Misfits in MOOCland

I had already framed the story: the professor who had enough background and put in the effort, who failed a MOOC. I relished that story. No such luck. Much to my surprise, I passed.

As much as enjoyed the songwriting MOOC, I found myself a mis-fit for the course and the format. Let me count the ways.

First: This genre just isn’t me. Most popular songs are about the romantic or sexual lives of teens and twentysomethings. Here, I don’t mean pop as the subgenre, but music produced for mass consumption via radio, internet samplings, and large sales volume. Songs that narrate some arc of this circle make up the largest piece of popular pie: I want you; now we’re together and it’s great; now we’re broken up, and that’s bad or good, depending on who dumped whom. That’s about it.

I have no interest in writing on that topic. The implicit self of that narrative arc is just not me, or any persona I can muster.

Second: I can’t sing, and we had sing. The course information said that singing ability wasn’t required, but that wasn’t quite true. You have to understand: I don’t mean that I have poor vocal quality, although this is also true. I mean that I can’t match pitches to an instrument or another voice. I can’t even sing a single pitch, any pitch, forget about matching, for the duration of one damn quarter note. Never mind why, if there’s a reason, and please don’t encourage. I can’t flap my wings and fly, either, but I muddle through.

Now the course was not about singing. However, about half way through, we had to submit our assignments in the form of uploaded tracks of ourselves singing what we had written. Most people, I gather, did as recommended, and recorded themselves over ready-made loops provided by the instructor. But we were free to choose other means of recording, including composing our own music and accompanying ourselves on an instrument.

I wanted to write my own music, to dig into that task. Also, I thought that composing would be easier than learning Garage Band on a tight schedule. This was superficially true. So I composed at the piano, in pencil on manuscript paper.

But how to record myself? The first time, I just chanted over the metronome and recorded to an mp3 file. For the final assignment, I played my chord progression into Garage Band, and then recorded myself “singing” over it.

Third: the limitations of peer-grading. I failed every assignment from the third one on. One of these was our second full verse, full chorus assignment, in which my peer comments included several “corrections” that were themselves mistakes. (Incorrect rhyme identification, failure to understand that stability and instability are partly relative, etc.) From the fourth assignment on, we had to make the singing tracks.

Yes, back to “singing.” I could write lyrics and set phrases into the musical structure according to the rubrics. But I could not sing what I had written. I’m not talking about pitches, which are out of the question. I mean that I can’t sing my own rhythmic intensions. And doing that was, unlike accurate pitch, necessary to show if one had fulfilled the assignment. So doing the assignment required me to be able to do something else that wasn’t the assignment, but on which basis others would assess whether I had done the assignment. (There was no way of uploading sheet music – which I circumvented in the final assignment by temporarily posting the sheet music to this blog, and linking it. And then I’m assuming that others can read music, which also wasn’t required.)

Here was my frustrated Inner Student griping: if they say it doesn’t matter, it really shouldn’t matter. We should be able to submit sheet music, or there should be synthetic voice software that can sing from an e-score. Maybe there is, and you just don’t know how to find it. I asked friends, and no one knew. Is this something everyone else but me (and my friends) knows? Or maybe there is no such thing yet. (Imagine all-synthetic music, including vocals: ick. We’re close enough to that already.) It’s a really simple thing to be able to sing in rhythm. You wrote the damn rhythm, and the words. But I can’t do it. I would have to practice a lot more, and I can’t take that time away from work and sleep. These are basic skills, you should work more on them. But I would need more time, and these skills are related, but not necessary, to my being able to write a song. These assignments require things they don’t say are required.

All assignments do that. Said the Inner Professor. There’s no way to write an assignment without assuming something, and no way to teach a class without assuming something. Even MOOCs have to assume something. I realized that I felt (part of) the frustration of a student who finds herself lacking unstated background knowledge – and I felt crappy about it.

Crappy, lost, having to waste time attending to extraneous tasks because those skills weren’t even supposed to be tasks anymore.

