Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Grade Inflation or Lots of Invested Clients?

The semester is now officially wrapped up, and I've sent in all my grades. Grades, as many of you probably know by now, are the bane of my existence. I hate giving them. Sometimes, I'm not even sure I know how to do  it. Evaluating writing is so subjective, even when you try to be consistent and objective. So this post is kind of a -- in the words of one of my fabulous students -- "am I doing this right?" sort of thing.

I've traded out the standard system of grading each paper for a 50/50 contract/portfolio grading method. The contract grade is based on participation, completion of blogs and small writing assignments, and turning in drafts of major assignments. Everything must be done on-time and according to assignment criteria in order to be given full credit. Anything turned in after the cut-off date gets no credit. The portfolio is grading according to the department standards for A, B, C, D, or F. The thing is when you give students a chance to revise their drafts 2-3 times, then learn more about writing, then revise those pieces for a portfolio, if they're doing their work, odds are pretty good that they will produce some effective writing. If they aren't doing their work, then they probably are going to be turning in their best writing in their portfolios, so they will wind up with mediocre grades (these are usually my C/D/F students). However, I find that most students buy into this philosophy. They put in the time and effort, they read and think about the comments, and they participate in class. This means that I end up with a lot of "good" grades.

I've noted that for most of my courses, the majority of final grades fall between A and B-. I give a few Cs, rarely give Ds, and only a handful of Fs, typically to those students who fail to turn in major assignments or the portfolio or have terrible attendance (as all of the universities where I have taught had strict school-dictated attendance policies). I happen to think my students earn their grades, but when I hear others talk about their grading, I start to wonder if I'm committing "grade inflation." Or do I manage to create a clientele who are genuinely invested? I use these terms in particular because I believe big business is directly related to the reason that we grade in the first place.

I have obviously felt challenged by other grading methods. At one university where I work, the grading system is very strict. The department attempts to calibrate instructors, and they also advise them that Cs are average. Many students wind up with Cs, Ds, and Fs on their papers, which are each graded, and then two are submitted for a final portfolio, which is graded separately. The department also encourages more of a bell curve. One shouldn't give too many As, or even Bs. If the average of the class is too high or too low in comparison to others, the department makes sure that instructor is aware.

There are other methods of which I am aware, as well. For instance, while I use a rubric or, at the very least, a set of expectations, and grade my students in accordance with those standards, there are instructors who grade students against each other. The "excellent" work gets As and the worst of the work gets Fs. This, again, results in more of a curve.

My philosophy is that if a student does her or his work, and it meets the criteria, the work should be awarded the grade deserved. Instructors shouldn't feel pressured to meet some department average (what if you have awesome students in your course or ones that were simply unprepared for college and have more work to do?). I also believe that students find this bell curve system of grading discouraging and make getting the grade the sole reason for doing work and revising. They aren't invested in the work, but they are invested in getting the grade. This also seems to lead some students to feel that they have invested in an education in a way that entitles them to high marks without any real learning or effort (I paid $50,000 to go here, so you should be giving me an A so I can get a good job). On the other hand, As and Bs might very well help students land good jobs; however, if everyone graded like me, ruin the prestige of As and Bs.

So I have to wonder, is my system faulty? Are grades meant to represent rank? Should I be thinking of grades as a levels of achievement (excellence to unprepared?) rather than a point system? Or should I continue working on creating an "invested clientele"?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Race, Language, and Identity in Students' Academic Lives: Lessons from NCTE12

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending my very first National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention (#NCTE12) at the MGM Grand Conference Center in beautiful Las Vegas, NV. There were many interesting and exciting panels to choose from. My program is about an inch and half thick. My favorite panel, however, was "Connecting Lived Experiences and Literacies with Urban High Schools: Lessons for Pedagogy." Here is the program entry:
Teachers experience pedagogical struggles while students
interact in academic spaces that challenge their multiple
lived experiences through the narrowing of curricula. In
this session, presenters will critically analyze their educational research contexts,
which often miss rich opportunities to consider students’
multiple identities, positionings, and languages.
Chair: Timothy San Pedro, Arizona State University,
Presenters: Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, Teachers College,
Columbia University, New York, New York, “Dear Miss:
Building Black and Latino Adolescents’ Racial Literacy
through Letter Writing”
Danny Martinez, University of California, Los Angeles
Limarys Caraballo, Teachers College, Columbia University,
New York, New York, “‘I Don’t Feel Like We Get to
Express Ourselves in There’: Students’ Narratives of
Resistance in a Middle School Classroom”
Discussant: Ramon Martinez, The University of Texas,
I was excited to attend this panel because I'm interested in bridging lived experiences and academic ones. Despite being suggested for a secondary education audience, the ideas shared by the panelists were important for all educators to hear. At first glance, I thought this panel would address a broad spectrum of traumas or issues students faced and how they were incorporated into the classroom. Instead, the panel focused on issues of race in interesting ways.

A Brief Recap of the Presentations

Danny Martinez was first up. He talked about the ways that Standard English still dominates the classroom and how, despite NCTE's "Students' Right to Their Own Language," evidence shows that students have not yet received a true right to their own language. Martinez did this by observing and recording classroom discussions and interviews with students. He noted that the teachers often subtly corrected students' uses of Black English during conversation by revoicing their ideas into Standard English. He also referred to the term repair, which suggests that the use of Black English is using "broken" language.

In her presentation, Limarys Caraballo discussed problematic privileging of "neutral" space in ELA, which actually translates into making white middle class language the norm in the classroom. Caraballo demonstrated ways in which students of color attempted to carve out sites of resistance through writing. Through ethnographic study and interviews, she showed that students of color often feel that their voices are not valued in the classroom, an idea that carried through the following presentations. My favorite part of this presentation was when Caraballo displayed an excerpt from a students' piece of writing that displayed resistance to an assignment. The assignment called for use of vocabulary words in a freewrite, and the student wrote something to the effect of: "It's not really a freewrite if you tell us what words to use." I saw that as an astute observation.

Yolanda Sealy-Ruiz presented the findings of a project she works on with non-traditional high school students. At the beginning of the session, she spoke about letters from students and said that we must have the strength not only to receive letters of praise but letters that admonish us if we are to be good educators. Her presentation focused on a "Dear Teacher" letter assignment that asked the young men in her nontraditional high school to address their experiences with race. I quite literally teared up as she read excerpts from the works. The young men had so much to say and quite articulately, and it was evident that they had not had many places, if any, to articulate those thoughts before within the academy. Their letters made it clear that students of color experience racism in education. In the letters, one learns that these students are marked as problem students, which has the potential to mark them as hypervisible or invisible in a classroom space; held to a lower standard, which lowers their motivation; and that they want a space to talk about these issues. How would things change if we opened up these spaces, if we considered these questions and criticisms?

The last presenter was Tim San Pedro. San Pedro spoke about his ethnographic study of a high school that stands 2 miles from a Native American reservation in Arizona. In keeping with the conference theme of "Dream.Connect.Ignite.," San Pedro started the session by asking "Whose dreams are being recognized? Whose connections are being made?" Throughout his talk, San Pedro traced the experiences of two students in particular, a white student and a Native American student. These students were both in a Native American Literature class (the only course of its kind in Arizona, due to recent legislation banning ethnic studies) and an American History course. It was particularly relevant for this conference because NCTE moved the 2012 conference from Arizona to Nevada in protest of that legislation. What San Pedro found is that both students were influenced directly by the juxtaposition of the two courses. The Native American student felt that she found her voice and that her experiences were validated by the Native American Literature course. They even gave her a way to respond to the American History course that she believed was unnecessary, being that it told history from a corrupt perspective. The Caucasian student, who was the only Caucasian student in the Native American Literature class, felt that her views were challenged by the class. She began to see American History as complex and perhaps not completely true. What San Pedro also noted was the neither student felt comfortable speaking in the course that did not validate their views. They felt silenced. It was important for these students feel some sort of authority or mastery before they felt able to speak, even when they had ideas. He referred to these places of felt-authority as environmental safety zones and internal safety zones, building off Bahktin's zone of contact theories and noted that typical education offers more safety zones for Caucasian students than students of color.

