Providing Audio Feedback on Students’ Writing

By Sritama Chatterjee, a third-year PhD student in Literature at the University of Pittsburgh

Due to the shift to online learning because of COVID-19, one of the things that I miss about teaching are the corridor conversations with students, before and after a class, and listening to their fears about an impending Chemistry exam, their excitement about an upcoming Taylor Swift album or the joys when their favorite team has won the Superbowl. It made space for knowing the students on a more personal level and who they are as human beings without overstepping boundaries. However, the shift to an online medium made it necessary for us as instructors to reimagine how we make these connections with students.

For me, one way was through a shift from written feedback to audio feedback and an exploration of  what the medium of sound offered. In a pre-COVID world, I had tinkered with audio feedback, but still preferred written feedback because I was not too sure about the technical challenges: what if my microphone did not work? Did I need to install another piece of software? However, once I got over the initial difficulties, it was a smooth process. You can find technical advice for providing audio feedback on Blackboard, here, for Canvas, here, and how to record using the recording software Audacity, here.

One of the reasons I shifted to providing audio feedback was to convey the affect and tone of my feedback, as speaking can avoid a potential scope for misunderstanding. Students can hear the excitement  in my voice when I come across an idea in an essay that I think is really interesting.   I can also clearly communicate when an argument lacks evidence. It also allows me the space to create a more personal and meaningful connection with students. Often I ask a question to my students when I am particularly curious about why they have made a writing move in a specific way or what brings them to a topic or idea. Although there is no requirement on their end to respond to my comments/questions, I find that students write back to me in an email responding to my questions or set-up a time to talk to me and that these follow-up conversations often take us in directions that I did not anticipate.

Before providing audio feedback on a draft, I read the draft at least twice, making a mental note of two things: areas where the essay is already strong, so that I can provide examples of what the essay does well to take the argument one step further, and two instances of where the essay needs more work and in what ways. Once this is done, I record the feedback, addressing the students directly, as if I am in a conversation with the student, guiding the students through specific areas of revision and ending the feedback by inviting students to get in touch with me with questions or if they need to clarify something. I learned this conversational approach in audio feedback from Annette Vee’s piece on providing audio feedback, who takes written notes before recording.

Here are some things that I have found helpful for providing audio feedback:

I usually keep the feedback between three to four minutes for a 1200-word draft. Initially, it used to take me six to seven minutes and I found myself repeating the same things. However, with practice, I have grown out of this practice and find four minutes to be of optimum length. However this may vary depending on the pace of your feedback. Keeping a timer in front of you might be helpful. As a graduate worker, I am protective of my time and I ensure that I do not spend more than three hours providing feedback on a major assignment to twenty-two students (and this includes time for reading the assignment).

I use audio feedback only when I am providing feedback at a more conceptual level rather than structural or craft level, though I can imagine that audio feedback could incorporate both of these components. One could use audio feedback in a stand-alone manner or use it in combination with written feedback.

I quote specific page numbers, paragraphs and sentences while providing feedback so that it is always grounded in an idea and students are not lost about what I am referencing. Initially I was not referring to specific passages, but after listening to feedback from my students, I adapted accordingly and am now more direct about what I am talking about.

I try and keep things as spontaneous as possible. The pauses, “aaahs” and “ummm…” are very much part of the feedback.

From student feedback*, it seems that they appreciate audio feedback because of its clarity. For instance, one student wrote: “I really like the audio feedback! I think that a number of times when professors give comments on essays, the tone of what they are trying to say is lost, so the audio gets rid of the ambiguity.” Another student pointed out, “It was nice to hear from you in that way because it sounded like a conversation, which is a nice change from just seeing comments on my assignment.”

In the future, when I use audio feedback, I might make it optional for students to respond to the teacher’s comments, asking them to listen to the feedback first and then summarize their revision plan either in a written or audio form. Having pointed out some of the benefits of audio feedback and the ways in which students have responded to it, I will note that audio feedback might not work for students who are deaf or hard of hearing and as educators, it remains our work to make feedback more inclusive.

*Student permission has been taken to include comments in this piece.