This happens in real classes. It happens in mine. I have taught classes where the reading, writing, and thinking skills of the group varied from about seventh grade to seventeenth (by my own reckoning). Yes, ideally, the range would be narrower. Often it isn’t. So what do we do? My current approach is design courses flexibly so that some tailoring is built in, and more tailoring can be done in consultation with the students. The goal is that everyone who works at it improves from where he or she starts out – and that everyone has to put in some effort. Yes, it takes time. It takes attention. And I actually have to know the students. Even in classes where the prior preparation and ability range is more focused, each student has the potential to benefit most if this dialogue can unfold – unfold with an instructor, someone who can assess quickly and then focus the student were the most growth is likely to occur.

Brings me back to peer-grading and its central problem: who is grading the graders? How does anyone know if the peer-grader has the skills to perceive key elements of others’ work? In one songwriting assignment – on phrase setting on or off the downbeat to achieve different effects – the peer-grader would have to be able to perceive the downbeat itself, and its relation to the verbal stress. In fact, there had been a quiz calling for just this skill. (I aced it.) People who may not have that skill were scoring the work of others. It seems to me that peer-grading in MOOCs has to rely on graders whose fitness to assess specific tasks has not itself been assessed.

As MOOCs progress, I wonder what will win in the end. Students being students, when will they realize that they could all just give each other As? Maybe the best thing to do with pseudo-assessment is to turn it into mutual back-scratching. Then again, the internet being the internet, MOOC grading could turn into a troll-infested comments section with the super-density of black holes. In neither case do we know if anyone has learned anything. But in both cases, the owners of the big data generated by all this activity – they still win.

Song of MOOCs and Grades

In January, I signed up for a MOOC. Given the extreme burdens of my recent work, the timing was lousy. What was I thinking?

I have followed MOOC news for the past two years and been active in Twitter discussions of venture capital’s latest attempt to abolish the professoriate. (I strongly recommend the blogs by Jonathan Reese and Tressie McMillam Cottom on this and related topics.) But I felt that my ability to critique was limited without direct acquaintance with the beast – a scruple that doesn’t seem to trouble billionaires who don’t know which end of a university is up. My one previous attempt, last spring, foundered on the shoals of professional duties. This time, I meant to finish.

So I picked the Songwriting course offered by Pat Pattison of Berklee on one of the major platforms. It fit the bill: a humanities-arts course for which I had some background but which would also be challenging. I’m a poet with extensive formal training in English and an amateur pianist. I have not attempted to write a song since I was a guitar-playing 12-year-old with no knowledge of music theory, so I didn’t have a head start on songwriting itself. Also, the course focused strongly on lyric-writing; musical composition wasn’t even required. Old skills, new form. A good combination.

I viewed every lecture, consulted recommended resources, participated in the boards, aced all of the quizzes, and completed five out of six assignments for peer review (lowest score dropped, so the 0 disappears). I enjoyed Pattison’s presentation and yes, learned from it. He avoided stumping for MOOCs themselves, offered useful nuts-and-bolts approaches to lyric-writing, and drew some insightful parallels between poetics and musical structure. In short, I worked. I had fun.

I am probably going to fail. But I get ahead of myself.

I was especially curious about how the peer-grading worked – I wanted to feel that from the student’s end. As a professor, I find it frustrating how much students focus on the grade instead of the learning, to the point of seeing learning as incidental. I can remember my growing, dumbstruck awareness, early in my career, that what students wanted from me were grades. Good ones, ideally, but often just lots of them.

This MOOC’s peer review took the following form. Each week, we had a writing assignment that focused on specific elements of lyric prosody – e.g. developing a structure that goes somewhere, use of line lengths, types and use of rhyme, and similar. The rubrics were clearly written and directly correlated with the assignment instructions. Did the work use the strategies taught to create stability? Were important ideas highlighted by structural elements? And so on. Each week, after submitting my work, I then received five anonymous assignments to score. Every scoring rubric had a field in which one could write comments to the other student. A few hours after those scores were due, everyone’s results would be available.

On the first two assignments, my peers, whoever they were, scored me very high. This, I felt, demonstrated my ability to write for a rubric. Not that it was that mechanical. In the first week, I made a list of song ideas – could only come up with three – and then I would just use whichever idea best lent itself to that week’s rubric. In my reviews of others, five per week, I saw a wide range of ability to follow instructions. I’ve been teaching too long for that to surprise me.