To close out the panel, the discussant, Ramon Martinez, ended by asking the big question: "What if?" He challenged us to think about the possibility of living in a world where we allowed students to speak in their own language, where we allowed students to express their struggles with race, and where we didn't view students of color in the classroom as "problems to be fixed." For many, I have a feeling it was a future not easily imagined.


I admit that I often circumvent race issues in my classroom. As a white woman, I feel unable to speak back to them genuinely, as I am in a privileged position with little experience being subjected to racism. With the exception of some clips that talk about race for purposes of rhetorical analysis (Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," for example), I rarely bring race to the table as a topic of discussion. It's a conversation I am not comfortable having. I also have a fear of coming across as the "white savior" and belittling the experiences of others if I do. As a result, while I certainly would never squash a race conversation that my students wanted to have, I let these things happen organically, rather than creating a space for them. I constantly wonder if this is what I should be doing.

I have had students write about race on more than one occasion. For example, during my first year of teaching, one of my students wrote about his experiences as a young Black man for a Writing as Activism project. It was a privilege to be able to read it. He helped me to understand what it meant to be a target of racism without having others be overtly racist. The space is there for students to do work like this, but I do not push it on them. When they choose to take that space, however, I give students an outlet for doing something about the negative experiences that they have had with race rather than simply allowing them to express their frustration, which I believe is important.

Finally, Danny Martinez and Limarys Caraballo in particular got me wondering about my own language practices in the classroom. Do I revoice? Do I close of the space for students' right to their own language? Do I shut down sites of resistance? As a first year writing instructor, I know that I often teach SWE. On the other hand, I wonder if revoicing, at least in my case, is really a corrective device, or if it is my way of paraphrasing students, using my own language. It's complex. 

This panel, which I admit I might not have attended if it was marked with "race" in the title, has pushed me to think about these issues again.

Questions for Consideration

  • Who gets heard in a classroom and in the larger context of education reform discussion?
  • Should one/how should one make a space for discussions about race in a writing classroom?
  • Is it possible to allow students to have the right to their own language in a college writing classroom, or any classroom really? If so, how?
  • How do you feel about legislation that calls for the end of ethnic studies, naming it as anti-American and racist?
  • Does the scholarship on racial minorities as underachievers because of socioeconomic factors lead to underachievement?
  • Have you had experiences with racism in education? If so, how did you negotiate them?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Cornucopia of Scholarly Blessings

Thanksgiving is always a good time (despite the awful ties to colonization and violence) to remember that there are things in this life that we should not take for granted. It is a time to say "thank you," a small phrase which has a tendency to get swept away in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. So, with that said, rather than my intended post (which I'll share later in the week), I thought this would a good time to give thanks.

As a graduate student, I am thankful for:

My dissertation committee: I have the distinct pleasure of working with three scholars who I admire greatly, both as academics and as people. They have taken the time to answer my questions, encourage me to think more deeply, and calm my fears and frustrations. They lead by example, showing me how scholarship is more than just intellectual work by living according to the values that they profess in their work.

My chair, in particular, never had me as a student, but despite that, she reached out to me about the possibility of working together. I am truly thankful that she took interest in what I was doing and read my writing on her own time. There are few people, especially with her busy schedule, that would add to their own workload by choice. Since the first time we discussed the possibility of working together, she has been there for me. She has helped me shape my professional identity.

My ENG975 workshop group: We're a small group of four ladies, but having these three women there to help me pick my brain has been a valuable experience. It's nice not to feel alone or think I'm lagging behind as I struggle simply to come to terms with what it is I want to write about. I am thankful that our professor put us together and that I've had the opportunity not just to get to know their work, but to get to know these women. We've ranted about our frustrations, puzzled over our work, and had some good laughs together. I know I wouldn't be where I am now in my writing process if not for their feedback.

My D.A. peers: We've been through a lot together, the shock of first classes, the struggle with comprehensive exams, learning how to teach, and seeing our interests grow and change. I am thankful that we are a bunch of peers who help each other rather than compete for jobs and interships and push one another down. I am thankful for the opportunities I've had to collaborate with you, for the ideas you've shared in classes, and for the emails you've answered when I was terribly lost. I am sure the conversations that we have had has shaped my thinking, my scholarship, my teaching, and my approach to being an academic in general. For some of you, I'm thankful we had the opportunity to get to know each other outside of class, occasionally sharing a drink or a Facebook post. While I lived in a new city, some of you helped me adjust to the Queens way of life and made me feel more at home. I think, if you are a reflection of the next generation of scholars, there's hope for a bright future for academia.

As a first year writing instructor, I am thankful for:

My department chairs: I am very blessed to have worked for two wonderful department chairs at this point in my short-lived teaching career. Both women believe in the integrity of their employees and have given me the power to make decisions about the direction of my course, and I feel that this has helped me develop a philosophy of teaching that I believe wholeheartedly and feel excited to present to my students each semester. I am thankful to both of them for giving me the opportunity to continue doing what I love.

My students: I'm not sure what is about the students that I have taught-- at three different universities now-- but I have had wonderful classes. These students have helped me grow as a professional, have inspired me through their struggles, humbled me with the stories they have been willing to share with me, and made me laugh with their silly antics. I appreciate the patience they show when I haven't quite got something figured out yet, especially during my first semester, and their honesty when I ask them if something works or not.

My colleagues: I work with wonderful people, who, rather than being snobbish and competitive, are warm, friendly, and open to collaboration. I've learned a great deal from the tips and tricks, lesson plans, and stories about teaching that they have shared with me. I appreciate that, even when I was just  starting out, none of my colleagues ever looked down upon me or scolded me for things that I did not know. Because of this, I was inspired to take risks in my teaching and see fruitful results. 

And while I am extremely thankful for my face-to-face colleagues, I am especially indebted to my #FYCchat colleagues. It's amazing what we have accomplished with just 140-character tweets.

As a writing consultant, I am thankful for:

My SUPERvisors: I work for two amazing women, and I am thankful that they are part of my life. They are supportive, hard-working people, who will go to bat for their employees. It is obvious that they believe in the mission of the writing center and the consults and greeters who help see that mission through. I am thankful to be thought of as an asset, rather than someone who needs to be micromanaged. I am thankful to have two people who are as caring and thoughtful as they are to work with. Despite my crazy schedule, they make sure I can return to a job I love year after year, and even after taking a one-year break to pursue graduate work, they let me come back. When there is an opportunity for professional development, they encourage their employees to take it. And aside from being wonderful to those of us who work at the center, they really care about the community that surrounds the center and helping those who need us.

My fellow consultants: After several years, I've seen new consultants roll in and out, and I've got to say, there have been many wonderful people walk through the door of the writing center. I am thankful to work with such an awesome group of people. There is a general sense of companionship and collaboration in our center. Everyone seems to genuinely want to help everyone, clients or colleagues. I learn from our intellectual conversations. I laugh at our sillier ones. I'm thankful to work in a place where I can feel comfortable and supported. 

The greeters: I remember a time when we did not have greeters at the front desk, and consultants were left to manage their time and clients on their own. As a result, I know just how much easier these people make my life. I am thankful that they take the time out of their busy undergraduate study schedules to help us out. It really makes a difference in the day-to-day operations of the center, and I'm sure it contributes to the positive atmosphere, both for the consultants and the clients.

