What are comps for?

Every major at Sewanee has them, but what exactly are comps for? Last week faculty from a wide range of different departments—including history, economics, math, theater, religion, Spanish, and philosophy—came together to discuss what comps look like in different disciplines, what has changed in recent years, and what changes we might like to see in the future. It was a rich and thought-provoking conversation that brought out a range of different answers to the question of why we make our students take comprehensive exams and what we hope they will gain from the process. Four general themes emerged from the discussion: 

  1. Gatekeeping (making sure that students have a mastery of the skills and knowledge that ought to come with a degree in their field)
  2. Shared experience (having a process that all majors go through together, in some cases helping with and offering criticisms of each other’s work)
  3. Independent work (using skills and knowledge gained in the major to produce a significant piece of work that reflects individual creativity and/or interests)
  4. Looking forward (applying what has been learned in the major to life after college)

Not all departments gave equal emphasis to all of these themes, and particular themes were much more prominent in some comp processes. In recent years, a number of departments have changed their comp processes by making use of oral exams, spreading out comps over a longer period of time, or de-emphasizing certain elements (for example mastery of a “canon” of great works).

Missed the discussion but want to catch up on what was said? You can watch the recording here on the CfT website.    

-Mark Hopwood, Philosophy

On the Essentialness of Self-Care

Sitting down to write this post was difficult.  Lately, I have been preoccupied by a multitude of things—not just random things but tragic things—breaking news things—such as the deadly protests in Myanmar due to a military coup, the sexualization of and violence against Asian women that resulted in a mass shooting in Atlanta, Georgia, the more recent mass shooting in Boulder, Colorado, et cetera, et cetera. 

The turmoil is real and undeniable, and I know that I am not alone in feeling ambivalent.  As a consequence, I seldom subject myself to live news.  I peruse the headlines every now and then when I can summon the energy to process what is happening and then subsequently counter the negative toll that the chaos takes on my mind, body, and spirit.  If I am honest, however, I must confess that despite these precautions, the madness of it all still finds its way into the inner sanctum of my mind at times. 

This is the tip of the iceberg.  There are realities (both individual and shared) that require time and attention in my daily life that feel even more pressing. In order, for instance, to deal with the inevitable challenges of remote teaching and learning and contend in a healthy way with the various things that threaten to deplete not only my time and energy but diminish my optimism, I have found myself embracing self-care. Melinda Oliver explains, “Self-care asks you to truly tap into yourself and listen to your needs” (https://www.thegoodtrade.com/features/black-women-in-wellness). Oliver’s perception of what self-care requires reflects my own. After all, if we are out of touch with ourselves, how can we accurately identify our needs or diligently work to satisfy them?

I knew from the moment I agreed to contribute this post that my focus would be on self-care. Life is short and unpredictable. Striving to exercise more care in how we interpret and navigate our lives with the hope of experiencing more peace, joy, and pleasure seems like a worthwhile venture.  Finding ways to encourage, nurture, affirm, nourish, forgive, and support ourselves is an intentional practice, and it can be lifelong.  Self-care has been my saving grace—a critical part of renewal and redemption—in good times and bad.

Most of us already have plenty of access to self-care strategies and/or activities that when applied can save time, energy, and even the day.  There are many viable strategies floating around, so there is no list of self-care strategies in this post, only one strategy that I discovered earlier this year and have been contemplating ever since.  The strategy boils down to what Caroline McHugh describes as “individuality” in her TEDxMiltonKeynesWomen talk titled “The Art of Being Yourself” (https://youtu.be/veEQQ-N9xWU).

At the beginning of her talk, McHugh discusses the concept of a “true mirror.” According to McHugh, “When you look in a true mirror, you don’t look at yourself, you look for yourself. You look for revelation and not for reassurance.” I found this observation meaningful because self-revelation or being honest about who we are—not who others perceive us to be or who we wish to be—seems essential to being able to properly care for (read:  nurture, love, comfort, forgive, and affirm) ourselves.  McHugh’s talk is intriguing and likely to generate many questions. For me, one of the most salient questions is:  How do we acknowledge our authentic selves in a way that allows us to adequately care for ourselves and create space for others to do the same?