Tips for Writing a Dissertation or Capstone Project

Writing a doctoral dissertation or a capstone project for a master’s program can be one of the most challenging and intensive parts of earning a graduate degree. This already difficult task has been heavily exacerbated by major global events, such as the Covid pandemic, systemic racism, and visa restrictions on international students. Members of the Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Humanities (CSGSH) share some practical tips and advice for working on and completing a dissertation or capstone project that can help graduate students complete their projects during these challenging times.

 

Didem Uca, Assistant Professor of German Studies, Emory University

DONE IS GOOD

Every semester before finals week at my undergraduate alma mater, Bryn Mawr College, we hung to-do lists on our dorm room doors with the phrase “DONE IS GOOD” and gleefully cheered each other on as we checked each item off. Once I reached ABD status in my Ph.D. program, I learned a different saying with a similar sentiment: “A good dissertation is a done dissertation. A great dissertation is a published dissertation. A perfect dissertation is neither.” If you are in a book field, you have to accept that you may not be able to accomplish everything in the dissertation that you hope to accomplish in the version that will eventually be published as a monograph. There are multiple reasons why this might be the case––perhaps you and your committee do not share in that vision; perhaps there are archival materials that you are unable to access due to COVID; or perhaps you simply are running out of time, funding, or patience. But pragmatism wins out over perfection. Done is good.

Backwards Create a Realistic Schedule and Set SMART Goals

Speaking of to-do lists, when you are working on a project that is bigger than anything you have ever completed before and that spans several years, it may be overwhelming to figure out your timeline and path to completion. Speak with your advisor and recent graduates or other students ahead of you in your program to make sure you understand what the precise dissertation or thesis requirements are for your program. Then, open your virtual or paper calendar or planner and begin to schedule your timeline working back from the date when you want to (or must) defend. The following example of an ABD beginning work on their dissertation illustrates this process: If you will run out of funding on June 1, 2023, you will likely need to defend, and in some cases, deposit your dissertation in time for the spring graduation deadline, which may be as early as April. You already have a dissertation outline and have reviewed relevant literature for your prospectus and have one chapter drafted based on a conference paper. After speaking with your advisor, you have learned that you are expected to write 4 chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion, and the three most recent graduates of your program wrote between 250-300 pages.

Using this information, begin to create SMART––Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound––goals to fulfill these requirements in time for your anticipated defense date. Make sure to account for the time it will take for your committee members to read and offer feedback on your work and any other academic and life obligations, such as needing to travel to an archive before working on a chapter, teaching service, or taking a week off before your wedding. Be realistic, build in extra time for the unexpected, and continue updating and revising your SMART goals throughout the process.

Gamify Writing––and Write Every Day

If you think you hate writing, may I suggest that you actually hate the anxiety of not writing? The mere thought of opening a blank document or returning to a particularly vexing paragraph can be paralyzing, and thus, we often choose to focus our energies on everything but writing. For me, this included reading Joan Bolker’s classic Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, in which she advises dissertators to “Do some work on your thesis every day, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes. (“Every day” is more important than how much time you spend, or how many pages you produce, or what quality of work you produce on any particular day.)” This advice was transformative at a time when I was plagued by writing––or, more precisely, not writing––anxiety and intense guilt. So I followed Bolker’s advice and began writing. For the first few weeks, guided by my SMART goals and completion schedule, I began to write 150 new words every day. I increased this amount to 200, 250, 500, 750…until I was reliably writing 1500-2000 words a day, managing to add 200 new pages to my dissertation in the final four months before my defense. Anything you write today is something you will not have to write tomorrow or two months from now. Future you will thank you for your diligence. If this abstract gamification strategy isn’t effective, consider that, like all living creatures, you are not above bribery; give yourself rewards for meeting your daily benchmark, such as, as soon as I finish my 350 words for today, I can watch the next episode of The Great. Speaking of which, I have to go work on my book proposal so that I can watch Sarah Cooper’s special on Netflix.

 

Amir Hussain, Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature, Emory University

I have three pieces of advice to offer.

First, think about and seek agreement about what kind of dissertation project you aim to do.