The clients: I have had great sessions and terrible sessions over the years, but regardless, I am thankful for every client who has ever had a session or workshop with me. From our work together, I was able to develop a pedagogy of writing, learn how to give feedback, and to grow as a writer myself. I learned about some of the hard sciences that I never would have had a chance to see otherwise. I had a chance to tutor grammar, even though the essay was written in French. These are things I probably never would have thought I had the capacity to do. I enjoy reading your work. I enjoy helping you improve as writers. Sometimes, I even have the pleasure to simply talk to you about your struggles as a writer, a college student, or a person just trying to make it in this world. Your experiences inspire me and remind me to be grateful for my educational opportunities. I am thankful that you give me the opportunity to do this.

And, of course:

I am thankful for supportive family, good timing, wonderful friends, the opportunity to receive an advanced degree, the institutions that have supported me, and the many experiences--both good and bad-- that have lead me to this point in my life. I am thankful for the professors/teachers/mentors that I had in the past who pushed me to challenge myself, showed me how to enjoy learning, and acted as role models.

I am also grateful to those who stood before me to make my dreams a possibility-- women who fought for the right to an education; people who showed my parents the value of education so that they would one day support my love for learning; Compositionists who made enough noise for others to start considering our work as legitimate scholarship. I know that sacrifices have been made by people, some of whom I know, some of whom I will never meet, to get me where I am today.

And finally, though I may whine about the commute and the instability of adjunct life, I couldn't be happier to be doing what I'm doing at this point in my life. Many people don't get to tell others "I love what I do." I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to teach writing and to be a lifelong learner.

I have only one question after all of this:

What are you thankful for this year?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

What's on My Bookshelf Right Now?: 4 Good Reads for Thinking about Composition

As I work towards putting together my dissertation prospectus, I've been picking up texts that were not on my comprehensive exams list in order to fill in the gaps and push my thinking along. I've found some great reads along the way. Whether I agree with the claims made in these texts or not, here are some books I recommend for their ability to promote thought and dialogue:

  • The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education (2009) by Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes : This book is actually about the British education system, covering primary through higher and further education. It traces the ways that education has become focused on therapeutic measures and argues against programs such as Every Child Matters (like the British version of the American No Child Left Behind Act), which, in their attempts to promote emotional literacy and inclusiveness, delay student development and create a diminished self identity.
  • The School and the Society (1900) by John Dewey: The first edition of this book was written in 1900, more than 100 years ago, yet many of Dewey's observations on education are still relevant today. Dewey argues for a bridge between the school and the larger social structure. He also argues for active work/active occupation in the school rather than memorization and knowledge building based on facts divorced from context or critical thought.
  •  Postcomposition (2012) by Sidney Dobrin: In Postcomposition, Dobrin makes the claim that Composition Studies needs to move beyond the composition classroom and make a return back to the study of writing. He says that by limiting our scholarship to the classroom, we are actually studying how to create better students, not better writers. It is also the reason Composition studies is marginalized and seen as a service to other disciplines, according to Dobrin.
  • A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers, 4th ed. (2001) by Erika Lindemann: First published in 1982, Lindemann's book is a kind of theory primer/how-to book for those who teach writing (not necessarily just First Year Writing). It is full of useful practical information. She spans topics from "What does process involves?" to "What do teachers need to know about cognition?" to "Developing writing assignments" and "Teaching with computers." As a whole, Lindemann reminds us that writing is a recursive process and one that is determined contextually.

The other reason I picked these four books is because they all take seemingly contradictory points of view to at least one other text on the list. Despite that, I manage to find something valuable in the claims made in each.

Have you read these texts? If so, what are your thoughts on them?

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Listening to the Lack: The Importance of Remembering How We Learned to Learn

I spent my early childhood years living in a two-family home in Brooklyn, NY that was owned by my Greek immigrant grandparents. For the first three years, I shared my grandparents' apartment, living in their finished basement. I had a bedroom. My parents slept on a pull-out sofa. Eventually, my parents and I and new baby sister moved into the upstairs unit. My family didn't have a lot of money at that time. Both of my parents worked, and I spent my days with my grandparents. Some days, we'd hang out with my elderly neighbors (two sisters and a brother who had all either never married or became widowed). Some days, one of those elderly neighbors, Josie, would bring her granddaughter and grandson over to play with me. Other days, we had visitors from around the neighborhood.

The point is that I grew up surrounded by people who enjoyed conversation, and most of them were adults. There was a constant stream of visitors in my house, between the extended Greek family that dropped by, close family friends, and my mother's four sisters and brother and their families. While we didn't have a lot of money when I was growing up, I was constantly encouraged to explore language and to be creative. I was spoken to, spoken with, given books, allowed to "use my imagination," and left to watch educational television programs, such as Sesame Street, the Muppet Babies, and Fraggle Rock. I only manged to go to preschool for one month because the waiting list for the public preschool was so long that there was no space available until May of my 4th year. It didn't matter much, though. In my household, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by people who were genuinely interested in helping me to express myself. This wealth of people perhaps made up for my lack of monetary wealth. I never felt poor as a kid. It was a rich experience, but one that I think many individuals fail to realize is not standard in all households.

Before I got to grad school, I rarely considered the impact my early childhood experiences had on my life or education. Prior to grad school, I think my perspective on the lives of others was narrow. I was truly ignorant to the ways that language and my own positionality had influenced me. My dad always said, "This is America. If you work hard, you can achieve success," and I believed it 100%. He seemed to be living proof. He came to America with no money, knowing no English at 11 years old, living in a poor, violence-stricken neighborhood in Brooklyn and wound up with a college education and his own IT company. But I was essentializing. I was making my dad's experiences the experience of every immigrant or underprivileged individual in America. It was my experience with literary theory and composition studies later in my masters program and then throughout my doctoral program that finally got me thinking about the biases under which I was operating. 

Today, I was reminded again of my own educational and professional advantages, as I read Gina Bellafante's blog post on, "Before a Test,  a Poverty of Words." In the article, Bellafante cites research that states that infants and young children of working class families are exposed to 1500 less words in a day than their middle and upper class counterparts. They begin school with a "word deficit." Though the numbers and the study are disputed, the main claim is really the important part: those who have less access to words have less access to equal education. They were severely disadvantaged from the start, especially in regards to testing, because they have limited language. It's not just a matter of working hard; they have to play years of catch up while their peers are excelling even further.

This post is not a commentary on Bellafante's take on standardized testing (anyone who reads this blog knows I am not its biggest fan), but merely a reminder of just how much language impacts our ability to succeed in this nation. Immediately, the study cited in Bellafante's article makes me think back to Malcolm X's "Coming to an Awareness of Language." In that piece, which is a chapter of his longer autobiography, Malcolm X reflects on his experiences in prison. Without access to standard English (yes, a whole other bag of complexities), his ability to reach those in power was drastically reduced. He could not help himself or others without access to a larger vocabulary. In response, he used his time in prison to increase his vocabulary by learning the entire dictionary, copying and memorizing new words everyday. For Malcolm X, this was a liberating experience. It gave him access to power denied to him previously. 

Language is powerful because it gives us access to new concepts, not just new words and discourse communities. I believe it was in Bahktin's "Discourse of the Novel" that I first learned about the link between language and existence. One theory I picked up from his essay is that if something does not exist in the language, it does not exist in the culture. Giving name to something, in essence, gives it life. If there are three shades of blue, for example, without a name, then they are simply "shades of blue," not existing on their own, nor able to be spoken about. "Robin's Egg Blue," however, exists on its own and can be spoken about and thought about. Can you imagine, then, how limited existence becomes, then, for those who have a limited vocabulary? Not to mention, someone with a limited vocabulary also has a limited range of expression. Simply having more words can give you more thoughts, or at least, more sophisticated ones. 

