Using #MightyKacy to Teach Privilege

Earlier this week I said I would share my favorite lesson to teach students the concept of privilege. Understanding privilege is essential for understanding, well, pretty much anything else. However, a lot of students are initially resistant to the concept of privilege and the idea that they have it.

I was one of these students. When I was a junior in college and first learning about the concept of privilege through my work with the Bonner Leader’s program I was deeply uncomfortable with the concept. It felt as if someone was trying to tell me I had not earned my place at the institution. It felt like my hard work was being invalidated. I really, really, really could have used this article.

There are two fundamental truths of teaching (which no one ever tells you, for some reason). The first is that all of us teach first to who we were as students. The second is that the best teaching is a balance between earning your students’ trust enough to fuck up their day a little bit.

I’ve designed this lesson on privilege to do both of those things, reaching through the resistance students like me had to the concept of privilege and destabilizing their day the more they think about.

This lesson is adaptable to most humanities classes, is a stand alone, and can be adjusted to fit the length of your class period. The lesson as described below is designed to take up one full 50 minute class period.

First, have your students watch this video of Kacy Catanzaro, or #MightyKacy, at the 2014 Dallas Qualifiers. This is the first time that a woman completed the American Ninja Warrior qualifying course. The video is fun to watch and exciting whether you’ve seen it 50 times or it’s brand new. Have students watch it twice. The first time just to watch it and feel the excitement. The second time students watch it, when they know what to expect, ask them to listen to the commentary and watch the audience. You know your class best so if you think they need to then have them watch it a third time, possibly taking notes on the phrases that stick out to them.

After you’ve had them watch the qualifiers hit them with the 2014 Dallas Finals.

Have them repeat the same process they went through for the qualifying video with the finals.

After watching the videos guide students through discussing what they heard from the commenters and the fans.

They may notice a lot of different things from the fact that Kacy picked up some fans and a hashtag between the qualifiers and the finals to the fact that her BF and training partner calls her “one of the most talented athletes I’ve ever worked with.”

Guide them towards the observations the commenters made about her body–particularly about her “wingspan,” places her weight or height is a disadvantage, and so on.

These comments hint at the fact that the course was not built for Kacy’s body. It was built for a taller, heavier body.

This is privilege.

Privilege doesn’t mean that you hate individuals who are not like you. In fact, you can enthusiastically support them as individuals just as the commenters and fans enthusiastically support Kacy’s progress through the courses.

What privilege means is that the structure (in this example, the obstacle course) is built for certain types of bodies rather than others.

This doesn’t mean those other bodies can’t make it through the course–only that it is more difficult for them to do so.

Similarly, this doesn’t mean people who have the bodies the course is made for will automatically make it through the course, but it does mean they won’t face extra obstacles just by being who they are.

If you like, you can take this lesson even further.

The American Ninja Warrior obstacle course is made for certain types of bodies–but whose?

If you ask students who the course is made for they will tentatively answer, “Men.”

But #NotAllMen

If you have any Ninja Warrior enthusiasts in your class they will likely know that American Ninja Warrior is a popular spinoff of the original Japanese game show. That does not explain, however, why ANW became an American sensation when other Japanese game shows, like the brilliant Hole In The Wall, did not.

The answer can be found in, of all places, WWII. After WWII Japan dissolved it’s Army and the US established a strong military presence in bases all over Japan. Competing in the original Ninja Warrior became a popular pastime for American soldiers on leave in Japan.

American soldiers who liked competing in the show, and their families who wanted to watch them, created a market for an American version of the show.

Thus, the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course isn’t built for every male body. It is built explicitly for the bodies of American soldiers.

In essence, we have the glory that is American Ninja Warrior because of the United States’ military and cultural imperialism.

This is the other lesson of privilege: being a member of the American armed-forces doesn’t guarantee you will make it through the ANW obstacle course but it does increase your odds because the structure was, literally, built for you.


Put Time On Your Side

Later this week I’ll be sharing a few of my favorite, portable lesson plans on topics vital to humanities classes such as privilege and intersectionality.

Before that, however, I wanted to take a moment to talk about the time that teaching takes. As mentioned earlier this month, graduate student teaching appointments exist inside an odd little paradox. Most graduate students are at research institutions and most research institutions prioritize research over teaching. I had the privilege of being at two of the top 100 universities in the world for my MA and PhD (the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and Purdue University, respectively). I can tell you that, even with this limited sample, teaching was considered far more of a distraction from the “real work” of the university at the higher-ranked school.

One thing both schools had in common, however, was that the teaching advice I got from tenured professors was TERRIBLE. All of it boiled down to, “find ways to give fewer hours to teaching because the real work is your research, writing, and publishing.”

The problem with that advice is that it’s not actually advice.

I’m serious.

That injunction, though often given, was rarely followed up with strategies for how to spend less time teaching which made it worse than useless. It was, instead, debilitating giving me the impression that even when I was working I was somehow working wrong.

So, today, I want to have some real talk about why teaching is such a “time suck,” in the words of one tenured mentor, and how to make it work for you. Grab your coffee, and let’s settle in!


