Simplifying the First Days

Berry O'Kelly School, Early 1900sOnce upon a time, everyone came to class on the first day ready to work. Students had the books in hand, and they were ready to dive right into the course. A few might have even read the book before the first session and knew the information well enough to explain it to their classmates.

Times have changed, but it’s still possible to find a happy ending during that first week. You just have to keep the realities of the academic system in mind. With the current system at Virginia Tech, most business and technical writing classes are full before the first day of class. You might think that means that you can send out an email with details on the syllabus and book before the first session so that everyone is ready to go on the first day. Unfortunately, that system only works in fairy tales.

First Week Challenges
Because of the way course request works, your class roster isn’t set until at least the last day to add. Up until that date, someone may drop your course and a new student may add. During the fall and spring terms, that period is a week. During the summer and winter sessions, it’s three days. This enrollment system means that you may have a new student who will not have seen the syllabus or had the opportunity to purchase the textbook as late as eight days into the term during the fall and spring terms and as late as four days into the term during summer and winter sessions.

Even if the enrollment doesn’t change, a few students seem to always have problems getting the books. The bookstore may run out. Their financial aid hasn’t come through. They have to wait until pay day. They have to wait for Amazon shipments. So even if you have the same students you started with in the first day of class, you have to allow up to a week for them to have the textbook.

My Solutions
I have found that to be fair to everyone I either have to delay all deadlines or allow for generous make-ups. Since I hate keeping track of the 1001 reasons and students who need extensions, I use these guidelines to set up deadlines and the course work during the first week:

  • I email the syllabus and textbook information before the first class; however, I think of it as a way to help students get ahead, not a pre-class to-do list.
  • I take attendance beginning on the first day of class, but I don’t count absences against students until they are enrolled in the class.
  • I collect in-class work or quizzes during the first week, but accept that work through the end of the second week of classes. After that, I tighten the due dates.
  • I strongly encourage students not to procrastinate if they have the ability to complete the work that first week. Most of them will submit their work prior to that last day, which helps with my workload.
  • I assign readings during the first week, but focus on material that will likely be review, like information on process-based writing and the rhetorical considerations of audience and purpose.
  • I supplement with online materials that match the textbook readings to help any students who have trouble acquiring the textbook. I do not necessarily provide such supplements after that first week.
  • I begin the first major writing project during the first week, but I choose a project that does not rely on the textbook so that everyone can begin the project. Recently, I have been using a Professional Bio Assignment.

I have found that any other system results in heartbreak, either for students or me. From my perspective, these guidelines ultimately save me time and energy. I tried making work due quickly during the winter session because of the very short time allotted for the course, but I had a student add on the last day to add the course, making him three days behind. I had to rearrange all the due dates in the system to give him time to complete the quizzes and other work. Now I set up the course so that these problems don’t come. Students are happier, and so am I. Maybe not happily-ever-after happy, but at least I’m not the evil villain.

[Photo: Berry O'Kelly School, Early 1900s by Universal Pops, on Flickr]


Outside Genre Capstone Assignment

newstreetThere’s new content in the the department’s Google Drive collection. Dr. Paul Heilker has shared a capstone assignment on outside genres, which he has used in 3104: Intro to Professional Writing and 3764: Technical Writing.

The assignment asks students to examine a genre of professional writing that they would like to get paid to write in the future. Students write a proposal, conduct research, and compose a final report that outlines all aspects of the genre, from the rhetorical situation to the specific genre conventions.

Heilker’s generous collection of resources includes the assignment, related details on the deliverables, and some student-written samples.

Note: If you cannot access the assignment, use the contact form to request access.


Setting a Cancellation Policy

classcancelledIf you are meeting classes face-to-face in the classroom, be sure to talk about class cancellation policies on the first day. Students already know that the university will send out VT Alerts in the case of a campus-wide cancellation (e.g., in case of weather problems); but it pays to talk about other times when your class will not meet ahead of time so that students know what to expect.

Discuss Substitute Instructors
The English Department requires you to find a colleague who can cover your class in the case of an emergency. Explain to students that if you cannot make it to class for some reason, this substitute will teach the class in your place. Students are quite used to substitutes from their high school days, so you will not need to provide much more information.

Explain Your Cancellation Notification System
Be sure to include a policy on your syllabus that explains how you will let students know if you will not meet in the classroom. You might be meeting elsewhere on campus (like the library), asking students to work online, or conferencing with students in your office. Tell students how you will let them know to ensure there is no confusion in these cases.

I include notifications on the class calendar and in daily reminders on the class website during the days leading up to the special sessions. In the case of last-minute changes, I send out notifications using the Announcements tool in Scholar. I advise students to always check their email before coming to class to make sure they know of any changes.

