Author Archives: Ping-Yuan Wang

How to write an email to your professor

Timely and useful article to follow up on our discussion of student writing:


Ping-Yuan’s Presentation

Hi, everyone, Here is my presentation: The Role of Writing in Students’ Learning. Ping-Yuan

The role of writing in students’ learning

In our last meeting, I would like to discuss the role of writing in students’ learning. To me, two aspects in student writing are worth considering. The first is the pedagogical goals of writing assignments. The second is how to grade them to the end of helping students write better and think more critically. Having taught all levels of History courses (1000 and 3000), including the Junior Composition “Historical Research & Writing,” I continue to struggle with encouraging deep learning through writing and an effective and responsible way of providing truly useful feedback. A constant source of frustration is that students tend to ignore my comments and feedback that could further their learning. Or, if they have read my comments, few have sought clarification or additional advice on strategies for improvement. Some react quite strongly to my feedback on the technicalities of writing. In a humanities discipline like History, writing is an essential vehicle of both low- and high-level learning, from summarizing and explaining to analyzing and synthesizing. Writing is at once a major tool of assessment of learning and a means for students to demonstrate learning outcomes. A pedagogically sound evaluation of student writing has to come full circle by providing constructive feedback not only on the content, but also on the technical aspects of writing—citation style, syntax, punctuation, and structure—all of which contribute to effective communication. And effective communication, both written and verbal, is an essential competency in most white-collar jobs. Especially at a time when the value of a liberal arts education, and the humanities in particular, is severely challenged, one of the claims for the legitimacy of the History major is that it cultivates excellent writing and critical thinking skills. However, in my experience, students in History classes, non-majors in particular, do not consider the instruction of writing critical to their learning. “This is not an English class!” I end up compromising on my grading, shortening the length of writing assignments, and evaluating student writing based primarily on the content, which oftentimes is conveyed with unclear or incomplete sentences. I will present an evolution of my writing assignments at different levels of courses, the rationale behind some of the assignments, my grading strategies, as well as ways of incentivizing students to write better. Here are a few topics I’d like to discuss with the group:

  1. Not all disciplines or subjects are writing-intensive or require much expository writing. But students write in one form or another for all classes. What types of writing do your students engage in in your field? How do these writing exercises contribute to the students’ 1) overall understanding of the subject, 2) analytical or critical thinking skills (or the application of concepts), and 3) written communication?
  2. If your courses are fairly heavy in writing, what learning objectives do your assignments serve? What are your methods of grading these assignments?
  3. How do you motivate students to take seriously your feedback on their written works?

Here are a few short articles for food for thought:

  1. Writing objectives using Bloom’s taxonomy–the correlation between writing and different levels of learning:
  2. Ten tips for effective and efficient grading:
  3. A strategy for grading student writing:
  4. A cynical view on student writing:
Finally, for your entertainment:


Language on Professionalism on the syllabus

For the interest of the group, and, in response to Adi and Chris, I’m sharing sections relevant to professionalism on my syllabus for entry-level Gen Ed History courses. My articulations of professional and respectful behavior scatter throughout the syllabus. Here are some examples:

On the syllabus:

Professionalism: You are fully responsible for completing assignments and fulfilling requirements as the syllabus describes. If you stay in this class for the rest of the semester, you are agreeing to fulfill all of the requirements. You also acknowledge that you fully understand what is expected of you, and that you know the workload, dates of exams, and deadlines of assignments.”

The verbal elaboration on the brief written statement goes something along the lines of:

“Our relationship is professional, and the syllabus is a binding document. As the instructor, I am responsible for providing a good learning environment in every way I can in the classroom, during office hours, or in other forms of contact that pertain to your education. I am happy to help you in academic matters or issues that may have impact on your success in this course. This is a college-level course, so you should take the initiative in obtaining and retaining knowledge. I am primarily a facilitator in your learning. As students you are fully responsible for completing assignments and fulfilling requirements as the syllabus describes. If you stay in this course for the rest of the semester, you are agreeing to fulfill all of the requirements. You also acknowledge that you fully understand what is expected of you, and that you know the workload, dates of the exams, and deadlines of assignments. If you have trouble meeting or adjusting to the expectations of a college-level course, feel free to speak with me and/or your academic advisor. Do ask questions whenever you have one because you will not learn if you do not get questions answered. When each of us fulfills our responsibilities, this course will be a rewarding experience for everybody. This professionalism applies to all sorts of communication including email. So make sure that you are professional in your electronic correspondence.”

