Friday, December 9, 2011

Internationally Renowned DJ David Guetta Teaches Us How to Be Good Academics

image from

For those of you who don't already know this, I am a huge fan of house music, and one of the biggest names in house, one of the few mainstream house artists, is David Guetta. This morning, he did a radio interview with Elvis Duran and the Morning Show (which I also love). Throughout the interview, it was obvious that Guetta not only loves what he does, but aspires to bring that love to others. When race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and all of the other differences fade into the background and everyone feels the music, that is when he believes he is most successful as a dj.

As Guetta spoke on the radio, listeners got a glimpse into just how personable Guetta is, and also how intelligent and committed to his craft he is. Guetta's music is obviously his passion and his study. Just as we spend hours pouring over books and archives, collaborating with colleagues, writing and revising, Guetta spends hours searching for rhythms and sounds, looking through archives of songs, collaborating with other arts, mixing and remixing songs, and creating and editing tracks. 

Three basic things that an academic can learn from David Guetta:

1. Collaboration is good. David Guetta's earlier music is different from the music he is currently producing, but what you will notice is that his music now is nearly always the product of collaboration with other artists and they are almost always from other genres (hip-hop, r& b, pop, etc.). He told Carolina how inspired he was by hip-hop artist and famous producer Timbaland's ability to make beats out of anything, since Guetta typically uses computers and synthesizers to make his. In addition, djs constantly take the work of other dj/producers and remix them. Sometimes, the songs become unrecognizable from their originals, but they are often interesting and beautiful in their own ways. 

Scholars, too, can learn a great deal from collaborating with others. They can find new voices in their writing, they can find new perspectives through interdisciplinary studies, and they can learn something that they never would have learned by isolating themselves.

2. Be a life-long learner. Guetta loves music so much because he believes that there is always something new to learn. He called himself an "eternal learner." And you can tell because his music has evolved over time. This goes for any field. When we decide we know it all, we become the worst kind of scholars. 

3. The field and the application of knowledge is more important than the name one makes for her/his self. When asked if he that he was in competition with other djs, Guetta said no. He said that it was their job to help others find the music. When house was still very underground, they used to pump up their successful colleagues to help the industry as whole look bigger than it was. It clearly paid off. 

These djs are still willing to help one another now that house is more popular. Many times, when you search an artist's biography, it will talk about their mentor djs. AN21 & Max Vangelli were assisted by AN21's older brother Steve Angelo and mega djs Swedish House Mafia, for instance. On the show, Guetta was nice enough to talk to an intern who dreams of becoming a mega-DJ like Guetta. Guetta listened to his tracks and give him some friendly advice. He recognizes that those who are asking him for advice are the next generation. He is more concerned with the preservation of house music than he is with his own success.

As scholars, we often feel as if we are in competition with other scholars. It becomes difficult to collaborate and share ideas because we want to protect them as our own. The tenure atmosphere adds to that. Hiring committees are not as impressed by collaborative projects; they don't know how to evaluate them. As graduate students, we are also pitted against one another, told that the best student will get the jobs after graduate.Guetta reminds us that we should be working towards truth, not fame.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Even My Rabbit Can Google

It frustrates me IMMENSELY when students-- or anyone for that matter-- tell me, "Oh, I don't know what that word meant," "I didn't know how to cite that in MLA style" (especially after we've gone over it in class and shared multiple resources detailing how to), "I didn't know who so-and-so was," or "I didn't know that [insert major current event] was happening." There are some things that are tough to come by, but definitions, citation guides, biographies, and major world events are not any of them. 

If my rabbit can figure out how to open up Google, so can you!
Cluck hopped around on the keyboard
and managed to open up Google without my assistance.

Like I said, some things aren't easy to find (for instance, a free live stream of the Super Bowl), but many times people are simply lazy. Today, we have the biggest library in the world at our fingertips, the Internet, but people don't want to spend an extra 15 minutes looking up something they don't know. As a teacher/tutor/tech-savvy individual, they expect me to give them answers that they never bothered to tried to find on their own. Sure, I can teach you how to search, but I will not search for you. That's your job. Not mine.

This often translates into writing as well. People who won't spend an extra 5 minutes looking up a definition to a word they don't know or spend an extra 15 minutes to find a really good source rather than a mediocre one are often unwilling to take the time to problem-solve in their writing. In other words, their evidence is minimal, their analysis is surface level, and their claims are rarely unique.

In conclusion, I urge you, if you don't know something, look it up! You won't learn much if you expect to be spoon fed all of the answers in life.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Fishing for Answers: Stanley Fish's Save the World on Your Own Time

About a week ago, I picked up Stanley Fish's Save the World on Your Own Time. A colleague mentioned it during a conversation at faculty orientation, and I was instantly intrigued. Fish argues that teachers who try to do anything but teach-- which he defines as providing new discipline-relevant material and demonstrating practical methods of analysis and evaluation-- are doing their students and academia in general a disservice. His argument also extends to administrators and universities in general. And he doesn't sugar coat it. He has a wry, sarcastic, and very direct style to his writing; some might even call it aggressive (he does).

As a teacher, I was interested in his distinction between "academicizing" and indoctrinating, especially after hearing a fellow classmate's heated objections to a teacher who was offering extra credit to students who chose to join Occupy Wall Street. To me, that was simply unacceptable. I also remembered the 2008 election and my teacher's obvious Obama support. It made me uncomfortable. I felt like I was the only person in all of academia who would even considering the arguments of the Republican candidate. Finally, I worry that my belief that writing is a social transaction and tool for social change gets in the way of teaching students how to write effectively (Fish  would probably say that it does... sometimes). For all these reasons and more, I had to read and would recommend this book to all faculty and administration.

Sometimes, Fish's argument is difficult to stomach. I truly believe that part of my job is to help make the world a better place. While I may not always succeed, I can help students see things from new perspectives, ones that enable them to make better decisions, and I can teach them to use writing for purposes that are not merely academic. As a professor-- yes, even as an adjunct-- I hold a position of power. My students are mostly traditional freshman. Since they are trying to get a grasp on what it means to be a college student, they look to me for an example and for guidance. I believe that my age contributes to this even more. I am not much older than many of my students, and so, in some respects, they can place themselves in my position, a young academic. I try to show them that I use my brain and my academic interests to function as a real person in society. Aside from being an academic role model, though, I believe I need to be a moral one. The classroom is solid space for me to advocate positive change in the world, as well, which I why I love teaching writing so much.

Fish would say this is a no-no. He argues that we can go change the world on our own time, and that is perfectly acceptable, but when we bring politics into the classroom, we leave a space for outsiders to label universities as places where students are being indoctrinated with liberal ideologies or viewed as production lines for corporations. He also says that academic work is "useless," and that's ok. We should not be producing laboring bodies for capitalist reasons or tell students that their study should have a purpose in the world outside academic (that's the value of academic freedom). We should simply teach students to explore for the sake of knowledge and skill attainment. I don't necessarily disagree with him, either.