There are many different kinds of dissertation projects that one can theoretically do. But not every dissertation project can be done without the aspects and planning that so often precede the actual dissertation writing, such as the prospectus, language training, archives you may need to visit or approvals you may need to have to conduct your research, and committee support. While a traditional dissertation is typically conceived of as one large project with chapters that are in some way or other organically related, there are many discussions about traditional dissertations and discussions on other innovative configurations for the dissertation. So it is crucial that you, your advisor, and your committee are on the same page about the kind of dissertation you want to do, are expected to do based on previous discussions or on disciplinary training, and would be departmentally permitted to do. Seek input from your advisor and committee on this with the prospectus and throughout the project. And while it is possible that your project may develop as you work on it, there should still be a reasonable consensus and clarity about what kind of project you are working on and why.

Second, keep in touch with your advisor regularly

Your advisor is not merely the main key between you and graduating with a Ph.D. degree. Rather, your advisor is your main and most vital source of help throughout your degree. Ideally, this help should come in many forms: input on your trajectory during the doctoral program, honest but supportive feedback on your dissertation and on application materials, and institutional guidance. It is crucial to get input on your work at crucial junctures, such as between ending one chapter and starting another, or on materials that you submit as part of your applications for fellowships or for jobs. If you are not receiving critical feedback on your work, be sure to ask for it. On the other hand, if you need more encouragement, it is fine to ask for that, too. Regardless, keep in touch with your advisor and avoid long stretches of time without any communication. This way, not only will your advisor know what you are working on, but you will also know if you are staying on track or if you need more feedback and assistance.

Third, take your time with the dissertation.

The authors of The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy argue that the rapid pace in academia and in contemporary society is not conducive for the long form of research and scholarly writing. Their view applies directly to dissertators as well, who are often interrupted by competing demands and pressures to publish their work quickly. But being slow and deliberate with the long process of research, writing, and revision can allow dissertators to get sufficient feedback from an advisor or committee, to revise, to produce stronger work, and to aim for quality over quantity. And on a related note, taking your time on a dissertation relates to how one thinks of graduate school more broadly. Applying for dissertation funding or teaching opportunities during this crucial stage can allow you to spend this time now to write and get feedback during your graduate school years.

 

Viana Anette Hara, Ph.D. student in Romance Languages, University of Oregon

On Taking Care of Yourself

I have no idea the amount of mental, physical, and emotional energy that the ultimate goal of writing a dissertation requires. I remember attending a workshop on how to initiate your dissertation by organizing material, choosing your project’s topic, and the importance of communication with your advisor—all of these are crucial steps. However, it was not mentioned that physical and mental health are pivotal to accomplish this goal and that life also happens. 

While writing my master’s degree thesis, my beloved dog of 16 years old died. I was already stressed, physically, and mentally. This event caused me great sadness, and I hit a wall on my thesis. Life can happen to all of us in many ways. So what do you do when you are mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted? And, what do you do when life happens while you are writing a thesis or dissertation?

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to these questions, but I’d like to share with you some humble suggestions that worked for me and could work for you:

Seek help: It is vital to have a support system, whether it is a family member or someone you trust, or a healthcare professional. Seek help. It is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign that you are human, and not only a graduate student. 

Sleep: Sometimes, there is so much to do and not enough time to sleep. But remember that sleep is essential for brain function. Rest makes a difference in mental, emotional, and physical states.

Eat: I am not referring to a diet, but instead, to the mindfulness of nourishing your body. The act of eating away from distraction, including your dissertation is important. Focus on taking care of your body by fueling it with food.

Walk: The act of walking helps the body physically and mentally, and you are moving. It lightens the mood, and it helps support sleep. It is not a strenuous exercise, and it can be done anywhere.

Meditate: I was very skeptical about meditating, but it helped me greatly–physically, emotionally, and cognitively. It is not really about quieting your mind. After all, we are graduate students. We are always thinking. Instead, it is observing those thoughts calmly while being aware and connecting to your body. Great ideas can flourish unconsciously in meditation.

Do it all over again: There is no formula to deal with life’s curveball. Making a habit of these small practices could help you while writing a dissertation or thesis, which you can carry over in other life stages.

