Monday, September 1, 2014

The Stack (Storybook assignment list)

Since my campus is in the throes of an email blacklisting mess (we've been blacklisted by Google and Yahoo and I'm not sure who else!), that seems like a good moment to say something about email... and how I try to keep my use of email to a bare minimum. One of the best tools for doing that has been what I call The Stack.

Brief Description. The Stack is a public Google Doc which students can look at to make sure I have received the one assignment that they submit by email and which I reply to by email. In an ideal world, that one bit of email back-and-forth traffic is the only email I have with each student in each week of the course.

Details. I update the Stack as I work through the stack of writing assignments that I receive from the students each week. Responding to these writing assignments is how I spend most of my time each week in fact! Students have a writing assignment as part of their class project due at the end of each week, and as those email assignments come in, I add the students' names to the Stack. Then, as I send back comments on each assignment, I remove students' names from the Stack. To make sure students can easily access the Stack, I include an update each day in the Announcements.


This procedure allows students to know that I received their assignment (they will see their name in the stack), and it also allows them to know I sent them back comments (their name disappears from the stack). If something goes wrong (I didn't get their assignment or they didn't get my comments), it's easy to fix: either they send me their email again or I send them my email again, as the case may be.

Before I put this system in place, I used to get a lot of anxious "Did you get my assignment?" emails. No more! Even more importantly, students really can see when there is a problem with lost email. Because, yes, even during weeks when we are not being blacklisted, at least one or two emails seem to disappear into the ether (or into a spam folder) for no reason at all.

History. I've been doing this so long that I cannot even remember when I started! This is probably the first GoogleDoc that I published online as a webpage. Now that I am also using Twitter, I post something at Twitter periodically during the day about my progress through the Stack; that is something new this year!

Goals. I have several goals for this simple little procedure:
  • Assure students. Students can check to make sure that I received their assignment, thus eliminating their "Did you get my assignment?" inquiries.
  • Detect email failure. This allows students to detect email failures that do occur, either when their email doesn't reach me or my email doesn't reach them.
  • Share workflow with students. Students can see how I spend a good chunk of my time each week, and so they can also appreciate why they might have to wait a few days to get comments back. On Monday morning, the Stack is HUGE because most students turn their work in near the deadline (Sunday).
  • Verify my workflow. I have some good redundancy between the Stack and my email folder of Storybook assignments. I do a quick check of the email folder against the Stack a couple times each day by number of items, and I reconcile by name at the start of each new workday.

General Thoughts

I am very happy with this procedure. Admittedly, some students do not check the stack and write me anyway, but that is actually good for me to know. Those students are clearly not reading the Announcements, and since the Announcements really are an important part of the class, I can quickly respond to their inquiry ("Yes, I got your assignment") while also taking the opportunity to emphasize how important it is to check the Announcements in order to get answers to all kinds of questions they might have. So, even when the procedure does not work as expected, the failure provides valuable information about what is going on with the students so that I can try to improve our communication!



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