Courtney Thompson, Associate Professor of American Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies

Keep Walking

Last week was hard. It was particularly hard for those members of our community who have faced racism and discrimination in their own lives, but it was also a hard week for our community as a whole. Many of us found ourselves wondering what to say to our students in class and how to respond to the complex mix of emotions they were experiencing while also managing our own. As the VC has said, we have a lot of work to do. At the same time, we know that many of us are feeling tired, and have been feeling that way for quite some time. As we begin a new week, we offer a few resources that we hope will help you—in the words of psychologist Mays Imad—to “keep walking”. We’ve taken some of the links we shared for our CfT “un-sessions” last week and added a few extras that people kindly sent us. If you have your own favorite resource for avoiding burnout or cultivating mental and physical wellness more generally, just let us know and we’ll add it to the document. A few highlights:

The whole list—including readings, podcasts, music, and more—is available here. If you need someone to talk to and would like to get a referral to a mental health specialist, Ashley Liston-Avnaim (CAPS Director) can help with that: just shoot her an email

Mini-Grant Report: Race, Revolution, and the Great Dismal Swamp

This past fall my students and I welcomed two guest lecturers to my class on African American History to 1865. Jeremy Williams (Johns Hopkins) led a session on Race and Revolution, while Dr Marcus Nevius (Rhode Island University) spoke on his award-winning book City of Refuge. Both visits were supported by a CfT mini-grant.

Jeremy Williams’s lecture on Race and Revolution was an opportunity to explore the following central focus questions: How has the American government, American broader society, and/or American people reconciled race and revolution? How does your knowledge of slavery in the United States affect the way you understand race? Do the history of slavery and African American people in the US affect the way that you view patriotism? Why or why not? What parallels do you see between the concept of race/revolution of the 1700s and our present-day state of race and politics? The class wrestled with these questions through the exploration of the 1619 podcast, small group discussion and participation in a spectrum activity. 

Dr. Nevius’ presentation was based on his award-winning book, City of Refuge. The book is a story of petit marronage, a clandestine slave’s economy, and the construction of internal improvements in the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina during the first half of the nineteenth century. Petit marronage was a type of escape in which enslaved people repudiated legal and cultural enslavement by taking flight to remote swamps and forests throughout the Americas. The vast wetland in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina in particular was tough terrain, considered uninhabitable territory at this time. Once in the Dismal, former slaves who had endured the difficulties of the Underground Railroad engaged in various clandestine exchanges of goods and provisions that sustained maroon colonies and helped to create a sense of community. 

In his examination of life, commerce, and social activity in the Great Dismal Swamp, Dr Nevius engages the historiographies of slave resistance and abolitionism, highlighting each as they unfolded within the Dismal’s early nineteenth-century extractive economy. City of Refuge is a close study of the ways that American maroons shaped, and were shaped, by the complex historical problems of race and economic development in the Early American Republic. It uses a wide variety of primary sources—including runaway advertisements; planters’ and merchants’ records, inventories, letter-books and correspondence; colonial, provincial and state records; abolitionist pamphlets and broadsides; slave narratives; county free black registries; and the records and inventories of private companies—to examine how American maroons, enslaved canal laborers, white company agents, and commission merchants created and sustained communities under extraordinarily difficult geographical and social circumstances.

Anthony Donaldson Jr, History

Executing Plan B

“Did you try turning it off and turning it back on again?” We’ve probably all been given this advice at some point, but do you actually know how to turn off and turn on all of the technology you use in the classroom? (It might be more complicated than you think.) In a recent CfT session, Adam Hawkins took us through some of the most frequently encountered tech issues in the classroom and the best ways to deal with them (as well as avoid them happening in the first place). We also discussed creative fixes for what to do when all else fails, and swapped our best ideas and war stories. As one of our attendees commented, this was “a very useful session”!

Weren’t able to attend the session? Don’t worry! You can watch the recording here and see Adam’s slides here.

Thank you to everyone who attended, and especially to Adam for doing a wonderful job of leading the discussion. We’re also very grateful to the whole faculty technology team for getting us through our crises and helping our classes run smoothly on a daily basis!

-Mark Hopwood, Philosophy

What are office hours for?

We all hold office hours, but what exactly are they for? Should students be incentivized or even required to attend? How can we make office hours accessible to all students? How long are office hours actually supposed to last? Should we even be calling them “office hours” at all? We had an excellent discussion of all kinds of questions relating to office hours at our CfT session on Thursday 2/11, but don’t worry if you couldn’t make it – you can see a recording here and read a very useful background piece on office hours from the Chronicle here.

A few comments on the sessions from our attendees:

“It was extremely helpful to me to hear from colleagues about what they do to promote, and how they relate to students during, office/student hours.”

“I will likely change the way I ask students to contact me about office hours.”

“It was really neat to hear what other people are doing and to just interact with my colleagues.”

Thank you to everyone who attended, and especially to the faculty we invited to share their wisdom and experience: Kati Curts, Evan Joslin, Matt Irvin, and Emily Puckette. 

