The Road Less Travelled: A Reflection on my Master’s Degree and experience at East Carolina University

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim…

 

–from Robert Frost “The Road Not Taken”

 

My Experience

If I could characterize my graduate school journey by any one thing, I would have to say it is a lot like Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken”. I started my master’s degree with one clear-minded goal to teach full-time in college. At the time, all my advisors pushed me to get my master’s in Adult Education. After the first few classes, I quickly realized that a degree in this field would lead to management not teaching. I looked into open teaching positions and researched what a college professor would need to teach English at my local community college. I confirmed my findings with the Department Head. I needed a master’s in English not Adult Education.

I expected the change to be relatively easy. I’d fill out a form and change my major and be done with it. I started taking English classes right away while I was still an Adult Education student. I didn’t think twice about the paperwork until I was almost done with all the English classes for the degree. When I went to fill out the paperwork, I discovered that it was a great insult to enter the program that way. I was informed that I had to apply for the program like everyone else and I “hadn’t given enough reasons to justify” my acceptance into the program.

I was shocked and really scared that all my hard work and money would be lost. I contacted a friend of mine who is an Assistant Director of a program at Appalachian State University. I knew I could talk to him freely and get good advice about how to plead my case. He encouraged me to take ownership of my mistakes and plead my case addressing all my correspondence by their Doctorate degree. Addressing the head of admissions to the TPC program as Doctor seemed to be the added push I needed. I begged for her to accept me despite my mistakes, and she did. I’ve called every professor by their Doctorate name since then to be safe.

My entire college career has been a journey I have excelled in and loved every minute of. I always had good grades and did exemplary work. I always had instructors who were more like friends and remain friends to me today. That was my expectation coming into a master’s degree at ECU, but that was not what I got at all.

How It Was Different

The biggest difference came in the way I approached my instructors. I expected to be able to come to my instructors as mentors and ask for their advice and guidance. However, very few instructors invited us to communicate our emotions, and most treated any such dialogue as a sign that we hadn’t read the material. Anytime I asked a question about anything, I was referred to the website. At one point, I was specifically told by an advisor to go read the manual for the program because I had “no more excuses (to say that) I didn’t know (anything) anymore”. I remember a few instructors who graded discussion forums based on our use of direct references to the textbooks. There was no room for letting the work move and change us; we were supposed to absorb the work like robots. As you can tell, I have not learned that lesson yet.

Instead of feeling like I could come to my instructors with pride and thankfulness, I grew to fear them. I was constantly afraid I would say the wrong thing and hurt my grade. The dark cloud of how I entered the program was always hanging over my head as were the words of the administrator that reluctantly let me enter it. Later, when I suffered the loss of a loved one and my GPA fell below 3.0, I lived with the devastation of feeling like I was as worthless as the way I had been treated. I was kicked out of the program and took a year off per the Department Chair’s recommendation. I begged my way back in. Still, I worried that my academic record would mark me as a failure before I could even be given a chance. My overall experience with my instructors made me scared to offer anything more than an edited version of myself.

The next difference came in my grades. Many times I would pour hours into a project, turn it in expecting an A, and get it back with a C. The harder I tried to make an A in a class, the further I got from it. If I dared to tell an instructor that I was trying to get an A in their class, I was often graded more harshly. On rare occasions, a professor would work with me but still make me earn it. In the children’s literature course, for example, I went through multiple revisions of documents before they met Dr. Tedesco’s standards for an A. I had to make several trips to meet her in person for that, but I will always thank her for being willing to work with me so diligently. Very few of my other instructors were willing to work with me in this way. One instructor, in particular, failed me when I asked for an incomplete. In my entire academic career, I can’t remember ever failing a class until grad school.   

The next difference I experienced was scheduling. I expected all classes to run on the understanding that the week starts and ends on a specific day. For example, it would start on Monday and end on Sunday. What I found, instead, was that every instructor measured time differently. Weeks started and stopped as they wanted them to; no two class calendars were the same. Different calendars meant that class deadlines were constantly changing and overlapping. That was especially true with instructors that taught through external websites outside of Blackboard. Eventually, I had to take the entire outline of each class calendar and add the events to my own personal Google calendar to keep track of my deadlines. Additionally, I checked the websites daily for revisions and updates. I was always worried about falling behind, but this helped me stay ahead enough to find time for other things in my schedule too.