 

Ari Wolf 

I’d like to offer some suggestions regarding the MFA thesis project. I completed my MFA in Creative Writing last year with relative ease of mind, and I hope you can learn from whatever small fragments of wisdom I picked up along the way.

First of all, start early.

If you begin writing your MFA thesis during your final year, you are probably going to find yourself far more crunched for time than you expect to be due to one small problem–human inclination to change our minds. Every single person I was in the Master’s program with changed our minds at least two or three times about the topic of our thesis, and often also the genre, timeline, and basically every other significant detail. This is to be expected, but these are not the kinds of questions you want to be asking yourself while going into your final month of your second-to-last semester of your MFA program. These are the kinds of questions to be asking yourself in your third-to-last semester of your MFA program, and to resolve over summer break. That way, when it comes time for you to write your thesis, you can actually write your thesis, instead of spending that time and brainpower trying to make decisions about who is going to narrate your story, and by the way are you going to write a memoir or a hybrid work? 

Second, and this is advice I learned the hard way, keep a separate draft for just yourself, and show this draft to no one.

Look, every class you take in graduate school is an academic class. Your advisor is not G-D, she is a professor, and it is her job to help you with your writing. Listen to what she is telling you. However, if you have only just written the last thirty pages of your draft, and by the way you decided on nonfiction after all, and so you are literally editing stories about your parents and sister…you need a spare draft. Trust me. Mark up the draft you hand in to your professor, make the edits your Thesis Advisor and Reader asked you to make, but hold a draft back for yourself. That way when you inevitably change your mind about story or direction later on, you can refer back to the original copy without finding yourself drawn astray by your need to make the grade. It is necessary to make whatever edits your professors require of you, in order to earn a healthy GPA. It is not necessary to edit your life’s work based on someone else’s feedback that you accept under the duress of GPAs and graduate school aspirations.

Finally, do not kill your darlings, move them.

Whenever I sit down to write a long paper, I keep two documents. One document is my working  draft of my paper. The other document is my “extra” draft, which has every line I wrote and loved but don’t quite have a place for. This is good advice whether you are working on a book or a Literature paper. Write your essay, but hold onto the ‘extra’ you love but can’t use right now. You might come back to it later in your paper, or you might use it to write a different paper altogether. But don’t throw away your words just because you don’t know how to use them quite yet.

Everyone take care, and don’t take this all too seriously.

Graduate Students Preparing for the Fall (Part 2)

Edited by G. Edzordzi Agbozo, with support from the members of the CSGSH

In this final part of our series on preparing for the fall semester, two international graduate students — Meng-Hsien Neal Liu, and Joan Jiyoung Hwang — share how the ongoing pandemic and the recent national debate on international students in the United States has affected their lives and their work. While Liu focuses on syllabus redesign for online teaching, Hwang reflects on the challenges and rewards that international students experience not only during the pandemic but more broadly.

Meng-Hsien Neal Liu
Ph.D. English/Writing Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

This unprecedented global pandemic has mournfully thrown many international graduate students, myself included, into a welter, as we navigate through drastic change of our professional and personal settings, routines, obligations, and even prospects. These sudden changes have continued into the present period, with some universities keeping classes online for Fall 2020, some offering in-person instruction, and the others opting for a hybrid model. Undoubtedly, each of these curriculum delivery methods poses different kinds of challenges to administrators, staff, faculty, and students, but as a graduate student who juggles teaching, research, and coursework, I find the emotional and physical labor exacted on me particularly taxing. Although my institution aims for a hybridized delivery for the coming fall term, the first-year-composition class that I am teaching in the Fall 2020 at my institution will be online. As I am now revising my syllabus, several critical, yet fruitful questions about pedagogy and social justice emerge. These questions help me to critically deliberate on my role as a graduate teaching instructor in the climate of uncertainty.

