Q&A with Saint Xavier University Professor Celebrating 40 Years of Teaching This Month

Q&A with Professor Norman Boyer (NB49), Associate English Professor at Saint Xavier University 

The story officially began in March 2017 when CourseNetworking and Saint Xavier University excitedly announced their partnership and SXU joined the CourseNetworking family, making headlines in the Chicago Tribune. However, for SXU Literature Professor Norman Boyer, the journey started long before this partnership, as he has been a faithful CN user since 2013.

We recently spoke with Professor Boyer to discuss his teaching practices, favorite tools and history using CN. With both 4 years of using the CN and recently celebrating 40 years of teaching at SXU under his belt, he is one of our most experienced and passionate faculty members utilizing the CN.

Give us a brief overview of yourself and your courses
Norman Boyer | NB49

I have been teaching English a long time! I received my Ph.D. in Theatre from the University of
Denver in 1969.  After some temporary stints at UCLA, the University of California at Riverside, and California State University, Los Angeles, I began teaching at Saint Xavier University on September 8, 1977 (and so very soon have a 40th anniversary!).  I have taught a wide range of courses in writing and literature there.  My “home base” is Shakespeare and the English Renaissance, but I also focused for a while on multiethnic literature in the United States.

Then, from 2007-2011, I was a student in a four-year noncredit adult program in Asian Classics at the University of Chicago. This program included a year each of Indian, Middle Eastern, Chinese, and Japanese classics.  As a result, I moved strongly into the teaching world (especially nonwestern) literature. My current courses range from a first-year Introduction to Literature-Global course (and an occasional Introduction to Shakespeare course) to second-year courses in World Literature (a 2-course survey), Middle Eastern Literature, Chinese Literature, Japanese Literature, Greek Drama, and a lot of special topics courses, especially in the summer.

I have, until recently, taught an upper-level Shakespeare course.  I currently also teach an upper-level Young Adult Literature course for secondary English teacher candidates, among others. Our student population at SXU is marvelously diverse, and I enjoy teaching my students very much.

What motivated you to begin using the CN platform?

In Fall 2012 SXU hired Yue Ma, as what was then a Blackboard liaison with the faculty; I met her right away. In February 2013 I met her IU roommate when she visited Chicago. That was Mengyuan Zhao (Associate Director, IUPUI CyberLab), who had just began working for CN in the CyberLab. By spring I had visited her; during that first visit she showed me CN, and I began using it in a small class in the Summer of 2013 and then in all of my classes in Fall 2013.

In late Spring 2013 I joined Dr. Bailey’s “Music for the Listener” MOOC on CN and learned much from it about how Dr. Bailey and Mengyuan had structured the course using CN (so I had fewer questions I needed to ask her directly). I have been using it for 4 years now. I am happy that SXU has now become the first university outside of the Indiana University (Network) to adopt CN Post. I certainly pushed that pretty hard with the administration!

In terms of teaching, how has the CN been a more effective tool than other LMS/platforms you’ve used?

From the beginning, I put almost my entire course on CN, primarily using the Task Tool and the CN DropBox. I like to present my daily assignments in a context of what we are doing and why; the Task Tool lets me do that exactly the way I want to, impeding online links to readings and to the daily post, which enables me to receive and grade the posts in the CN GradeBook with minimal effort. That’s important, because with four classes I may have 120 posts to read and grade for each class day (3 days a week).

I used to do that in Blackboard, which meant opening every individual post to read it; Now I just load Gradebook with ungraded posts and work my way up the flow (and so doing the earliest first). I also require 10 reflections on posts a week; that means a horrible grading job on Blackboard, but now I can just look at the Roster each week to see how many reflections each student has.

I started my free-response posts way back before Blackboard on a listserv, then used them on Blackboard. Doing student posts in CN is so much better and easier for my students and me that I would never consider any other format now. We began using Canvas after I began using CN, so I have not used posts on it, but the problem seems to be the same as with Blackboard.

I had a bit of experience with it taking an SXU training course in Online Teaching in Summer 2016, so I sort of know how Canvas works from a student perspective.  Incidentally, as of Summer 2017, one of the first things students in that class do is develop their CN ePortfolio. I still use Canvas for paper submissions and as a backup site for some of my important class documents. One minor thing I love about CN is that I can develop the course and write in the texts for links without having to create the links until later. 

