Somewhere between text and email, but better than either
by Christopher Campbell
For step-by-step instructions to setup a class workspace, follow this link to Slack’s landing page: “Set up a Slack workspace for your college or university course.”
Now that we’re rounding the bend on one full year of online teaching, it’s safe to say that many of us have found that email, Blackboard, and Zoom have come to comprise the trinity of our classroom structure. I myself use all three of these platforms, and our students are likely familiar with these programs now as well. However, I’ve found that, bar none, the most effective platform for fostering classroom culture and communication is the Slack messaging service. You may have caught wind of Slack in recent months but decided that adding yet another platform to your online presence could overcomplicate your course. However, despite the fact that yes, this is an additional platform, I’d like to explain how and why I’ve implemented and benefited from using Slack in the last year.
At the beginning of the semester I’ve asked students to sign up for what Slack calls our class’s “workspace” using a custom link. Students use their email address to join the workspace. A workspace can be accessed on Slack’s website or using the Slack app. The workspace contains one main channel where everyone who joins can communicate class-wide with one another via chat. This is a useful space for sending (or duplicating from email) important messages for the entire class. I’ve noticed that students oftentimes use our primary workspace to ask questions that they feel an answer to would benefit the entire class. As the moderator, you also have individual channels through which you can communicate directly with each student. Once they join, I send students an individual “Hello, welcome to our Slack workspace! Let me know if you have questions” message as a way to get the conversation started. I find that beginning this sort of private conversation with my students on Slack personalizes their experience with me—something I find really important in the online setting, particularly for First-Year Writing.
I’m a proponent of writing and conversation groups, both in First-Year Writing and Great Works. On Slack, you can organize students into groups and assign them their own private conversation workspace separate from the individual and class-wide workspaces. As the moderator, you can communicate with each of these groups individually, similar to how on Zoom we can split participants into group spaces that we’re able to access and move between. In Great Works, every other week I give students a list of five questions concerning the reading for that week to use as a scaffold to their group conversation. I make these group conversations worth 1% of their final grade each (pretty low stakes), but I find that these conversations help bolster class participation during that week’s in-person Zoom meeting.
As opposed to Zoom, I use Slack as a setting for virtual office hours. For example, I used Slack check-ins in First-Year Writing as a solution to the problem of how to promote classroom participation. At the beginning of each week, I would give students a prompt to respond to in a private message to me on Slack. Here are two examples of prompts I’ve used:
- What about the reading for this week inspires you as you draft your creative nonfiction piece?
- Locate three peer-reviewed articles on Baruch Library’s research database and send them to me as the beginning of your check-in. We’ll talk about how you will use (or even if you should use!) each of these in your research assignment.
This gave me the opportunity to regularly check in on their progress in the course, and I found that students engaged a great deal more with drafting and revisions of their papers as a result.
For me, the key to generating classroom culture in an online setting has been finding a balance between casualness and professionalism. Zoom can be staid and awkward (especially if our students aren’t communicating with us or turning on their videos). While Slack doesn’t solve the Zoom doldrums, I do find that it builds an extra dimension onto the class that is less formal, more engaged, and more conversational. I’ve noticed that students message me more now to ask about their college experience more generally. I appreciate how quickly I’m able to respond to students without the formalities of composing an email, or even multiple emails. This setting aside of communication formalities also adds to the classroom culture. I noticed that students would talk to each other about other classes they were both simultaneously taking, or about funny memes or videos that they had come across.
Finally, I understand that this comes across as a lot of work on top of preparing for classes, teaching, and grading. But, if you’re up for putting in the additional effort, I believe that using Slack as a complementary feature to your course helps with fostering focused, personalized experiences with our students.
Chris Campbell is a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Fellow and Adjunct Instructor in the English Department at Baruch College, where he also teaches First-Year Writing and Great Works of World Literature. He is a PhD Candidate in Comparative Literature at The Graduate Center, CUNY. His dissertation, entitled “Cleaning out the Closet: AIDS, Trauma, and the Literary Nonplace,” combines his degree studies in Architecture with French and American queer literature of the last 40 years. He can be contacted at email@example.com.