It’s true: teaching is time intensive. It is not, however, significantly more time intensive than any other aspect of graduate work. What does set teaching apart from other aspects of graduate labor is that it is significantly more immediate than almost anything else you do in graduate school. You can fake your way through a seminar when you haven’t read the book and there’s not really a whole lot your committee can do if you’re late with a chapter draft but you can’t show up to class unprepared. (Well, you can but if you’re reading this you probably aren’t that type of person so it’s a moot point.)

This means that, however often you teach, you have to show up to a place dressed and prepped and ready to interact with other human beings.

The other thing that sets teaching apart from other types of graduate labor is that it has a built in structure for setting goals and knowing whether or not you’ve made progress.

Let’s say you start the week with two primary goals. The first is to finish editing a chapter you’ve been working on and the second is to finish grading assignments for your class. With your class there is a very simple equation:

Number of assignments left to grade/Number of days to grade them = Number of assignments to grade every day.

There is no parallel for chapter editing. Sure, you can guarantee that you spend 2 hours a day in front of your computer staring at your document. You can print it out and read for typos. You can work on your footnotes. You can do research to solidify that nebulous part of your argument.

But how do you know if it’s really done?

How do you know how long any of these individual steps are going to take? How do you know if you’re on schedule or behind? What if you get writer’s block? What if your chapter drives you into an existential crisis and you lose a day to laying on the couch binging Jessica Jones and wondering how to find out if you have superpowers?

Even if you have firm answers to all of these questions (and I have never met anyone who has) at the end of a day of writing you often are left with what you started with: some words on a page rather than a concrete reminder of how much progress you’ve made.

Taken all together these things can make writing discouraging and difficult.

Teaching, on the other hand, allows you to see noticeable progress from when you start grading to when you stop. Whether you are grading hardcopies and can see physical papers moving from the “not-graded” to “graded” pile or are grading on Blackboard and can see the green “graded” icon pop up in your columns there is some sort of external validation that you are making progress.

In addition, when you leave comments on students’ work like, “Did you think about X?” they take it seriously! Some of them will come to your office and have long conversations about how they, in fact, did not think of X but Googled it and are now fascinated by X and would like to learn more and can you recommend any resources and might X connect to Y?

In short, students, even the shitty ones, often treat you like an authority because, in the classroom, you are.

This is a significant contrast to how we feel as graduate students. Even if you are in an exceptional program that does not make it’s graduate students feel like supplicants we often feel as if we know so little compared to the experts we are reading and writing about.

Combined, the sense of concrete progress and being an expert can make teaching feel kind of addictive. This, I think, is why so many graduate advisors give their advisees dire injunctions to teach less. I have personally known at least 3 graduate students who allowed teaching to take up all of their time because they were stumped on the dissertation and teaching was, comparatively, easy. To my knowledge, all of these graduate students are part of the 50% of humanities PhD candidates who leave their programs after becoming ABD.

I don’t say any of this to discourage you from teaching. I hope that you enjoy your teaching. The purpose of this post is to let you know how teaching can be detrimental to dissertation progress and, more importantly, how to make teaching work for you rather than against you. With that in mind, here are five tips I wish I had followed a helluva lot sooner.

1. Track Your Hours.

No, seriously, I mean it. This was advice I got from a committee member early on and didn’t follow until, I kid you not, my last semester of graduate school. God, how I wish I’d followed it sooner!

Part of why I didn’t follow this advice sooner is because I would start the semester with good intentions of logging my hours buuuut, I didn’t really do much the first week so I put it off. Then, before I knew what had happened, I was slammed with assignments to grade and logging my hours seemed like one more thing I didn’t have time for.

Please don’t make my mistake.

Please log your hours.

Don’t just log your teaching hours. Log all of your hours. Log the hours you teach and the hours you read and the hours you write. Log the hours you spend in class, as teacher or learner, and the hours you spend in your office.

There’s no need to be super-precise here just put in your best estimate.

Logging your hours combats he creeping sense of productivity paranoia that graduate school engenders. Instead of wondering if you are “doing enough” you can look at your hours over the past week or month and see where your time is going.

Logging your hours will also help you see if your teaching to writing ratio is creeping into dangerous territory.

Finally, and this a worst-case-scenario, if you have an awful teaching appointment that demands more of your time than your contract said it would then tracking your hours will give you evidence to take to your Graduate Coordinator or Ombudsperson.

Both Excel and Google Sheets have templates for activity logs you can use. I jut made my own as a table with a column for the day, what I was doing (e.g. teaching), and what I worked on (e.g. grading papers, lecture prep, responding to student emails).

2. Manage Student Expectations.

This one actually has two parts. First, decide what you won’t do. For me, I don’t answer emails outside of business hours: Monday-Friday, 8:00 to 5:00. I know another person who doesn’t do teaching related things on days they don’t teach so if they are teaching MWF they are unavailable to students Tusday and Thursday. I know professors who live an hour away from where they work and won’t come into campus on days they don’t teach.

Set whatever boundaries you want to set for yourself and stick to them.

The second half of setting your boundaries is to communicate them clearly to students.