Where I do think Fish misses the mark is when he says that we shouldn't aim to teach students to respect all cultures or practice pluralism. He says that the university is not a democracy, and we should not teach democratically. Yet, my understanding of respect and his may be different. I believe that students should be taught to respect all cultures, meaning that they don't attack people because of they hold different ideologies. When you respect something, it does not mean that you agree with it. I respect my religion, for instance, but it doesn't mean that I don't question it or debate what practices I want to uphold. Respect doesn't mean that students should be forced to accept all ideologies, but that they should respect the people that hold them. Fish doesn't think diplomacy is getting us anywhere, however, so he'd probably still disagree with me on this point, although, he does make a distinction between name calling and debating a point with evidence.

Throughout the entire text, I found myself resistant to Fish. I wanted to disagree with him at every turn. The margins of my book are covered in sarcastic quips to match those made by Fish. In the end, though, it seems that perhaps I'm somewhat in line with Fish's theories of pedagogy. And I really hate to admit that. For instance, as Fish does, I believe that my students deserve an open forum to consider theories, not that all theories are right, but that they need to learn for themselves how to evaluate and analyze them. I don't believe I have a right to say, "I think that war is wrong" or "We should promote marriage rights for gays." I bring in controversial texts such as Palin's argument that her aggressive campaign language had nothing to do with the Tuscon shooting, not for the purpose of making my classroom agree or disagree with Palin, but to consider freedom of speech rights, how political rhetoric works in the public sphere, and whether or not she constructs an effective argument. I also believe that it's true that I cannot directly affect the way that my students use the information that I give them. At the end of the day, though my class may be transformative, it is not intrinsic to the material. I may still have "bad eggs" who will use the information for harm rather than good, and there is not much that I can do about it outside of teaching and being engaged in the education of my students.

I even see Fish and I standing on common ground when it comes to my Writing as Activism assignment, which is perhaps a politically charged one. It directly advocates activism, which Fish recommends against. He writes, "Once you start.... engaging your students in discussions designed to produce action in the world, you are surely doing something, but it is not academic, even if you give it that name" (169). However, my students' projects reflect their own interests, and throughout, I encourage them to do rhetorical analysis, to evaluate the ethos/pathos/logos of their debates (this part is new for me), and to consider their rhetorical purposes. There is a learning value far greater than simple political activism. I believe it is two fold. It shows students that there is a purpose for writing beyond writing essays that will never leave the academic safety bubble (although I'm not sure Fish would like that idea very much). I wouldn't teach it if I thought that the only value was an activist one. I know, however, that they are learning a great deal about writing through their projects.

In the final paragraph of his book, Fish cautions, "Beware, that is, of doing something for a reward external to its own economy" (178). This is really what I take away from Fish's argument and what I think all teachers can adopt. Regardless of how much we hope to do do, we shouldn't be teaching our own political views at the expense of our students' education. We can blend the political with the academic, but we should not advocate only the former.

Even if you whole-heartedly disagree with Fish, I think that this is one of those texts that every teacher should pick up.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Glimpse into the Private Life of a Student

For several months now, I've been slowly working through an archive of First Year Writing students' portfolios. Though I'm reading them through a lens that looks for classifications of public versus private writing spaces, I saw something today that sparked my interest much more. I was reading a student's essay on dorm living that was written for a colleague's class when I came across a description of a student that I recognized, one of my own.

It was a strange moment for me. I only had the girl in class for a few weeks, but she was very unique. She had a creative approach to writing and a great sense of voice. I knew it would be a pleasure to read her papers and to push her to improve her writing throughout the semester, but I never got the chance. Eventually, she just stopped showing up.

What I learned from this other students' paper was a bit about the girl's lifestyle. It made it seems as if she were a recluse, someone who never stayed in the dorms unless it were completely necessary. She spent all of her time trying to do things away from campus. You could tell the roommate was intrigued by her, but also felt sorry for her, as I began to. It didn't seem like my student enjoyed being at the university.

This short description made me think back to our classroom interactions. I knew that the student was unfamiliar with many of the tasks I was asking her to do; she expressed her discomfort. She wasn't a shy girl, but I didn't see her really interact with her peers in the classroom. I assumed that she had just dropped the class, but it sounds like, from this paper, that eventually she left the university. I can't help, but wonder if I added to her anxiety by forcing her outside of her comfort zone even in her academic work or if there was something I could have done to prevent her from isolating herself. Should I have reached out to her? Should I have stopped her to talk after class? Should I have written her an email? I will never know.

It is scenarios like this one that make me wonder how involved we should be in students' lives. If I knew that she was experiencing this disconnect from her peers, I probably would have meddled. I would have tried to show her how much the college social experience has to offer her or to point her in the direction of peers with whom she could feel more at-home. On the other hand, perhaps this meddling is not a good thing. Maybe, the student really did need to leave the university. Maybe it wasn't the right place for her. Again, I'll never know.

I'd love to know how others deal with this. As teachers, how far do you delve into students' lives, outside of the classroom? And for students, how much involvement do you want teachers to take?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Modest Proposals: The Power of Satire

This is not the first semester that I taught Jonathan's Swift's "A Modest Proposal." It is a piece I thoroughly enjoy giving to students. They are horrified and shocked by the nonchalant way that Swift goes about calling for the killing and eating of babies. Sometimes, they are uncertain as to whether or not Swift is making a legitimate proposal. Not everyone realizes it is satire from the get-go.

Students don't usually get a chance to interact with satire in academia. Everything here is so serious. The one piece of satire my students recalled having read is Animal Farm, which is far less humorous than Swift's piece. My students had a great discussion about the piece, though. They laid out what made the piece effective or ineffective, found passages, and used history to think about the piece. Without being prompted, discussion about activism emerged, as well as commentary on the rhetorical triangle. I was impressed. 

And, as we figured out, satire is all around them, and it is often more effective than serious, direct approaches. The things that go viral these days are often satiric parodies of today's celebrities or hot button political issues. They create awareness rather than directly calling for action. They show people the ridiculousness of the little things that they take seriously. At the same time, satire asks writers to be aware of their audience and meticulous about their research.

So, today, as in semesters before, I asked students to write their own satires. This is something that they will probably never do in another class, though, as we discovered, satire is an effective means of activist writing. People gravitate towards humor and things that undermine authority. The results were creative and funny. I heard some laughs as they wrote. 

What I hadn't considered, however, is that some of them said that they felt bad about the things that they were writing. My response was  a simple, "don't worry about it. It's supposed to be awful." What I really should have explained was the way that the terrible words yield results, how they aren't genuine feelings, and how they make others realize how awful they have been. This was definitely a teachable moment where I failed.

Of course, I would never ask my students to do anything I wouldn't do, so as they wrote, I wrote my own "Modest Proposal" right along with them. Here it is: 

A Modest Proposal for the Crisis in Education

Fellow Americans, I write to you today to propose a solution to the current crisis in education. Education is the foundation of our capitalist nation. It is the spring board to better jobs. Though many have tried to promote education reform in this nation, all have failed because their schemes are too elaborate or else too simple. It is a costly failure, seeing as education expenses run our country close to $600 billion a year. But never fear! I have the solution, the one that will solve all of our problems.