Anyone I reviewed got way more than they paid for.

By the second week, people who were mad about their peer grades started posting complaints. Some would post their whole assignment, with the reviewer’s scoring and comments, and then append point-by-point rebuttals of the grade. I hadn’t thought about how the online format would make it easier to complain about grades. The comments to such posts contained a mixture of encouragement and agreement with the refuted reviewers.

These had me laughing out loud – inadvertent entertainment! – until I began to feel voyeuristic: I was watching students gripe about grades. Except they weren’t complaining about or to a professor, they were debating with anonymous “peers.” I use the scare quotes because the concept of peer came under attack. Some people felt they were being graded by people who knew less than they did. This is, at least some of the time, true. But this is what we signed up for – didn’t people know this going in?

What did they want?

Many of the complainers wanted the professor or teaching staff to grade them. You know, ‘cause those people know more about the subject than the rest of us do. This desire both heartened and appalled me – heartened because it showed an understanding that an expert can assess work far better than another random student. Appalled because, evidently, expert attention should be free to any and all comers.

The grade-complaint threads amused me until I started getting failing scores on my weekly assignments. Oh, I was still writing to the rubrics. I’m not sure why my scores were suddenly so low – and then I got to feel the temptation to make a score-refutation post. Of course, I resisted, since doing that suggested that something was at stake. Nothing was.

I’ll indulge slightly here, to a point. In one assignment, we had to mark the natural spoken stresses in our lyrics. Now I can out-scan my thousands and tens of thousands. Yet one reviewer’s sole comment was that I should have marked stressed syllables with / and unstressed with – . I had done that. Did my marks not appear in his/her/their browser? Did the “peer” get the natural stresses backwards? Or what? I don’t know, and I can’t find out. Most of my reviewers left no comments.

Since my plummet from As to Fs – I never received any intermediate score on a peer reviewed assignment – occurred when I chose to write more complex language, and continued as we had to record ourselves singing our work, I suspect that my combination of linguistic ability and truly abysmal singing turned people off. (We were instructed not to judge the lyrics by singing quality, but that’s another post.)

The point: when grading is de-coupled not just from expertise, but also from the possibility of dialogue, the student has little means for understanding why a score was low or high. Posting work and reviews to the forums doesn’t solve this problem because the forum commenters didn’t give the scores. They are trying to read the minds of anonymous others.

Pattison and the staff responded on forums to some of this grousing. The purpose of peer review, said the staff, was to help the student doing the reviewing, not the student reviewed. Reviewing others’ work makes us see our own differently. OK. But why then give me the score? If we’re really trying to learn to perceive elements of lyrics, then we need to practice on that – and be assessed on our ability to do so by someone who knows how. That is, if the assessment matters for anything. But maybe it doesn’t.

Last year, I remarked in a Tweet that you can’t mass-scale human attention. I’ll riff on this from other angles in future posts, but here I want to apply this to that activity called grading, marking, assessment. Whatever. In a credentialing system, the letter or number is the end, and any performances (student’s or instructor’s) simply a means to it. Pretty soon software will be able to do a plausible simulation of grading at far faster rates than I can. Hell, if the point is grades, we could write a very simple code that will just spit out a number at the push of a button. So if producing grades is the real point, let’s ‘fess up to that and write that little code.

But if we want to teach and learn, we have to respond to student work. Responding is a broad activity; it requires time, attention, and is inherently dialogic. I respond to students when I speak to what they have spoken in class, when I ask for justification or consideration of alternatives. I respond when I write comments on their writing, addressing their arguments, organization, style, ideas – their sense of what’s important and why. Sometimes, in consultations, students realize for the first time what they actually said when I read a sentence or two back to them – because when they were writing, they did not attend to their own thoughts and language. Most of them don’t know how. That’s one of the things I try to teach them, and the effort embeds the deeper lesson that thoughts and language – including their own – are worth somebody’s attention. The whole testing regime does not send, indeed suppresses, that message: your thoughts and language and character, even, are worth another human being’s attention.