Mark Hopwood, Philosophy

“I am not a cat”: Some Notes on Filters and Teaching

Many of us have seen the clip of a Zoom meeting with two Texas attorneys and a judge, in which one of the lawyers cannot figure out how to disable a Zoom filter that, well, made him look like a talking cat. Exasperated, as he and an unseen assistant try to wrangle Zoom, he tells the judge, “I am not a cat.” 

We have all surely had to make some kind of assurance like this in the last year: I am a competent professional! Recently, I forgot to turn my own video off during a “meeting break” and someone saw me pick up a bag that had contained cookies—I ate all the cookies, readers—tip the bag of crumbs directly into my mouth, and then brush cookie crumbs out of my own hair. Note: I did not try to eat any of the crumbs that landed on my shirt; I am not a cat, and I did not lick my shirt. 

Filters can malfunction by refusing to reveal us, and by refusing to shield us. We can—I’m sure many of us already do—teach with this tension. Claiming an absence of filters (#nofilter) asserts spontaneity and authenticity, the ease and trust of a “natural” style.  Applying a visible filter emphasizes artifice, sometimes lending a natural aspect to the interaction where the filters are not visible. Do we want our students to see the scene of teaching and learning as natural? 

To different degrees in non-pandemic times, teachers must filter out of student view the messy production of classroom success, the messy lives out of which professionalism emerges. (And the actual pressure on me—a white, tenured professor—is very slight compared to more precarious colleagues or faculty of color.) Students feel that a discussion is completely organic—the ideas bouncing around spontaneously, the electricity in the air as they talk through concepts. Even as they might spark up into how these ideas bear on their experiences outside the classroom, the time in class feels like a thing apart: a clear well-designed space to think is one where the design and the labor that went into it doesn’t draw the eye. In this year, students see all the pressures on the space, and some of the labor that goes into—has always gone into—the design. 

My students have seen the time it takes me to transition between screens, my laptop’s shortened battery power in a cold shed, the accumulating minutes we lose every week to unmuting, remasking, unfreezing, breaking out, regathering. Meetings have been interrupted to sign my kid back into his remote classroom, to admit the repairperson, to shut away dogs barking at what I assume is a lawyer Zooming from Texas. We can’t filter these pressures out anymore. 

Much as I look forward to a less complicated classroom space next year, I believe it’s useful for students to see the vulnerability of the space where they learn and the things that slow us down in uneven and particular ways. There is the leisured slowness of the natural, “no-filters” classroom experience, but that gloriously uninterrupted time and space—is made of filters: accessible child care health care, disposable income, access to technology, job and housing security. Against the memory of leisured slowness, now there is the labored slowness of inefficiency—the layers of filtering labor suddenly in the frame for students. As I joked with my students this week teaching Woolf, many of us are longing again for “a room of one’s own,” but how many of us have the space and safety we need to do our work well? Now, when the question touches so many of us, let’s encourage our students to keep asking the question, to always ask it. The way the “natural” state of things falls apart is funny sometimes, but it must also be instructive. How can we teach the vulnerable classroom as well as within it, make visible the forms of privilege that allow us to look competent and steady?  

-Lauryl Tucker, Associate Professor of English

What can we learn from students’ experiences with technology in the fall?

Using technology in the classroom can be challenging for faculty, but it also poses challenges for students. At the end of last semester, the technology team surveyed students to get their perspective on what was working well and… not so well. Although the tech team—including Adam Hawkins, Vicki Sells, and the amazing FTCs—are working constantly to improve the experience for students, the survey brought out a few things that faculty can do to help too:

  1. Make sure students have easy access to Zoom links

A number of students reported Zoom links being difficult to access. As one put it: “Keeping track of Zoom links was difficult. Some professors emailed them, some only linked to them through Brightspace, and some only provided them on the paper printed syllabus.” Keeping Zoom links consistent and easily accessible is one simple thing that faculty can do to help students navigate their classes and make sure they show up in the right place at the right time. 

Need some help getting your Zoom links organized? The recommended method for creating and sharing Zoom links for classes is outlined here:

https://new.sewanee.edu/technology/remote-teaching/zoom/create-your-zoom-room/

  1. Make sure students know where to find readings and other materials on Brightspace

A number of students articulated frustrations at not being able to find class materials on Brightspace. One student commented that difficulties in finding materials made it “quite a challenge to stay on task with everything due”. While most faculty are likely to set up all of their Brightspace pages in a similar way, students are likely to be dealing with four (or more) different approaches at the same time, making it easy for them to get confused. Although it’s easy to assume that students will know where materials and assignments are to be found, clear communication about exactly how you’re using Brightspace and where students ought to be looking to find their materials is likely to be much appreciated.

