Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Composition and Field Journals

A tree photograph from the base into the treetop.
The four modes of communication are narration, description, exposition, and persuasion.

Students generally understand exposition and its uses, learn to use persuasion competently, and usually genuinely like narration.  However, when it comes to description, students have a difficult time using the visceral, specific, detailed language necessary to successfully support a thesis.

When students are given a contemplative assignment, though, like the keeping of a field journal for the duration of a composition course, they become more and more adept at using visceral, specific, and detailed language.  They learn to more accurately describe the world around them.

The Field Journal

A field journal is most often used by scientists and naturalists to record their work in the field. Literally, that could mean a field, but it could also mean a controlled environment, a social space, or in some instances even cyberspace!  It's simply a journal, a personal account, of events that take place while researching, experimenting, or observing with non-judgmental, mindful awareness (or anything in-between). Because students are in various fields, the type of field journal each chooses to create will vary, but the benefits will remain the same: Students will engage in mindful study and be better able to both observe their worlds and communicate those observations to others.

Famous Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, one of the poets who instituted The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, taught mindful writing using the following instructions. Each step in his instructions requires careful observation and descriptive writing, demonstrating the link between mindfulness and description.

1. Stop in tracks once a day, take account of sky, ground & self, write 3 verses haiku.
2. Sit 5 minutes a day, & after, re-collect your thoughts.
3. Stop in middle of street or country, turn in 360-degree circle, write what you remember. (Ginsberg, 2001)

However, alternatives abound, and these skills can be developed as part of a more general course.

Descriptive Field Journal Assignment


Students will keep field journals as a way to become more adept at observing the world, then using visceral, specific, detailed language to describe their observations to others.


  • Students will need a journal or notebook.
  • Students will need, at minimum, one pencil and a pencil sharpener.


  • Use a pencil to legibly handwrite (print or cursive) three observation entries per week.
  • Place the date and time of the observation at the top of each entry.
  • Place the final word count at the top of each entry.
  • Include digital images, photographs, sketches, or scrapbook items in each entry.
  • Submit your field journal as a physical, tangible item every two weeks.
  • Proofread and revise as necessary, and be certain you have included an "overarching impression" thesis statement for your description (of no less than about 300 words per entry).
  • Consistently work to improve your powers of observation and detailed description.


Compare your ability to observe and describe your world at the start of the course to your ability at the end of the course.  Write a two page self-assessment of the changes.  Have your skills grown? Stayed the same?  Gotten worse?  Be sure to support your assessment with examples from your journal entries.

The WIIFM Students and the Field Journal

Although most students appreciate assignments that are a bit different from the standard research paper or composition essay, some will demand to know why they need to complete this assignment. The key to an effective response is to have the students research ways that description may be used in their chosen fields of study.  This simple assignment can even be given before the field journal assignment starts.  The value of effective description can be shared with everyone as you present the requirements.

From police officers writing reports to nurses describing symptoms on charts, and clients describing the perfect haircut to a hairdresser from the barber's chair, skills in effective description are used on a daily basis.  Give your students a boost in mindful observation and descriptive skills by assigning a field journal for the duration of your class.


Ginsberg, A. (2001). Deliberate prose: Selected essays, 1952-1995. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Want to read more about pedagogy and writing?  Try

A Playful Lesson for the Composition Classroom
Prewriting the Research Essay: Starting with "I Think"
Teaching Advice for New Adjunct Faculty

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Teaching Advice for New Adjunct Faculty

Do you have years of experience in your chosen field and feel as though you are ready to try something new?  Many professionals decide to become adjunct faculty as that "something new."

However, few to none of those professionals have any pedagogical or andragogical training, other than the observations and experiences they may have made when they were in school.  This is a great starting point, luckily!  Let's go over a few of those teacherly-things you may have observed or experienced when you were in school, but this time let's look at them as teachers.