I tell students on the first day that I don’t answer emails outside of business hours. I also give them the following example: If you have a question about an assignment that is due on Monday you need to email me on Thursday because if you email close to or after 5 on Friday I may not see your message in time to do you any good.

In my last year of the PhD program, I would often devote Monday through Friday to teaching (I was teaching 2.5 classes) but the weekends were my writing time. Having the mental freedom to not worry about checking my emails meant that I could focus completely on writing. If I did happen to check my email and respond to a student over the weekend they were always appreciative because they knew my policy.

3. Grade Strategically

This is very simple but often overlooked by new instructors who are concerned with doing things the “right” way.

Structure the times that your students turn in assignments so that you don’t have overlapping deadlines that make your life a living hell.

For instance, if you are still in coursework when teaching your first class and you have a seminar paper due during finals week then for the love of all that is holy do not have your students turn in their final paper during finals week. Instead, have your students turn their paper in the penultimate week of the semester and then watch documentaries or have wrap up sessions for the last week of classes.

If you want to implement this advice but have already handed syllabi out to your students with deadlines that conflict with your own deadlines then give them a one week extension as their original due dates draw nigh. They will love you and your life will be so much better.

4. Assign What You Need to Read

If there’s a new work in your field or a classic you haven’t gotten around to reading yet or an old-favorite you need to revisit then assign it to your students.

If it’s an article, even if it’s a heavy-hitter, have them read it. If it’s book then have them read the introduction or the chapter most relevant to your work.

I guarantee you there’s a way to shove this thing into a week of your class as sort-of, kind-of related to something.

Again, if it’s not already in your syllabus and you’ve already started teaching then PDF that reading and post a Blackboard announcement that it’s replacing something not essential to your dissertation on next week’s course schedule.

The benefits of having students read something you need to read are manifold.

First, it’s often a good way to stretch the students understanding of the topic or the discipline because the level of scholarly work you are dealing with in your diss is, likely, more rigorous than general intro course level material.

Second, it forces you to be accountable to someone for reading it. (BONUS: If it’s a new book and you are using it for a class you might be able to get a free or low-cost copy from the publisher.)

Third, student comments can provide new insights on works you’re already familiar with.

Finally, because the work is likely a little more difficult compared to other course materials students will rely on you to help them interpret it through providing context or breaking down the argument. Doing this in the classroom for your students can be a great way to reassure your inner critic that you really do know your stuff. After all, if you can lead 35 undergraduates through a discussion of the thing then you are probably ready to write about.

5. Workshop, Bitches!

Let your time teaching double as a time to try out new ideas for your research. There are a million ways to do this.

Sometimes, if I got to class early I would ask the students already sitting there, “Hey, can I ask for your opinion on something?” With permission I would then summarize the new line of argument I was working on and ask what they thought. Sometimes students had great insights that helped my argument. Sometimes the value was just in forcing myself to articulate my argument out loud to an audience.

If you are in the later stages of your dissertation and have a few chapters that are done-ish then assign one of them to your class. Is it scary to open yourself up to your students like that?

Like heck.

But it’s also valuable. You can get some good feedback during the class discussion and it’s just great practice for presenting your research to a group who is not familiar with it (you know, like a job talk) in a low-stakes setting.

I had a professor during my MA who, the day our first paper was due, would bring five pages of her work in progress. She would pass them out to all of us and give us 20 minutes to read and edit them.

This practice, according to her, did two things. First, it was designed to reassure her students that absolutely everyone makes spelling and grammar mistakes and not to be embarassed by them. Second, it got her 30 free editors for those 5 pages.

Teaching is going to take up time but hopefully with these tips you can make that time work for you.








Don’t worry!

Time isn’t passing faster than you think it is. This is the second post of the day!

This is a special edition dedicated to all of our followers on the quarter system who are starting new classes this week. For first time teachers, the first day of class can feel especially fraught with questions of how to establish authority and set the tone for the semester. For established teachers, knowing that students often skip “syllabus day” can be discouraging.

For the past several years, I’ve started class using an exercise I learned from Kimber Nicoletti-Martinez at a Multicultural Efforts to end Sexual Assault workshop.

First, you hand containers of playdough to the class and instruct them to take some. When class starts, ask everyone to make something with their playdough which both represents them and which they would be comfortable sharing with the class. While they create you explain the most important parts of the syllabus. (Hint: This is normally where I explain the “respect” and “plagiarism” clauses in my syllabus.) Then you go around the classroom and ask people to share what they made and what it represents about them. If you feel so moved then ask a follow-up question or share a personal connection to what they’ve said.

I like this method for several reasons. First, it gets the students’ attention. Even if everyone following this blog right now implemented this method on the first day of class I’m willing to bet that you would still be your students’ only class with playdough. Second, but related to the first, it gets students to put away their phones and really pay attention to each other from day one. Third, but related to the second, it starts building community from the first day. Fourth, there is a certain percentage of students that blow off the first day of class because they think nothing interesting happens that day. I’m super petty and I love surprising those students when they show up on the second day of class with an in-depth syllabus discussion.


Fifth, it’s fun and it keeps things interesting, even for veteran teachers.

“But,” you may be thinking, “I am a poor graduate student! How will I pay for all that playdough?”


Good news, my friend!

You can make playdough for super cheap. This is my favorite recipe. For under $10 you can make enough playdough for over 50 students. Making the playdough has become part of my pre-semester ritual. Making the playdough, putting it in Ziploc bags, and putting those bags in my backpack helps me feel prepared for the day.

Go forth, my friends, and have a great first day of class!



Weekly Roundup!

As part of our summer series on rest, we took a rest from our weekly roundup feature. We are excited to return to providing you weekly links to content related to the topics we’ve discussed. This week’s roundup is a milestone in another way, as well. This is the first week that all of our roundup links are in-house. Please enjoy these sample syllabi. Feel free to use any parts of them that you find useful! 

POL 222_Spring–This course was cross-listed between political science and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. It was an absolute joy to teach–especially when students started connecting Hartsock’s Standpoint Theory (which no one understands the first time around) and how policy is made/the makeup of Congress/the personal is political.

WGSS Syllabus–An introductory course for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies which, at my institution was a 200 level class.

Intro to LGBT Studies–The introductory course to the LGBT studies minor–also designed to be a 200 level course.

American Virgins in History and Culture–This course was approved to be taught as a 300 level course in the American Studies program but then I got a fellowship and never actually got to teach it. If you get a chance to teach it then tell me how it goes. If you want to hire me to teach it–I’m available.

If you liked the project based assessment system feel free to check out these syllabi for additional projects not listed in the earlier post.

Creating Your Archive

For the past week, we’ve been discussing how to create your syllabus. We’ve covered what type of document a syllabus is, what types of policies to include, and why assessment is so important.

Today, we are going to discuss a couple of different approaches to choosing what your students will read over the course of the semester. As brilliantly summed up over at McSweeney’s, this can be difficult because it asks you to think four months into the future about what a group of people you haven’t even met yet will be doing.

There are three basic ways to choose the readings for your syllabus and they vary depending on your confidence level and the how large your class is.

Copy and Paste

If this is (a) your first time teaching or (b) your first time teaching in a new discipline one of the best methods for choosing your readings is to copy and paste.

Yeah, you read that right.

People put syllabi online for a lot of reasons. Some people do it because of a commitment to the idea that knowledge should be open access. Some people do it out of a sense of collegiality. Some people do it because their departments make them. Whatever the reason a simple Google search of “[Class] syllabus” should yield plenty of results. From there, it’s pretty straightforward: scan the syllabi, see what you like, copy and paste the readings to your own syllabus.

If it’s possible for you, consider implementing this method with syllabi from your own department. That is, if you are teaching a class that generations of graduate students have taught before you inquire whether or not the department has the previous syllabi. Often, even if the department does not keep a record, they can put you in contact with previous instructors who will send you the syllabi they used (again, that whole collegiality thing).

One final note about copy and paste: This is one of the many times in graduate school where knowing what you don’t want to do is just as important as knowing what you do want to do.

The first time I taught a course for which I got to make the syllabus was the Spring of 2013. In the Fall of 2012 I had TAed for a professor teaching the same course. I used her syllabus but made edits based on what I had seen work in the previous semester. I later found out that the professor’s syllabus had been put together by her for her graduate students. I choose to see this as an illustration of how syllabi are always a collaborative effort. It’s not the role of a syllabus to be original or groundbreaking. Just make it good.

Four Quarters

If you feel confident enough to make your syllabus from scratch and have a fairly large class (about 35 students or more) then the four quarters method is a great option.

The four quarters are:

  • The Canon–approximately one-quarter of the texts in your syllabus should be the canon texts–those authors and texts that are foundational to your discipline.
  • The Favorites–these are the ones you really love. They might not be considered canon but they are your personal must-reads.
  • The Terrible–A very important, too often overlooked, part of choosing readings is including some readings that are flawed in methodology, conclusions, or writing.
  • The Other–These are readings selected by your guest lecturers.

In terms of where these should fall in your syllabus, the canon readings will be frontloaded. The job of the intro courses most graduate students teach is to introduce students to the canon but it’s also to teach students critical thinking. I like to put these texts upfront so we can spend the rest of the semester critiquing them.

As the canon readings taper off the rest of the readings will be a mix of the other three categories. I’m sure you could defend all of the reasons why your favs should be in the syllabus so I won’t waste time on that.

Why include bad readings? Well, partly because no discipline is perfect. We all have our fair share of bad authors, bad arguments, bad methods, and bad conclusions. Being honest that some of the scholarly work in your field is just plain bad is important if you’re really trying to give students a sense of the history and breadth of the subject. In addition, including a couple of terrible readings can help students sharpen their critical thinking skills. Often, the first time I assign a terrible reading students aren’t sure what to do. They have a default assumption that if I assign it in the syllabus then I must endorse it in some way and are, therefore, hesitant to criticize it. When I tear the reading apart in front of them their relief is palable. It’s often a big moment in the development of the classroom community in terms of letting students know that there are no sacred bulls. After this moment class conversations get a lot more honest and, honestly, a lot smarter. (Hint: Every discipline has at least one genuinely terrible canon piece. I generally like to tear that piece apart.)

Finally, don’t forget to include some guest lecturers in your syllabus. I’m 1000% sure you know some graduate students doing great work on something being covered in your syllabus. Invite them to come share it. It’s a good opportunity for them to practice presenting their work, especially if they are relatively new. It is also an excellent opportunity to observe different teaching styles from more senior colleagues. And, of course, if you need someone to guest lecture about virginity–hit me up.


This final method only works if your class is relatively small. I wouldn’t try it with a class above 30 people but it’s also my favorite way of creating a syllabus. In this method, I create the first month of readings–things the students absolutely have to know–but that’s it. Then I spend the first week of class co-creating the rest of the reading list with the class by discussing what’s important to them and what they want to learn.

I use this method when I teach Intro to LGBT Studies because it’s a smaller class and because it’s so deeply personal for most participants. This has lead to some vastly different syllabi for the same course. For instance, one class wanted to focus on activism and the next year’s class wanted to focus on understanding LGBT history. While these two syllabi overlapped in some places they were, overall, very different. Importantly, they both reflected the interests of the class and students were engaged because they helped create the syllabus.

In this method the students don’t actually suggest a lot of the readings. Instead, you spend time getting to know the students and what they want to learn and what they already know. Then you put together a list of readings based on those interests.

While this type of pedagogy and syllabus creation isn’t for everyone when it works it is phenomenal.

If you have a tried-and-true method of selecting your course readings that doesn’t fit into one of these categories then let us know in the comments!






I don’t like tests.

Don’t get me wrong. As a student, I love tests. I’ve always been good at them, but perhaps that’s why I don’t like them as a teacher. I know, intimately, that being good at tests isn’t the same thing as learning course material.

Because I don’t like tests I developed an alternate assessment system for my courses which I’ve used in Intro to WGSS, Intro to LGBT Studies, and Women, Politics and Public Policy with some astonishing results in each instance.

Although you are welcome to use the project system I would encourage you to think carefully about what type of assessments you use in your class because there is no more clear statement of your pedagogy than how you grade your students.

Assessments are meant to measure learning and what counts as “learning” is the heart of pedagogy. Part of why I don’t like tests is because they reflect a model of learning based on the memorization of facts and discourage a critique of the socio-political structures that determine what the facts are.

On the first day of my courses I define the version of learning we will use in class as the following:

Learning is the process through which we take information we did not previously have and incorporate it into our worldview. 

Personally, I think that the entire goal of a humanities education is to develop as a person through critical thinking skills. If humanities classes don’t inspire you to interrogate your worldview then what is the point?

Practically, graduate students often teach introductory courses which students are required to take as a gen ed or an introduction to their major. Many students are less than enthusiastic about these classes. Encouraging students to connect course materials (e.g. texts, conversations) to their major or their lives outside of the classroom often makes them more engaged with the course.

I developed the project system to assess students engagement with course texts and critical thinking skills while allowing them to focus on topics of interest to them. Here is how I describe the projects in my syllabi:

Projects—You must complete a total of 200 points worth of projects over the course of the semester.

There is one mandatory project, worth a total of 100 points, which the whole class will complete. This project is the Follow an Issue project which is done in four increments worth 25 points each. Instructions for each installment can be found in the “Mandatory Projects” folder on Blackboard.

In addition to those you must complete 100 points worth of elective projects. There are multiple possible elective projects on Blackboard in the folder of the same name. Projects which take less time to complete are worth fifty (50) points and projects which take more time to complete are worth one hundred (points). For those who wish to turn in two shorter projects one project will be due March 9th and one will be due May 2nd. If you chose to do one longer project it will be due May 2nd. You are welcome to choose an elective project from Blackboard or to create your own. If you do create your own please email me with your project proposal before beginning your project.

Unless otherwise noted all elective projects are worth fifty (50) points. 

Elective projects are an opportunity for you to pursue a topic of interest from class in more depth. They are also an opportunity to relate the concepts we explore in class to your major, career, or other aspects of your life. 

All projects are based on the idea that you do something outside of class that you are interested in and connect it to course texts. For the shorter 50 point projects I expect that you could do the activity in a day like watch a documentary, get tested for STIs, or attend an on campus event. The longer 100 point projects consist of activities that take several days to complete such as attempting the SNAP challenge, forming a student organization, watching an entire season of a TV show, or an in-depth research project.

To get credit for an elective project you must complete an out-of-class, elective activity and write a 2-4 page reflection paper about the experience. Each reflection paper should connect the activity with a minimum of two readings from class. 

For any 100 point project, unless you have made other arrangements with me beforehand, you will turn in a 4-6 page paper connecting your work to a minimum of 4 course texts.

Each paper needs to be appropriately cited with in-text citations and a bibliography/works cited page. You may use whatever citation format you prefer. 

I grade these projects according to the criteria I shared yesterday.

If students choose to do so they can work in groups on their project but their grade comes from their individual reports which saves you, the instructor, the inevitable headaches of group dynamics.

Projects students have done include, but are not limited to:

  • Holding a kiss-in for marriage equality (in 2014) and making a documentary about it
  • Creating an interactive timeline on the evolution of immigration and LGBT rights in the United States
  • An analysis of toxic masculinity in season one of “Jessica Jones”
  • A policy proposal for how the federal government should address the radicalizing of young white men by white supremacist groups
  • A 35 minute narrated powerpoint about how mass incarceration of black men negatively impacts the education of black children in public schools
  • A kick-a** analysis of Janelle Monáe’s album “Dirty Computer”
  • Proposing a green infrastructure plan for their hometown

In all of these examples, and many more I’m not listing, students went above and beyond the course requirements. These projects were well researched and well written because students cared about what they were doing.

In my experience, most students really like the project format once they get used to it. However, the learning curve is steep. Most students are not used to this level of creative freedom in an academic setting and it can be unnerving. That is why I break the 100 point mandatory project into 4 small papers. The majority of students do poorly on the first one but, after some feedback, excel not only on the other 3 installments of that project, but their elective projects as well.

In my classes, I primarily grade students on QCQ cards, blog posts, and projects. I explain to them that these assignments are not just busy work, but rather a method to allow them to dive deep on ideas that intrigue them. Ideally, the QCQ cards act as a self-curated reference guide for students to use when looking up the readings and quotes that they were interested in as they write their blog posts and project papers. The blog posts provide a low-stakes format to explore course ideas before more fully developing them in the project papers.

Finally, if you’re interestein using projects in your own class here is my most recent list of course projects. (Note: Many students choose to come up with their own projects related to their major or interests but I keep a list of projects for students who don’t want to come up with their own.)


Creating Conversation; Creating Assignments

In yesterday’s post, I shared some syllabi policies which are adaptable to most humanities courses. The title of the post, “It Starts With Pedagogy,” was meant to show that, for many graduate students, writing their syllabus is the first opportunity to put their pedagogy into words.

Although policies are fairly standard (e.g. plagiarizing is bad, don’t demean your fellow students) the way in which you phrase them is an opportunity to subtly illustrate your pedagogy. For instance, the policies shared yesterday use collaborative language to show the students that they are considered partners in shaping the direction of the course.

Similarly, the types of assignments you create are opportunities to illustrate your pedagogy in dozens of different ways: what sort of texts are worthy of study, are students learning practical skills, are you emphasizing memorization, what critical thinking skills will students leave your class with?

Below are two assignments I really like and a brief discussion of their pros and cons.

25 QCQ Cards at 5 pts./ea. (125)

Quote—A quote you selected from the reading.

Comment—A comment you have about either the quote you chose or the reading as a whole.

Question—A question you have about the reading.

All three of these should be written on a 3×5 card and brought to class. Cards will be turned in at the end of each class period. Out of roughly 30 days of class you are responsible for 25 QCQ cards. Cards will receive a grade of “0” for cards that are not turned in or cards that are missing an element. Cards which contain all elements will automatically receive at least 3 points. Cards will receive the full 5 points if they exhibit critical thinking which seeks to make connections between the text and a meaningful part of your life and/or other texts from this or other courses.

Occasionally, we will have days when several texts are assigned. On these days students are only required to turn in a QCQ card relevant to one reading due to the constraints of the medium. However, students retain the option of engaging with both texts and turning in a QCQ card for each if they choose. What students may not do is receive credit for more than one QCQ card per reading.

I love QCQ cards! I was introduced to them by Dr. Adrianna Ernstberger. QCQ cards have a lot of pros. They keep students engaged and accountable for the readings. In the early days of class when you are still building community and students are shy about sharing their opinions on the readings you can simply call on people to share something from their QCQ cards. QCQ cards also teach students good study skills. I know several students who got in the habit of doing them and continued doing them long after they’ve earned full points for the assignment. Some students have told me that they started doing QCQ cards for readings in their other classes. QCQ cards are also easy to grade. Although I hedge a little bit in the assignment description above I basically give students 0 points if the card is missing an element and give them 5 points if they have all 3 elements. 

There are two cons to QCQ cards. The first is that they can get out of control really quickly if you don’t stay on top of them. For instance, if you’re teaching a class of 40 students 3 days a week you will accrue something like 100 QCQ cards a week. If you happen to let that get out of hand and don’t input points for QCQ cards for, say, half a semester then you can wind up with several hundred QCQ cards to input which isn’t difficult but is time-consuming. Please don’t ask me how I know. Related to that is the other downside of QCQ cards. They can very quickly take over a portion of your desk.

12 original blog posts at 10 pts./ea. (120) 

For twelve weeks out of our sixteen week semester you will be responsible for posting to our course discussion board. The primary goal of these posts is to promote class discussion and to assist you in refining concepts you want to include in your projects. For full credit posts need to reference one of the texts (an assigned reading or documentary) covered that week. Posts should be between 250-300 words and need to be on the blog by 11:59 p.m. Wednesday night. We will not have a blog due during spring break or the last week of the semester. For full points post on time, discuss one course text, and meet the minimum word count.

24 comments/responses at 5 pts./ea (120)

The rules governing comments are largely the same as those governing blogs. You will be graded on two per week. Individual responses should be between 100 and 150 words in length. They are due at 11:59 p.m. on Saturday and are governed by the respect clause of the syllabus. You do not need to post any comments on weeks that blogs are not due.

This one I got from Dr. Elizabeth Kissling. Although I use the term “blog” here this assignment format is interchangeable with using Blackboard, Moodle, or other university provided teaching platform with an online discussion board. 

I love this assignment because I’m an introvert. When I’m in class I never want to say things unless I feel that I’ve thought them out completely. I am, consequently, one of those people who thinks of what I should have said in class days later in the shower. The online discussion board gives a place for students like me to think through the material before commenting on it. As a teacher, I get some of my best material from the online discussion assignments when students share articles, videos, and memes I would never see in the course of my life as a person (as opposed to my life as a professor). I firmly believe that the course description board is the key to keeping a syllabus fresh. Like QCQ cards, the weekly blog post rewards students for staying on top of the readings but allows them to go into more depth using and critiquing the concepts. Finally, there are times that students really, really get a course concept wrong. When students get a concept wrong in the discussion board it provides a secondary place to help them understand it.

In theory, these posts are quick to grade. I always promise myself that I will grade them quickly–just scanning to make sure that students posted on time, mentioned the course reading, and hit the word count. Every single time, however, I get sucked into reading all the posts. What can I say? Seeing the students try out ideas is a lot of fun. I don’t know if that’s really a con, per se, but it is definitely something to be aware of when you’re planning out how much grading you want to do for the semester.

These assignments should be adaptable to almost any course. It’s up to you to decide how often you want students to do these things and how many points you want to assign them.

Tomorrow, we’ll discuss research projects and on Wednesday we’ll discuss how to pick the writings for your course schedule.

If there is any teaching related question you want us to cover this month leave a comment!

It Starts With Pedagogy

As we mentioned yesterday, syllabi are part contract which means that they have to reflect the policies of the university and department you teach for. The department you’re teaching for may have an attendance policy you’re required to use in your syllabi but all of the policy sections you get to create for yourself are your first opportunity to set the tone for the type of classroom community you want to create.

For your perusal I’ve included several components which I keep in all of my syllabi. If you like them, feel free to copy and paste into your own syllabi and edit them to fit. If you hate them write out why you hate them and you will probably have a solid start towards creating these components in your own syllabi.  Tomorrow I’ll be sharing the portable assignments I use in every class I teach with tips on how to implement them. 

Course Description [generic part]:

This course aims to develop two sets of skills. The first set of skills are academic in nature and include critical thinking, argumentation, and writing. The second set of skills are the core of a liberal arts education. These skills deal with how to be a better person in the world: how to hold an idea and assess its merit without accepting it as true or condemning it as false, how to challenge your deeply held beliefs, and how to see issues from multiple sides.

Recurring Questions:

Who do I see represented? Who or what do I not see? Why do I see certain people, objects and groups and not others? What does that mean for the polis? What does that mean for me and my life?

Attendance and Participation

Your attendance is necessary for the success of this class! Your insights, informed opinions, questions, humor, and experience are vital components of a successful learning environment. Be advised that attendance requires that you be mentally, not just physically, present in the classroom. You are expected to complete readings prior to the assigned class and come to class with questions and discussion points. On days that assignments are due they will be due at the beginning of class. If you are ill or otherwise unable to make it to class your assignment is still due at the beginning of class. I recommend sending the assignment with a friend or, if that is not possible, emailing it to me by the start of class.

In addition to being prepared, students are expected not to bring distractions into the classroom. Distractions include but are not limited to: laptops, phones, newspapers, work for other courses, knitting, and crosswords. If you are engaging with these or other materials in a way that limits your involvement in class or distracts your peers I reserve the right to ask you to leave class.


 Politics/Women’s Studies/History is more than an intellectual exercise. Politics/Women’s Studies/History is the way that people seek to live together in communities. Policy/Women’s Rights/History is not an abstraction but a material representation of communal values. While we will certainly incorporate [disciplinary] theory and practice into this course that is not the primary aim of our time together. Our first goal is to measure ideas. This class is about tackling difficult questions about identity and beliefs and how we live together on this campus and in our communities. If this class is successful then you will question deeply held beliefs and you will learn to argue the benefits of viewpoints you vehemently disagree with this. This process can and should be difficult and at times uncomfortable. To be productively uncomfortable we must first know that we can be vulnerable. Therefore, at all times, every member of this class is expected to be respectful of the viewpoints, opinions, experiences and questions that are shared in this classroom. Anyone exhibiting disrespectful behavior will be asked to leave the classroom and will forfeit any points for QCQ cards or in-class activities that day. I reserve the right to pursue further disciplinary action in accordance with the College of Liberal Arts’ classroom civility statement listed below.

Syllabus Alterations Policy

In the event of a major campus emergency, course requirements, deadlines and grading percentages are subject to changes that may be necessitated by a revised semester calendar or other circumstances beyond the instructor’s control. Relevant changes to this course will be posted onto the course website or can be obtained by contacting the instructors or TAs via email or phone. You are expected to read your email on a frequent basis.

This is a working syllabus. As such, I retain the right to change it at any time throughout the semester. You will be notified, as soon as possible, of any changes.

If you have a writing based class you’re welcome to use this description of C, B, and A level writing:

Assignments and Grading

The goal of all assignments in this class is to promote learning. For our purposes, learning will be defined as the process whereby information you incorporate information you did not have before into your world view.

“C” level work will briefly tell me what connections you perceive between individual elements of your project to individual course materials. “B” level work will tell me about what connections you see between course materials and how they connect to your project. At this level I expect to see you making an effort to think about your project and the class as whole entities (rather than breaking each down into its separate components) and thinking about how these entities connect. “A” level work will tell me about what connections you see between course materials, how they connect to your class and why these connections are valuable. At this level I expect to see you thinking about the class and your project as one thing with your project filling a gap in the existing course syllabus and seamlessly integrated into the existing course structure.

Academic Dishonesty

 Plagiarism, simply defined, is the attempt to pass off another’s work as your own. Plagiarism takes many forms: failure to cite appropriately, copying another’s work exactly or almost exactly, or presenting another person or group’s ideas as your original thoughts. Any and all instances of plagiarism in this class will be punished by an automatic “F” for the course. They will also be reported to the Dean of Students Office.

Don’t risk it! If you’re not sure if it is plagiarism don’t guess! Go to the writing center or make use of the OWL here,

If you are still confused then ask me at least 24 hours before the assignment is due.

Finally, NEVER plagiarize because you are in a rush to get an assignment done. An “F” on one assignment is much, much better for your grade in this class and your career as a whole then failing the course because of turning in plagiarized work.

Of Syllabi and Self-Confidence

This month we are tackling teaching and, as is only appropriate, we will begin with how to make a syllabus and end with how to interpret course evaluations.

First things first, making a syllabus is harder than you think it is.

The root of this problem, as with many of the teaching-related issues we’ll discuss this month, is that no one teaches you how to teach.

The traditional assumption is that you have been a serious student for many years, over a decade, and that you have lots of experience with how to learn as a student. Therefore, since you know how to learn you must know how to teach.

This assumption is flawed.

Knowing how to critique the way something is built is not the same as knowing how to build a better version of it.

As a student, you have lots of experience critiquing syllabi and teaching methods. While knowing what not to do is important it is not the same as knowing what to do.

Syllabi are the sonnets of higher education–a strict form that can facilitate a breathtaking amount of creativity and beauty.

When making the syllabus for your class it’s important to remember that there are a lot of things you have to include. At my most recent institution syllabi were required to have the college’s “classroom civility” policy and the university’s “honor pledge” which was a rhyming couplet about not plagiarizing. It was also strongly recommended that all syllabi contain the phrase, “This syllabus is subject to change.”

These phrases, and others like them, need to be included because administrators view the syllabus as a contract between the university and the student. Students can, and have, sued universities over breach of contract due to syllabus alterations or information that ought to be obvious (e.g. plagiarism is bad) not being explicitly spelled out.

That’s why syllabi tend to follow such a strict form–legally, it’s a contract so you need contractual language in it.

The creativity flourishes in all of the places that are shaped by your pedagogy. In addition to the actual course material this can be the type of assignments you grade, how you grade them, or even your attendance policy.

Tomorrow, I’ll share with you one of my favorite syllabi clauses which you should feel free to copy and paste into your syllabus, if you like it. On Sunday, I’ll share a couple of my favorite assignments, which you should also feel free to copy, if you like.

For now, though, I want to speak to any readers who are putting together a syllabus for the first time. Even if you are at an institution that provides some form of training there is something altogether different about sitting down to write your first syllabus.

For one thing, it’s more difficult than it seems to know what you want students to be reading over 3 months from now.

The deeper difficulty with writing your syllabus, however, is that it can precipitate an acute bout of imposter syndrome. Every single time I have sat down to write a syllabus I have had a paralyzing moment where I ask the universe, “Who the fuck am I to teach anyone anything? I had cookie dough for breakfast and never make my bed and why would anyone think they could learn anything from me? I’m a mess and a fraud and these students are going to know it from this terrible syllabus!”

Every. Single. Time.

And do you know what?

The syllabus always comes together and I have yet to be called a fraud by a student.

I think there’s something about this syllabus panic that is, in its own perverse way, a good sign.

The process of getting a PhD is one of continued specialization. You know more and more about a very narrow range of things. As this happens, you simultaneously become more and more aware of how very much you don’t know and will never know.

But that isn’t a flaw. That’s just being human.

You may not be an expert on every subject your course will cover–you may be learning right along with your students. That’s fine.

What you do know is how to learn.

Your job isn’t to be the expert in the room on every single topic. Your job is to teach them how to learn. You are the expert on how to learn because you have more experience than they do in how to study, how to critique, how to hypothesize, and how to make connections.

You are not offering them perfection, but rather a model of best practices of how to learn.

Viewed in that light, the weeks that are not in your specialty can be some of the best weeks for teaching because they are the weeks when you can best model how to learn for and with your students.

Remember, you absolutely deserve to be here. You can do this thing.

If all else fails, remember the sage advice of my ultimate teaching mentor, Dr. Mardia Bishop, “You only ever need to be one day ahead of the students. If you’re a week ahead they’ll think you’re God.”