The OC (Week 3)

This post is part of an ongoing series.

Video Lectures
I got to class about ten minutes early today, and spent that time setting up my laptop while the students filed in. I turned on the projector and got it ready to go, but I didn’t hook anything up yet because I didn’t want the distraction.

While I was getting that ready, though, one of my students spoke up from the back of the room and said, “Oh, hey, I tried to watch your video lecture online, but it wouldn’t work on my computer.” It’s a class full of Computer Science and Information Science majors, so of course suggestions were offered back and forth, but in the end I told him I’d been having trouble with it, too, so I’d keep looking into it and get back to him.

He said, “Well, anyway, it’s a good thing you also provided the written transcript. Keep doing that. Because that was really helpful.”

And I said, “Umm…I’m a Technical Writer. That’s my job. So, yes, I will.”

Opening Questions
Five minutes later I had all the students I was going to have (two shy of a full roster), so I turned to my outline. The first item on it was, “Video lecture vs. written tutorial.” Half of the class had already heard the conversation, but I went ahead and revisited it, bringing the other half in. Turned out only two or three students had tried to use the video lecture, and only one of them had gotten it to work (and that one happens to work for the North Institute which is the non-profit group that designed and maintains the software all the rest of us are having trouble with). I promised the students I’d keep working on it, and let them know what I learned, and reiterated that the text tutorials will be available, and will be higher quality than my narrated slideshows anyway.

Partway through that, my helpful inside man piped up to tell me how to workaround the problems the others were having, and I made notes to myself to send out more detailed, step-by-step instructions later in the week. So my video lectures problem might be solved. We’ll see.

Syllabus Issues
I moved on from there to a discussion of the syllabus, which I opened up on the projector. We’d gone over it on the first day, briefly, but when we talked last week about due dates, I realized it was completely messed up. So I told them the new dates were available on the version of the syllabus online (and went over them in class).

I’d also forgotten to give them Fall Break — a fact which came to my attention while rearranging due dates, so I told them, “Oh. I’ve also graciously decided to let you to take Fall Break along with your fellow students.” That got a bigger laugh than it probably deserved, and then spawned some contention over one of the new due dates falling on Fall Break. Apparently they’re not happy with just getting out of a lecture and assignment. I told them I’d consider the issue and render my verdict next week.

One unexpected development in today’s class is that I stood up for most of my lecture(s). I’d decided after my first week that standing in front of the class was causing me anxiety issues (and then later Dad explained to me what was really causing it, but I didn’t think to correct my earlier assumption). Anyway, after that I decided to just sit at the teacher’s desk — front and center in the class — and deliver my lectures on eye-level with all my students.

Today, though, I was using my laptop on the overhead projector, which means I had to set it on the raised lectern off to the side, and I had to stand behind it to control the screen. I had been doing that while we discussed the syllabus — effectively hiding behind my laptop, which is precisely how I handle the anxiety at most family functions — but when I moved on to the mini-lecture I didn’t have any overhead material to back it up (at first).

So, without thinking about it, I stepped away from the computer, halfway between the lectern and my desk, and started talking to my students. It didn’t make sense to cross all the way to my desk, sit down and talk to them, just to jump up again two bullet points down so I could bring up my illustrations.

About midway between the first and second bullet point I noticed that I was standing up and lecturing, but I didn’t let myself dwell on it. When it came time for the big ugly main lecture at the end of the class period, though, I did the same thing deliberately, and I had no trouble with it. At least, not with the standing up part.

The Mini-Lecture
As I may have mentioned before, the course consists of Tuesday lectures on Topics in Tech Writing, and then Thursday tutorials and assignments that require the students to prepare specific document types (business letter, memo, resume, that sort of thing).

So today I brought that up — brought up that we’d been talking for two weeks about “document types,” and I said the reason that matters is because certain document types have an impact just by being that document type. In fact, I’d hinted at that in the tutorials for each of the documents types they’d done so far. Formatting a business communique as a recognizable Business Letter creates a certain expectation and context for your reader, before you ever convey the first word of your content. The same goes for a memo. I told them a good way to think of document types is by their “shape” — that is, the visual impact of a document that matches a particular style, and the response that style creates in a reader.

By way of illustration, I put some words up on the projector. It was a text document, in Notepad, so there was no formatting whatsoever. I’d even reduced everything to lower-case, at great personal pain. The first document looked like this:

schumann’s resonance
headgear for grasshoppers
eyes like headlights
october 5
9:00 pm
p. j.’s

I said, “Anyone know what this is?”

One of my Computer Science majors said, “A haiku?” I almost laughed at that. I’d actually had, “Gibberish? A poem?” in my own notes for possible student guesses.

I just said, “What about this?” and opened the second document.

the jackpot
10:00 pm
eyes like headlights
the remember
january 5, 2008

Somebody said, “An advertisement, maybe?” I heard whispery voices treading dangerously close to the right guess, so I went ahead and put up the third document.
eyes like headlights
cd release party
debut album
there’s no us in evolution
5909 johnson drive
mission, kansas
with left on northwood and rettig
friday, october 26
the mission theatre
all ages 21 to drink

That third line gave it away, and I said, “What I’ve got here is the text from a bunch of band flyers. That first one looked like complete nonsense when I showed you just the unformatted words, but you’d recognize the information instantly if I showed you this.”

“So,” I said, “what you can see here is that the words that go on a band flyer are totally meaningless until you put them in the shape of a band flyer.” And I hesitated for a beat, and smiled, and said, “So you’re going to put them in the shape of band flyer.”

