Letters of Reference Check List

So, one of the duties that feature heavily this time of year is “letters of reference”: for Ph.D programs, for scholarships, for employment. (The other duties you know also: students need help planning Winter or Spring courses; students struggling with current course work are looking for life lines; and grading for the current term, so well managed up to this point, has just now spun out of control.)

Sometimes it’s hard to write a good letter. Scratch that: it’s always hard to write a good letter, in the same way that it’s always hard to get to any of the housekeeping that fills itself in around course work, administration, office hours, and (hear my hollow laughter) scholarship. What tends to really make the difference is the student herself, by performing at a high level in the first place, by getting the request in to me nice and early, and by giving me lots of information instead of requiring me to make of the letter a whole new research project. It’s arithmetical: time not spent housekeeping a letter is time spent writing the letter.

Over time, I have developed a “check list” that I return to students who ask me for a letter of reference:

The Check List

  1. Whenever possible, please plan to have given me 30 days to write. If not, give me as much time as possible.
  2. If I have written a letter for you in the past, please remind me of this, telling me when that was and who it was for.
  3. Please include the full name and appropriate title for recipient of letter.
  4. Please include the full address for recipient.
  5. Please include any information materials about the program/scholarship/job/etc, unless that information available clearly on a web page (see next). This can be in electronic form or hard copy.
  6. If the scholarship provider, program, employer, etc. has a web presence, please include an URL for that web site.
  7. Please remind me what classes you’ve had with me, and what term(s) they took place. Or, remind me of our other ties. (Sorry, I really can remember, but if you save me these minutes, I’ll put them to better use for you working on the letter itself.)
  8. Please give me clear instructions for delivery: mail directly, return sealed to you, &c.
  9. Please include a portfolio of work you have done for me in the past. (This may not be necessary, I usually still have anything that we have exchanged in electronic format, but at least check with me about this). Material can be electronic or hard copy.
  10. Please offer me a few sentences on how I can really help you with this. What talking points would be helpful? What are the details of the impression you hope to convey? How does my letter contribute to your overall package?
  11. Always remember that a letter writer’s “stock in trade” is honesty. The very best way to secure good letters of reference is to distinguish yourself from your peers early and often in course work. Thanks.

The whole point is to be able to quickly organize the resources that will inform an interesting, positive, distinctive letter.

What do you think? If you teach, have you composed a similar check list? If you are a student, do you have any thoughts about these kinds of requirements?

[Letters of Reference Check List was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2011/11/17. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

VOST2011: The Visions of Students Today

What do students in Higher Education see today? What do they “see” in the sense of, “What are their visions?” And, what do they literally see from the place in which they are expected to learn?

This is the question posed by Michael Wesch, professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University. Wesch is well known for his work so far in gathering and analyzing the experiences and voices of higher-ed students in an internet age.

Watch some of the YouTube videos tagged VOST2011. For an educator in Higher Ed, the videos are rather hypnotic, occasionally disturbing, and often illuminating. Take the following as an example:

More upbeat, but not less analytical or thought-provoking, is this piece from a student at University of the Philippines:

In the professorial circles in which I run, I am probably among those more likely to identify with the students of VOST2011: besides being a “distance pedagogies guy” (in progress), I am after all a Gen-Xer, and until a subject matter grabbed me in my Masters work, felt continually disenchanted with and alienated from the structures of education, while still identifying strongly with other students as a peer group. At the same time, however, I am formed by an exceptionally traditional and modernist Ph.D. program, and believe as strongly in “disseminating data” as in facilitating constructivist activities for peer-to-peer learning.

Professors: What do you think of Wesch’s call for submissions, and what do you think of some of the videos? How do they speak, or not speak, to you as educators?

Students: What are your visions today? What do you see from the place where you are expected to learn?

[VOST2011: The Visions of Students Today was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2011/03/25. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

The Writing Process: An Interview with a Fourth Grader

Writing is thinking.

Writers know this by hard experience. Writing is not simply reporting on thinking that has already taken place: the thinking that goes on happens by writing, or it doesn’t happen at all. It is this knowledge that brings a writer, again and again, back to a writing process.

In recent years, I have seen—anecdotally—a sharp decrease in understanding about a writing process. Otherwise excellent students can be heard to say, in the last week of the term (out loud, where people can hear), “Yes, I plan to write that 8000 words paper for Prof A  today, tomorrow, and the next day, and then I’ll write that 3000 words for Prof B in the two days after that.” It’s not laziness: you heard me say “otherwise excellent students.” It’s not simply a function of being overwhelmed: compared to earlier years, the students are not taking heavier loads or working longer hours. Rather, my sense is that, on average, fewer students have received, in their secondary and undergraduate education, a grounding in a writing process.