 Though many students enjoy learning, many are simply there to be babysat while their parents go off to work; they hate being there. The parents don’t care anymore about the children’s education than the children do. They just need somewhere for the children to go while they work so they do not have to pay for day care. I propose, then, a simple fix. Those students who are disruptive, showing apathy towards their education, or doing poorly in their studies will be sent off to labor camps during the day. Not only will this ensure that the best and the brightest get the most of their schooling without being dragged down by their lower quality peers, but the productivity of these laboring children will pay the nation’s education costs, slashing taxes, minimizing class sizes, increasing the ability to purchase resources, and adding to the pool of available scholarships for college-bound students. Plus, the laborers will find their experience rewarding, knowing that they are contributing to the good of the peers and nation as a whole, and find pleasure in doing hands-on activities.

In order to pass this legislation, we simply would have to do away with the No Child Left Behind Act, which many states are already reconsidering anyway, and do away with child labor laws. This would be a fairly easy thing to do, seeing as anyone with a solid view of education would fully support this move.

Of course, all students will have the opportunity to attend kindergarten to assess their aptitude for learning. If students have not learned the alphabet or mastered shoe-tying, then they shall begin labor in the first grade. As the grades progress, students who fail to meet the standards or who become pests in the classroom will be cut, just as they are during team try outs. If they aren’t practicing and exercising their brains, then they aren’t fit to be in school. Labor ends at eighteen, at which point, children become adults and are encouraged to find occupations.

In the end, students will be even more motivated to do well in school if they are opposed to physical labor. This will guarantee those students who are intellectually-motivated are the ones to whom who teachers are giving their time and attention.

The plan is easy to initiate. Firstly, before students have produced enough revenue to create public workspaces, laborers can use school auditoriums and gyms, or even general play spaces, such as schoolyards, unused practice fields, or the like as places of production.

Secondly, production will be arranged by grade, so that no child gets more than he is able to physically handle. First graders will create small things such as shoe laces, while older high-school-aged students will do harder tasks such as welding, mechanics, and heavy lifting.

Thirdly, each marking period, the best workers in the district will be rewarded with a small bonus check to take home to mom and dad, much like the best students earn merit awards or certificates.

As a doctoral student, I have very little gain from this proposal. I have already gone through the ranks of education and would see no enhancement to my own education. If this plan seems to benefit me, it is only because of the great gains that this plan would offer to our nation as a whole. It would be an investment in the future for us all.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Music as Activism: Sountracks to Student Projects

Each semester, I have made sure to spend at least one day talking about music and lyrics as forms of activism. I have my students read the lyrics of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," Linkin Park's "Hands Held High," and Eminem's "Like Toy Soldiers." I also share YouTube videos of these songs, so that they can listen to the them as they read the lyrics. In class, we talk about which songs were effective at carrying across their message and do close readings, dissecting lyrics, talking about tone, and evaluating audience appeal.

Today, they also used this conversation about music to workshop their Writing as Activism projects, all of which are based upon very different topics. These are the instructions for the workshop:

Click to See Blog Post
As far I have seen (some students took it home to complete), all of my students chose option # 1: the sountrack. While on the surface, the workshop might sound silly, students actually learn quite a bit about Composition by doing it. It requires students to:

  • consider the aspects of their topic that they wanted to highlight. 
  • perform close readings of songs to establish whether or not those songs actually represented the issues that they wished to highlight. 
  • figure out the best way to organize the soundtrack for an audience and how to use that organization to contribute to their message.
  • analyze their choices.

As students worked on this workshop, the classroom became vibrant. You could hear all different genres of music softly playing on laptops. Some of the students were giggling at the videos and lyrics. It was 35 minutes where every student was on-track, focused on the task at hand.

It was also a collaborative effort, though I didn't intentionally make it one. Students were talking to one another, sharing their iTunes libraries, and helping each other find songs on YouTube. They were asking "why that song?" and, though they may have just been curious, they were forcing their fellow students to consider their choices.

And of course, this workshop was also a great way for students to learn to use technology. I am super lucky to have a school that provides every student with a laptop and wireless access in every classroom. Since they are given these tools, I believe it is my job to make the most of them. This project required them to fine tune key words in order to search for songs and lyrics. Though this seems like an easy task on the surface, one of the most challenging tasks when it comes to academic research is finding the right search terms to use in the databases. Learning how to construct key words and how to find sources to help you complete your task are important skills.

In the end, I was impressed by the soundtracks that my students compiled. They put a good deal of thought into them. Even the students who had challenging topics, for which practically no songs directly addressed the issue, managed to figure out what they wanted to say about those topics and find songs to help them make sense of their activist projects. Some of them even shared links to the songs so that I could listen to them. All in all, I think this is a workshop I will be assigning in future courses.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why I Write

Today is the National Day of Writing sponsored by the National Writing Project. My TweetDeck is full of #WhyIWrite tweets. As a student, a tutor, and a professor, I thought this was a good time to reflect on my own purposes for writing. This is what I came up with:

 Nicole Papaioannou 
 Sometimes, I write to connect with others, but often, I write to connect with myself.

I write all of the time. Every day.

I'm a social networking junkie. I log in to Facebook just about every day. I love keeping in touch with my college friends across the country. I am nearly as active on Twitter (@comPOSITIONblog), using it to reach out to other educators in a way that helps me fine-tune my craft and gives me the power to influence educational policy as a whole. I use, Google Plus, and LinkedIn to create a professional presence, so that people who choose to Google me learn more about who I as a professional rather than being linked to high school and college artifacts. 

I text like crazy. Some days, I send over one hundred texts.

I blog. Well, that one's obvious if you're reading this. I also have a course blog, though, and ask my students to create their own, which I read and comment on from time to time.

I write about my research. Annotated bibliographies are becoming a staple in my daily routine, but I also blog about what I read sometimes. My research makes its way into essays, presentations, lesson plans, and even fiction from time to time.

I do teacherly writing. I comment on papers. I write lesson plans and create assignments. I email students. I even get to write recommendation letters every once in a blue moon.

I write "creatively." Every day, I attempt to write fiction (it used to be poetry).

I take notes.

I make to-do lists.

I write to connect with others...
I tell my students all of the time that writing is a social transaction. It is a powerful tool that can help them communicate with others, record history and memories, and create positive changes in their worlds. Though I clearly feel that writing can be personal, as well, I think students have spent far too much time being told that writing is for evaluation. They forget all of the ways that they use writing to enhance their lives.

I speak from what I know. Looking at my list above, I see that most of my writing is not done without social influence. What people around me talk about and think about shape what I talk and think about. My own writing expresses a deep desire to connect with others through intertextuality, interactive digital mediums, and writing that inquires rather than dictates. 21st Century Writing happens in a network, not a garret.

I write to connect with myself...
Life can be stressful, and writing is a great release. When I get in the zone, I forget about everything but my writing (at this point, my bunny starts thinking, "Mom, why are you ignoring me? Look how cute I am!!!!" and sits on the end of the rug grilling me). Sometimes, I just need to write. Over the years, this need for release has translated into song lyrics, poems, fiction, nonfiction, and even academic work.