My piano teacher doesn’t grade me. She responds in ways that help me improve as a musician – if I attend to her attention. To work, this must be reciprocal. That cannot be mass scaled, unbundled, or outsourced to software, without first abandoning the purpose of instruction. I wouldn’t trade her response for a piece of paper with a letter or number on it.

The real work of teaching lies in the response, after the student has attempted something. The opening move, the delivery – the rhetoric of which is highly variable and grossly undervalued – is not the whole of it, or even the main thing. Part of the work of learning lies in the response to the response, something that the finality of the grade doesn’t easily allow except in the form of complaint.

Overall, I enjoyed the songwriting course. For a well-educated person who wants to dabble, to refresh, or to supplement private training, MOOCs can be fun. I have had a hell of a year since this one started (long story), and the songwriting course was my one little oasis for six weeks. But let’s not pretend that what I was able to learn is unrelated to decades of formal instruction in English and classics; reams of reading, memorization, recitation, and performance; and the attention of human beings who were more advanced in these arts than I.

Let’s also not pretend that what I learned has anything to do with my grade. I aced the online quizzes, and flunked the peer reviews as soon as we had to write more than simple sentences. I expect to fail this course.


See also:

Jonathan Rees on Peer Grading

Rees’s IHE article on same

and while I was preparing the post, Slate ran this article about who takes MOOCs

View of Academe, From the Foot of Canal Street

A few days before our term started, one of my grandmothers died. I returned to New Orleans for her funeral and arrived back in Austin the evening before classes started. I didn’t even have syllabi ready, and the thought of telling my students why was redolent of cliché and karma. See, for all these years, I’ve been telling students that I don’t believe in dead grandmothers: mine were still alive. Sooner or later, that lousy joke was going to catch up with me. Grandma’s death was neither premature nor unexpected, but that doesn’t diminish the missing her.

So I went into the term much less prepared than I like to be. I quickly put together some mini-syllabi with the most basic information students usually want. At the same time, I had a looming deadline to deliver responses to edits on a book chapter. Got a short dispensation from the editor, only to get sick half way through the first week of term. An inauspicious start to the year.

That’s one way of looking it. I guess that’s the academic way of looking at it. For me, Grandma’s death and my ensuing bouts centered me differently than I’m accustomed to feeling centered in first week. Emotionally, existentially, I was and had to be her grand-daughter, not anybody’s professor or colleague. Oh, I went to work; I did get the syllabi slapped together eventually. I delivered the edits right under the wire. But I wasn’t invested in my usual way in these activities.

All this time, I dwelt in recollection. Sleeping over at Grandma’s when she had her Saturday night card games. Her presence at plays, music recitals, every small and large rite of childhood. Her voice. Her New Orleanian aptitude for digression. (Once, I picked her up and asked her how was lunch. She told me a man’s life story: not from here, fell in love with a New Orleans girl, took her to his home state, came back because he missed the city, lost the wife somehow, stayed for the city . . . He was the chef, at the place where she had lunch. And yeah, I just did it.) Her phrase for me, “the one who went away.” Her genuine fear, those first few years I lived in Chicago, that I would freeze to death. Her delight in being with people, so different from my own wariness. How hard she would hug me when I came home, or when I left again. My own life was the necessary concomitant of recollecting hers – so I have felt myself a small child, a ten-year-old, a brooding bookish teen, a university student in the far north. I tried to see my own life from her point of view, and hers from her own, rather than mine.

One of Grandma’s quirks was calling things by incorrect but lovely names. Pink penguins (flamingos). Blue robins (purple martins). Make a Novena. (A Hail Mary – in football, not the actual prayers.) All of this ran on the usual New Orleanian displacements: “by” meaning “at,” “pass” meaning “stay.” Listening to her always made me want to write. When I published my first poem, she simply said, “I always knew you could write.” Not as well or as much as I need to.