The debate that ensued in the comment section of Bellafante's post focused around fault, whether the children, the educators, or the parents were to be blamed for the lack of vocabulary-based education. Others argued that the findings of the earlier study were irrelevant because it was comprised of a small sample and the numbers did not necessarily add up. It seemed evident that many of these individuals were not considering their own positionality or were essentializing, as I had done. I think blame is counterproductive. I also think ignoring Bellafonte's observations and the study is foolish. Experience tells us that language is important and the more control over it we have, the more power we can potentially possess. 

I can't be in the homes of all of my students, clients, or peers. I can't change their childhoods. I cannot force them to do anything that they do want to do. But there are some things that I can do as a peer, a writing center consultant, and a writing instructor. I can make sure I encourage those who feel "dumb" to recognize that language acquisition is a process. I can encourage people to read, even if it's a gaming magazine or words off a cereal box. Perhaps, most importantly, I can encourage them to have conversations (see Bruffee's "Collaborative Learning and the 'Conversation of Mankind'"). For me, what Bellafonte's article reminds is that it is important that we develop a culture that emphasizes communicating and active listening rather than commanding.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Placement Essays: What Makes a "College-Level" Writer?

Aside from being an adjunct professor, I have spent the last 4 years consulting at writing centers. 3 out of those 4 years have been spent at a moderately-sized public university. The writing center there is fairly new, growing out of the ashes of an older, less successful writing center initiative, and has made wonderful strides. While it isn't very big, it makes great use of it's limited resources and has built a strong reputation on campus.

At this center, we often see FYW students. In the fall, we see the biggest rush, especially at the beginning, just after the placement essays are due. While I love working with FYW students, I admit that this is my least favorite type of session, and this is mostly because of the questions asked in these placement exams. For the three years I have worked at this writing center, the questions have been, in my opinion, far too complex for the task. It leaves me wondering what exactly a "college-level" writer looks like. What does one need to do before she/he can be considered proficient?

The Good Stuff

What I do love about the university's approach is that they don't simply rely on standardized test scores to place students. Students are initially placed into courses based on those scores, but through the placement essay, the department is given the chance to reassess the students' writing abilities. Instructors also team up to make decisions about moving students up or down in the writing class ranks (students must take 2 writing courses, but there is a 3rd for-credit basic writing course available for those who need some extra practice). It is clearly stated that no student will be moved without the evaluation of a writing sample by the FYW department. I believe this approach works well and helps students to be placed where they can be most successful.

The Bad

As I said earlier, however, the placement essay requires an essay question, and this is where I believe the department has failed. In their desire to push students into intellectual conversations, the questions become overly complex. Some of the questions have been loaded, some of them have been too narrow in scope, and others have simply asked too many questions for the short 2-3 page length.

They have asked questions that require students to go outside the scope of the materials given to them, but do not allow students to use outside sources.

College-Level Writing

Those of us who teach, though, know how tricky it can be to ask the "right" types of questions. Assignment development is a difficult task. When writing an assignment, however, the assignment should be shaped around a set of goals-- usually what you want a student to learn, but in this case, displaying a students' potential for success in FYW.

The question is, then, what exactly should a writing program look for when they are aiming to place students? In his (really useful) essay "What is 'Academic' Writing?'" L. Lennie Irvin cites the three characteristics of academic writing, as suggested by George Mason University. They are:
1. Clear evidence in writing that the writer(s) have been persistent, open-minded, and disciplined in study. (5)
2. The dominance of reason over emotions or sensual perception. (5)
3. An imagined reader who is coolly rational, reading for information, and intending to formulate a reasoned response. (7)
I think this is a reasonable, well-informed description of what makes something "academic" writing at the college level, especially in a FYW course. However, many of these placement essays do not gauge students' abilities to use these skills or their potential to develop them throughout the course of a semester.

Of course, that success is typically determined through grades. At my current place of work, the definition of an "A" paper is:
Outstanding Work An A paper presents interesting, insightful ideas.  There is a clear focus (thesis, controlling idea) which is developed in an organized, concise, logical manner.  Unified and coherent paragraphs include specific, relevant supporting evidence and examples.  Sentences are varied and well constructed.  Word choices are precise, fresh,  and vivid.  There are virtually no errors in grammar, punctuation, spelling, or usage.  Research, if used, is thorough, accurately documented, and effectively integrated.
I feel that one could accurately assess these qualities without giving super-complicated prompts. While I understand that college is a time to engage in deep analysis and critical thinking, I don't think it does any student good to be placed down and have their confidence shattered because they were asked to think about a question that is simply complex for the sake of being complex. Sometimes, students (myself included) need to talk about readings before they fully understand the concepts, for example.

The idea is to assess potential, not engage in "a-ha gotchya" moments. We want students to succeed. That's why we're trying to place them appropriately. Not to make money. Not to show how clever we are. Not to show how "intellectual" our writing program is. We are doing it for students.

Bad Examples

In case you can't tell if the placement question is too complex, here are some guidelines:
  • You get a lot of essays that do not answer the question.
  • There is no possible way to answer the question without making use of outside sources (with the exception, perhaps, of an assigned reading).
  • The faculty cannot agree on the meaning of the question.
  • The staff at the writing center is confused about how to help students because they do not understand what the question is asking.
  • The whole placement essay is written in 45 minutes, and there is no drafting process.
Better Criteria
Here are some criteria that I believe could help improve placement essay assignments:
  • Form a committee to come up with a question. If the writing center works closely with First Year Writing, include writing center staff in the committee.
  • Ask questions that are open-ended and have no "correct" answer.
  • Avoid "social justice" as a goal or questions that set them up to make value judgments. Odds are that the professors are looking for PC answers and have some notion of correctness as far as the topic is concerned. This limits the students' ability to speak freely or think deeply. Society has already prescribed an answer.
  • Some good alternatives to the typical literature-based essay: Literacy narratives ask writers to consider audience and purpose. They're one easy way to assess a writer's voice, ability to organize, and ability to consider audience. Ad or digital identity analysis requires writers to think critically, describe carefully, and organize their thoughts logically. It is, perhaps, more academic than a literacy narrative. Proposals can easily demonstrate a student's ability to consider tone, audience, and logical organization, as well. You could give them a reading that gives a problem, and ask them to propose a solution.
  • Think about contexts-- what are the needs of the program, the students, the university, and the local community? 
In the end, there are many writing prompts that would enable students to be successfully placed, and I believe there is nothing inherently wrong with assigning a placement essay. We do need to make sure students are getting the writing instructor they deserve, even if that means they must be moved up or down a level. We should be willing to take the time to think about what is important to our program and our students, though, in doing so. This requires a feedback process for the development of placement essays, a unified understanding of what the task requires across faculty, topics that encourage students to consider many aspects of the rhetorical situation, and open conversations with students about the purposes for placement essays.

Friday, September 7, 2012

EDM in the Classroom

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of experiencing a wild weekend of dancing at the Electric Zoo Festival in New York City, a huge annual electronic dance music (EDM) festival held on Randall's Island. It was an incredible experience. Thousands of people of all ages, from toddlers to the rare elderly individual, came to this event and danced together to different genres of EDM music and high-powered light shows. I met people from all over the country and even from other countries, including an entertaining trio from London on my ferry ride home the last day and a duo from Serbia.