Every piece of writing I've ever done is somehow a piece of me exposed. Whether I'm writing an entry in a diary or a public blog post, a scholarly article or a conference proposal, or even a piece of poetry or fiction, who I am is all over the pages. When I look over my writing, I begin to see who I was and who I am becoming. I can almost psychoanalyze myself. Perhaps, my interest in children's and YA literature reflects my own feelings of being caught between childhood and adulthood. I enjoy Victorian Literature because it speaks back to the clashes between the ways my conservative upbringing and my education dictate a woman should behave. I write about death often. I write about sexuality often. I don't even do these things consciously. They just leak out. Writing reminds me that these are the struggles I deal with, the issues that are important to me, the ones I need to challenge and deal with.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Face(less)book: Why Colleges Should NOT Use Facebook to Screen Applicants

image from

Today, Ryan Lytle of US News published an article titled "College Admission Officials Turn to Facebook to Research Students." The article reveals a growing trend of college admission officials using Facebook and other forms of media to check up on applicants. The consequences can be serious, as Lytle reveals:
In the Kaplan Test Prep survey, 12 percent of respondents who reported checking social media sites noted that posts—such as vulgar language in a status update or alcohol consumption in photos—negatively impacted a prospective student's admissions chances.
Some of the interviewees believe that Facebook is public access, and therefore, the school's right. While Florence Hines of McDaniel College was not one of them, she does say:
"I believe the reality that if this trend increases, students need to be very cautious of the fact that admissions offices will use this information."
As a student and someone hoping to join the ranks of professional academics in the near future, I think this is utterly ridiculous. Colleges screening applicants on Facebook? Really? Will we be installing Big Brother in college dorm rooms next?

When I was a high school student, I never smoked or drank or did anything completely appalling, but I also know I changed immensely throughout college, especially during my first year. And making mistakes is part of the process of adolescence. Who hasn't sworn to seem cool as a teenager at least once? Who didn't say or do something as a teenager that as an adult you would never do? I know, for instance, that I described things that I thought were stupid or silly as being "gay" when I was in high school. It took a friend in college to make me realize just how insensitive and offensive that was, and I have since given up using that term. Similarly, just because a student's profile has lyrics from some terribly profane hip hop song, it doesn't mean that the student is a "bad kid" or unworthy of college entrance. In many cases, high school students still haven't reached the level of awareness that college students are granted through their educations. They don't understand the politics or the power of the language that they use, and it takes people they admire, often college professors or well-educated peers, to show them why they need to change their ways. The more I learned, the better the person I became, more socially aware and socially just.

Furthermore, we have multiple identities, and we should be free to express them. The fact that employers and colleges are now tracking my every move online makes it difficult to do so, and I don't think that is healthy. I admit that while I never believed my personal Facebook account was inappropriate, I did eventually move to making it completely private and creating a public professional account. While I make it a point to avoid doing stupid things, drinking too much, or taking embarrassing photos, I go out often, and more particularly, I like to go to night clubs and dance. I love house music. Several of my friends enjoy the same music and dancing, and so, I often share music on my wall or post updates about our favorite djs being in town. From time to time, pictures also come up, and while none of them are inappropriate, a hiring board might see me in a mini dress with strobe lights in the background and make assumptions. I wanted to communicate with colleagues, and I knew I would be harshly judged. People would assume "oh, she's a partier," and that would be end of that.

But should I stop living at 25 because someone might decide that they want to stalk me online and make judgments based on incomplete information? It makes me angry that I could and probably will be judged on things that have nothing to do with my teaching. I am responsible. I show up to work early, I give good feedback and take time to work with my students, I enjoy collaborating wit my colleagues, and I constantly immerse myself in research. It makes me even more upset that some really amazing students who may have become greater thinkers and doers might never have a chance to sit in my classroom because somebody on the admissions board decided to check their Facebook page and make a judgment call.

In the article, it is also suggested that smart students can use their online presence to showcase themselves, but I would argue that that is capitalism at its worst. First of all, this means a great deal of self-censorship and that is not always a good thing. As we learn from M.L. Pratt, much can be learned in the contact zone, where niceties and consensus is no longer important. Furthermore, the "smart kids" who do this will inevitably be mostly white, upper-middle class students who have had access to computers all their lives and who have had teachers tell them how to shape themselves to fit the professional model. And while we're at it, let's be honest here: a Hispanic boy who enjoys hip hop is more likely to be "screened out" than some White girl who listens to country. White/white collar culture is shaped around professionalism and political correctness; other cultures are not. Inevitably, screening profiles will mean cookie cutter online identities. Like college admissions essays, profiles will all start to sound the same.

Worst of all, though, by screening applicants, rather than educating them, colleges do a disservice to young adults. They deny them the opportunity to interact with new, diverse groups of people who will challenge their hegemonic ideals and ideas. Think of all of the texts and the discussions about those texts that occur in college. I know that my coursework has shaped me, and I know that I am not alone in that sentiment. I would never have picked up Foucault's Discipline and Punish if not for my literary theory course. I would never have read Geneva Smitherman's Talkin and Testifyin, if I wasn't surrounded by Race Theorists, Postcolonialists, and Compositionist. I would think about the world differently. In short, I would not be the person I am today. A true democratic education would look past differences of personal expression and allow students to judge for themselves whose actions/views/beliefs are the ones they want to adopt.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Uncertainty or Possibility?

Ten years ago, when I was still in high school, I would have been appalled if someone told me that in my mid-twenties, I'd still have no idea where my life was headed. At 15, I knew what I wanted to do. I was going to train horses for the rest of my life. Duh! But the truth is, my life has taken turns that I never could have foreseen, and as Jobs reminded us in his 2005 Standford University Commencement speech, it is only now, after the fact, that I am able to connect the dots.

As a doctoral student, my future is far from settled. If my teachers' and mentors' constant reminders weren't enough, Occupy Wall Street has now made it clear that a job after graduation is not certain (or maybe even likely), though I will have three degrees by that time. I know my dissertation process is right around the corner, and I'm not sure what to write about. I know that, in a few years, when I am done, I'll have to decide where I am willing to live, and if I'm still prepared to commit myself to the adjunct's lifestyle, at least for a time. These things, among others (the cultural pressure to find a husband and have kids before my eggs die, for instance), are a constant source of panic. What if I fail? What if I graduate and never find a job? What if I never meet someone willing to put up with the instability of my life as a scholar? Ack! Start one bad thought, and it's guaranteed to turn into an avalanche.

My students are asking many of the same questions: Why am I in college? What is the value of a degree? What if I have no major? Will I ever get a job? Will I make my family proud? What if I fail? You can see the anxiety that is caused by uncertainty taking its toll on them, especially now, as the midterm process begins.

image from

What I'm slowly learning, or trying to convince myself, is that there is very little difference between the words uncertainty and possibility; both deal with an unpredictable future. The difference is that uncertainty incites fear, while possibility creates excitement. Rather than focusing on that uncertainty, I am retraining myself to think in terms of possibilities (and trying to keep them positive). I can be stunted by thinking, "Gosh. I don't know what will happen next. How can I plan if I don't know what's around the bend?" or I can say, "The future is undecided, but that means that I am left with choices." Possibility pushes me to accept the latter.

This uncertainty vs. possibility notion also plays into writing. Writing is a scary process. We never know where we will end up or how our audiences will react. These uncertainties can make us cautious, cause us to self-censor, or stop us from writing freely. Of course, taking a risk is part of the game. As a writer, I have to be willing to cut things, dramatically revise, and revisit ideas if I want to get the closest to the "truth" (whatever that is). I have to be willing to say things that may offend people. But I should also remember that the possibilities are infinite. Possibility allows for creativity. Somewhere in my imagination are stories that have yet to be told, forms that have yet to be tried, and ideas that have yet to be developed.

