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: