Supporting LGBTQ Students

Hello My Name Is, by PhotographingTravis on FlickrThe Chronicle of Higher Ed posted a video this week that focuses on what LGBTQ students need to do well in their classes. ‘Ask Me’: What LGBTQ Students Want Their Professors to Know [Video Transcript] outlines the ways that campuses can support these students by paying attention to how they identify and ensuring that they have access to resources that allow them to participate comfortably in the classroom and elsewhere on campus.

In the professional writing classroom, a key issue is the student’s name and the way(s) we refer to them. What do you do if the student’s preferred name does not match the name on the class roll? When we call the roll in class, are we potentially outting students? Are the pronouns that we choose appropriate? The way we address these issues can determine whether the student feels comfortable in the classroom.

My solution is to stop using the roll on the first day of class. Instead, I set up a Google Form that requires students to login with their Virginia Tech PID and password. By collecting this information, I can match students to the names on the roll and figure out who is in the classroom. In the survey, students answer questions that tell me their preferred name, pronouns, and anything else they want me to know. By working through the survey, I can ensure that when I call roll in subsequent classes, I use the names people prefer.

Additionally, students need to know how to change the name that appears with their work in Canvas. It doesn’t do any good for me to use the right name if the CMS outs students anyway. The Canvas Help on How do I change my User Settings? provides the instructions. I just need to make sure students go in and make changes.

In the end, the survey and the CMS instructions help everyone in the classroom. Anyone who wants to use something other than a legal name has a way to tell me and to make sure that we all see their preferred names in the class.

I encourage you to watch the entire ‘Ask Me’: What LGBTQ Students Want Their Professors to Know video or read the Video Transcript to learn more about ways we can support these students. It’s definitely worth your time.


[Photo credit: Hello My Name Is, by PhotographingTravis on Flickr]


Ethics and Professional Writing

A doodle of the word "ethics"The departmental course goals for both technical writing and business writing indicate that students taking the courses will “Interpret research findings with understanding of ethical and human implications.” The developing general education curriculum (AKA Pathways) also encourages teachers to include ethical issues in the courses they teach, providing these three indicators of learning:

  • Explain and contrast relevant ethical theories.
  • Identify ethical issues in a complex context.
  • Articulate and defend positions on ethical issues in a way that is both reasoned and informed by the complexities of those situations

While the Pathways curriculum does not currently apply to the department’s professional writing courses, it sets forth some reasonable goals for ethical reasoning that can help prepare students for writing in the workplace.

After attending the Pathways Summer Seminar in June, I realized that there were some simple ways to incorporate discussions of ethical reasoning into the things that I was already doing in the classroom. Here are four resources that I developed these materials to use as I talk about ethics in my classes.

Professional Writing and Codes of Ethics
This activity asks students to look at the codes of ethics for professional writing associations and then to examine the codes for their own field, looking for places that those codes discuss ethics and communication.

Discussing Ethics Scenarios in Professional Writing
This discussion strategy asks students to choose among eight options as they consider ethical scenarios related to technical and business writing. The technique deepens the class conversation by adding more nuanced options than a polar choice of ethical or not.

Ten Ethical Scenarios for Professional Writing
Used with the discussion strategy in the previous post, this collection of ten scenarios gives students situations from the workplace that challenge them to use their ethical reasoning skills. Connect these scenarios to the first activity by asking students to explain how their code of ethics relates to the choices that they make.

Clippy as an Ethics Case Study
This more complex discussion activity asks students to think though the ethical positions as they relate to a specific workplace situation. Specifically, the activity asks students to consider how Microsoft ignored focus group responses to the Clippy, the virtual assistant that was once a part of the Microsoft Office suite.

In the past, I have discussed ethics once, covering most issues broadly and dealing with the ethics of intellectual property rights in more detail. With these new activities, I plan to make discussion of ethics part of every major project in the course. In the end, I think students will be better prepared with the complicated situations that they will face in the workplace.


[Photo: ETHICS by dannonl, on Flickr]


Recommendation Letters for Students

RECOMMMENDED!Eventually, a student will ask you to write a letter of recommendation or fill out a similar recommendation form. My overall advice in these situations is to think about the situation, whether you feel you can write a strong recommendation, and whether you are the best person to write it.

How to Decide and What to Say

Remember that you are not required to write a letter for anyone, especially if you feel that you cannot provide a good recommendation. It’s also completely acceptable to say no if you are too busy because of other obligations. You don’t have to give the student any complex explanation, though I think the writer in us wants to say, “No, because….”

I usually make the decision based on what the letter is for. If it’s for a tech writing student who is applying for a job after graduation, I usually suggest that someone in their major will know their professional qualifications better than I do, so I don’t feel comfortable writing the letter. No one expects an English teacher to know if someone would make a great civil engineer or software developer.

If it’s a student looking for a recommendation for something on campus, I usually go ahead. If it were a research assistantship or the like, I might hesitate; but for something with a club or campus office, I assume that I know enough to give a recommendation (and that their writing skills probably aren’t the crucial thing for the job).

If the letter is for a student who I can’t recommend for some reason, I say no with a general response: I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can write a strong letter for you. Just be direct. The student surely wants a good letter, and if you say you cannot provide one, the student should get the message.

Regardless of the kind of letter, if you’re crunched for time, just say no. There’s no reason to add one more thing to your workload. Just provide an honest reply to the student: Right now, I have to decline your request because of other obligations. I would not be able to get to your letter in a timely manner.