As a professor, I can use "possibility" to remind my students that the open-ended nature of writing is what makes it such a valuable thing. Though the task of getting started can be daunting or producing something without understanding a professor's evaluation process, writing helps us to learn, to think, and to grow as individuals. Often, the gems that are hidden in our brains surprise us.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Crime and Punishment: The Case of Standardized Testing

Aside from the Five Paragraph Essay (which you all now know I hate), I am also opposed to standardized testing. There are many intellectual reasons why I am against this form of assessment (see here for an example), especially for writing, but there are also broader, more critical reasons why I believe they should not be given.

Standardized testing is essentially a ranking system, an educational class system. It put students "in their places." We are made to believe that the smart kids do well on the tests, go to the best colleges, and get the best jobs because they are "the best and the brightest." Those who aren't naturally the best and the brightest can become so by working hard and studying diligently. It has already been shown, however, that students of color, the working class, and women have traditionally done poorer on these exams, and it is not because they are any less intelligent, but because they cater to a white-male-middle/upper class dominant culture. Furthermore, these tests are rarely indicators of true student ability. If Johnny Billionaire can afford to send his kid to prep school, a private tutor, and Princeton Review classes, while Millie Makesnotsomuch can only send her child to a school with a poor track record for academic excellence, then who will more likely be going to college? While there are the few cases where the underdog comes out on top (and Hollywood must make a movie out of it), the general reality is that those who come from better socioeconomic standings, are white, and are not first-generation Americans are more likely to end up on top.

Who's the Real Criminal?

Aside from reinforcing the crooked power structure that dominates American culture, I believe that standardized testing encourages poor ethics for students (I would also argue teachers, administrators, and those on the testing boards are affected, but that is for another post). Most recently, seven students from Great Neck, Long Island, NY were arrested for their participation in a cheating scandal. The students would pay between $1500-2500 for Sam Eshaghoff, a college sophomore and alumni of Great Neck High School, to take the SATs for them. By producing fake IDs, he would successfully impersonate his classmates and take the exam. He was caught when he started scoring high marks for students with low grades.

It is Sir Thomas Moore who writes in Utopia:
“if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them. ” 

And let's be honest here. Our society is driven by capitalist notions of dog-eat-dog competition. We are told from little kids, "you must do well on the SAT." It is burned into our brains that we have to go to a good school if we want to get a good job, and you can't get into a good school if you don't get good SAT scores. Sure, we are encouraged to participate in extra-curricular activities, but I've sat in with the decision makers. If you don't get the score that they are looking for, it's doubtful that they will even begin to review the list of extras that make you a strong candidate. Is it any doubt then that students with the funds to pay their way to the top, would do it? Or that students who had the ability to succeed would cash in on it? Isn't that what America is all about? Finding a free market and seizing the opportunity to build capital?

Even more disturbing is that the problem that the parents, the school, and the SAT board have with this practice doesn't even seem to be about the fact that Eshaghoff was taking the test for other students. The problem seems to be that he took the test for other students who wouldn't have otherwise scored highly. He would have enabled these students passage into a land that should have been forbidden to them. He would not have been caught if he had taken the tests for students who had high marks already.

For going against the big guys, this kid is looking at up to four years in prison,  four years that he would have been in college and just starting his career. At 19 years old, his chance at success if going to be stripped away because he cheated on an exam or rather he helped others cheat. To top it all off, the media is calling this scandal a "cheating ring," as if these kids were drug cartels or members of the mafia to be busted by the Feds.

ETS and the College Board make millions every year by selling kids a chance at seeing their dreams fulfilled. Even worse, there are students who pay out those hundreds of dollars knowing that they will fail and be barred access to a successful future, though they honestly tried and have skills to offer. Who's the real criminal?

Addicted to Success

Cramming is also a result of the standardized testing culture. You try to learn as much as possible in a short period of time so that you can ace the exam. Of course, most of that stuff will be forgotten once the exam is over. I can tell you that of the hundreds of words I memorized to take the GRE, I barely remember 10% of them now. You have to get the good grades, so that you get the good internships and the good jobs. There is so much pressure to do well that students will do almost anything to be able to get the grade, including taking prescription drugs illegally.

Adderall is a hugely popular drug on college campuses across the nation, especially high-ranking ones. The drug, which is typically prescribed for those with ADD, is said to increase students' abilities to focus, especially for long hours. One student in the following video calls it "steroids for your brain." Nicknames for the drug include the "smart drug" or "study buddies."

In this piece a student explains that he didn't know what Adderall was until he got to college. When he asked what it was, he says that the first response he got was that "it helps you get good grades." It's an idea that is echoed throughout the two pieces, the idea that a drug can help you make the cut, to make you a competitor in the education, and later job, market.

For a more in-depth conversation, I would recommend you watch this video:

Failure is a bigger fear than death for many Americans, a fear that the standardized testing market capitalizes on. The pressure to never fail is intense and irrational, especially when "failure" is defined in capitalist terms. It is no wonder, then, that our nation has the biggest drug abuse problem in the world. These kids have decided that ranking high is worth a possible drug addiction, possible depression or suicidal thoughts or a whole slew of other scary side effects. We blame these students for taking drugs, and yes, they are at fault for their own choices, but look at the culture that surrounds them. It says, "you must succeed," with a slight whisper of "no matter what the cost."

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that standardized testing and higher education is about the bottom line. Do the numbers add up? Ranking helps colleges market themselves, helps high schools declare themselves "good school systems," and helps keep those pesky unwanted minorities out of the rich white man's world.

To meet their bottom line, however, we pay a large cost. We sacrifice ethics of all kinds: moral ethics, business ethics, work ethics, academic ethics. They all go out the window when kids learn to keep their "eyes on the prize." When students figure out that school is all a numbers game, learning goes out the window. It becomes about collecting capital, seeing numbers go up, making "investments" in their future, and sadly, intellectual and moral growth don't always add up.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Dangers of Thinking in Five Paragraphs

If your writing strategy is absurdly demonstrated as a
cheeseburger, then it's probably absurd.
The other night, I sat on Twitter talking to colleagues about the Five Paragraph Essay (which, yes, I do hate). The argument was about purpose and whether it was useful. I argued that the Five Paragraph Essay is like playing Hot Cross Buns; sure, you're making music, but it's only three notes, neither deep nor complex. The argument I got back was something along the lines of  "15-year-olds don't have much to say anyway." According to this colleague, their thoughts are simply not deep or complex (I am happy to say that my Twitter colleague eventually rethought this statement).

I think this idea is at the core of some of our very real problems in education. We believe our students, simply because they are novices, have nothing to say. As a result, we fail to challenge them. Even worse, we fail to listen to them.

Expediently Killing a Generation: An Intellectual Holocaust

The goal of the Five Paragraph Essay is to expediently teach students how to write essays and expediently score high marks on standardized tests. The little Marxist in me wants to scream at the word "expedient." If we read the work of Stephen B. Katz, "The Ethic of Expediency: Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust" (in College English), my reasons become immediately obvious.In this particular piece, Katz rhetorically analyses a memo from Nazi leaders that addresses how to more efficiently transport and execute the "undesirables" (Jews and other prisoners). How does this have anything to do with the Five Paragraph Essay you ask? Let's continue.