On the syllabus, I also include some language regarding means of contacting with me outside of the classroom:

Contact Outside of the Classroom:

  • Address me as Dr. or Prof. Wang in an email. Note that I will not open an email without a subject line and I will not respond if you neglect to include your name in the email.
  • Email and Blackboard are the primary means for me to contact you and make announcements outside of the classroom. Check your OHIO email account at least once a day or forward your OHIO emails to your personal email account so that you do not miss important messages. It may take me up to 24 hours during the week and 48 hours on the weekend to respond to an email.
  • Office hours: Feel free to drop by my office hours (indicated on the first page of the syllabus) to discuss course materials, your assignments, or other academic issues. If you are unable to meet with me during my office hours, make an appointment at a mutually acceptable time.”

Also on the syllabus, to help students in a Gen Ed course (who may not have much or any experience with a college-level History course) succeed, I offer advice on study strategies:

Recipe for Success:  

  • Step 1: Complete all reading assignments before class, including textbook chapters and other reading materials. This course is built around both lecture and discussion. My lectures point out the big questions and issues for consideration every week, and their content does not always overlap textbook chapters. Class discussion will focus on the assigned readings. You will not benefit from either component if you do not come to class prepared.
  • Step 2: Think with me in class as I introduce the weekly topics and explain their significance. In addition to broad themes and specific examples, you will learn a good amount of terms that are particular to this historical period, and some of them are not English terms. So you have to pay attention in class, take detailed notes, and reflect on what you have learned along the way.
  • Step 3: Engage with class discussion based on your understanding of course materials. Not only is this course designed for you to acquire knowledge about history, but it will also familiarize you with the methods that historians use to understand the significance of historical events. You will learn to analyze the reading materials and articulate them in a coherent manner. You will benefit from this course when you put efforts into understanding the readings and the materials covered in class, form your own ideas about them, and articulate or debate them in a discussion.
  • Step 4: Review reading materials and lecture notes regularly. For every class meeting, you should put in at least 2 hours of work outside of the class. To succeed in this course you should have a full understanding of lecture notes, textbook chapters, and other related materials. Studying in small doses on a regular basis will produce far better results than reviewing new materials shortly before an exam.”

This syllabus is 8 pages long, but it also provide pretty much every single piece of information a student needs to know about the course. I also want to make it clear to students that I am happy to and will help them succeed, but they also need to hold their end of the bargain. The language on professionalism is only written out for entry-level survey courses; I usually deliver a verbal version of it to my upper-level students.

Hope this is useful.

Teaching as a performative art (also a follow-up on Adi’s post)

A few days before reading the excerpt from bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress, on the drive home after a frustrating couple of days in the classroom, I found myself pondering on the performative aspect of teaching. Teaching, to a great extent, is a performative art. When the “audience” responds positively and reciprocates, I have a good day in the office. When the response to my thought-provoking questions, carefully-timed jokes, and explicit statements on the relevance of the topic in question are blank stares into space, I feel completely drained. This performative aspect in teaching strikes me even harder after our discussion of radical pedagogy: how much personal or non-academic interaction one chooses to have with students and how much one’s choice in mannerism and outward appearance play a part in students’ learning experience. To expand on this interesting discussion, I’d like to share some of my own decision-making process on these subjects.