EDM and Education

Like education, EDM is comprised of many different genres and draws people from all walks of life. Under the umbrella of EDM falls disco-like dance tracks, ambient trance music, punk-rock-esque dubstep and much more, and at EDM festivals, you are likely to find all of these genres of music co-existing. You are also likely to find a very diverse crowd, one that represents different style "cliques" (ravers, hippies, yuppies, etc.), as well as individuals of different socio-economic status, races, and genders from all different regions. This music has a pull that reaches far beyond any one group. In these ways, it is similar to liberal arts education. EDM asks its followers to respected diversity, encourages collaboration, and relies on technology. For this reason, I thought EDM was worth exploring as a tool for thinking about education.

Here are some of the basic concepts of EDM that are useful in the classroom:

Technology immersion and play: Students are often hesitant to learn new technologies or theories, and the education system prefers to "drill" students rather than give them hands on experiences. Electronic dance music obviously makes use of electronics. Technology is a staple of the business, and more so now, then ever. The music is often made on computers, mixed on computers, and played using computers. DJs tell me that when they are first starting to learn the trade, they just have to throw themselves in and play around. James Paul Gee's Why Video Games are Good for the Soul similarly states that students learn through play because it immerses them in worlds that they are forced to learn how to navigate. Students should have the opportunity to play and make mistakes, get feedback from an audience, and continue to improve their craft. 

Social networking: DJs and producers, as well as fans of the music, have said that social networking is a major part of the reason why EDM is becoming so popular. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Hardwell and Morgan Page agree that social networking is essential to the success of the genre. The music stayed underground for years. Considering the music was not mainstream, it was difficult to find and share tracks. Now, they get passed along through Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc, and most of the music-makers love it.

 What I learn from these DJs/producers is that people learn when they connect, and they find out things they "never knew they never knew." I see tweets almost daily from my favorite DJ/producers about new facts that they learned. In response, educators should be incorporating these tools in our classroom should be important to us.

Ethnography: Because the scene is bursting into the public eye, people are constantly talking about the EDM community, asking the question "What does it mean to be a fan of EDM?" Those who want to be a part of it or simply learn more about it are trying to navigate the codes and acquire the vocabulary. Blogs like Dancing Astronaut and magazines like Rolling Stone cover what makes this community tick and why it's finally surging into the mainstream after being kept underground for so many years.

Students learning to do ethnographic writing can study these glimpses into the community as a sample of what it means to do research on communities. Though it's clearly satirical, Dom Mazzetti's "Dom Mazzetti vs. EDM" YouTube video is just one example that I have used in the classroom. It's a great way to talk about the use of satire, stereotypes, and alternate forms of learning.

Creating an experience: EDM producers and event organizers aim to create experiences, not just pieces of music. They aim to take listeners on an emotional journey. This is what I also believe any really good piece of writing should do, and exploring how these musicians do it is just one way we can help students think about how they can do it with their own writing.

P.L.U.R. and Everyday Living

Finally, I know that electronic dance music (EDM) gets a bad wrap sometimes because people associate it with party drug culture (which I do not, and have never, participated in), but I think the actually foundations of the EDM movement are very positive and do in someways describe my outlook on teaching and life. Ravers are supposed to live by a code-- PLUR.

PLUR stands for peace, love, unity, and respect. These are the aspects that I feel are essential to living a good life and part of why I love EDM so much. They represent so much of what democratic education ideally intends to do. It encourages diversity, rejects violence, and asks people to collaborate. This doesn't mean that differences cannot exist or that people cannot disagree, but simply that we allow for pluralism and show each other kindness.

To see more about Electric Zoo, you can check out this great photojournal from Rolling Stone:

Monday, August 27, 2012

10 Lessons of Summer 2012

So, summer is nearly at an end, and for whatever reason, this particular summer seems to have gone faster than any other of record in my lifetime. Whew! What a whirlwind! It's been a wonderful few months, though. I've really learned a lot. I taught an online Composition course that was just 4 1/2 weeks because it was a summer class. I also taught a 3-week academic reading course for incoming students. I worked on my dissertation, though I still haven't hammered out what I want to say. I started to try translating French to prep for my language exam. I prepared a syllabus for a Composition course that reorganized my class for a non-wireless classroom and managed to incorporate an additional project. I even put together a syllabus for another class I've never taught before, Writing in the Disciplines, which I can't wait to teach! And if you're wondering about my personal life, I managed to have my very first summer fling, see Central America for the first time, and finish The Hunger Games trilogy. Yes, it's been an eventful summer.

To take me into the fall, I wanted to recap some of the big lessons I learned this summer, inside and outside the classroom:
  1. Don't settle for less than you deserve-- in work, in relationships, in life, whatever it may be.
  2. Deadlines are important, even if they are self-set. Don't break them.
  3. Confusion and conflict can be productive.
  4. Honesty is the best policy, even when the truth hurts.
  5. Reach out to others. Communication is a two- (three, four, five, etc.) way street.
  6. Underachiever is actually more like under-motivated or lacking confidence most of the time.
  7. Hope is a powerful thing, and as with any source of power, it can be good or bad.
  8. Sometimes, it's nice to not be at the top of the totem pole.
  9. When the lifeguards say no swimming, you shouldn't swim out further than you can stand.
  10. Read in connected, interdisciplinary ways. Things don't happen in a bubble.
What are the big lessons you learned this summer?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

i h8 to tell u, but i can txt & code switch: Teaching Correctness vs. Teaching Rhetorical Choices

image from Big Ten Science
In a recent blog post on GOOD Education called "'Wat up wit u': Yep, Texting is Killing Students' Grammar Skills," Liz Dwyer explores the claim that texting is destroying writing and cites the findings of a recent study on 10-14 year old texters. Researchers found that the more texting a 10-14-year-old did, the more grammar errors they made in non-texting writing. Ultimately, Dwyer claims that this is not simply because kids are texting, but because they are not given adequate opportunities to practice the formal academic concepts of grammar in school due to the focus on high-stakes testing and quick-to-grade non-writing-intensive assignments from overwhelmed instructors.

While I think Dwyer is accurate in claiming that better writing instruction is needed, I don't buy it all. "Grammar" is, of course, one of those concepts that fascinates me. Grammar seems to be a blanket statement for everything sentence-level-related. The problem is, aside from the fact that people don't even always know what they mean when they use the term "grammar," that there is more than one form of grammar. What Dwyer and the researchers are looking at is not grammatical correctness, but Standard Academic English correctness.

Texting has its own grammatical rules. If grammar was completely unimportant to texting, there would be no language patterns, and we would have a hard time understanding one another. On the contrary, we easily understand text messages, sometimes more easily than "grammatically correct" academic writing.

Also, it's quite elitist to say that students who text don't understand writing or have corrupted the English language. Language evolves. New words come into existence all the time, as old ones disappear. If it didn't, we'd still be speaking Old English. Language is a living thing that adapts to the times. To stay stuck in a place where we believe that students only need to know the conventions of Standard Academic English is to disadvantage them. They will need all kinds of literacies to navigate the complicated technology-inundated 21st century.

I think we do students a big disservice by telling them they are simply "incorrect," red-penning their paper, hoping they stop using text lingo, and trying to pass that off as "quality writing instruction," which is what Dwyer seems to recommend. We need to teach our students about why we use certain conventions. What does Standard Academic English represent? Why don't we use text language in papers? What do these conventions symbolize and how do readers interpret them? We need to teach students to think about the rhetorical situation-- Who do they want to reach? What do they want to say? How? And why?-- not to apply a formula or use a set of prepackaged options. When they learn to do that, they can better communicate on all fronts, not just the academic or the technological.

Monday, July 30, 2012

See Something? Do Something.