What If I’m Teaching Online?
Fortunately online classes don’t have set meeting times, so you will never need to cancel a session. That said, it’s helpful to let students know how you will let them know of any changes to the schedule . An Announcement in Scholar will usually take care of the situation.

Why All This Bother?
Obviously, clear communication helps a class run smoothly. That’s not the only reason however. You never know when someone will disrupt your plans. As I explained in this post, a recent conversation on the Writing Program Administrators Discussion list (WPA-L) dealt with a student who wrote a “Class cancelled” message on the board, and others in the course believed the message and left. Even without jokesters, students can be confused by a note taped to the classroom door or a message on the board from a previous class.

Explaining your policy in advance will ensure that no one is confused by a random sign posted on the classroom door or a note scribbled on the board. While you’re at it, talk about how you will let the class know about changes in your office hours as well. It will save you time and help you avoid problems during the term.


Using for Technical Support

L_lyndaLogoYou are bound to hear technical questions about the software you ask students to use for your course. I ask students to use Google Drive, because I like the commenting system that it has. You might use PowerPoint, Microsoft Word, or other tools. Rather than taking time to write documentation or create demonstration videos for these tools, point students to

All students, faculty, and staff at Virginia Tech has full, free access to the tutorials on the site. Just login with your PID and password, and choose a topic from the “Browse the library” link at the top or search for a topic. includes a full transcript of the videos (which helps take care of accessibility). Click in the transcript or the course outline to move around in the videos. Do preview the videos to make sure that will work for you.

As an example of how I use the videos, in one of my first posts in the course, I give students this advice:

If you have never used Google Drive before, you can learn more by watching relevant portions of Google Drive Essential Training with Jess Stratton. (Login required; resources are free to VT students.)

The link gives them very complete documentation for the site, and I put the responsibility on learning how to use the tool on students. If questions about a specific capability do come up, I give students to URL to the particular section of the video that covers the answer. In other words, I don’t explain the tool myself. I point them to the documentation.

There are also videos on the site that can help with specific kinds of writing. In particular, there are several videos that can help students with job application materials:


Using a Spreadsheet Assignment

I Love SpreadsheetsOkay, I don’t really love spreadsheets, but I do know that they are used frequently in the workplace for tasks that are not accounting-based. Whenever there is a table of data to be be created, a spreadsheet was usually the tool, whether for benchmarking, survey results, or comparative options.

Even though it is not covered in the tech writing textbook I am using, I decided that a spreadsheet assignment would help prepare students for the writing they would do in the field. In the activity, students identify kinds of writing that they will do in the workplace (e.g., emails, proposals), and they then gather data about those kinds of writing in spreadsheet form.

I explained my thinking on the assignment in my post on Fitting the Assignment to the Class. I’ve used the assignment four times, with only minor variation. Here’s the most recent version, from Spring 2015:

I spend no time in the class explaining how the spreadsheet tools work. Most students have used a spreadsheet previously, though not necessarily for this sort of assignment. For the technical support on how to use spreadsheets, I give them links to Google’s documentation and to the relevant videos (see the link on using Google’s spreadsheet tool above).

I do like the assignment as it stands, but I am considering asking students to add a column for links to an online explanation of how to complete the particular kind of writing. Let’s face it. Students are not going to keep the textbook after the class is over, so a link to additional online explanation could make the spreadsheet more useful to them once they are in the field.

If I were braver, I could use the spreadsheet as scaffolding for the entire course. It would be terrific for a course that didn’t use a textbook at all. Students could identify resources for various kinds of writing and then use what they found as we covered different writing activities in the class.

[Photo: I Love Spreadsheets by Craig Chew-Moulding, on Flickr


Professional Bio Assignment

Icebreaker GameI have endured far too many silly icebreakers activities in the workplace and as a volunteer. I remember one where you had to talk while you wrapped a string around your finger, stopping when the string ran out. Some seemed more like Facebook memes, where you find friends who liked the same movie or tried that same restaurants. Others were just ridiculous, like the “sit on one another’s lap” icebreaker.

I have also been part of plenty of introductions where the participants go around the table, saying their name and position title. These techniques usually relate in learning one another’s names, but you don’t really get to know anyone.

In my professional writing classes, I definitely want students to get to know one another, and I want to learn a bit about who they are as well. I want to accomplish all that however, without silly games and ineffective icebreakers. My solution has been to ask students to compose professional bio statements, like those you might find on a company’s website or in its annual report.

If you would like to learn more about the assignment, check out these resources from my Spring 2015 Technical Writing course:

You can also read more about my goals for the Professional Bio Assignment in my post on the Bedford/St. Martin’s Bits blog.