Paragon Award winner encourages students to work collaboratively in writing course
APRIL 22, 2016 BY PAM STARLING
Jane Meek, a writing and rhetoric instructor at the University of Mississippi, has been named the recipient of this year’s Paragon Award for Excellence in Distance Teaching, honoring her work in teaching Writing 102: First Year Writing II online.
“Teaching online has been the biggest, but best, challenge of my career,” Meek said. “I have learned to connect with students in a very different way, but it has helped me to stay in sync with technology and the ways that students of today are grasping concepts.”
In its sixth year, the annual Paragon award is designed to recognize UM faculty who use online learning technology effectively through good practices in course design and innovative use of technologies. Nominees’ efforts are acknowledged for engaging students as well as their commitment to providing them with a quality education. The honor includes a $1,000 award.
This is not Meek’s first award applauding her dedication to education. In 2013, she received the Kramer Outstanding Teacher Award that is presented annually within the UM Department of Writing and Rhetoric.
Meek’s strong teaching skills in the face-to-face classroom have translated well into her online classes, said Robert Cummings, associate professor and chair of the UM writing and rhetoric department.
“One of the hallmarks of Jane’s teaching, which led to her acknowledgement through our department’s annual Kramer award, is her ability to intuitively understand the challenges of learning from a student’s perspective,” Cummings said.
“Consistently Jane’s students comment on her ability to understand their challenges in approaching literacy, and her gift for organizing her class online to facilitate their learning.”
In 2013, family matters required Meek to move to Miami. As she prepared to resign from her Ole Miss position, representatives from her department approached her about teaching online courses.
“I enjoyed teaching live classes on campus in Oxford,” Meek said. “When switching to online courses, I was worried that I would miss the class chemistry of lively discussions with my students, but really students have to be more engaged in an online course. Students can’t hide in the back of a classroom.
“Now I am hearing from all of my students, not just the ones who are confident enough to raise their hands in class.”
Originally from the Mississippi Delta town of Cleveland, Meek completed her undergraduate degree in English from UM and earned a graduate degree in English from the University of Alabama, as well as a graduate degree in women’s gender and sexuality studies from the University of Cincinnati. She joined the UM faculty in spring 2011.
Meek’s online course is the second part of the required freshmen-level writing course that serves as an important building block for Ole Miss students. The course is designed to prepare students for the various writing tasks they will need throughout college.
“It is a pretty demanding course,” Meek explained. “But, I take pride in giving students the tools and confidence to be able to write well for any of their future college courses. We want them to be successful.”
Most students in Meek’s class are freshmen, so she focused on helping them stay organized and ready for each week’s assignments through weekly to-do-lists and calendars.
She also says she created her course to appeal to the different learning styles of students.
“I presented information in a variety of formats from readings in textbooks, short videos, narrated PowerPoint presentations, links to online articles and still images,” Meek said. “The class assignments were similarly diverse, requiring that students post to discussion boards, attend videoconferences with me, conduct research using the library’s databases, as well as write and revise essays with the aid of Blackboard online tools.”
Meek demonstrated her commitment to providing quality education in her online course by requiring that each student attend a one-on-one video conference to discuss their writing assignments. Several students liked working with her in this way and requested more than one feedback session.
“In these conferences, students could see on their own computers what I was looking at on my computer screen,” she said. “We would discuss my detailed feedback on their drafts, and I could pull up examples to show them.
“This just helped me to make a more personal connection and engage students as we worked together to improve their writing skills.”
After a previous semester of online teaching where students seemed to lag behind, Meek created a student manual to help students adapt to online learning.
“I wanted to offer students more resources than what a traditional syllabus provides,” Meek said. “My department has since asked me to develop this manual into an orientation document for new online instructors in the writing and rhetoric program.”
Staying involved with other UM faculty members has also been key to success for Meek. She says her teaching development circle gathers together online every two weeks in a virtual meeting between six or seven faculty members.
“We get together to share resources, talk about issues that might arise in our courses and serve on committees,” Meek said.
The connection with other UM faculty and with support she receives from the UM Online Design and eLearning department has been a great resource for her transition from a traditional classroom instructor to an online one, she said.
“Jane’s insights have helped all of our online classes develop and grow,” Cummings said. “Her growth as an online teacher has served as a catalyst for the entire department.”