The final difference I experienced was in technology. Most of my experience as a student and as an instructor with education had been face-to-face instruction or instruction using the same uniform learning platform. As a graduate student, I experienced learning through WordPress, Blackboard, and a variety of other external websites. Every instructor had a different approach to how a course should be taught, and those approaches came through onion layers of technology. I had to learn to navigate my way to websites within websites and documents within documents. The only thing I could expect for certain was that every class would have a discussion forum. The rest was fluid. It was hard to get used to that much flexibility, but it was that flexibility that would ultimately inspire my CAP project.

Specific Course Feedback

My experiences with instructors at East Carolina University was diverse. The instructor I had for English 6715 and 7701 was particularly impossible to please. I made countless revisions on work for him, gave him material strong enough for publishing, and got back disgusted remarks and failing grades. I took one of his courses twice because he failed me out of the course the first time while I was going through a personal family crisis. If anyone professor could be responsible for my negative experience and resulting Academic Probation period, it was him.

Not all TPC instructors were like that. In English 6721, I learned a lot about formats, fonts, headers, and copy-editing in his classes. The instructor was very helpful and kind–I almost needed a translation chart to get through the punctuation marks–but I wish I could grade my papers by his marks. It would definitely be a lot more efficient use of my time.

Another professor introduced me to teaching through WordPress. I learned a lot from him and started my own blogs on WordPress because of what I experienced in his and other instructors’ courses. My main blog, rebeccawhitman.wordpress.com, has been active for four years. I have been visited over 2000 times and have accrued a following of 240+ followers through simple word-of-mouth marketing. I post weekly to the site and will be more aggressively marketing it soon. Additionally, I started a blog for educators at whitmansacademics.wordpress.com. I’ve received a lot of recent recognition on that blog for my accomplishments with Google Classroom and my interviews with successful students and educators. One recent interview garnishes 50 views in less than 24 hours.

While most of the textbooks in my TPC classes did not have much relevance for me, I did find some that were applicable to other situations. For example, in the English 7721 Editing class, we read Richard Hamilton’s Managing Writers: A Real World Guide to Managing Documentation. While the book was very specific to the field of TPC management, it was also metaphorically significant for other leadership roles. For example, the sections talking about management philosophy and work environments could be applicable to any job.

Of all the TPC instructors, I learned the most from Dr. Frost. Her Health and Medical Rhetorics class challenged me to see the value and aesthetic beauty of medical texts. I did not enjoy most of the texts, but I was inspired to see works like Michel Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as intriguing. I was particularly moved by Skloot’s book and the raw candor of medical history and racial experience that she expressed. As I was reintroduced to it later in the Dr. Frost’s Writing Public Science course, I realized it would be an excellent textbook for my students. Another book introduced in the writing course, Andy Weir’s The Martian, became my second textbook for the course I created: Science Through Literature.

Far and away, my top favorite classes were the ones in writing and multicultural literature. That’s not surprising considering that my BFA was in Creative Writing at UNC Wilmington, and I am an English teacher now. I’m always more attracted to literature than the mechanics behind it.

In English 5890, the instructor was highly knowledgeable about scriptwriting and the filmmaking business in general. I remember being excited about his use of special collaboration software to allow us to virtually contribute to writing workshops. Nothing was quite so exciting as hearing my work and my characters read and discussed by my peers. I wrote a lot of notes and made a lot of revisions. I didn’t follow through with completing the script, but it meant a lot to me that the instructor invited me to continue working on it with him in another course. (An honor he did not give unless he saw promise in the work.) His choice of textbooks was equally helpful. We read Syd Field’s The Foundations of Screenwriting. The textbook was not as important as the work we were doing and discussing creatively, but it was particularly helpful about the field of screenwriting itself. It was not overly scholarly; it was practical. For example, I remember it discussing how much a film budget could expect to be based on the length of the screenwriter’s manuscript. It never occurred to me that overly wordy text could cost thousands to millions of dollars somewhere else. Now it makes sense why so many scenes are cut before they can even be shot.  

In English 7005, I was challenged to read text from different cultures I would not have normally read. I particularly remember reading Adichie’s Americanah and having a negative review of the author afterward. The instructor was always inspiring. He shamelessly pleaded with students for feedback and course enrollment through mass emails. He also made discussion boards competitive by sending us response letters featuring different students who stood out to him on the boards. I remember wanting to get featured in his letter and trying harder to comment intellectually on the boards to earn it. The instructor’s clever marketing ploys were part of what got me motivated to come back and finish my degree after a period of academic suspension. They were also what inspired me to enroll all my students in a free texting app, Remind, where I frequently send out prodding texts for their attendance and class participation.

