T.S. Eliot once wrote, “The end is where we start from.” I’ve been thinking about that line a great deal since learning I was going to be coming back to Composition and the WAC team for a while. You see, wherever I go, teaching, writing, and WAC remain some of my greatest passions. I’m presenting at the IWAC conference in June, and that proposal pre-dated my latest sojourn in Composition. I hope that I will blog about it afterwards. For now, I’m allowing myself to enjoy the idea of indulging several of my passions – teaching, writing, presenting, and technology – while I work with many other talented people to figure out how best to serve the students who need us the most.
Often, I get the question “How long have you been doing this?” ‘This’ meaning what, I wonder.
If ‘this’ means teaching, I’ve always taught. Where most of the little girls in the neighborhood had backyard playhouses, I had a little school room complete with surplus desks, bookshelves, and chalkboards that my parents purchased at a yard sale held by the Catholic School I attended. Years later, the irony of that struck me. They were already paying tuition, but they bought for the fundraisers, too. In high school, I was in Future Teachers of America. I even recorded a radio spot for them and appeared on a public television show with the state school superintendent. By college, I became a peer tutor and went right from a Bachelor’s Degree in English to a Master’s Degree in Teaching Secondary English. I taught my first “real” class in 1995 (meaning no one had to supervise me from inside the room) and figured I was where I would retire when the time came. Life had other plans and appears to know what it was doing.
If “this” means teaching online, that goes back quite some time as well. In 1999, I accidentally discovered the joy of distance learning. A school I was teaching for in the evenings to make ends meet needed an English instructor who could use email and the freeware version of Blackboard. My father was a computer programmer and systems analyst. Email I could use. I taught myself Blackboard in a weekend, and off I went, teaching online.
That was a different world, and I don’t mean in the Pre-9/11, innocence, and prosperity sense. I mean in the educational sense and especially in the teaching of writing. None of us who started our teaching careers in the mid-to-late 1990s could have imagined allowing a website as a credible source or a blog as an assignment. We’d never even heard the term blog! By mid-2003, with my father terminally ill, I needed the flexibility teaching online offered and I jumped at the chance to join Kaplan full-time, even if it wasn’t in Composition.
As a non-composition teacher, I watched the teaching of writing change and I had to participate. I loved trying new techniques and tools. Some worked – hello voice to text – and some didn’t or were too far ahead of the curve. I remember attending a conference in2005 where a professor presented his findings on the value of audio feedback. At the time, the only method that did not create a file that was too large to upload to a grade book was recording in a PDF. I loved the concept and brought it back to my department, but interest was sparse. It was a great deal of time, training, and resources to invest in an unproven technique.
Jump forward four years, and we have the Jing project. I’m proud that some of my classes were part of the pilot that Joni Boone and her team participated in. I was even happier to see the results at the 2011 NADE Conference. Now instructors are encouraged to use media rich feedback because the process is relatively simple and has proven benefits. As a colleague said recently, “the technology is finally available to allow us to do what we’ve wanted to do all along.”
For traditional colleges and universities, its graduation season. If I have one piece of advice for new English and Composition teachers, it is to stay ahead of technology. Don’t let it get ahead of you. Technology changes how, where, when, and why we write. Promise yourself you’ll try something new each term, and that you’ll keep those tools that excite you and your students.
So, how long have I been doing this? On one hand, it seems like forever. The world was so different in 1999. The Twin Towers still stood, I still fought Atlanta traffic, and my dad was still just a phone call or a twenty-minute drive away when I had a computer question. Now, the Towers are gone, but another structure rises at that site to remind us evil never really wins. I fled Atlanta for a small, coastal town and laugh when they complain about traffic during tourist season. I can still get almost anywhere I want to go in far less time than getting to the grocery store ever took in Atlanta. Physically, my dad has been gone since 2003, but if I’m working a tricky computer issue or trying to come up with a work around for something we need but can’t quite get our hands on, I’m pretty sure he’s whispering in my ear.
On the other hand, the past thirteen years of online teaching, almost ten at Kaplan, seem to have sped by in the blink of an eye. I heard from a former colleague today and it made me nostalgic, but it also made me stop and think. We’ve learned so much about teaching writing in the last decade. Imagine what the next ten years will bring for us and most importantly for our students. Imagine where we will take them and they will take us.
The next decade will again change where and how we write as well as how we teach writing, and I can’t wait to be a part of that change.
Teresa Kelly (TK)