Katz writes:
let's do a brief rhetorical analysis of this memo from the standpoint of technical communication, argumentation, and style. By any formal criteria in technical communication, it is an almost perfect document. It begins with what, in recent composition theories and technical writing practices, is known as the problem or "purpose statement." 
This Nazi memo sounds like the perfect academic paper. A clear thesis, a solid argument-- every teacher's dream. Katz continues on:
Indeed, in this memo one can find many of the topoi first defined by Aristotle in the Rhetoric II xxiii. 1397a6-xxiv. 1402a29) that are used to investigate any situation or problem and provide the material for enthymemic arguments. For example, in the first section the writer uses the common topic of relationship: cause/effect arguments, in conjunction with the topic of comparison (difference) and the topic of circumstance (the impossible), are used to investigate the problem of maximizing the use of space, to refute the manufacturer's claims that the problem is one of overloading, and to conclude in an enthymeme that a reduction in the load space is necessary. Just further supports his conclusion by cause/effect arguments embedded in the topic of contraries....Finally, Just argues by cause/ effect and contraries to refute the manufacturer's claim that reducing the load space would overload the front axle by arguing from precedent (example)... Thus, in a series of enthymemes that make use of the topoi, Just investigates and proves his case for a reduction in load space.
Great! Just the Nazi has figured out how to persuade his audience, using the tools of our favorite Ancient Western Philosopher, Aristotle!

Katz also writes:
Based on the ethic of expediency, rhetoric for Hitler was pure technique, designed not to encourage debate, but rather to indoctrinate: "all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan"; the reason, Hitler adds, is that "As soon as you sacrifice this slogan and try to be many-sided the effect will piddle away, for the crowd can neither digest nor retain, the material offered. In this way the result is weakened and the end entirely cancelled out" (47). Even in these abbreviated quotations we see not only a greater (political'?) distrust of the masses than we find in Aristotle (Rhetoric I. ii 1357a5), but also it greater "technical" preoccupation with the end to be achieved, both of which tend to work against free discussion, true deliberation.
And isn't that the purpose of those darn Five Paragraphs Essays--"pure technique"? We don't ask our students, at least not at the beginning levels, to construct essays that ask them to think deeply. We just want them to learn the technique, learn the form, see how to provide three examples to back up any argument regardless of how ridiculous or unethical it may be. They are supposed to come up with a claim that they can already prove rather than learning about it as they research and write. An evaluator is able to expediently grade these essays, checking off the boxes that make it "good" writing. Even if they deeply disagree with the message being presented, there is no place for debate; it either meets the criteria of the form, or it does not. 

It is thus easy to understand why Katz argues:
In the gruesome light of the holocaust, then, we should question whether expediency should be the primary ethical standard in deliberative discourse, including scientific and technical communication, and whether, based on Cicero's advocacy of a rhetoric grounded in a knowledge of everything and Quintilian's definition of the orator as "a good 'man' skilled in speaking," we can and should teach the whole panoply of ethics in deliberative discourse in our rhetoric and writing courses. 
Hannah Arendt, who also writes about the ways in which the Nazis used rhetoric to accomplish their ends, says,
“To think with an enlarged mentality means that one trains one’s imagination to go visiting.” 
Yet, in assigning a Five Paragraph Essay, we barely give the student's imagination a place to search within the self, let alone go visiting other perspectives and ways of thought. Furthermore, it certainly doesn't encourage empathy or creative thinking. I would argue that it barely encourages that money term in education, critical thinking, if it does at all. We kill their quest for deeper knowledge before it even begins.

Keep in mind that these are some of the most emotionally intense and unsettling years of their lives. Being a teenager is not easy, though we nostalgically like to remember it as being so.

So basically, we create a bunch of drones running around who can now effectively "prove" anything in five paragraphs by giving three examples (because it's easier to deal with). Super! Because they are novices, we do not make them more deeply examine their ideas. We do not encourage their curiosities or ask them to use their expertise. We don't push them to make new conclusions, but simply say "restate your introduction." We don't tell them to include examples that contradict your own without trying to undo them for the sake of being correct. We tell them, "show how there are loopholes in the other's argument." Easy, expedient essays-- that is the goal. 

Pick your target. Aim. Fire. Pleasure in writing and desire to think: dead.

Dying to Be Heard (in more than Five Paragraphs)

Intellectual curiosity isn't the only thing suffering. Students are physically suffering because of this arrogant belief that students have nothing important to say. 

A year ago, Tyler Clementi took his life because no one would take his feelings seriously. He was blogging and writing online, as was Phoebe Prince, a 16 year old girl who committed suicide due to bullying. She was also writing essays for class that were about topics such as cutting and suicide. No one consider them to be anything but the twisted fascination of a teenager. Sadly, despite the media uproar and the memorials across campuses nationwide, other young adults continued to take their lives. 

Most recently in the media, Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14 year old from Amherst, NY, took his own life after years of bullying finally took their toll. Jamey had been reaching out all along. He wrote on his Facebook page:
"I always say how bullied I am, but no one listens.... What do I have to do so people will listen to me?
It is clear that Jamey was trying to reach out, to find support, to find someone (other than his parents) who would listen and take him seriously, especially online. In her article for ABC News, Susan Donaldson James writes, 
"Jamey's school counselors had advised him not to go on social media sites to talk about his sexuality, according to the Buffalo News."
In other words, though they meant to shelter him from harm, they basically told him to shut up. They invalidated his claims, made it sound like no one wanted to listen to him whine about his sexuality and the bullying that was being inflicted upon him. It was Jamey's fault for talking and exposing his differences, not those bullies for being ignorant and heartless.

In addition to blogging and using Facebook, Jamey participated in the It Gets Better campaign by making a YouTube video. On one hand, I openly support the campaign. I believe that things do get better. As a victim of childhood bullying myself, I know that, while it took time, I grew into my own skin and became someone of whom I am proud; I could ignore their words.

On the other hand, this seems to reflect part of that "kids don't know what they're talking about" mentality, the same one that says that they only need to write from a formula because that's all they are capable of doing. Maybe it does get better, but at the moment that pain is fresh and real, and having someone tell you to put it off makes you feel just as isolated and alone. Instead, we should be asking these kids to analyze the things that are happening to them, just as we should be asking them to analyze the things they are writing about.

We don't ask them to do that, however. We think reflection and analysis are tasks that are too complicated for mere teenagers. So what do they do? They rebel. They shout. They lash out against us. They lash out against each other. They do anything to get a significant reaction, to feel like what they are saying is important. Or they shut up and write/think what we want, and learn to resent it. Which sounds like a good option to you?

Taking Lives, Saving Lives

My point is this: if we continue to do things for sake expediency, we will see learning fail, and, furthermore, we will see our culture fail. The five paragraph essay, among other "educational" practices, strips students of their voices and their ideas; it marginalizes them. Expedient educations will create more students who feel dejected and unattached, who think school is a burden that is disconnected from real life, who don't know how to interact positively with one another, who feel unable to be themselves. The message is: fit this mold and be rewarded, or fight the current and be held down.

