Saturday, February 18, 2012

Staying Organized Despite the Siren Song of the Blackboard Fallacy

(Edited on 2/22 to add a quick question: I'm getting quite a lot of hits on this post from readers in countries where I don't know people (Indonesia, Malaysia, France, Germany) and from whence I've never gotten pageviews before (Portugal, Russia, the Ukraine), only the statistics aggregator isn't giving me information on how they're getting here. Has this post been linked to somewhere? If you've gotten here by clicking on a link from elsewhere, would you let me know in the comments section? The curiosity is getting the better of me.)

Using course management software (CMS) seems much more prevalent here at NYU than it did at Cornell. It seemed like a good idea at first, but I'm realizing that it is contributing — for me, anyway — to greater disorganization in my course preparation and I'm going to rely on it much less heavily in future semesters.

The first semester that I was here I made a course packet for my seminar that students bought at the campus bookstore; when I realized just how expensive the course packet would be for them, I also scanned individual articles and readings made them available on Blackboard. It worked out just fine because I had everything pre-copied and pre-scanned before the semester started. I made the decision to use Blackboard to distribute readings from then on out. We used Blackboard to distribute readings the intro lecture class in part because of cost and in part for flexibility's sake as we were were developing a new core course; and since the site is set up now, I imagine that I and whoever else teaches it in the future will continue to use it for that. In that case —where  the scanning and posting was only a small percentage of the overwhelming amount of time we spent developing the course, its theoretical framework, our lectures, assignments that would work well as assessment tools and skill-building exercises, etc., and also developing our own rapport as a teaching team — the flexibility was worth it; but that truly was a special and exceptional case.

For seminars and for any lecture course I might teach solo in the future, though, I'm done with Blackboard as the readings clearinghouse. I realized that I have succumbed to the fallacy that using the CMS allows for flexibility in designing a course and tweaking it as you go — and that that flexibility is unequivocally a good thing. Yes, it does allow for change and adaptability. But in reality, courses don't need that much tweaking midway through, and if I want to add or change one reading here or there once or twice in the semester, I can still send out a PDF (or, with graduate students, send them to the library). And the downside of leaving it that open-ended and doing the scanning week-to-week is considerable. It's amazing the extent to which the prospect of spending an hour or two (and yes, it really does take a while) each week at the copy machine looms large in my mind. It puts me in a cranky frame of mind with respect to my class, and that's not productive for me or for my students. So instead of several hours a week, I'll sacrifice an entire day or two before the start of the semester and get all of my copying done and send it off to the bookstore to be course-packetified. And as an added benefit, in this way I'll force myself to be more prepared at the start of the semester, which will also be better both for me and for the students in that the trajectory of the course and its aims will necessarily be more clearly articulated because I"ll be committed wholly to what I've put on the syllabus. I won't succumb to possibility. By using Blackboard, my sense of overwhelm at all wonderful options out there and how I might integrate them into a course gets telegraphed into the classroom. At the moment, that's happening, and it needs to stop. Working week-to-week and using Blackboard seem great in the abstract and much less great in practice.

Yes, I could post everything to Blackboard before the start of the semester. And I think on some level, I had sort of assumed that once I had a good selection of courses under my belt, I'd also have pre-prepared Blackboard sites ready to go. But I'm not willing to wait that long and have this onerous task of scanning and copying eating hours out of my week every week and weighing heavily on my mind. On top of that, add CMS that has a really clumsy interface that not infrequently eats PDFs or sends them down the memory hole. So it would be particularly onerous to try to post them all in one sitting. I know it's going to mean extra cost to my students, but at the same time, it's not as if they come into a class not expecting to spend money on books and course packets; all it means is that I don't get to be the heroic good guy anymore who tells them that they can spare on one of those expenses. And it's not as if there won't be a copy of the packet on reserve in the library for students for whom the cost is prohibitive.

I'm still finding my sea-legs as a teacher. I want to spend that energy doing things that will make me more effective in the classroom, not battling with technology and incessant, recurring piles of paper.


  1. I'm finishing my 5th year at my current institution. Last semester, I was at the copy room fotocopying some material I needed, when the Chair of my department appeared. He asked what I was doing, and when I told him, he looked puzzled and ask: "Why don't you ask the secretary to do it?" And my institution certainly does not have the resources NYU does. Are you sure you cannot do the same, and it's actually acceptable to ask the secretary to do those copies?

  2. Provided that I get the request in with enough time, I can do that, so that's definitely another motivation to get everything decided upon upfront. The fact that I didn't even mention it in this post is to do with the fact that I'm still close enough to having been a graduate student that I"m still a teeny bit uncomfortable with the idea that I can ask students (undergrad work-studies, but still) to do that kind of thing. I just need to get over it, I know.

  3. Trust me, I understand. I think what got me over it was realizing that the student worker is not on a fix contract, and if the department perceived s/he didn't have enough work, they would cut his/her hours the following semester. So think of it as helping somebody get more hours of work.

  4. Ah, the semi-fictions we construct for ourselves! I think that's one I can live with, though, so thanks!