It has been on my heart to write a particular children’s series, The Bohemian Princess. I was not quite sure how to flesh it out, so I really wanted to take a children’s literature course. I contacted the children’s literature instructor, and she created a custom course for me. A respected voice in the field of literary criticism about children’s literature herself, Dr. Tedesco challenged me as a reader and a writer in English 6515. I read more children’s books and books about children’s books than I knew existed. Many of them became so personally relevant to me that I bought my own small library of their work and continued reading them long after the class was over. I was particularly fond of the criticism of Maria Tatar, a well-respected voice in the realm of children’s literary criticism. Tatar dove into the layers of meaning in fairytales and challenged my approach to writing them. She made me think about the pedagogy going into my approach to writing children’s literature. On Dr. Tedesco’s recommendation, I read Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl and fell in love with the whole Books of Bayern series. I was equally inspired by the books we read and discussed like R.J.Palacio’s Wonder, Limony Snicket’s The Bad Beginning, Rita Williams-Garcia’s P.S. Be Eleven, and E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. I never realized the depth of character and work that went into writing books for children. Charlotte’s Web, for example, had a far more dark discussion of the cycle of life and death than I remembered when I read it as a child. Overall, I cherished getting to know new authors in the field and reading criticism about children’s literature in general. It is something I still collect and read, and it is a field of writing I will soon join. When I have my own children’s books, I hope they will be ones that Dr. Tedesco would have approved of.

In one of my last courses at ECU, an instructor reignited my poetic voice. We read authors like Layli Long Soldier, Kaveh Akbar, Joan Kane, and Elizabeth Alexander. During this whole discussion, the instructor never related the fact that she has her own published collections. She let us freely discuss the work we read and invited some of us to write our own poetry responses to it. The freedom to read and discuss poetry was the most liberating class experience of my whole degree. I did not love all the choices–I hated some of them passionately–but the experience gave me a chance to remember why I started writing poetry at a young age, pursued a BFA in poetry, and had several poems published.

The Story Behind the CAP Project

My experiences with so many different online learning environments made me want to offer a similar experience for my students. In particular, I wanted to offer my students a customized learning environment. However, that seemed like an impossible goal because the laws governing funding for Adult Basic Skills Education, where I work, require us to rely on instructional software that has time capturing features embedded into the programs. The programs are fine, but they don’t follow all the changing standards for content that we are required to follow, and they don’t teach material in the most engaging way for students. Most premade content requires a lot of reading and writing with little to no video instruction. In my English classes alone, it requires one-three 100 word essays at the end of every reading assignment. Essays intimidate the students and require a lot of grading from the instructors. In most cases, the learning can be adequately judged by a multiple choice self-grading test instead.

As I thought through all these problems, I began to explore other learning platforms used in the curriculum departments of my college. At Wayne Community College, instructors teach online through either Moodle or Google Classroom. Both require student logins through student email accounts. Both allow instructors to post content any way they want to for the students. Both allow discussion forums, video content, pdf attachments, etc. Both are similar to Blackboard, and Google Classroom has a fully functional app version for access on mobile devices.

I discovered that we could potentially use the same learning environment of Moodle or Google Classroom if we could have approved proxy hours to count for the work completed. I found the Google Classroom to be the most efficient of the two, so I started building courses in it. At the time, I was working as an adjunct with as many as 80 students in one class at one time. I wasn’t paid for the extra time to create the project, but I was able to use it in my classes to field test it. I created and field tested a Google Classroom class in all the areas of instruction I was responsible for teaching. I submitted my work to the North Carolina Community College System Office for approval for proxy hours. State auditors visited and loved it. I was asked to give a webinar about my work and, later, teach other teachers about it at Appalachian State University. After two years of waiting, the state office finally sent us back official approval to use the work as I outlined it. You can read more about the Google Classroom project here.

My CAP project will be used as a course website in the same way that some instructors have created external websites for courses in this program. It will have all the content for the course, and instructors will use Google Classroom to monitor student work in a similar way that graduate school instructors use Blackboard to monitor work. Since the course outline was approved by the state, this website will be shared with programs across the state who are using my outline to create course material for their programs. I am excited about what this means for the world of Adult Basic Skills Education and my footprint in it.

Final Thoughts

My experiences with ECU were not as inspiring and kind as I had hoped, but they were educational. As you can see from the highlights included here, not every instructor was a discouragement, but part of finding encouragement in my learning came from learning to make lemonade from my lemons. I have to say that falling so far off my academic pedestal taught me more than I could have learned from my degree. It taught me that my self-worth can’t be dictated by a classroom or a grade point average. It taught me that when you really want something, sometimes you have to articulate your need and fight for it. I may never use my degree for a career in Technical Writing, but I will always be able to use how it taught me to fight and how it taught me to read and write critically.