Adapting my in-person writing class syllabus into an online version presents itself with a wide array of local and perhaps far-flung questions that I need to consider strategically. For example, how should I facilitate peer work synchronously and asynchronously? How do my students coordinate their peer reviews when they are not able to meet in person, when they are in different time zones, or when some do not have reliable access to the Internet? What if some students do not have personal laptops to do the work at home or in dormitories? What if some students cannot work for a long time on their computers due to their physical conditions, such as their vision or ability? What are some topics that are amenable to online migration and thus deliverable through an online facilitation? What are some topics that need to be omitted or changed? For instance, my first-year composition class is typically themed around language ideology along with some discussions dedicated to gender, race, class, and ethnicity. How should I create a “safe” (virtual) space where my students and I could be encouraged to engage in meaningful discussions about linguistic imperialism, ideology, and domination without fearing our words will be decontextualized? Or should I just change the theme of my writing class and go for a more skills-based composition class so that I could “play it safe”? Do I still want my students to undertake original research projects (e.g., conducting interviews) when campus resources might be hard to access? How can I motivate my students to continue applying themselves to honing their academic literacy, provided that they faced mental and perhaps physical, disquiet? On that note, how can I assess their performance meaningfully, when they might have to de-prioritize their academic work due to living, housing, or food insecurities? When students miss several synchronous meetings, should I still strenuously enforce the draconian institutionally-mandated attendance policy and take off points ? Some of these questions have been extensively discussed since the outbreak of the pandemic, but I foresee that this situation is going to be slightly more glaring for my incoming freshman students (and for us instructors), as students themselves will be exploring their first (full) semester in college in an unorthodox fashion — virtually. They will be entering into uncharted territory and need to forge interpersonal relations and affiliations with their instructors, teaching assistants, classmates, friends, advisors, majors, departments, or colleges on those little Zoom chat windows and boxes. Therefore, I made it a point to bear those questions in mind as I redesigned the syllabus.

That said, rather than feel downright saturnine about the upcoming fall semester; I do believe that there is one overarching theme that can salvage us from the narrative and the spanned time of uncertainty. To wit, that is humanity. The pandemic, however devastating, highlights our graduate teaching instructors’ need to be more humanistic, empathetic, and sympathetic, because we, along with our students, are collectively experiencing this unparalleled historical moment. Coupled with the recent civil unrest and the federal visa restriction targeted at international students, the pandemic has disrupted the normalcy of many people’s lives, but as we are readying ourselves for the fall semester, I am convinced that first-year-composition classes can functionally serve the critical role of helping students to theorize and discuss their thoughts regarding social justice and equality, a necessary, if not imperative, outlet that could endow students with anchors to stabilize themselves and obtain countervailing power to contest debilitating discourses.

Joan Jiyoung Hwang
Ph.D. Writing & Rhetoric, George Mason University

It’s no longer a visa issue; it is our life.
Frankly, I turn my eyes away from any news headlines related to the U.S. government’s immigration policy. I know it relates to my family and me one way or another, but my heart already hits bottom without even reading the contents. Any news cannot be good news for foreigners. On July 6, 2020, when news headlines on TV and on the internet were plastered with these two words, “ICE” and “international students” , my mind was blown away and I could not resist, this time, scavenging for any piece of news about this topic.
Holding a student visa or F-1 visa status was an honorable, legitimate entry ticket to the U.S. higher education after years of preparation, family support, and the careful juggling of financial investment and loss of opportunities. I am sure all international students remember the celebrations and congratulations they shared with their families, friends, colleagues, and excitement when their passports returned by mail with a student visa stamp. Ironically, however, the emblem of celebration, pride, and privilege turns into a label of exclusion as soon as our lives as international students start. We start being called visa students, multilingual writers, or foreign students.

When I tapped into the job market, while pursuing my doctorate degree, with my master’s degree earned in the U.S, I encountered a common job application program that has a section asking applicants to answer “yes” or “no” to a question if they need a sponsorship when hired. The first time I read this question, to be honest, I did not get it. The disability section has disclaimers that the information will not be disclosed and not used as discrimination against applicants but only for the purpose of providing necessary accommodation; the sponsorship section has no such disclaimer.