The funeral often floated in consciousness. St. Anthony’s Church. So many relatives, odd conversations. Giving one of the eulogies. Most of all, the burial in St. Patrick’s No. 2: cloudy sky, barely cold, my brother and his sons making up half of the pallbearers. (2009, the cultural vertigo of the SBL meeting here; I stand at the other end of Canal Street telling John Collins, “My Irish ancestors are buried that way,” and pointing toward the foot. He approved of knowing where your people are buried. Where you bury them. Where I stand now.) After the burial, I rode home with my sister, who played to me the John Boutte-Paul Sanchez song, “At the Foot of Canal Street,” as we drove once again past the same. I had never heard it before. Couldn’t catch all the lyrics. Knew I would buy it, because the music seemed to contain everything, and because Grandma spent most of that part of her life I knew in the Mid-City-est part of Lakeview, near the foot of Canal Street. It’s the knot at the heart of the city.

As an accident of timing, Grandma’s death sent me into the semester with my sense of self lodged elsewhere. I was in my little academic niche, but not of it. This is not the first time I have been thus displaced. Most of my experience of academe has been conditioned by an orientation outside of it. But I’ll have to unfold that slowly. In other posts. If I’m up to it. I’ve been teaching long enough that the start of term evokes certain emotional habits: rehearsing my first-day spiels, over-thinking the order of items on course schedules, the anxiety of meeting rooms full of people I don’t know, worry that an advanced course might not make, the need to subordinate all other projects to the first-week rush. I did my job, but I didn’t do it in this way, this time. The part of my attention that holds my self was somewhere else – and rightly so. From that place, my academic life looked different, even a bit absurd; but more than that specific view, I felt the opening of other ways, beyond the habitual or socially sanctioned ones, of attending to work. It must be put in its place, as I must live from mine.

Not Motley in My Brain

On the rare occasions when I have been on flat land with no body of water near, I panic. It feels like a trap, all that uniform land. I’m from New Orleans. The coast, the swamp, the ambiguities of deep interface, lie deep in me. Unlike the water table. That’s very close to the surface.

Academic writing can too easily resemble an expanse of flat land: far from the margins and mixtures that make anything productive possible, it has been buffered, separated, marked out in plots, accessed by paved roads. Or at least, I try to make mine look that way. That’s as it should be, perhaps must be. Flat interiors have their place in the global ecology. But sometimes, for me, it induces panic. Where is the source?

For years, I thought of my literary writing – poetry and other sorts, not nearly enough or as good as I’d like – as a fundamentally different kind of work than academic writing. The processes seemed different in development, execution, and purpose. That much is true. But I overlooked an underlying similarity: the origins. Other than set pieces, every work I do starts with a collision of divers elements, a strong emotional reaction to the collision, and a need to work my response into words – and from there, into some insight that could be offered to others. Literary and academic work differ primarily in the last two phases, but not much in the first two. A collision of life-altering proportions led to my main scholarly project, not that I say so in the articles or book. Books. Working on the plural. Still – I wear not doctoral gowns in my brain. Writing, music, deafness, these all came before the academic role.

This process happens far more often than I do anything about it. That’s not to say that every such moment and its reflections must be put into words. Culling is an underrated art these days. Nevertheless, some of my culling occurs simply because the collision doesn’t fit anywhere. Someone’s story moves me and evokes a bit of Renaissance drama, and I write a poem. A post-modern literary theorist (tautology?) prompts insight into ancient religious texts, and I do a conference paper. As in metathesis reactions, things change places, but within a stable basic structure. Usually one thing precipitates out.

And then there are islands, with their windy sides and marshy sides, where everything is a border. Given the particulars of my life, the flora and fauna and fantasies include a library, strange bodies, cathode-ray visions, music, religions, speculative worlds, animals, and a college or something like one. That is, I’ll write about literature, disability, television and film, music, science fiction, cats and maybe some dogs, and education.  Yes, I left out religion in the second list. I won’t always leave it out. I’m a scholar of religion on the mainland, but I write from the island, the place of un-disciplined fecundity that underlies more socialized projects.

This blog is my island – the coastline, the estuary, the overlapping phases of elements, states, life-forms – or, in temporal terms, my native carnival. I want to write from the hypnagogia of thought, the place of juxtapositions that have no other place.