Personality does affect one’s teaching style. That said, I do think pedagogical approaches can be learned and developed just like how one develops disciplinary knowledge. I’d like to think that every teacher makes conscious pedagogical decisions about how much of their personal life and/or experience is revealed/shared both in and outside of the classroom when interacting with students. Every moment of interaction can be a teaching moment, and the performative aspect of teaching manifests itself when one teaches by example. For me, professionalism is essential in my interaction with students. If we consider college a form of apprenticeship to prepare students for their professional lives, then students need to learn how to be professional and respect professional boundaries (yes, boundaries can be challenged and approached with creativity, but let me finish this thought…) I tell all of my students on the first day of the class that our relationship is professional, which means that both the instructor and the students have responsibilities and must keep their respective ends of the “contract,” so to speak, in order to have a fulfilling learning experience. Upholding professionalism does not mean that I have no personal interaction with students at all or that I am aloof or unfriendly. I do, however, set parameters of my interaction with students from the start, as well as establish my authority (not a word with positive connotations in a shared-learning environment, I know, but not so negative considering the big picture of teaching and learning), which is derived from my disciplinary expertise and my professional role in a university setting, not because I consider myself superior to the students as a person. What is important in my teaching is that students learn the methods with which information is treated and knowledge is generated in my discipline. The emphasis on professionalism sometimes has the effect of a “threat”: “You agreed to enter a contract with me on the first day of class, as the syllabus describes. So after I have reminded you over and over again of the deadline of an assignment and you still fail to submit it in time, or after I’ve helped you learn and review the materials over the course of several weeks and you still do not study for the midterm, then you have to bear the consequences of your own action.” But professionalism also helps to set clear expectations, both for me and my students. I rarely deviate from the syllabus and give students every piece of course material promised on the syllabus. When I mark a student down in an assignment, she will know (after a bit of explanation) that it’s not because I don’t like her personally but because she does not fulfill the requirements of the assignment. I hope she will apply that principle to other areas of her life. If students don’t quite know how to draw the line between the professional and the personal, I consider it my responsibility to teach them. I may not be the most personable professor, but students have told me that I am fair, and that I am very clear on expectations and I help students meet expectations.

My choice in making professionalism the principle of my interaction with students also has a gender dimension, as well as a consideration for what my public persona (what I wear, how I walk and talk, my command of the English colloquialism, etc.) does to my effectiveness as a teacher. I am impressed by some of Josh’s implementations of radical pedagogies, especially the office grading, the meditation, and the deliberate choices in outfits or appearance. On the “being personal” and “being weird” aspect, though, I’d like to hear everyone’s thoughts–I’ve been thinking about it all week. When I first started teaching as a faculty member, I received numerous advice from female mentors and colleagues on how a relatively young (or youthful looking), petite, international, and female faculty member should carry herself so that students would respect (out of fear or fondness, either way) and not walk all over her. I’ve been told that I need to be stern, strict, and in control, and have an imposing presence through my choice of wardrobe. Although teaching is performative, one still cannot be what one is not. It is difficult for a youngish petite female professor who’s just starting out to strike the right balance, especially when one needs to determine what one is comfortable doing. In very generic terms, female professors are expected to be nurturing, friendly, perhaps easier to negotiate with, and possibly being more easily disrespected by students (and their parents). Being liked may mean less respect for the professorial role (Adi provided a perfect example of how students would expect special treatment because of a perceived rapport with the professor), and yet demanding respect in the wrong way could make one lose students’ fondness, and ultimately, respect. I learned these the hard way in my first full-time teaching position somewhere else several years ago, where classroom discipline was an issue I had to deal with for the first time in my teaching experience, and I was terrible at it at first. My confidence in asserting my authority (as a subject-matter expert), presenting course materials, as well as the command of the English colloquialism have all improved over time, but lessons learned from my first full-time teaching job continue to be a reminder of the gender, age, nationality/ethnicity dimensions of the performative art called teaching. I dress relatively formally and conservatively at work; I usually choose to use humor rather than reprimand in my teaching when I enforce my rules, and I choose to lay out expectations and policies very clearly on the syllabus. There isn’t a perfect formula when it comes to putting oneself out there. I am interested to hear what everyone has done that works in their teaching and how “performative” you’ve been in your interaction with students.

Teaching to Transgress

Two articles I’ve read recently resonate nicely with Josh’s selection of bell hooks. The first, The Pedagogical Power of Opening Up, along with Teaching to Transgress, inspires me to reexamine a conscious decision I’ve made to limit the disclosure of things personal in my teaching. I am still ambivalent about opening up; however, the readings have indeed demonstrated the impact of “putting oneself out there” and making the relevance of course content explicit in a straightforward (if not entirely personal) manner in an engaged and empowered classroom. The second article, Teach or Perish, addresses a fundamental schizophrenia in our training as academics and as we shape a professional identity as faculty members. bell hooks alludes to a relevant, although not quite the same, disconnect in her experience as a teacher/professor. I wonder if I may add “Teach or Perish” to Teaching to Transgress as a long footnote?