We lose much by applying methods simply because they are easier to evaluate or easier to teach, without giving regard to the quality of that learning process. Instead of teaching students tricks to write, we should be giving them tools to think. Instead of telling them how to prove a point, we should be teaching them to examine their claims and the claims of others. Instead of avoiding technology because it's hard to learn, we should be modeling better uses of it.

Finally, we should stop ignoring our students simply because they are young. We don't know everything either, and we cannot live outside our own realities. We have to stop trivializing their feelings simply because they are not as experienced, and when they are experienced, we must not tell them that they are novices.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Importance of Telling Tales

September 11 -- Never Forget

Sunday marked the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001. "Where were you when you found out?" was a question asked over and over. As a resident of central New Jersey and daughter of a downtown NYC business owner, the events of September 11 were very real and scary for me. I remember exactly where I was when I found out what had happened. It was the end of first period, US History, my sophomore year of high school, less than a week before my 15th birthday. A neighboring teacher told our teacher to turn on CNN. We saw the damage of the first plane crash, and we watched the second plane crash live. It didn't seem real. The gravity of it sunk in as the day went on.

This was the scene I watched when I first learned
about the World Trade Center being hit during class.
Nothing of substance happened in school that day. In every class, we watched the broadcast. A friend and I hugged each other and cried. My cousin found me in the hallway, and we called his house from the guidance office to see if our aunt and my dad made it out of the city. And as this was all happening, my mom was in the hospital with my aunt who had gone in to labor that morning and had my cousin. The doctors and nurses were so glued to the t.v. that as my aunt was seizing in her bed, no one took notice. Luckily, my mom, an RN, was there to call them away from the horrifying scene.

In the end, I was very fortune that I lost no one that day, though I heard many horrific stories from family members who worked downtown: one had body parts fall on his car, which he later abandoned when the buildings started to collapse and ran the rest of the way to Brooklyn; an aunt who worked in the financial center was evacuated (though her car parked under the WTC wasn't as lucky); my dad who came home on the ferry covered in soot and ash; my grandfather, an FDNY retiree, lost many men he once fought fires with. I sat next to kids in class whose parents, aunts, uncles, never made it home.

But my story is nearly second hand. I didn't see the wreckage with my own eyes for a month after it had happened. I didn't lose anyone I knew. Others did, and their stories are far more important.

Dr. Benjamin Luff from SUNY Stonybrook Medical Center was one of the doctors who saw first repsonders after the attacks. Dr. Luff explains that "doctors often reduce patients to their symptoms." The patients become their disease, but as he met with first responder after first responder and heard their stories, he realized that these people had something to share, something that, as a nation, we needed to hear. Their stories are terrible and incredible. Most importantly, though, these oral histories remind us that there were people involved. September 11 has become all about numbers: 911, 343 firefighters dead, 2,819 murdered in the attacks. It reduces the tragedy to a list. The stories of the first responders make real for us the sacrifices that these women and men made that day and the traumas they have had to deal with as a result. They also show us that in the face of intense evil, there is intense good. They remind us that there were real people there that day. They make sure that we will never forget.

Another war, another story

The original diary of Anne Frank
As I was watching the memorials and television specials, I was also reading The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank's diary. Her voice captures adolescence as it takes places in a cloistered annex of an office building during World War II. She talks about the everyday, the typically adolescent, the domestic. She talks about her life as a maturing writer. She also talks about the horrors of being a Jew in occupied territory and the awful feeling of anxiety produced by hiding. Her diary teaches so much more about WWII than one learns in a history book. Again, she makes it real. The power of the narrative is that it creates empathy. She isn't just a statistic, another body in a concentration camp or a mass grave. Her story makes history alive for her readers. It is an especially important one for those of us who are living again in an era of war.

She also reminds us of the importance of stories as an outlet to deal with trauma. She needs to write, to tell her stories, to stay sane. It is her way of being remembered in a world that has forgotten her.

Why we need narratives

What I am getting at is the importance of narratives and how upset it makes me that our society, especially our academic society, places their value at the bottom of the totem pole. Some of the best and most important works of literature are, in fact, nonfiction narratives, yet we discourage our students from producing anything of the sort, unless it's a low stakes assignment or "creative writing" (though, my problems with that division will have to be discussed at a later time). We tell them, "don't use I. Don't tell stories. You can write from experience, but don't talk about that experience. Make sure you cite the authorities." Why can't they be authorities?

Finally (I apologize for the lengthy post), this leads me to think about the potential dangers of narratives, most especially "master narratives." Our master narratives erase the narratives of the marginalized. By throwing out the little guys, we lose so much, and we reinstate the power of those already in power. With master narratives, we enable people like Hitler to take charge because as everyone knew, the Jews were to blame for economic crisis. We allow innocent Muslims to be harassed in the name of the War on Terror because we thought every Muslim was out to kill off all non-Muslims. We think everyone who comes to America gets a fair chance at success. These are the narratives that pervade because time and time again, we wipe out the voices, the narratives, that speak to other perspectives.

I say, let out students tell stories, and listen to them. We need them if we want to change our world for the better.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Stigma of Sharing the Private

Just three weeks ago, I sat curled up in a ball, crying on the bathroom floor. My boyfriend ended our relationship rather abruptly, and at the moment, it was intensely painful. At the same time, I was working in the city, taking a summer class, planning my syllabus, and figuring out how to pay my tuition.... or rather trying to do all this. Focusing was a near impossible task. I would try to read for class and my mind would wander. I would try to type, and I'd be distracted by pictures on my computer. Every thing reminded me of him and the fresh wound that he had just inflicted. For a few days, my life stood still. But I'm not writing this post to reveal to the world all of the ups and downs of my love life. I have a purpose.

While I was going through this emotional roller coaster, though, I thought of my students and their lives. This wasn't the first time I experienced a break up, and I know they experience them too. They experience lots of things that I'm sure hurt. People lose loved ones, are bullied, are betrayed by friends, fail when success is important, deal with the hard task of discovering who they are, and watch things fall apart. It happens all the time, every day. And while they're dealing with whatever comes their way, we just keep saying "separate your business/academic life from your personal life." We tell them to put away their problems and just focus on work once they get to school. I wonder whether that's for the best.

Our world has become increasingly impersonal. While we have social networking sites and blogs these days, almost our entire lives are compartmentalized. The things we need to talk about most are the ones we are told that we cannot share, though we let everyone in the world know our favorite bands and hometown. Maybe we're looking for connections, but not conversation. We want to recognize where we fit without taking emotional risks.

After beginning this post, I also started reading Nancy Welch's book Living Room: Teaching Public Writing in a Privatized WorldThough she's talking about bigger issues in our society, like privatization and a lack of public representation, she emphasizes many of the notions that I am expressing in her book. Early on, Welch writes, "Individual privacy rights are meant to exclude some of most (personal) matters from public regulation and debate" (33). In other words, we give people a right to privacy to make it easier to brush hard-to-deal-with topics under the rug.

I admit that I abstain from having my students write anything that would be intensely personal. I stay away from topics like obstacles overcome or traumas experienced (which I have actually been forced to write about as a student). I'm not ready to make my students write about topics like that-- it feels to me more like I'm giving my students a grade on their confessions than their content-- but there must be some happy medium. Then again, I'm also wondering if I'm being selfish by not wanting to hear their confessions. Am I simply avoiding them because I'm uncomfortable? Or too lazy, perhaps, to deal with the uphill battle that comes when someone shares his/her private life with you? They are questions I am not prepared to answer.