Being a graduate student, especially being an international Ph.D. student, is not just running a life as a full-time student. We have family, and our children go to school and grow up here. They make friends, participate in community sports clubs, compete with their friends in local competitions in band and sports, and volunteer just like any other youths with citizenship or legal residency. During their parents’ 6 to 8 years of graduate studies, if advancing into a doctorate degree, our children’s identities, cultural, ethnic, and communal, shape and develop here. The most critical time of their life takes root here, beautifully growing into valuable cultural capitals. The student parents build their companionship with their colleagues, faculty, and students, and their spouses stay connected with their neighbors, local churches, or any other affiliation of their interests and values. The entire family becomes a part of the communities. Following their parent’s work and study, my children, both in high school, have now spent a total of 70% of their life here in the U.S.. Still, their legal status is an F-2. Suppose I am not hired by any employer willing to sponsor me after my degree conferral. In that case, my children need to change their status from F-2 to F-1 when they start college in the U.S. and inherit the status of a non-immigrant student visa holder, exempt from all college benefits their friends and peers enjoy or compete for.

Being on a full-time graduate teaching assistantship, I take six credits of coursework and teach two three-credit courses each semester with tuition waivers and a decent stipend. This is an amazing equal opportunity for international graduate students and another source that attracts many capable international students to U.S. education. However, more than the tangible equality— this never means than the material conditions matter less —the personal and professional growth that I have experienced being a part of the amazing academic community of faculty, staff, and peers in my program is something I would not want to forfeit but instead continue to belong to as my second home. International graduate students live with this fear that someday, we might have to involuntarily opt out of this community, displaced from years of personal, professional, emotional, communal attachment, if the label, once a gracious entry ticket to the prestigious higher education in the U.S. and now a tag of non-immigrant status, doesn’t change into a temporary work-visa or an employment-based green card.

The student status of a non-immigrant goes beyond studentship; it is a life rooted and growing in a new land. It is not something that can be uprooted and transferred back across the borders at the mercy of policy upheavals. I hope legal, systematic consideration can be made for international graduate students’ resident status and employment after their degree. Once they receive the doctorate degrees, their stay should not be considered a matter of visa, but a matter of sustainability, the sustainability of a person as a scholar, and of a family as community members and research community that invested and nurtured the international graduate students.

GRADUATE STUDENTS PREPARING FOR THE FALL (PART 1)

Edited by G. Edzordzi Agbozo, with support from the members of the CSGSH

The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has meant that universities undergo shifts in the coming fall semester. The MLA Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Humanities asked for reflections on how graduate students are responding to and navigating the challenges that this drastic change brings. In the first of this two-part series of blog posts, Dina López and Amir Hussain reflect on how they are preparing for teaching online. Below are their reflections.

Dina López
Ph.D. Student in Technical Communication and Rhetoric, Texas Tech University

Today, July 1, 2020, marks the end of my first year of teaching First-Year Writing and the first summer session of a sophomore-level Introduction to Technical Writing as a graduate part-time instructor, or GPTI. The summer course ended on a nice quiet note; however, I was very relieved to see this day come. In the spring semester, which had exhausted me physically and mentally, my first-year students had been frustrated with the first-year writing requirement. It was a very expensive box to check on their list of non-degree related courses. Most of the time I felt as though I were walking a fine line between student, counselor, substitute parent, and doormat. Going online mid-semester made a lot of the complaints seem to disappear in the Zoom classroom; however, one effect of the pandemic was that some of my students returned home to difficult situations. Many returned to environments that exacerbated their mental health struggles and interfered with strategies for navigating the first year of college. For the rest of the semester, we all just floated on down to the last day, glad it was over.

That experience made me a little concerned about preparing for the summer: I had only two weeks to frontload my course and prepare for a full online synchronous class, something I could easily adapt for fall teaching. Given this new set of circumstances, I decided to become an instructor/user experience (UX) researcher to learn how I could make this course useful to my students/users in a digital environment. I began by sending out a survey and looking at their general descriptions. Most of them were juniors or seniors. Several were taking full loads for the summer so they could graduate in December or May. Areas of study varied from computer science to sports management. Class introduction posts revealed that some were enrolled in the class for the humanities requirement: they were either genuinely interested in boosting their technical communication skills or just needed the three hours.
This combined knowledge led me to prepare my class for users who were, for the most part:

● Interested in the course for its content
● Mature enough to begin working in groups with a foundation of trust
● Going to be tired as we approached the end of the summer session

Armed with this knowledge, I carefully tailored the four-week summer course and placed the bulk of the reading
assignments and quizzes into the first two weeks. I threaded the objectives and goals of each unit into the next during class discussion and lectures. Sometimes I opened a space for discussion on how each of their projects would inform their own studies (again, threading the objectives), but the general daily pattern was the same so there would be no surprises during the fast-moving summer session. I now have a conceptual framework as I prepare for the fall: study my users to determine the scope of their learning needs and create a structure and skeleton for a course, so that on the surface the course will be fairly free of issues.

