Guest post by Dan Weinstein, Ph.D.
(Dan Weinstein is currently Associate Professor of English at Dakota State University in Madison, South Dakota. There, roughly 1400 miles from his birthplace in New York City, he teaches both writing and web design and researches best practices for computer supported writing instruction.)
One key to good teaching is simply the habit of keeping one’s teaching house in order. Usually, there is quite a bit to keep track of. Documents that range from assignment descriptions to lectures, handouts, and tests need to be created, updated, distributed, archived, and kept ready for access at a moment’s notice (this is particularly true when one is teaching online, which I quite often do).
To minimize the burden of this sort of housekeeping and keep my attention where it should be (on my students), I have devised a system of file management that streamlines my workflow to the point where virtually all I have to think about are the critical human interactions the system exists to support.
To do this, I use two tools in tandem: Buzzword and a spreadsheet. Any garden variety spreadsheet will do, the only requirement being that it support hyperlinks. At the moment I use either OpenOffice.org Calc or Microsoft Excel. If Buzzword were to host a spreadsheet application, I would probably use that.
Here’s what I do:
At the beginning of the academic semester I set up my spreadsheet workbook. I make seven sheets: a calendar, a sheet of email address lists for my classes (I copy the addresses from my rosters and separate them with semicolons), a sheet I use as a “to do” list, and four sheets to use as grade books for my courses.
The sheet of email addresses, the “todo” sheet, and the grade sheets are pretty self explanatory. However, the calendar sheet requires a little more explanation, for it is here, in the calendar sheet, that integration with Buzzword takes place.
My calendar spreadsheet contains seven columns, A – G. Column A holds a semester’s worth of days and dates and organizes the whole of sheet A chronologically, from top to bottom. Column B holds important institutional dates, such as the last date on which students may withdraw from a course and still get their money back. Column C serves as my personal vertical “date book” for meeting and other appointments. Then, the remaining columns, D, E, F, and G, contain the assignment schedules for each of the four courses I am slated to teach that semester.
As I fill in the cells of columns D, E, F, and G with the titles and deadlines of assignments, I note at what points I will need to furnish an assignment description or set up an assignment with the text of a lecture. This is where Buzzword comes in. There is no platform for shared documents my students and I like better than Buzzword. The beauty of Buzzword’s display distinguishes the content of Buzzword documents, making them look different, and a bit more “serious”, than the HTML text that usually flashes across my students’ browsers. In addition, the discrete pagination of Buzzword documents helps students keep track of information in longer documents (and I admit that, at times, those lectures of mine can get pretty long winded). So, whenever I find I have an assignment to describe, or a lecture to ventilate, I turn to Buzzword, create the document, and use the nifty new “paste sharing list” function to share a document with the class for which it was meant. Where do I get the sharing list? Why, from my sheet of email addresses, of course! Having done that one time, I can just as easily copy the same list from one Buzzword document to another. Sweet!
Once I have created and shared a Buzzword document for distribution to a class, I add a hyperlink to that live document within the appropriate cell of my spreadsheet. When I have done this for all the assignments in a course, I scarcely have to think about the location of an assignment description or lecture for the rest of the semester. I can export columns [A, B], and D, E F or G to the syllabus of a particular course (thus transferring not just the assignment schedule but links to all the associated descriptions and lectures as well). In addition, I can subsequently share documents with student or expert co-authors and, by virtue of their contributions to these preexisting files, appoint these folks “guest lecturers” without altering the assignment schedule one whit (I just have to let the students in the course know in advance that live materials are subject to change). Further, if, at any time, a student IMs me in need of an assignment description, all I have to do is glance at my spreadsheet and send the right link in reply.
The upshot of this two-tool document management system is that, between Buzzword and my spreadsheet workbook, I am able to orchestrate my entire professional life.
I do other things with Buzzword, too, such as, in my English Composition courses, creating shared documents for 1:1 conferencing with students about their writing, in concert with voice calls. In this case, a copy of the class roster becomes the scaffold for a hyperlinked index of such individualized instructional documents. But such tales as this are, perhaps, too discipline-specific for this venue.
In general, then, for anyone with a need to contextually index a set of Buzzword documents, whether for document management, project management, or some other kind of digital housekeeping, I suggest the combination of Buzzword and a spreadsheet. It works for me.