For now, my goal is to reframe some of my assignments to help students "go public," as Welch calls it, to help them deal with the issues that are important to them without necessarily making them a private matter, make them active participants in their world.

I leave you think about this: by telling people to separate their "personal" from the "public" lives, who it is that we are really protecting? Are we protecting our students or our selves?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Burniske's Literacy in the Digital Age

I picked up R. W. Burniske's book Literacy in the Digital Age just because it sounded interesting. Lucky for me, I was not disappointed. Burniske's book is all about redefining literacy in a way that meets 21st century students' needs. He takes lame, underdeveloped terms like "computer literacy" and "functional literacy" and revises them so that they become more complex and useful. Burniske explains:

just as we must learn to read and write the alphabet to develop functional literacy, so too must we learn how to ‘read’ visual images, discursive practices, personal ethics, community actions, cultural events, global developments, and humanity in general. (2)

The focus is no longer on a set of operational skills, but instead, a set of reading practices that enable students to navigate their complex worlds, worlds that require much more than an ability to read text or word per minute proficiency. Burniske advocates a set of eight literacies: media literacy, civil literacy, discourse literacy, personal literacy, community literacy, visual literacy, evaluative literacy, and pedagogical literacy. These eight literacies are interactive. They build off of one another. Furthermore, these literacies provide an ethical framework, encouraging positive interaction, teaching students how to deal with "fire," and showing students how they "compose their selves" online.

Burniske's book is also complete with exercises to help promote these literacies and case studies to show how they work in action. Best of all, his exercises are be useful across age ranges. Though the book seems to focus mostly on middle to high school aged students, I can see many of his exercises being easily applicable to an adult literacy program or FYW course.

One of the most useful exercises can be found in a section called "Fostering Personal Literacy." Burniske outlines this exercise as such: "Students must discover or invent a thoughtful, open-ended 'why' question that challenges them, because analysis begins with the question 'Why"' (64). He challenges students to ask "why" questions, which are then answered and responded to again with an additional 'why' question, continuing on through a set of 10 answers and why questions. At the end, he has the students reflect on the process. He says, "With time, they come to realize that What questions lead them to the cul-de-sac of static answers rather than the open road of dynamic, arguable ones" (66). What students learn is how to perform real analysis, and when turned inwards, it can help them discover how they want to define themselves and why.

Since technology is a part of my course, I'm thinking about how I can make sure my students leave my course being literate in 8/9 of Burniske's literacies (I guess they could skip the pedagogical for the time being).

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Back in Action: Syllabus Revision

Athens, Greece
Whew! What a whirlwind summer this has been. I have just gotten back from Greece and a long weekend down the shore, and now it is time to get myself back into routine. I apologize to my lovely readers for being MIA for the last month and a half.

Right about now, I'm starting to think about my syllabus (perhaps syllabi) and what changes I want to make to my course this fall. Making changes is both exciting and scary for me. I know you cannot get better without trying something new, but I do always fear the risk of complete failure. Here are some of the big issues I have been considering, especially after reading my last two semesters' course evaluations:

1. Technology

What is the perfect balance? I have a hard time with figuring out the right amount of technology and kinds of technology to incorporate into my classroom. I want my students to have the edge when it comes to digital literacy, but I also see that some of them become overwhelmed by the idea of using new forms of technology, to the point where it affects their work. This topic definitely needs more than a small introduction, so you will see it appear in more length on the blog during the summer.

2. Writing Assignments

I have only 3-4 writing assignments during the semester that have many drafts due, along with smaller in-class and posted writing pieces, and a final portfolio. I see my colleagues giving all kinds of different writing assignments, and I can't help but wonder if mine are actually good enough or challenging enough. I don't want to assign writing just to assign writing, and I like the idea of showing students how a work can evolve through multiple drafts rather than assigning many drafts that get few comments, but I haven't quite figured it all out.

3. Quantity of In-Class Work vs. Out-of-Class Work

Students are overwhelmed with work already, and I like to interact with them, so I tend to assign more in-class work than out of classwork. I have to wonder if I'm being to lenient, though. This is college after all. Should I be enforcing the 6 hours of homework for 3 hours of class rule?

4. Assessment

I have my students help me put together a rubric, but I'm wondering if I should be using contract grading more or if I should be tougher with my grades on their actual written products.

5. How to frame a 2 day back-to-back course instead of a Monday-Thursday course

This one is self-explanatory. Jumping from a course where I could assign work in between to a course where my students only have a night between meetings will certainly be a challenge. It is going to force me to reimagine my whole course.

6. Final Portfolios

I was very impressed with the portfolios of my colleagues this semester, and though I think my students did some great writing, I'm not sure I saw the commitment or effort in my own students' portfolios that I did in those from other professors' courses. Part of the problem may have been the ePortfolio, which I experimented with this semester. I think, as I redesign the course, I really need to think about what I want my students to be producing as final portfolios.

If you are a professor, what are your big syllabus redesign concerns?

If you are a student, what do you believe are the most valuable things you can take away from a writing course?

Monday, May 16, 2011

7 Years of Being a Full-Time College Student

Teaching FYW for the 1st Time
After seven years in higher education, I have just ended my time as a full-time student. When I started my undergraduate program, I had no idea that this was where I would end up. That first year, after giving up journalism, I thought I'd be in publishing or public relations (in other words... making money as opposed to being the eternally broke graduate student). I always said that I never wanted to teach. Well, there went that statement out the window. As a silly freshman, I couldn't have imagined that I'd be pursuing a doctoral degree in English, focusing my energy on Comp/Rhet and Digital Literacy and New Media Studies. I had no idea that I would actually love working in a Writing Center and teaching Composition. Heck... I didn't even know Comp/Rhet existed!

As I sit now to ponder the last seven years and their value, I also think about a recent interaction with a student, one who was questioning the worth of college. While I didn't want to be elitist and say that everyone must go to college, I truly believe that my years in college shaped the person I have become, and that there is value far beyond the paper that says you passed.
High School Graduation

As I told him, though, I am biased. I believe college is a wonderful experience, one that too many students make about occupation rather than education. Seven years of being a student has taught me a lot, both about the English language and literature and about myself. Most of those lessons have come in the form of questions and challenges rather than answers, however. For instance, what does it mean to be a white, upper-middle class woman from the New York area? That was a big one. By learning more about your perspective and the privileges you hold, you also learn more about others. I think that seven years of school has ultimately made me more aware of my own viewpoint and, as a result, more empathetic. I'm better able to understand the way that I relate to others and to consider how my biases might affect day-to-day interactions.

The classes I took also taught me to challenge positions and to redefine old concepts, though. Best of all, I had wonderful teachers who were willing to take the passenger seat while I performed research I was interested in. I was able to develop my scholarly passions and to link them with real-world experiences.
Undergraduate Graduation

Ultimately, education is not about learning the answers; it's about posing better questions. College has truly helped me to do just that, ask better questions, ones that are deeper and more complex and truly meaningful. I am no longer concerned with just "what?" Now, I ask "so what?" or "what can I do?" These are the questions that I now hope to share with my own students, as they move through their own final years of formal education.