My current syllabus attempts to force a writing process on the students by requiring stages toward a final thesis paper, with students reviewing one another’s work at each stage:

  1. Research report, written to rubrics and submitted for review to three peers;
  2. Thesis statement with plan for defense, written to rubrics and submitted for peer review;
  3. Complete draft, written to rubrics and submitted for peer review;
  4. Final draft.

Early results have been underwhelming, with a sizable percentage of students simply failing to accomplish the research report. Again, this suggests a lack of familiarity with the benefits of a writing process: anyone who has benefitted from a writing process in the past will be eager to embrace it later when given the opportunity. At the same time, students who accomplished the research report have been eager to get to the peer review.

So now you understand why it is that, when my fourth grader, lying in bed and chatting before lights-out, began to talk about “the writing process” as they learn it in elementary school, I leapt for the laptop and began to record. Take ten minutes, and learn how it’s done.

[The Writing Process: An Interview with a Fourth Grader was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2011/03/22. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

More Active Reading: How to Read a Textbook Chapter

A week or so back, I wrote here about exercises in “active reading.” There, I included links to a number of blank worksheets that students could use to help them read actively (Bull’s Eye organizer; Fish-bone organizer; K-W-L sheet; and more).

As an exemplar to the class, I “actively read” a scholarly essay: I wrote a short phrase next to every paragraph in the essay, and also filled in each of the worksheets. I then called attention to this in class and posted it to their Blackboard.

The next weekend, while supervising a local chess tournament, I came upon a kind of “active reading” poster in the middle-school library (Flickr):

THIEVES, an acronym for Title, Heading, Everything I want to know, Visuals, End-of-section material, So what?

This pretty much exactly corresponds to what I tell students about how to read the chapters from their textbook:

  • Read the chapter’s introductory paragraph. List the keywords in the margin of that paragraph.
  • Read the major headings (“Jeremiah and the Deuteronomists”; turn them into questions (“What do the Deuteronomists have to do with Jeremiah?”).
  • Look at the graphics: photographs, tables, timelines, maps. What do they make you think of? What questions do they make you ask? Write these in the margins of the chapter’s first page.
  • Ask yourself: What sorts of things do you already know about the topics coming up in this exercise?
  • Read the concluding paragraph and any study questions or glossaries at the end of the chapter. Plan to search out the answers to these as you read the chapter.
  • Read one (1) major section in the chapter. For each paragraph, jot the main points into the margin, in your own words. At the end of the section, describe aloud what that section communicated to you. Repeat this for each section. This should take several sittings, probably one sitting for each major section.
  • Bring this chapter into conversation with your life. What difference does this information make? How does it challenge things you already knew or believed? How does it help answer or solve questions you have had in the past? What does it make you want to try to discover next?

This may seem time-consuming, but in practice it is an incredible time saver: with interactive reading, you can read the chapter once instead of several times, because you retain the content at a much higher rate than through passive reading. Also, by breaking the reading up over several sittings, the subject matter can “percolate” for you, making unexpected connections to your other studies or activities.

Students, do you already do any of these kinds of things when reading? Profs, do you offer any kind of guidance or instruction in active reading?

[More Active Reading: How to Read a Textbook Chapter was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2011/03/18. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

What Would You Ask a Prospective Online Student?

Not everyone is equally prepared for online learning, just as not everyone is prepared for a given degree program, or for several aspects of face-to-face learning. What would you ask of a prospective online student in order to help her determine her readiness?

I have been reading through some online quizzes that ask, “Is distance learning really for you?” Here is a sample:

The questions can be clumped into some more-or-less discrete categories:

  1. access to internet and minimal hardware and software
  2. minimal competence with an operating system, manipulating files, relevant applications
  3. comfort and experience with navigating tasks online (email, paying bills, renewing library books, search engines)
  4. comfort and skills with social aspects of internet (Facebook, blogs and comments, Google/Yahoo Groups)
  5. how much time one expects to spend on a course, and in what increments
  6. habits relating to organization and professionalism
  7. normal student skills like reading, writing, participating in discussion, interacting with faculty
  8. motives and expectations (why an online course rather than face-to-face?)

For me, some of the real biggies are those that pertain to the f2f classroom as much as to distance learning: How much time will you put in? Will you break that time into daily chunks? Do you have professional habits of time management and communication? Do you have experience with active reading? Do you have experience with several different kinds of writing? Why are you here? Some of this can be taught, but a lot of it amounts to disposition and attitude. Even a willing student who falls short in these areas will be struggling against likely long-term counter-productive habits.

The items more clearly related to the peculiarities of the online environment—knowing what to own and how to use it, navigating virtual space, translating existing social skill sets into unfamiliar venues—actually worry me less. Sure, the student has to recognize the need, and may have to get over a “fear hump,” but if that one hurdle can be negotiated, then it’s just a matter of learning a bunch of stuff.