Not sure how to organize your Brightspace page? Here (with a hat-tip to Adam Hawkins) are two of the most common strategies for course organization:

Thematic:

Chronological:

Still have questions about how to make the most out of Brightspace? Our Faculty Technology Coordinators can help! Make an individual appointment with your relevant FTC here:

https://new.sewanee.edu/technology/remote-teaching/faculty-support-appointments/

3. Communicate clearly about how students will receive their grades

Students in the survey noted that while some professors posted all grades on Brightspace, others did not use the grade book feature at all. Since the grade book on Brightspace is likely to work better for some styles of assessment than others, there is no one-size-fits-all solution here, but the key—as always!—is clear communication. Students who are now able to check their grades on Brightspace for some classes may expect to be able to do so for other ones too, and may feel anxious or confused if they don’t see any grades posted. Communicating clearly about exactly when and how students should expect to receive grades in your class (whether on Brightspace or by other means) may help to relieve some of this anxiety and allow students to concentrate their mental energy on learning instead.

Although the semester is already up and running, it’s not too late to get help with Zoom, Brightspace, or anything else you need to make your classes work better. Check out our faculty technology resources page for a wealth of information and tutorials, or make an individual appointment with one of our awesome faculty technology team. 

Mini-Grant Report: A conversation on Blake with Paul Yoder

My seminar on William Blake was privileged to have as a guest Paul Yoder, Professor Emeritus from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Paul is the author of The Narrative Structure of William Blake’s Poem Jerusalem: A Revisionist Interpretation (Edwin Mellen Press, 2010) as well as a number of articles. He and I first met at a conference around 1996, and (as often happens when scholars work in closely related areas) we continued to find ourselves on the same panels over the years. The result has been a deeply rewarding intellectual friendship. We’ve read and commented on each other’s work, sometimes challenging each other in the best sense of Blake’s proverb that “Opposition is True Friendship.”

Since Paul retired from teaching a few years ago, we had discussed his coming to Sewanee to give a talk. By the time we got serious about it, the pandemic was upon us, but Zoom and the CfT came to the rescue. While the class did not read Blake’s 100-page illuminated poem Jerusalem (Paul’s particular specialty), we did read his shorter epic Milton, which casts the poet Milton as a character who returns from heaven to earth (by way of Blake’s left foot) in order to correct errors in his poetry, his theology, and his relationships with women. This is the last text we tackle as a class, and it’s always the most difficult, even for students familiar with Milton’s work. So my idea was not to have Paul give a lecture, but rather for the two of us to model how literary scholars talk through a challenging text and make arguments about it.

It worked beautifully. Since Paul and I already knew each other well, we were able to launch right into conversation about Blake’s relationship to Milton and to his readers as demonstrated on the opening pages:

The students were somewhat shy, but they did join in and ask questions. I had given them an article of Paul’s to read beforehand, which helped them get a sense of his voice and his interests.

In summary, this was a great way to boost a class toward the end of a long semester. As one student wrote later, ”It was very interesting to hear Dr Yoder speak as it helped to open up Blake’s poetry and lent a different point of view to the poem we discussed.” Another student added, “It was so fun to talk to Paul and get a chance to hear his take on a variety of Blake topics!” I’m grateful to the CfT for the funds to make this virtual visit possible.

 Jennifer Michael, English

How should we grade? Why do we grade? And how can we get more out of Zoom breakout groups?

With the late start to the semester, we took the opportunity to hold a couple of pre-semester workshops for faculty to swap notes, exchange ideas, and help each other with last-minute tweaks before the start of classes. Both discussions were well-attended and very productive, but don’t worry if you couldn’t make it – recordings are available at the links below:

Online Discussions and Breakout Groups

Grading and Assessment

During the breakout and discussion session, we shared a couple of helpful resources on How to Make Breakout Rooms Work Better (by Beth McMurtrie) and How to Hold a Better Class Discussion (by Jay Howard). Both are highly recommended! If you have technical questions about how to use the gradebook on Brightspace, breakout rooms on Zoom, or anything else, it’s still not too late to make an appointment with one of our awesome faculty support staff.

A few comments on the sessions from our attendees:

“I heard a lot of great ideas and think I may be able to implement some of them.”

“Very helpful to hear other philosophies on grading.”

“[These ideas] will be part of my zoom class this coming semester.”

Thank you to everyone who attended, and especially to the faculty we invited to share their wisdom and experience: Stephanie Batkie, Anne Duffee, Lauryl Tucker, Richard O’Connor, John Coffey, and John Willis.