I return to my post about the Aurora shooting because some new information has recently come forth. From the beginning, law enforcement said that they believed the attack was premeditated, and last week, Fox News published that law enforcement found a massive notebook that had been mailed to a university psychiatrist on July 12, days before the attack. In other words, had it been delivered and had someone taken it seriously, the attack might have been prevented.

This leads me back to some of the things I have been thinking about over the past two years:

  1. How do we judge if someone is simply being creative with a dark edge, or sincerely needs help? 
  2. How do we deal with traumatic/confessional writing?  
  3. Who gets heard in a world covered with writing?  
  4. Why do we make students write about the "purely academic" and separate themselves from the real world? 

These questions immediately lead me back to Chris Anson's short piece, "What's Writing Got to Do With Campus Terrorism?" Essentially, the piece is a dialogue between two characters, Nothing and Everything. Nothing believes that writing has nothing to do with campus terrorism. Writing isn't a marker for crime or suicidal intentions. It's simply an outlet for imagination, and we cannot tell from what someone writes whether he or she is mentally unstable. Everything, of course, takes the opposite side, believing that writing is responsible for and a marker of terrorist behavior. Most of us find ourselves caught in the crosshairs, not fully believing either side of the argument. The dialogue doesn't offer answers. It simply brings the conflict to light.

Richard E. Miller, perhaps, comes closest to unpacking these questions in his book, Writing at the End of the World. As I mention in an earlier post, Miller explains that writing is everywhere these days. Everyone can write and publish, but no one quite knows what to do with that writing. He rips into the idea that writing (and reading) is cathartic or transformative. He uses Ted Kaczynzki, the Unabomber, as evidence for this claim. Much like Holmes, Kaczynzki wrote and publicized his violent plot ahead of time. Neither piece of writing was able to stall the horrible events that would take place after the writing was done and sent.

We can also look at the recent media attention given to the teen suicides caused (in some way) by bullying incidents. Many of those teens-- Phoebe Prince and Tyler Clementi, for example-- were writing. But nobody was listening. And even if they happened to hear, Americans are trained to "mind our own business" and "not get involved." It doesn't seem like anyone really knew what to do, or knows what to do, with writing that reflects trauma. If it's literature, we enjoy it.

I've spoken about all of these things before, but I am still trying to come up with answers.

"See something; do something"

I've begun to draw  few conclusions. I'm sure they don't apply in every case, but I have noticed some patterns. People, typically, do not just leave written records in private corners when they're in distress. They push them out into public places-- letters to friends, statuses on Facebook, editorials, blogs, graffiti, tweets, etc. I don't want to become an advocate for the "see something, say something" policy that surrounds our culture's obsession with preventing terrorism, but I do suggest a similar remedy: "see something, do something." 

If you notice that someone is constantly left out, reach out to them. It takes a bit of effort, but being willing to listen to another human being can sometimes make all the difference. 

As to traumatic, confessional, and/or disturbing writing, if someone's writing seems to reflect mental disturbance, you can talk to them about their craft, rather than assuming something is wrong or nothing is wrong. Through those conversations, you can assess the situation. 

I'm not saying we should be nosy and pry into people's private lives, and I'm certainly not saying to continue pushing people to speak when they have clearly chosen to remain silent, but I do think that we need to be willing to have more conversations, even if they are uncomfortable at first. In our worst moments, many of us just need someone to acknowledge our struggles, to say that we are worth a few moments of their time, which is probably the most precious gift one can give. Those few moments can be the difference between healing and breaking.

Furthermore, I think mentorships are incredibly important. This is a role educators can play. We all need someone to look up to, someone who is genuinely interested in our well-being. Many of us who consider ourselves successful, or at least on the path that we want to be on, have mentors to thank-- coaches, family friends, teachers, neighbors, older siblings or cousins, etc. How many of us pay it forward, though? 

Specifically, for those of us in our 20s, I think we have a powerful position. We really can make changes in our world. We are about to be the generation of leaders, those taking over companies and political positions, but at the same time, we are close to our youth. We are not parental-looking figures yet, so teens look up to us as the cool adults. We have a responsibility to pause and take the time to interact with them. For instance, if a fellow 13-year-old was to scold another 13-year-old for a mean Facebook comment, the end result would probably be that the other scolder would end up bullied, as well. Few 13-year-olds would attempt to bully a 21-year-old, however. Likely, instead, they would instead see their actions as immature (which bullying is). Rarely, however, do 20-somethings step in. We think, "hey, they're just kids" or "they've got parents to deal with this" and move on with our busy lives.

We clearly cannot read everything in a world covered with writing, but we can at least read more carefully.

Connected Living 

I think what I mean to say, more broadly, is that we need to stop "minding our own business." It's not really only our business anyway. We do not live in a vacuum. Our actions affect others, and their actions affect us, as we are all part of one larger ecosystem, whether that be a family, a local community, or humanity as a whole global system. We could all put forth a little more effort to remember that we are living in a networked community, even in this hyper-individualistic society.

It's true that most of us are not psychologists, psychiatrist, social workers, or trained counselors. We shouldn't try to fix problems that are beyond us, but we can still help people find help or simply want to find help. Sometimes, people need to feel like they deserve help before they will even bother to seek it. 

Honestly, I still haven't really answered my questions, and I'm sure they will continue to bother me and drive my studies. There seems to be something inherently wrong when we live in a world where people have access to more public writing than ever before, but crimes and other tragic incidents that result from feelings of isolation and desperation still take place. Clearly, the approach that we have been taking isn't working. Something needs to change. I think starting small and remembering that we are all connected is a step in the right direction.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Brains to Bullets: Graduate School Gunmen

This morning when I woke up, the first thing I heard about was the shooting in Colorado during the premier of The Dark Knight Rises. Since I had gone to the midnight showing, getting to the theater two hours before the movie started despite having advanced tickets, it clearly had freaked my mom out to think that it could have just as easily been at our local theater. I imagined myself there, with all the chaos of bullets flying, people scrambling, gas oozing. As my friend Eye said, "Talk about life imitating art." Sad, but true, in this case. It was like a real life Joker attack, senseless and without motive thus far, incited to create fear and chaos. It was homegrown terrorism (of course, unless he was Arab, the media wouldn't label it that way, but that's an argument for another day).

My first reaction after I heard about it, like any good academic, was to read about it from different news sources to find out what really happened. There was no shortage of sources. Right away I learned that a man just a bit younger than myself named James Holmes was responsible for the horrific event. He was a 24-year-old who walked into the theater where the movie was screening wearing a gas mask wielding guns and smoke bombs. He incited panic and then shot people as they tried to leave, children included.

What I read in the Los Angeles Times, however, really bothered me:
[Holmes] was described by law enforcement sources as a loner. He was a student at the University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus but the school said he was in the process of withdrawing from the graduate program in neuroscience. 
For those of you who follow my blog, you may remember a post just a few months back about a similar situation, "When Your Dad Knows the Guman... And Says He Was Really Smart."In that case, a young guy who had worked for my dad, one who had a B.A. in Chemistry from Carleton, a B.S. in Engineering from Columbia, and had recently started a graduate program in Biology, took to open-firing at a mental health clinic in Pittsburgh.

They say there is a thin line between genius and insanity, but I want to know what is making these men snap. Notice, there a few incidents of women going on shooting rampages. Many of these massacres are caused by men with higher education and guns.

So again, I have to wonder if our survival-of-the-fittest, pit-students-against-each-other mentality in higher education is partially to blame for what these men have done. As you can see, both snapped at about the same time that they withdrew from graduate studies, and it appears that neither flunked out, but mysteriously decided to stop going. Did he need someone to reach out and lose it when no one did? Was the pressure to be perfect too great? Though graduate students seem adult and self-sufficient and thus, are usually left to work on their own, I think graduate students need just as much, if not more, mentoring and encouragement than undergrads.

