Meeting the Minds – Interviewing Dr. Mark A. McCutcheon


An Associate Professor for AU’s Centre of Humanities and Master of Arts in Integrated Studies programs, Dr. Mark McCutcheon teaches a variety of courses on everything from the cultural politics of copyright to Canadian adaptations of Frankenstein, to modern media theory and beyond. He was kind enough to give The Voice Magazine this interview.

You have won a variety of awards and acclamations. What are some of your most monumental awards, positions, and acclamations?
Actually, by my count I’ve won only one teaching award, but it means a lot to me: the AU Grad Students’ Association named me for its Outstanding Distinction for AU Faculty award in 2012. I’ve won a couple of SSHRC research awards ? those are tough to compete for, so they mean a great deal too. But I have to say I’ve been as thrilled (or more) to hear of awards and distinctions won ? and further degrees pursued ? by students I’ve taught and supervised. My students? achievements and distinctions suggest I might be doing something right.

Please fill us in on the range of course you have taught or designed at Athabasca.
I coordinate AU’s undergraduate courses in subjects where literature intersects with other media: drama (ENGL 303, 304, 431); film (ENGL 373); and the digital (ENGL 475 is closed for me and my colleague Jolene Armstrong to give it a total overhaul and update ? to be relaunched very soon). I’ve also designed and taught graduate courses for our MA program (MAIS) on postcolonial and diasporic cultural subjects (ENGL 633, LTST 637), and on academic writing (MAIS 606). I’ve also got other courses on literary history in the works.

As an instructor in online education, what are some of the challenges as well as some of the highlights of teaching online?
Good question. Let me start with the highlights: I find it relatively easy to get to know a student through email, phone calls, etc. When I started teaching at AU I did not at all expect that I would find it easier to get to know students better at a distance than in the face-to-face classroom, but That’s exactly what’s happened. But sure, there are challenges too: here are a couple of the big ones for me. First, staying available and as clearly articulate for students as I can. Open learning means all your interactions are documented, they make a paper-trail, so It’s of the utmost importance always to represent yourself and your subject matter with the utmost professionalism, courtesy – and clarity. Second, while I find it relatively easy to detect, catch, and penalize almost all plagiarism and academic fraud, there are a very few scenarios in which It’s very hard to do. (No, I’m not going into details.) This frustrates me, because academic fraud hurts nothing so much as AU’s reputation (which AU is constantly challenged to prove, anyway), which means it hurts the value of your learning and the very degree You’re earning here.

How do you aim to stimulate student motivation in online learning environments?
This is a great question. Can I let a student answer it? A couple of years ago, one of my students expressed frustration with online study problems I’m sure You’re familiar with: mainly workload and self-directed work discipline to stay with their studies and see them through. I suggested the student share their concerns on AU’s social network site, the Landing. The student did so: “The reason for this post is to see if anyone out there could actually help me out with tips and tricks they have developed over the years to coop both work and school at the same time, how do you schedule your planner.” And right away other students started posting replies and comments that soon proved helpful to all involved (myself included): outlining papers, using regular small chunks of time (lunch hours, weeknights) for study time, making a habit of scheduling, etc. See the full discussion at https://landing.athabascau.ca/blog/view/103510/help-with-on-line-courses (you’ll need to log in to the Landing with your student ID and password to read this thread). I expect many of your readers might find some helpful tips there.

All I would add to their answers is to point out the place they shared it: in the Landing, which is AU’s social network, a site that bundles together a bunch of tools (blogging, twitter-like announcements, wikis, even web-conferencing now) ? and all for only the AU community of students, staff, and faculty. The kinds of online environments we occupy and how we occupy them can stimulate (or frustrate) student motivation. The Landing has been criticized for the learning curve needed to make good use of it (criticized by faculty as well as students, mind you), but I believe It’s exactly the kind of user-driven, student-oriented social technology that can hugely benefit ? and enhance the learning of – the student who takes time to play and practice with it.

What is your approach to providing feedback for students to help them with their learning objectives?
Feedback is especially crucial on students? written work, and both the student and the instructor have certain responsibilities to meet in order for feedback to advance the student’s learning. The student is responsible for scheduling their work and submitting writing in a way that allows for feedback to be meaningful. For example, if a student waits until the last day of a course contract to submit all written work, whatever feedback I might give on that written work isn’t meaningful because it won’t contribute to the student’s continuing learning in the course. So I always encourage students to schedule and pace the writing and submission of essays, so they can actually use the feedback I give in how they approach the next writing assignment.

Similarly, as the instructor I am responsible to make sure my feedback is constructive and genuinely helpful for the student to build on. So for example I don’t like to return written work with my comments scribbled in red all over every page: That’s too much. I prefer to identify just two or three specific things in a given piece of writing that a student should take note of and work on in future. As for staying constructive, I’ve written up a blog post that more or less describes how I keep my criticism constructive: https://academicalism.wordpress.com/2013/12/03/tips-for-giving-constructive-criticism-on-academic-writing/

The fact I blog about topics like this points to the other part of my approach to providing feedback, which is about making my expectations for course work and academic writing generally both easy to understand and publicly available to access. (As with this related blog post, for instance: https://academicalism.wordpress.com/2013/11/25/academic-essay-writing-pointers-and-resources/.)

What do you purport to be the role of technology and multimedia in online environments? How do they aid or complicate online learning?
I’m all for trying out new teaching tools and technologies ? I use, research, and teach extensively with digital media (for instance, find me on Twitter at @sonicfiction). However, I try to be mindful of two ongoing concerns. First, students bring a spectrum of abilities and aptitudes to digital media; as my learning designer colleague Mary Pringle argues, “we would be doing our students a disservice if we didn’t help them to develop the communication skills they need to succeed in a networked world.” So It’s crucial to actively help students learn how to use and master these transferable technical and communication skills ? and in particular to use them according to critical digital literacy, an understanding of these tools? sources, structures, built-in assumptions ? that is, according to how, as McLuhan said, “the medium is the message” ? how every technology tends to structure a new environment according to its own built-in priorities.

Second, I’m also very concerned for current and prospective students to know that if they prefer ? or need ? to use only print materials and the postal service to complete their AU studies, they have every right and claim to do so. AU courses don’t need to prioritize print, now that so much exciting stuff is happening online, but they should make sure print- and paper-based learning remain available as an option, especially since some of the community groups that would most benefit from open postsecondary education ? prison inmates, for instance ? cannot access computers or the Internet. So I’m less interested in technological shifts than in ensuring these shifts don’t end up excluding prospective students.

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