The Band Flyer
I told them to divide into three groups — that I wasn’t playing the elementary school counting game this week — and none of them apparently learned from that last week because they opted to just stay divided up by their tables. So group one consisted of three English majors and a couple technical people, and then groups two and three were entirely technical people. It was incredibly lopsided, but it made for good teaching in the end.

I told them they could probably find the original flyer if they looked hard enough online, but that I didn’t want them to recreate the original. I wanted them to make their own. Each group quickly picked which software they were going to use to design the document (Picnic, Paint, and Word, respectively), and then selected one designer to actually build it.

Groups two and three mostly left their designers to do the design work single-handedly, while they went searching online — first for suitable background art, and then (out of sheer, perverse curiosity) for sordid details about the band Eyes Like Headlights (which, in case you’re curious, is one of Carlos’s old bands).

Time Management
I probably should have obfuscated my information before presenting it to the students. Some of the antics and lyrics associated with Eyes Like Headlights probably isn’t something I should be sharing with my students — at least from the Dean of Students’s point of view. They certainly didn’t mind. They found it hilarious.

I gave them twenty minutes, and group two dashed something off in Paint and were done in fifteen minutes (and that was just the designer — most of the rest of his group had tuned out around seven to eight minutes in, when they were confident in his work). Group three’s designer had a little more artistic input, and they took right up until the twenty-minute mark to submit their design. Group one, which boasted fully four designers overflowing with artistic vision, took most of thirty minutes to get their document submitted.

Sometime around minute twenty-seven, one of the girls looked up and said, “Wait, what kind of band are they?”

Everyone else already knew, because they’d been listening to tracks on myspace, but I looked at my cherished English major and said, “They’re progressive death metal.”

Her eyes shot wide, and she said, “Umm…well, we’re pretending that they’re Folk, for ours. Okay?”

Presentation and Discussion
So we finally got all three flyers in, and I put them up on the projector in order. Everyone was really impressed with group one’s heavily designed document, and no amount of prompting could get them to express what was wrong with it (apart from a couple elements that they’d forgotten). I had to point out that they got the band wrong. That, while they’d been determinedly working on the good design, good layout, good formatting that group two had just casually dashed off, group two had actually (goofing off) figured out what style the document should be. That’s research, and that’s a real, important part of Technical Writing.

Of course, the other groups caught on that group one’s flyer was beautifully designed. Ultimately, we decided group three had the best one for the band in question.

Object Lesson
One of the best lessons learned, though, came from a specific mistake the hasty group two had made. One of the lines on the poster, “with left on northwood and rettig,” referred to a couple other bands that were performing at the same show. Group two mistook that “left on northwood” bit as directions, and threw that line in the upper left corner with the address and the name of the venue. Same font, same style, and as soon as I put the flyer up on the overhead, someone from group three pointed out their mistake.

Honestly, when we got into the discussion stage, the designer for group two started looking a little sheepish, and I felt a little bad about that. Then we finished up the discussion and I launched into my big ugly lecture, where I was just trying to dump specific formatting rules on them.

One of the first points I made was that technical documents generally contain several discrete chunks of information, bundled together, and part of the purpose of formatting is to create a recognizable hierarchy to help readers quickly and accurately figure out which information belongs to which bundle, and to locate the bundle the reader actually needs.

And I’d said some words on the topic, then I pulled that group two flyer back up, and darted over to the screen, and said, “That’s what we saw right here. That’s what the flyers do, grouping all these individual sentences into sections, formatting them to show what is related, and how. And we saw that on this flyer. We all knew instantly that group two had gotten this wrong — had mistaken these two other bands for driving directions — because of nothing but the font and the position on the page. He grouped this line with these other lines, and that told us what he thought it meant.”

That was an excellent object lesson, that I could never have made up on my own. Even more importantly, though, the guy who had designed that document, who had been looking sheepish through all the ribbing over it, was nodding right along to my point. He got it, and that was awesome.

The Big Ugly Lecture
Dad told me not to do lectures — to focus on mini-lectures instead — and Gail said I’d done really well in the first week to focus on stories because students really connect to stories (and that’s great news, because I’m naturally a storyteller).

But in today’s class I needed to do an infodump. I needed to deliver certain rules, certain information, for them to use in all future classes. So after we’d finished our discussion of the class activity (which, I think, they really enjoyed), I stepped away from the lectern, turned to my notes, and told them how to format documents.

It was twenty minutes long, and I used their tutorial from last week for examples of every point I had to make. Apart from that one example harking back to their activity, though, I lost them for the lecture. They zoned out, and I could see it happen. I didn’t get panicky or anything — and I certainly didn’t get offended or deeply disappointed — but it was a little sad to see that happen when I’d spent so much of the last two class periods engaging them.

Still, lesson learned. I’m not exactly sure how I’ll address it in the future, but at the very worst, it was just a lecture. The sort of boring lecture every one of them has been through hundreds of times, in dozens of other classes. That’s not something I’m going to beat myself up over.

I ended the lecture at 2:12, and started to dismiss them before I realized I hadn’t returned their marked-up assignments from last week. Then I said, “Look, I’m terrible with names. I’ve tried to learn all of yours, but just in case, I’m going to call them out as I hand out your letters.” And I did, and they dutifully raised their hands, but I realized pretty quickly I needn’t have done that. I knew them all. That’s something I’d been worried about, and I managed to get them all down with about ten minutes’ effort today, using their student ID photos and the Introduction Letters they’d turned in as their assignments last week.

So that was a positive experience. Really, the whole class was. Another great week. And, not only that, but a source of real confidence. Because now I know last week’s success wasn’t because of the material, or because of the activity, but because of the method. I repeated the same method to design my class this week, and it went pretty much the same way. That’s good news for future efforts.

Awesome. Awesome.

More next week.