Canvas has a horrible way of posting documents, which requires uploading the document first, moving it from the bottom into the right position in the Module, and then editing the title from the file name to something presentable. I thought I would keep lots of my documents on Canvas, but I have given up on that because the process is so cumbersome. I am happy now to be able to use the CN Post link on Canvas, although I will always have it go to full CN, not CN Post. (I appreciate having that option.)  Another minor thing I like is the fact that I can add people to my CN courses who are not students in that class.

I like doing that after the class ends so that I can share my materials with interested students who were not in that class. One more thing I like is the fact that I can use a CN Network for groups that are not classes.  For a while, I was faculty moderator of the literary side of our literature and art student publication.  I set up a Network (then actually a course, which I cannot do anymore because of our official Canvas link) to post the submissions I received for the editors to read and comment on.

Can you share a time when you saw and felt the impact of CN with your students?

I have received lots of general comments (see below), but a unique situation let me see how one student reacted to CN. As an officer of the SXU Chapter of the American Association of University Professors, I coordinate our Teaching Excellence Award with the student government for AAUP.  In 2016 I accidentally saw a student’s nomination of me for the award. (As coordinator and a former recipient I am not eligible.) Her strongest praise of me and the courses she had taken with me was my use of CN! Thus I know from this and other comments the strong, positive impact it has on my students.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from students regarding the CN?

After the usual initial confusion on the part of some students at the beginning of a term, the reaction to CN is strongly positive (as can be seen from the results of the CN survey from my classes). Several times I have heard from students that they find that the real participation in the class comes from the daily posts. I agree. And the participation comes from everyone, not just those willing to talk or forced to talk by me. From the time when I used a listserv, I have found that responses students share with other students have an entirely different voice than those written just for me. That has continued through Blackboard and now CN, the major difference being how much easier it is to use CN to submit posts and reflections and to read other students’ posts and reflections.

I am pleased that new users of CN and CN Post at SXU will have something like 200 students experienced in using CN to help them. My colleague who teaches in our English Education program has always taught an entirely digital course (using Moodle, as face-to-face classes but with half of the class time given over to lab).  My students have been pushing him to use CN based on their experience with me. I think that with CN Post as the location for the ePortfolio that students already do, this may finally happen. (I have created a student account for myself under the name William Shakespeare (WS137) so that I can see a student’s perspective easily. Over the summer I intend to have Mr. Shakespeare create his own ePortfolio highlighting all of his marvelous achievements, as a model of what can be done. It will be available for everyone to view. Incidentally, I think he is the only CN member located in England.

Our motto at the CN is “Changing the way the world learns.”  What do you think the future of education is, and how does technology play a role?

Technology as a whole is certainly changing higher education and the way the world learns. I have seen that since my days of having students do their posts on a listserv. But all too often the focus has been on the student-teacher relationship and on making life easier for the instructor, not the students.  I see this especially in the way many LMS’s make it hard for other students to see a given student’s posts easily or to share reflections easily. Fixing that has always been one of the primary functions of CN, and I appreciate it very much. The world learns best when everyone talk to everyone else and shares ideas freely.  I have not yet linked my classes with classes in other countries, but that was one of the features that first attracted me to CN and I hope to try that in the future.

I would love to have my Chinese literature students share and comment on famous Chinese works of literature with Chinese students. The CN organization itself reflects the possibilities, with Iranian, Chinese, and American core employees and a wide reach throughout the world. I enjoy logging on in the summer, when the flow of posts doesn’t begin with a lot from my students but with posts from around the world. I have connected with a couple of those posters and I do enjoy seeing what students in Malaysia have had for lunch!  I hope we never see totally online education for all students (which tends to lose the weakest), but technology combined with the presence of instructor and students in the same room makes for a wonderfully broad educational experience for teacher and student. And technology that links diverse students easily, as CN does, makes it even better.

Professor Norman Boyer is an inspiring educator who strives to create course content and activities that encourage student-collaboration in a student-centered environment. If you're interested in joining Norm and the CN in 'changing the way the world learns', visit thecn.com for more information or send us an email at info@thecn.com to request a demo.

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