Our very own Peter Elbow talks about how disheartening graduate studies can be in his book Embracing Contraries. He talks about a time when he had enrolled and basically failed out. He thought he wasn't smart enough or organized enough to be a student and couldn't focus. It took teaching and find his way back to enjoying learning to get him back into school. Of course, Elbow seems better adjusted and more personable then the two shooters, who were both known for being loners and slightly odd, but seemingly harmless.

What I guess I'm really getting at here is that in the wake of the aftermath, there's hundreds of people talking about gun control issues, there are politicians "keeping the victims in their prayers," and there are people posting Batman ribbons on their Facebook walls, but no one is really doing much or assessing what can be done to prevent these incidents. Very few people are willing to say that mental health issues or American ideologies are partially at play here; they simply want "justice," whatever that means. They want blood for blood. What's even worse is those who are using this incident as a platform for their Political views or campaigns.

Now, this is not to say that killings are justified or that the shooter should be let go, but this is to say that we are a society that produces crime through our apathetic "mind your own business" ideologies, our constant drive to compete against our neighbors, our dependency on pharmaceuticals to "cure" all kinds of mental health issues, and the way that we set up a separation of spheres between academia and the "real world." We've hyped up the idea of "making a name for yourself" to the point where it must be done, no matter how it is done.

When it comes down to moments like this, I don't care what Stanley Fish says about simply being an "academic." Educators have a responsibility to encourage collaboration, to reach out to students even when they make us uncomfortable, and not to make students feel lesser for seeking out help. Actually not just educators, but all human beings have that responsibility. It may not solve every issue, but it will help people from feeling isolated and unwanted and ultimately feeling the need to harm themselves or others.

With that said, my heart goes out to those people that are suffering as the ripple effect of this tragedy sends it waves out over the community and the country. It was a senseless, intolerable, selfish act, and I hope that some good will come of it so that those who were killed will not have died in vain.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Distance Learning: My First Week Teaching Online

Last week, my online course began. As I posted earlier, I have never taught online before, and the idea of smooshing my 15-week course into a 5-week warp-speed summer course was making me very, very anxious. I was also upset that the powers that be forced me to use Blackboard rather than Wordpress, as initially planned. 
The Blackboard Homepage for My Online Course
I changed my syllabus 4 times, but in the end, I went with a blend between an activist writing and an iSearch project approach. There are very few assigned readings in my course, but the ones that I do make them read are mostly related to writing studies (Sommers, Flower and Hayes, Lamott). I also have them doing some writing about writing, disconnected from the major project. The end result will be a portfolio that includes their big project, some smaller pieces, a reflection, and a self-evaluation.

So now, I'm a week and a half in, and I think my fears have been assuaged. I'm sure it speaks to the students more to my own teaching style, but they are engaged, socializing without much prompting, and just really great people. I admit that I was shocked at the diversity of the group. The university where I work is known for being diverse, but in my face to face courses, I have typically had students who were fluent in English, mostly American-born. I think more than half of my students in this course are international students who began learning English just within the past few years. All of them, regardless of country of origin, have been willing to share their fascinating lives and feedback, and I just find that truly amazing. It's a wonderful group!

I also must admit that I hate Blackboard a little less than I thought I would. Our version allows students to create blogs, so I chose that option rather than discussion boards, and it seems to be working very well. It's easy for me to see who is writing, when they are writing, and when they get feedback. The students are commenting, mostly unprompted. When using discussion boards, I notice that certain people usually end up running the show while others stay quiet. The blog option seems to promote more agency, giving everyone a space to develop their ideas. I do dislike that it is nearly uncustomizable and that they look similar to discussion board posts. I think Blackboard could really step it up and allow students to take more ownership, but I do think that students who have never taken an online course find it simple to learn. I also don't like that the Blackboard blogs keep the class cloistered, as I am an advocate of public writing and sharing with an audience beyond the classroom. I like the idea of being able to get feedback from outside if you want it, especially when you're writing about a topic with which your classmates are unfamiliar. 

To cope with the super-short time span, I've been trying to do the assignments alongside my students. I give them a few days to do it on their own, and then late in the week, I post. I think that modeling for them what I expect is just one extra way that I can help them. I do worry that if I post before everyone they will feel that there is only one correct way to approach the task, however, which is why I wait. I also try to comment on everyone's writing, but wait until after the students have taken some time to speak among themselves.  

I'm looking forward to seeing how the class develops as the next three and a half weeks go by. I'm a little nervous that I didn't implement enough structured learning and that, in just 5 weeks, students won't be able to make the progress that I'd like them to, but I guess I'l just have to wait and see.


Flowers, Linda and John Hayes. "The Cognition of Discovery: Defining the Rhetorical Problem." College Composition and Communication 31.1 (1980): 21-32. Jstor. Web. 16 July 2012.

Sommers, Nancy. "Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experiences Adult Writers." College Composition and Communication 31.4 (1980): 378-88. Jstor. Web. 16 July 2012.

"Writing an iSearch Paper." Writing Workshop. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, n.d. Web. <>

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Schooling Myself: A Lesson in Global Revision for the Teacher

For the past few weeks, I have been working on my very first article for publication. While I'm super excited about having something in print, I am really struggling through it. I do not typically have a hard time producing papers, but I know that I also care much more about this piece than most things I have written, as it will be put in a collection of essays for other academics to judge. I want it to be well-written, well-researched, and well-argued.

The problem is that it took me three weeks to write 14 pages, and I didn't even like the 14 pages I wrote. They seemed disorganized, full of loosely connected ideas. They didn't really seem to focus on anything in particular. I kept trying to rework the piece, to move things around, to add more research, or to rewrite awkward sentences. I was trying to merge narrative with research with other narratives in places where they just didn't mesh. My margins were filled with MS Word comments to myself about answering questions or transitioning better. The truth is it wasn't getting any better. I might even say it was getting worse.

So today, despite a deadline that is just a few days off, I decided to scrap it. I kept my two page introduction that laid out a framework for my argument, and I cut a few paragraphs here and there that I could work with. For the most part, though, I started from scratch. By the end of the day, I had 12 solid pages that, though they still needed work, were much better and usable.

Learning My Own Lessons

It seems silly in hindsight that I wouldn't have done this sooner, considering that I preach these exact lessons to my students. How often do I say, "Revision isn't just changing around a few sentences. It's about changing ideas"? Yet, I sat around tinkering with a very broken paper, rather than just overhauling it. I was so worried about not having enough time to finish the piece that I kept playing with the same mess of words. I probably wasted three days on the same ideas, not knowing where to go. If I had just sat back and said, "Ok, Nicole. What do you really want to say? What's the journey you want to take your readers on?" I would probably have been done by now.

I was trying to edit rather than allow for global revision. The piece was so disorganized that it needed restructuring. It didn't just need a few paragraphs to be slid around; it needed a whole new core. Losing all of those words was scary, though. We're constantly told that wasting time is the worst thing that you can do. I had put hours into those words, days even. Watching them disappear felt like a sacrificial ritual. 

Shitty First Drafts

One of my favorite pieces, and one of my favorite pieces to share with students, is Anne Lamott's "Shitty First Drafts," a chapter from her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. In the chapter, she says:
The first draft is the child's draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the char­acters wants to say, "Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?," you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you're supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go--but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.
Now that I'm half way done with my piece and still full of ideas, I'm glad I chose to commit to writing and sacrificing what Anne  Lamott would call a "shitty first draft." In the end, even though I deleted nearly all of what I wrote, it wasn't a waste of time. Those ideas were still circulating as I wrote, and I had more fully come to understand my position.