Timing of Your Response

If you are going to say no, do so quickly. You might be tempted to let the letter wait so that you can avoid the uncomfortable reply. While it’s tempting to wait, remember that the student needs to find someone else to write the letter. A quick negative response from you gives the student more time to find someone else.

What to Write

If you do decide to write the letter, make the student do the work. Ask her to provide details on what she’d like you to emphasize and to remind you of some things she did in class to stand out. Remember the FERPA guidelines apply, so you cannot talk about the student’s specific grades or other private information.

Here are some good resources:


[Photo: RECOMMENDED! by jm3 on Flickr]


Writing Effective Email Messages

mailboxI like to give special attention to how to write effective email messages early in the term. It’s information that will serve students well in their careers, but just as importantly, it increases the professionalism in the emails that students send to me as well as the messages that they post in our online discussion forums.

I use resources from My English Teacher’s Email Survival Kit to set some basic email guidelines and to address specific problems, like abuse of the Reply All feature or unclear subject lines.

I highlight relevant details from infographics that will catch students’ attention. How to Easily Write Better Emails from WhoIsHostingThis has some interesting points:



SHOULD I SEND THIS EMAIL? is another fun one to share, and its flowchart organizational structure appeals to engineers and programmers.

Finally, I have a slideshow of Sassy Email Responses that I wish I could send in reply to messages from students. As I explain in my Teaching Email Courtesies post, students respond well to the examples in the slide show and love the follow-up activity where they violate the rules for fun.


[Photos: eMail by Esparta Palma, on Flickr; excerpts from “How to Easily Write Better Emails” from WhoIsHostingThis]


Choosing Open Textbooks

OEROpen textbooks are a free option that can replace or supplement traditional textbooks. They are published with an open license, typically allowing readers to use, print, and modify (with attribution) the textbook. With the cost of textbooks from major academic publishers ever on the rise, open textbooks help reduce the cost of taking a course.

Inside Higher Ed sponsored a webinar on Open Educational Resources (OER) in April: “The Case for Open Educational Resources and Open Policies.” The presenter, Dr. Cable Green, Director of Global Learning at Creative Commons, included links to various clearinghouse collections and OER sites, which you can explore to learn more about what is available. As some examples of the kind of resources included in the webinar, here are some links Green shared, which I tweeted out during the event:

Here are some example open resources that are designed for professional communications:

As you look at open textbooks, you will notice some drawbacks. Open textbooks may not be as carefully edited as the alternatives from academic publishers. You may notice that features you take for granted are missing, like an index, a full table of contents, or ancillary materials to use with the text. If you are thinking of choosing an open textbook, think carefully about the amount of work that you and students will need to put into using the book.

If you are considering open resources for your classes, I suggest you proceed with caution. If you don’t have time to create any additional resources you need to use the text, open textbooks may not be the best choice. Additionally, be sure that the production quality is high enough for the course. It’s hard to insist that student work be error free if the textbook isn’t. Finally, if you are interested in open resources but worried about whether the text will work, you might begin by using some supplemental material alongside a text from an academic publisher.

Bottom line: Open textbooks do offer some significant advantages (in particular, the free pricetag), but if you are new to teaching a professional writing course, you may be better off choosing a text by an established academic publisher to ensure you have the support you need while you are developing your assignments and classroom activities.


[Photo: Open Textbook Summit 2014 Day 1 by BCcampus_News, on Flickr]


Syllabus Policies Matter

tpw-classrulesAt the beginning of every term, I include what feels like far too many policies that will govern the course. The syllabus is essentially the contract for the course, so it can be critical that all of the guidelines you will use are outlined clearly and discussed during the first week of class.

Example Policies

You can check the syllabus for any of my courses for my exact phrasing. Generally, I include a policy for each of these topics:

  • Communication Guidelines (email address and response times)
  • Online Office Hours
  • Participation (with details on who to contact for absences)
  • Work Guidelines (Honor System and Principles of Community)
  • Late Policy
  • Religious Holidays
  • Backups
  • Equal Access and Opportunity
  • Grading

And if that’s not enough, I plan on adding a Class Cancellation Policy the next time I teach. You can find more information about policies in the Virginia Tech Faculty Handbook section “Chapter 09 – Instruction-Related Policies.”

Why It Matters

Let me share a story from this term to demonstrate the value of spelling everything out ahead of time. About mid-April, I received an email from a student who had never submitted any of the major projects in my tech writing class. It was my first direct contact from the student. Fortunately, I was able to pull out the class syllabus and point to the specific policies that governed the situation:

  • You must complete all major assignments and requirements in order to pass this course.
  • You will receive a zero for any work that is not submitted by the deadline.There are no extensions on deadlines. [Note that I have a very generous late policy]
  • Class participation in online forum discussions and in all assignments is required.
  • If you miss a deadline because of an illness, death in the family, or family emergency, see the Student Advocacy page from the Dean of Students Office for details on how to document the situation.
  • If you have an issue that affects your ability to complete the course, you may qualify for Academic Relief. For personal medical issues, contact the Schiffert Health Center, and for psychiatric or psychological issues, contact the Cook Counseling Center.

These policies covered me when I had to justify why the student could not pass the course at this point in the term. Admittedly, I include a lot of policies on my syllabus, but I have learned from situations like this one that a lot of rules up front saves me from a lot of frustration later in the term.