I’d find it comical.  Since it’s mine, I’m slightly dumbfounded. In any event, I’m hoping the IF process breathes new life and confidence into a very quiet group.  If not, it’s going to be a long semester.

Guiding and Assessing Performance:

Although I have been behind on posts, I have greatly benefitted from yours!  For my class, I’ve asked students to use the self and group-assessment that Keally developed (thank you!), and I’m also asking students to answer the following prompts via Blackboard by midnight after each session:

  • What did you learn about your topic from this discussion?  What new ideas or insights did this discussion offer you?
  • What questions do you still have about this topic?  What connections do you see to other material?  What points would you like to continue discussing?
  • What did you learn about the process of group discussion?

While I’m confessing to plagiarism, let me add thanks to both Rose and Keally for their handouts on the group process (I’ve put together a combined version) and to Laura for her very fine suggestion of requiring an agenda and questions from facilitators before their session.

I’m still debating how to actually grade all this. According to my syllabus, I’ve accorded 10% of the grade for the process and Blackboard responses, 15% for the final paper. In terms of grading the process and prompts, I’m presently inclined to simply grade on credit/no-credit and use my time offering constructive feedback without the pressure of assigning grades.  If students are absent, don’t respond to a prompt fully, or do a very poor job facilitating or note-taking, they simply won’t get credit.  I remember someone along the way saying they were doing something similar.  I’d be interested in what others think of this.

Setting up Student Groups

With just fourteen students, I’ve set up two groups of seven students.  I made my own brief survey from questions in our guidebook and the online survey we asked students to take. From student responses, I tried to split up those who felt most and least comfortable leading discussions and assigned strong students as the lead facilitators. One question I asked was which aspect of the process (facilitating, participating, listening, synthesizing material through listening and responding, taking notes and synthesizing material for others) students found easiest and hardest.  It was interesting to me that the majority of students listed note-taking/synthesizing material as the most difficult. When I passed out a detailed handout of the various roles (again, thanks to the combined handouts of Rose and Keally), the students again commented that they thought the note-taking and reporting would be the most difficult.  Given that these are first-year students, apparently still learning how to take notes, I’m realizing this may be an important skill students will be learning via the IF process.  I may need to develop additional guidelines along the way and spend time in class teaching how to take and synthesize notes.