The experience has definitely given me a better insight into my students' brains and their resistance to my lessons on revision. If I, a theoretically experienced writer, have a hard time making the necessary changes, I know it must be even more difficult for a student who knows little about the potential for better writing to come from global revision, chopping bad writing, and allowing themselves to write terrible drafts. I guess sometimes the teacher has to learn her own lessons the hard way.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Summer Classes: 4 Weeks to Teach 3 Months Worth of Lessons?

photocredit: 1000 Unlucky Days
This summer, I'm teaching my first online course. It also happens to be a summer course. It doesn't start until July 9, but I've been trying to figure it out since the middle of the Spring semester. I have created about 4 different syllabi at this point and am not really happy with any of them. I love the idea of teaching writing online, and I think, though different, it's a very feasible thing to do. However, teaching writing online in a time period of just 31 days is beginning to seem borderline impossible. I'm having a hard time figuring out how to include all 8 program learning objectives into such a brief amount of time, especially when I can't explain and interject as I would face-to-face.

Most universities offer summer courses these days, and typically, they run more than one "session." At one of the universities I attended, there is a 2 week pre-session, two month-long summer sessions, and a 2 week post-session. In theory, you have four mini semesters running over the course of just three and a half months. I'm not sure about other disciplines. I suppose one could learn some formulas in a few days or memorize a short length of history (maybe), but writing is not a science. It takes time. A short summer session isn't enough time for most students.

Furthermore, I've noticed that many of the students who take summer courses are taking courses that they want to separate from their typical workload, and often, this is because these are "weak" subjects for those students. They want to be able to dedicate their full attention to the subject so that they can succeed. It seems counter-intuitive, then, to push them quickly through subjects that they really need at which they need extra practice. 

For now, I am dealing with the challenge the best I can. I realize that my students are going to miss out on some of the biggest lessons that come from my three-month-semester course. They will only get to do multiple drafts of one major piece, so the importance of revision will likely be lost. They won't get to do many of the fun multimedia tasks or write in alternative genres like my three-month-semester classes do. Not to say that they won't learn anything, but I do think the integrity of the class will be greatly influenced by the shortened time span. I'm trying to negotiate my priorities, though, and make it the best course possible.

I'm wondering if any of you have taught or taken short summer courses, especially online ones. How did you cope with the tight time frame? Am I missing the benefit of having only 4 weeks?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Summer Slacker in Need of Motivation

image from
It's been a while since I posted a new post, and before that, it was a while before I posted a new post. I am the quintessential summer slacker. Just before summer began, I passed my comprehensive exams, putting me into (what should be) one of the busiest summers of my life, but I'm just find it so hard to get and stay motivated or focused. Living on the Jersey Shore doesn't help. The sun comes out, and all I want to do is be out of doors, doing anything but reading and writing. I'm beginning to feel like an undergrad all over again.

I'm supposed to be doing research, reading through my archive of FYW portfolios, studying French, writing an article, and figuring out my dissertation topic. I should be putting together three new syllabi for three new courses I'll be teaching-- one of which begins in July-- but I haven't solidified a single one. I pick a book up, I put it down 10 pages later. I can't remember what I read. I start writing and get through a paragraph before my mind is elsewhere. For whatever reason, I just can't get it together this summer.

So, I'm turning to you, dear readers. What are your tips for getting focused and staying motivated?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Cory Booker on the Conspiracy of Love and Finding Your Way

Last Tuesday, I had the wonderful pleasure of watching my younger sister graduate college. The commencement speaker at her graduation ceremony was Newark, NJ's own superstar mayor Cory Booker. His speech was funny and inspiring and his message was positive. It was a call to leadership, one that I hope those of us in the audience (graduates, family and friends, staff, and professors) will answer as we move forward.

photocredit: Teaneck Patch

During his speech, Booker addressed two themes: what he calls "gratitude as gravity" or "the conspiracy of love" and "finding your way."

Booker's idea of gratitude as gravity is simply that we should not imagine that we have succeeded all on our own, but that we have been helped along by those before us, whether we have known them or not.  He calls this "a conspiracy of love, " which he explains as this:
You are here because people dared to love so hard in their lives that they loved generations yet unborn. 
For example, Booker acknowledges those who fought to end racial segregation and those who, despite death threats, went to the voting polls and made sure Black men could vote as those to whom he owes a great debt. In a country where we are taught to compete and be better than others, that we live in a "dog eat dog" world, I think this message is incredibly powerful. It reminds us that, though we are an individualistic society, we are actually part of a communal effort for success.

The second theme was the importance of focusing on who you are and "finding your way," a way to conviction and truth. Booker says:
You are here for a purpose. You did not get here on your own. Standing underneath you, you are on the shoulders-- realize that-- of true heroes, not the kind that you read about in the papers... The people that got you here, you don't even know their names, and your biggest obligation to them is to tell your truth to this world; to have courage to your convictions; to be dedicated to the highest ideal, which is living up to your highest ideals. It is not shrinking, not giving this world a carbon copy... This world needs that kind of leadership..... Find your way to make a change in this world, but remember what King said: 'Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but must be carried in on the backs of people that are willing to do it.' Find your way because this world is a democracy that we live, and it's not a spectator sport. You have to be in the game. Find your way because you were not build to simply seek comfort and convenience. I would rather have my ship sunk at sea than rot in the harbor.
This points to the difference between leaders and those who simply follow along. Booker encouraged the students to not only do this, but that when they have succeeded, they must inspire others. They must "reach [their hands] back and pull them up." This was probably the most important part of the entire speech, and his ending note. Again, Booker reminds us that success should not be about achieving the most for ourselves, but paying it forward.

For me one of the most powerful ideas was that of the importance of conflict. Tying the gravity of gratitude to finding your way, Booker says:
I think that it is in that moment of contradiction that we get our greatest lessons. I believe that to get wealth, you must give wealth away; to obtain freedom, you have to adopt discipline; to gain tomorrow, you have to sacrifice today; to be secure, you gotta take risks; to get up, you have to lift another; to win you, you have to find every lesson in loss; to fly, you've got to fall often; and to change the world, you've got to change yourself.
I liked that Booker didn't try to fight the conflicts or to change them into disconnected binaries. He shows how conflict is more like two parts of a whole (perhaps evidenced by my need to put them in semicolons). I agree with him completely. I think we learn more not by looking at how things all fit together nicely, but in those moments of conflict or tension, places where things are not so black and white. It is in those gray areas that we begin to question, to challenge, and to learn.

At the end, Booker was given a well-deserved standing ovation by students, professors, and the audience alike. I think it was obvious to the audience that he was not simply giving an exciting speech, which is easy for many politicians to do, but really speaking from his heart, from things he believed truly and with which he lived his life. His speech was a conspiracy of love; he reached out to inspire others he would never know in order to help them help others (though, yes, I'm sure he was paid to do it). For that half hour, everyone in the audience seemed to feel the desire to rise to greatness. In his concluding moments, Booker said that this could be the generation that changes the world for the better. I hope he is right.

You can watch the speech for yourself here:

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Books about Digital Literacy and New Media Studies -- my first vlog

Hi everyone. This is my first attempt at a vlog. It was an awkward experience talking to myself for 12 minutes, I admit. Also, I did no editing, so you will see all of my slip-ups (including saying that the "message is the medium" and then having to correct myself to say that the "medium is the message").

This video is just a quick run-down of some of the books I read for my comprehensive exam list on Digital Literacy and New Media Studies:

On a completely irrelevant side note, I almost never wear glasses in public, and I rarely wear hoodies, so this is probably a poor representation of "everyday Nicole." haha