Tag Archives: academics


Sometimes you just have to run screaming from imminent defeat. Other times, you have a deadline looming, and between loading the dishwasher, answering e-mails, and planning fall classes, the precious moments you have to finish that manuscript just seem to vanish into thin air. In either case, a prudent answer could be a retreat.

Everything I know about military retreats comes from Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones; they seem pretty awful, until you get saved by your pals at the last minute. I know a little more about writing retreats, however, because I’ve been on an escapist kick this spring and summer.

I’ve been free from teaching duties since December in order to focus on my book, but even with that incredible boost, things like search committee duties, faculty meetings, and fall syllabus preparation can be very distracting. When it feels like I just can’t seem to sit down and write, I get away from it all and have myself a DIY Writing Retreat. It’s pretty simple. All you really need is dedicated space and time to make your productivity dreams come true.

First, find the space. For me, it’s important to drive away from my city and home. This way I avoid distractions that seem minimal but build up, like running to the dry cleaners or unloading the dishwasher before getting to work. One month I got a coupon from a daily deal site for a night at a state park lodge; another time a relative was going out of town and let me use her house while she was away. In both cases the change in scenery helped immensely.

Second, the time. I’ve tried both 24 and 48 hour blocks. For me, two full nights is a pretty good amount of time for a binge. If I arrive at my retreat one evening, I might get a little writing done before going to sleep. Because I’m spending the second night there too, the entire next day is a glorious, uninterrupted writing day. I like to go for a hike or run the morning of the third day to enjoy the scenery and stretch my legs before heading home.

Finally, dedication. It’s important to have a concrete goal for the retreat and to protect it. Take enough prepared food with you, or order in, so that you don’t get distracted with meal preparation and clean-up. Bring any books or materials you might need so that you can actually finish whatever it is you’re doing. Style guides in particular can be important for final touches on bibliography before submitting.

Any other suggestions for a successful writer’s retreat?


Gamifying Intro to Hispanic Lit and Culture

Biblioteca Nacional, Buenos Aires. Uploaded by Sking. [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s the last week of GOBLIN, and it has been one of the most enriching experiences of my professional life. I’ve learned so much, gotten so many great ideas for improving my teaching, and had a blast doing it.

My main goal in participating was to learn more about how to implement gamification and game-based learning in the classroom, and also to help students overcome failure. GOBLIN has delivered and then some. I have lots of ideas, and hope you’ll chime in with more in the comments.

The first step will be to gamify SPAN 3853: Introduction to Hispanic Literature and Culture class. I would like to take elements from team-based learning and ARGs to increase student engagement, collaboration, and autonomy.

The idea would be to have permanent teams for the semester, assigned using a CATME survey. The course will be a semester-long quest. Since it’s a lit course, I am thinking of framing it as a literary treasure hunt. So maybe students would get a secret message from Jorge Luis Borges, the world’s most famous librarian, asking for their help. (Reading his short story, “The Library of Babel” might be a first step.)

Clues might be hidden in books in the library or in the course readings online. I’m hoping to get the librarians on board, and I imagine that won’t be hard. They’ve already developed an awesome location-based app for the Galileo’s World exhibit here at OU.

I am also thinking of borrowing the idea of “deals” from Reality Ends Here. Each student would get a deck of cards with different elements (a task like a video adaptation of a text, a Twine game based on a reading, or a radio drama adaptation of a reading; and different elements like the readings themselves or characters, authors and props) that are worth different numbers of points.

The groups would have to decide which elements to combine and how many projects to complete to maximize their points. At USC weekly winners get prizes like lunch with a famous movie maker. I’m not sure I can offer anything like that, but maybe I can come up with other fun rewards, or link the points to the final grade.

Any ideas for improving this initial framework?

Game-Based Learning in the Literature Classroom

Apache playing cards (either Chiricahua or Western), ca. 1875-1885, rawhide, Arizona, collection of the National Museum of the American Indian

For the past few years I’ve been reading here and there about games in the classroom. The most provocative example I’ve found is Reacting to the Past, a role-playing game designed at Barnard College that has students inhabit historical events. The idea is that the game inspires students to prepare much more thoroughly than they would for a lecture or exam.

I’ve been puzzling over how to implement a similar structure in a literature classroom, but have been so busy keeping afloat with new class preps and writing my book that it’s been a back-burner project. The idea is creeping to a simmer, though, as I’ve been involved in GOBLIN at OU and found a critical mass of gaming enthusiast friends who’ve helped me to think it through.

I came across an especially exciting model today: the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ “Reality Ends Here” game. The way it gives students autonomy to decide what deals they’ll do, encourages collaboration, and also avoids imposing the game but rather lets students play of their own volition are really exciting elements.

Maybe an Introduction to Hispanic Literature and Culture course could give mega points to a group of students that produces a radio drama version of a short story, or a few points for updating a Wikipedia article on a literary movement.

Any ideas you might have are very welcome in the comments.

Overcoming Failure

Soil failure north of Campbell River on Kelsey Bay Highway.

I’ve been thinking a lot about failure lately. I’ve implemented Specifications Grading in Intro to Hispanic Literary Texts, Spanish Conversation, and Composition in Spanish courses over the past two semesters, with mostly positive results.

The basic idea is that assignments have very clear requirements, are graded pass/fail, and that failure is mitigated through tokens students can trade in to excuse or make up a failed assignment. Students seem to either love it or hate it with no middle ground, but either way I have seen much higher quality of work and engagement.

My own failure in implementing this system has been in addressing student failure in a positive way. Even though students have the chance to make up work, and I encourage them by reminding them that failure is a part of learning, they still show signs of deep frustration at the word “failure.”

Next semester I’ll take Eric Burger’s advice and teach failure by building failure assessment into the class. An assignment like Burger’s terrible first draft or this one–a required reflection on a particular failure, how it was mitigated–might normalize the idea of failure and empower students to see the learning value in failing.

Super-cool Note-taking Model


I’m in a reading and note-taking phase at the moment, and found a great model for organizing arguments in this Synthesis Matrix developed by the NC State University Writing and Speaking Tutorial Service

The basic idea is that you make one axis with the main topics that are common among many or all of the authors (regardless of their opinion on the topic), and another with authors’ names. Then you write bullet points briefly summarizing the facts and opinions of each author on each topic.

This should make writing a lit review a breeze–I’m looking forward to trying it out myself and sharing it with students.



Watch and learn about how the OU Writing Center supports faculty writers. (Yeah, that’s me bragging about my book proposal and teaching Spanish composition.)

The Fortress of Solitude and Snacks

Do you ever need to escape from the comfort of your own office in order to actually get some work done? 
This happens to me regularly; while I love my space on campus with its cool, repurposed laboratory cabinet full of Muppet figurines; electric kettle with a selection of coffee and tea; and window out onto a squirrel’s paradise of trees, sometimes all that coziness can be distracting.

And that doesn’t include the knocks on the door from students, colleagues, and random strangers fishing for a language tutor or trying to buy textbooks. I love visitors, but they are also my downfall. It doesn’t take much to pull me from revising an article to go grab a coffee or look over an essay.  

That’s why the Writing Center’s faculty writing space in Cate 4, Rm. 134, is my favorite campus resource. It’s OU’s best-kept secret (which is why I’ve buried it in the fourth paragraph of this post), and it has been the key to my scholarly productivity this year. 

I first found out about the Faculty Writing Space through a writing group I joined during my first semester at OU. Though our numbers have dwindled and we are now writing partners, my pal Sandy and I continue to meet there every Wednesday morning. Even if it’s only an hour a week, the cloistered time I dedicate to my laptop in the Faculty Writing Space has sometimes, in the busiest weeks of the semester, been the only attention my poor book manuscript has received. 

The space has beautiful works of art, a couple of tables and comfortable desk chairs, several coffee makers with a variety of roasts to choose from, and bright windows. There is a seemingly endless supply of granola bars, hand sanitizer, Kleenex, notepads, and pens, everything a writer could need. If you really need to procrastinate there are numerous writing guides to peruse. The space is really not unlike my own office, but for an important difference: no one knows about it. 

None of my favorite people can find me there and distract me with the welcome sight of their faces. And even the odd wanderer can’t accidentally stumble in to ask whether I will excuse him from his French exam next week (Jamais!) because — and here’s the best part — 

there’s a passcode on the door. 

Doing my part to keep Norman’s best-kept secret, I’ll let you contact the Writing Center to get the door code yourself; but, against my own selfishness, I highly recommend you do. And if you can figure out how to work the printer in there I’ll make you a cup of coffee and promise not to distract you.