Writing a Comprehensive Syllabus

The key to a great syllabus is its comprehensive details
The course syllabus is often thought of as a contract between the faculty member and each student. Other ways to think of the syllabus is as a business plan or a project management timeline.  Just as with any of these types of documents, it's best to be as thorough as possible in the syllabus, never cutting corners or assuming that other parties (in this case your students) already know any of the plan.

First and foremost, be sure to ask if you are allowed the academic freedom to write your own syllabus or if a syllabus or outline will be provided.  You can probably set a meeting with your Department Chair or a Lead Faculty member if you need help.

If you are allowed to create your own syllabus, be sure to include all basic course information in the syllabus with headings and subheadings, bullet points or numbered lists, and tables.  Include the name and course number with the course description, meeting times and a detailed schedule, your contact information and textbook information, grading policies and assignments, and class policies and procedures cobbled together from the student handbook and catalog, and include any personal preferences that also abide by the handbook and catalog.  You can also choose to include the course learning outcomes or objectives, the rubrics, and a statement about the value or relevancy of the course.

Planning Lectures & Planning Lessons

Once class starts, you will be responsible for delivering lectures and conducting lessons.  Keep in mind that these are two different things.

A lecture is an organized and well-planned talk, a speech or presentation, that addresses yet goes beyond content from the textbook.  A lecture is never just a chapter presentation delivered on PowerPoint slides.  As an expert in your field, you should be prepared to deliver "above and beyond" content, which can include examples, supplemental readings, research information, or narratives and description.  It may take several hours or even multiple days to properly research and outline the lectures for your first class.  The length of the lectures will depend on the format and length of your class.  In subsequent semesters you can revise and add to your lectures.

On the other hand, a lesson is a series of learning activities that lead to the same learning outcomes or objectives, like a lesson that teaches students how to identify different types of bacteria using a microscope.  For example, that lesson may include a very brief overview or complete lecture, a reading, a video, a short vocabulary quiz or list of vocabulary terms, homework, an in-class bridging exercise (a lab), a group project or paper, or a whole host of other effective activities. Lessons should be as carefully planned as lectures, with a clear goal in mind and with clear instructions prepared for the students.

Creating Assessments to Measure Student Learning

The way you will know whether or not students are learning the content or skills introduced in your course is to assess their learning.  You can assess student learning using quizzes, tests, exams, papers, discussions, presentations, projects, in-class work, and homework.  In other words, you will assess their ability to complete tasks.  You will assess their proficiency in those tasks against a standard. Those standards come in the form of learning outcomes and rubrics. Just as with the syllabus, sometimes those will be created by you, and sometimes those will be provided.  Again, be sure to ask.

To continue the example from the lesson in the previous paragraph, one of the learning objectives could be written: "Students will correctly identify 10 types of bacteria."  This first objective could be assessed during a lab or on a visual quiz, with 8 to 10 correct answers being a passing proficiency grade.  A second objective that moves students to a higher level of understanding could be stated: "Students will compare and contrast the effects of 10 types of bacterial infections."  
The second might be assessed in a final presentation or a term paper and graded using a detailed rubric.

As time goes on and you analyze the results of your assessments, you can adjust your lectures, lessons, schedule, grading weights, rubrics, and assignment instructions to better teach the content.

Being an adjunct instructor can be an extremely fulfilling position.  However, new adjunct faculty members should enter the profession with enough knowledge to help their students be as successful as possible.  If you are a new faculty member, you should focus on creating a thorough syllabus, carefully planning lessons and lectures, and assessing student learning in a way that helps you continuously improve your course.

Want to read more about teaching?  Try

The Benefit of Play in the Composition Classroom
Gamification: Using GameMaker: Studio to Make an Educational Game
Student Centered or Curriculum Centered?

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Please contact the author for permission to republish.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Gamification in Education: Using GameMaker to Make an Educational Game

Using Free GameMaker:Studio to Create an Educational Game

In early 2014, I began reading about gamification in higher education.