Amir Hussain
Ph.D. Candidate in Comparative Literature, Emory University

When the Coronavirus pandemic started last spring, I was in Germany on an exchange year for dissertation research and language study. Universities in Germany, like in the United States, quickly moved to online learning. Since the semester schedule is different in Germany and since I continued distance learning in another institute after I returned to the U.S., I have now taken four months of a weekly language and culture course online. Drawing on this new online experience and on my prior teaching experience, I will briefly present several suggestions for graduate students trying to navigate and make the most out of an online course—whether preparing to take a course or to teach one online. While the overwhelming majority of graduate students have likely grown up with computers and digital technologies like smartphones or social media and are comfortable with and accustomed to them, it still takes a concerted effort to adjust to an online learning environment for the first time. Following are three tips:

1. Make it Synchronous

There has been discussion about both the advantages and the challenges of synchronous (or real-time) classes versus asynchronous classes, but my personal experience as a learner is that synchronous class sessions are crucial for getting the most out of an online course. Reading materials, written discussions, and assignments can of course be done asynchronously, but having the class meetings in real-time cannot be replaced as far as getting immediate participation, input, and feedback. The online sessions can be split into small synchronous groups for activities where students talk to each other. Still, I have found the bigger discussions and conversations that the teacher guides are particularly useful from a pedagogical perspective. In a language course, for example, hearing and seeing the language spoken correctly by the teacher is very important, and the synchronous sessions can provide a place for a question-answer conversation to unfold. A recent article titled “Turns Out You Can Build Community in a Zoom Classroom” from The Chronicle of Higher Education further discusses and presents useful suggestions for how online classes can “build community”; in that sense, synchronous class meetings become a place where, despite the distance, one becomes part of a community meeting for a shared educational purpose.

2. Make it Meta

One challenging thing I have found in my online classes has been adjusting to speaking to the computer screen and not being able to expect discernibly clear nonverbal cues that are important to human communication. Online discussion, for example, means there is a greater mediation or lag time for how one may be able to register other people’s reactions to what one is saying. For those taking their first online course—and I assume for many this would be the case—an opportunity to explicitly reflect on technology or more simply reflecting on something that one is finding challenging in the online environment can be useful. If teaching a course online, one suggestion might be to include technology and online environments into a sub-topic related to the course. In a humanities course, for example, a session on how to vet sources that one finds online or on how to use digitized primary sources for research would be very relevant for coursework and could be tied to discussions about online environments and/or digitization. Also, a low-stakes writing assignment (low-stakes meaning that the assignment is short and counts for a minor portion of the grade) could be designed—perhaps to take place within the first few class sessions—where the class is asked to explicitly reflect on their experiences and challenges with online learning.

3. Make a Presentation

My final suggestion is to have presentations—whether individual or small group ones will likely depend on the syllabus and the class size. In the first online class that I took in the spring, everyone was required to do a group presentation on a topic of their choice (but one related to the course theme) where each presenter had to speak for a certain length of time. We used a website I would recommend—padlet.com—to post our presentation materials online. This site provides a blank page where anything can be posted, including PowerPoint slides, images, or other website links that might be relevant for a presentation while making it synchronously available for anyone with the link to open on their personal computer. I recommend a presentation because I noticed that it makes a big difference going forward in the class—that is after one has presented online to the class, there is a sense of being more comfortable talking in the online environment in general. While some students might be intimidated by the thought of having to deliver a presentation online, having to give a presentation can surprisingly speed up the process of adjusting to online learning and its technologies. Needless to say, the sooner one acclimates to these things, the smoother the course and the overall online semester can go.