This is, I acknowledge, my own idiosyncratic assessment: it’s how I think it would be for me to get started.

What would you want to ask of a prospective online student, to help her make a no-B.S. assessment of whether distance learning is for her? If you have been an online learner, what do you know now about “what it takes” that you didn’t know then?

[What Would You Ask a Prospective Online Student? was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2011/03/16. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

“Active Reading” for Seminary Learners

I did my first research paper as a Masters student. I know, I know. My wife, having come up through Jesuit secondary and undergraduate schooling, can’t believe it either. In any case, when we talk about the wide range of preparation with which students arrive at seminary, I do get it: in many undergraduate programs, the research paper doesn’t come up. And as for secondary school, anyone who doesn’t avoid hard work in high school simply isn’t trying.

When I did begin my Masters program, and the 50%-of-grade research/thesis paper met me right at the door first semester, I was well positioned to learn the ropes quickly. In my family of origin, curiosity had been rewarded, we all read like hell, and there was a normalcy to spending several hours at the library—or on a solo bike trip exploring the four points of the compass, or digging up the back yard—and talking about what kind of stuff you’d found out about. (You’d get a killer spanking for digging up the yard, but could still talk freely of your findings.) So I read up on “the thesis paper,” memorized every word of the professor’s instructions in the syllabus, and tried to “go and do likewise.” With great success, because while I was inexperienced with the form, I was pretty well prepared by a formation that was (might as well say it) atypical, and even—with regard to the factors relevant here—privileged.

This is all on my mind as I read articles about “active reading,” a mode of reading that is natural to me because what else do you do after reading except yammer about it in excruciating detail to an older sister (thanks, Jul, thanks, Kay), but which is not, it turns out, natural to everybody who experiences a call to be a leader in the church.

My “Intro to Old Testament” syllabus changes a lot, but often involves having the students read journal articles or essays in edited books. This semester, I am having them read only a handful or so, but I have developed a new activity for the reading: we are to identify the article’s thesis or central idea, the evidence that it incorporates into its argument, and the elements of its line of reasoning. My hope is that this will help them to think of their final paper in such structured terms. (They will also be writing the paper in four stages, offering each other peer review for the first three stages.)

The first reading assignment is going on this week (Christopher Rollston’s “The Rise of Monotheism in Ancient Israel: Biblical and Epigraphic Evidence,” Stone-Campbell Journal 6 [2003]: 95-115; PDF available). Having allowed them to work through that one as best they can, I plan to introduce helps for “active reading” that they can use for articles assigned later in the course.

The following helps are available at the Glencoe Online “Teaching Today” site:

My idea is to model the use of some or all of these when we discuss the Rollston article, then assign them to demonstrate use of any one of them the next time we read a journal article or essay from an edited book. My hope is that the students who are already well positioned to read actively will find the activity something of a cake walk (while probably still benefiting from exposure to new processes in active reading), while the students who are relatively new to active reading might enjoy some breakthroughs in how they interact with reading: breakthroughs that just might pay off throughout their Masters work.

Instructors, do you ever assign activities to enhance active reading? Students, can you imagine profiting from assignments of this kind?

[“Active Reading” for Seminary Learners was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2011/03/01. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Stealth Students, or, Long-Fuse Effs

(N.B.: Because I blog under my proper name, I drafted this post at least one full year ago—maybe a year and a half, or even two years—then saved it to post later. This way, it is clear that the post does not concern any of my current teaching sections, but rather a situation that simply crops up periodically. Any resemblance to current students, living or dead, is coincidental and regretted.)

Professors, do you occasionally find yourself perplexed to observe a student who repeatedly fails to accomplish the assignments, but never steps forward to talk about it? Even when you have called attention, during class time, with heavy eye contact, to the part of the syllabus that says they can’t pass under such circumstances? No contact, no drop slip, no…anything? Perversely, such a student usually continues to take the quizzes or exams, on which basis I theorize that they simply do not believe anybody would actually fail them for a course, and that my warnings are a part of simply keeping up appearances.

Students: have you been or known such a student? (Anonymous comments encouraged!)

Policy-wise, it isn’t a murky situation: the student will not pass the course. And between the syllabus and the verbal heads-ups, there aren’t any doubts about communication. But…what, if anything, do you do? Options include:

  • Do nothing to interfere with the student’s karma: it’s a free country;
  • Reach out to see what gives;
  • I guess I am out of options at this point.

What is your own habitual practice with those students who are failing to turn in the work, but who keep showing up to class and taking—usually failing—quizzes and exams? The ones who have never come to you to acknowledge that they aren’t handing in the assignments?

[Stealth Students, or, Long-Fuse Effs was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2011/02/21. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]