I read that it was "more than just a fad" on eCampus News.  I read on the Association of College and Research Libraries Web site that a game "motivates" students.  I read on the Top Hat blog that incorporating games into learning isn't really all that hard, and games as homework can help keep students engaged in content after classes have ended.

After thinking long and hard about how to better incorporate games into the core curriculum courses that I teach, I decided to expand on one of my specialties, sentence diagramming.  I jumped in with both feet, and for the past two weeks I have been attempting to teach myself to create a game using the free game engine, GameMaker: Studio.  Into week three, I think I have some solid advice for any faculty member wanting to attempt this, as well.

First Bit of Advice: Game Concept

The best advice I can give to a faculty member attempting this process is to first have a game concept in mind.  In order to successfully learn how to create the game, the mechanics of the game have to be visualized, and maybe even literally drawn out in storyboard sequence.  "Kinda" doing this won't cut the mustard, though.

For instance, I knew I wanted a game where students would move the word "noun" to the place on a blank diagram where the subject is supposed to go, and then they'd get some points.  Good enough, I thought, to get on with.  Not so, however.  I never stopped to think about what each moment would look like.  When the word got to the spot, what would the screen do?  How would the points appear? All of that should have been planned.  Instead, I've been getting on with it by trial and error.  I wouldn't say I'm wasting time because it's time spent learning the software, but I should have done more planning.

Second Bit of Advice: Tutorials

Learn to create a space-shooter game with Shaun Spalding.
The next best bit of advice I have for teacher-turned game developer is to follow the video tutorials created by Shaun Spalding.  They are thorough and well-paced, and his tutorials are created to be "learn by doing" lessons.  The series entitled "Making Your First Game" walks viewers through creating a complete asteroid-shooter game, which introduces viewers to all sorts of tips and tricks and bits of useful code.

And speaking of code: Don't skip those parts of the tutorials.  Write it down, if you must, because it is useful - even if a bit intimidating and difficult to absorb and makes your brain shut down.  Write it down, anyway.

Third Bit of Advice: Outcomes

The last bit of advice I have for an educator wanting to create an educational game is to stick to one of the things educators know best: assessment of learning outcomes.  When in doubt, return to the objective or outcome or goal for the game.  Focus on what it might be the student should gain from the game and how the game might influence the outcome.  Want students to be able to classify? Identify?  Solve?  Predict?  Think of ways to "see" those actions in action within your game, and work toward those actions.  Want to think in terms of "leveling?"  Think in terms of learning levels.

In the parts of speech game I'm creating, for example, the goal is to reward students who can construct a sentence diagram one part of speech at a time.  When they complete that objective, they are rewarded with points.

The purpose of gamification, from this professor's standpoint, is to help students engage in course material even when outside the classroom and outside the scope of regular ol' homework.  Yes, it would be easier to simply create sentence diagramming worksheets for students to complete as homework, but it just wouldn't be as fun - either for them or for me.

"Gamifying" sentence diagrams gives me something new to learn to do, too.

Want to read more about pedagogy and teaching?  Try

Student Engagement and Writing
Student Centered or Curriculum Centered?
A Playful Lesson for the Composition Classroom

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Character Study: Unctuous, Oily, and Overly Flattering

I'm the kind of person who likes to delve into how characters work or what makes them tic, whether "good" characters or "bad" characters.  I like to find ways to pinpoint characters' traits, motives, and methods.  One way to get started with this type of character analysis is to simply find the most appropriate word to describe that character. 

One of my favorite words to more accurately describe "bad" characters is unctuous.

Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defines unctuous as "revealing or marked by a smug, ingratiating, and false earnestness or spirituality."  The key to understanding unctuousness is to remember that it is usually obvious to other characters or to the audience that the unctuous character is not sincere, therefore the character is unpleasant and untrustworthy.  

When we watch unctuous characters on television or in the movies, we get a sense that they are untrustworthy, lack goodwill, or are in some other way "oily."  As a matter of fact, the etymology of "unctuous" points back to the Latin word that meant to anoint with oil, then later to the Medieval Latin word for "greasy."

Three examples of unctuous characters from television, literature, and film are Eddie Haskell, Draco Malfoy, and Obadiah Stane.

Eddie Haskell from Leave It to Beaver

Eddie Haskell, played by Ken Osmond from 1957-1963, was the smooth-talking, over-flattering friend of Wally Cleaver.  Always trying to impress Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver with his obsequious small talk, one of his lines goes like this:

"Wally, if your dumb brother tags along, I'm gonna - oh, good afternoon, Mrs. Cleaver. I was just telling Wallace how pleasant it would be for Theodore to accompany us to the movies."

As you can see, he stops mid-sentence to shift his tone to impress June Cleaver.  It doesn't work, by the way, as Mrs. Cleaver, played by Barbara Billingsley, generally reacted politely, yet unfavorably, to Eddie's unctuousness.  Because these scenes with unctuous Eddie were ironically humorous, his scenes were always punctuated with audience laughter.

Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter 

Draco Malfoy, who appears in each of the Harry Potter books, is also unctuous on occasion.  For example, we see he flatters both Professor Snape and Professor Slughorn in order to win favor, not to mention how he brags about his family's favorable relationships with Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge and Undersecretary Dolores Umbridge.  

Malfoy desires favor with Snape and Slughorn because favor from these faculty members can earn him better marks and preferential treatment: He also believes they can help raise his social status.  On the other hand, he behaves disrespectfully toward Rubeus Hagrid, a half giant, because Malfoy believes he is inherently "better" than Hagrid.  Draco Malfoy is certain that flattery toward Hagrid would not get him any closer to the top of the social ladder.  Instead, he disparages Hagrid as a way to try to elevate himself.

Of course, the reader can discern Malfoy's insincere flattery and selfish, one-sided desires, especially after he realizes he no longer needs Snape's favor to achieve a higher status with the big baddie at the top, Voldemort.  In the end, Malfoy learns that this favor he seeks might not be so favorable,  but in the meantime, he is pretty unctuous when he wants to be.

Obadiah Stane from Iron Man 

Jeff Bridges plays Obadiah Stane in the the 2008 Iron Man film.  In this film, Stane is Tony Stark's longtime mentor, having been a friend and business partner with his father, Howard Stark.  Stane frets over Stark's health when he returns from the cave, puts his arm over his shoulder like a father figure, and psychologically manipulates him into making business decisions that help Stane reach his own goals. Yet, behind the scenes he was the person who attempted to have Stark assassinated.

Stane's lines in the film show both his admiration (flattery) of Tony Stark's abilities, and his own "oiliness," and villainy. For example, as he accepts an award in lieu of Stark, he states: "Thank you, Colonel. This is beautiful. Thank you all very much. This is wonderful. Well, I'm not Tony Stark. [laughter] But if I were Tony, I would tell you how honored I feel, and what a joy it is to receive this very prestigious award. Tony, you know, the best thing about Tony is also the worst thing - he's always working."  While he admires Stark's abilities and calls him a "golden goose," he also tells Stark: "For thirty years, I've been holding you up! I built this company up from nothing! Nothing's gonna stand in my way - least of all, you!"

Stane is certainly both over-flattering at times, and an "oily" super villain. 


Unctuous is a wonderful character word, as it implies a whole lot more than just "good" or "bad."

Calling a character "unctuous" means we know he or she is "oily," an insincere flatterer, and that perhaps the other characters know as much, as well.  Beyond that, unctuous characters make for interesting study, as we can attempt to pinpoint their motives and understand their choices.  It could be they appear as ironic comic characters, like Eddie Haskell.  It could be they are on their own character arcs, learning about life as they try to win favor, like Draco Malfoy.  Or, it could just be they are super villains out for revenge and power, like Obadiah Stane.  

Can you think of any other unctuous characters from television, literature, or film?  Do you have a character word you like to use to better describe "good" characters or "bad" character?  Feel free to share in the comments!  

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.