Thursday, December 26, 2013

Snark/asm and Second (3rd, 4th,...) Language Learning

For the past few months, I've been trying to learn Portuguese. It is definitely one of the hardest things I have done in a long time. I use interactive websites. I write in elementary grammar books. I listen to podcasts. I even try reading the news and books in Portuguese. Acquiring even the most basic conversational skill has been a painfully slow process. Despite keeping at it everyday, I can make only a few full sentences-- nothing in past tense or conditional or the million other tenses Portuguese has. As someone who is almost a doctor in the English language, it feels so odd to me not to be able to craft complex sentences or find the right vocabulary for the ideas I want to express. I haven't given up yet, though.

The reason I continue to fight it out is partially because I want to be able to converse with my boyfriend's friends and family, but even more so because I've had positive encouragement. My significant other will let me ask him one million questions about the language. He'll sit there and help me try to pronounce words. If I message him in Portuguese, he'll answer me back and show me the correct way to say what I was trying to say. He does this all with patience and kindness, and he reminds me how far I've come. At a birthday party, his family friends made me feel proud of how much I was catching on. One of my best friends is also learning Portuguese, though she is much more advanced than I am, and she also consistently reminds me that I've learned a lot and celebrates my small victories. Even online, when I chat on with native speakers, they never put down my poor grammar or the length of time it takes me to construct a thought. They are all supportive. This has made it easy to learn.

I contrast this with my attempts to learn Greek as an adult. My father is a Greek immigrant and several of my family members and close family friends speak Greek. I've been to Greece twice. I thought it was important to learn the language. The problem is that whenever I tried to speak Greek, I was met with sarcasm or playful mocking. The first time I went to Greece, my cousin would poke fun at me every time I spoke, whether my accent was incorrect or not, simply because I was an American struggling to speak the language. The second time I went to Greece, my grandmother was the only one who encouraged others to speak Greek to me in an attempt to help me learn the language, but she didn't help much with the spoken aspects. At home, my dad made no effort to encourage my Greek learning, even after I dished out a large fee for Rosetta Stone. After a while, I just didn't want to try anymore. No one would engage me. The learning process felt solitary. There was no one to practice with, and as I already felt self-conscious, the playful jests made me not want to try, even when there was.  

Sass doesn't belong in feedback to student writing. 

I spent the first five years of my life in Brooklyn, NY, grew up in Jersey, relocated to Queens, and then returned to Jersey again. I was raised by a native Staten Islander and a Greek transplanted in Brooklyn. Needless to say, I am fluent in sarcasm and teasing. I admit that I will often tease my students when they ask seemingly obvious questions, but now more than ever, I see that there is a time and place for it, and I am trying to train myself to act accordingly.

Learning a new language outside a formal educational settings has really helped me empathize with the plight of students who are learning English or even just learning to craft better Standard American Written English/Academic English/whatever fancy term you want to use to describe the English of the socioeconomic elite. It's become obvious to me that if we want students to learn, we have to tone down the sarcasm and the playful mocking.

The worst case I ever saw was on a student's paper from a law professor. A student was proposing a thesis statement for a research paper, and the professor had written things like "REALLY?????????!?!?????? Are you even trying? Can you think? Oh, so X, Y, Z happened? Really?" in a paragraph long email of harsh sarcasm that addressed his vague, overly general thesis statement. While I guessed that this professor was just offering a bit of tough love, her comments made the student feel incapable of performing the assigned task. They completely alienated him and made him feel far beneath the average student. He didn't want to ask her questions. He didn't feel playfully challenged. He felt defeated and didn't want to write anymore.

I also saw a professor who demanded that his student attend the writing center because he had a slew of grammar issues, which the professor guessed were a result of learning English as a second language. The professor thought he was being encouraging by writing snarky comments, then sending the student for extra help instead of failing him. However, the student's native language was English, and the professor's list of things to work on (which, again, he thought was encouraging) only served to make this student feel stupid and incapable of correcting what were really just small surface-level grammatical errors. He could have learned so much more if the professor just took the time to explain and perhaps actually let him play around with language.

Like I said, language learners definitely need play and playfulness. We need to make learning fun and encourage mistake-making in a nurturing environment. It clearly needs to be interactive. But fun doesn't have to be at the expense of our students, a reminder that we are superior to this, which is what snark and sarcasm both do. These students already know we have mastered something that they are struggling with. Sarcasm should be reserved for those who have already established skill and confidence, who know that they can do better. Those who are already questioning their abilities will only find further doubt in those seemingly harmless teasing remarks. In the process of building confidence, play has to be about discovery and socialization, making new connections.

Boa sorte!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Haters Gonna Hate: Victoria's Secret and Ugly, Jealous Women

Last night was the highly-anticipated annual Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, the runway that in many ways sets the standard for "sexy" in America. As expected, my social media feeds flooded with statuses about the show-- or I should say, about the models. Not a single one of the posts was about the production or the garments; they were all about the women working the catwalk.

Most of the posts fell into two categories: adorers and "haters." Some of these people thought the models were absolutely stunning and some were unhappy with the how thin the models were. However, this one Instagram post really seemed to capture the theme of the conversations:
In case you can't read the text, it says "Hating on her makes you fat, ugly, miserable, and jealous." Indeed, across the board, those who were supporting the models weren't just saying, "they're pretty," but that if you don't like the models, it's because you're insecure. The idea behind this post is that women don't like the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show simply because they are jealous of the models, not because they actually see something wrong (of course, we're women; we're incapable of thinking rationally).

This quote perfectly demonstrates everything wrong with the media's representation of female beauty. I refuse to watch the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show. It's not because I'm jealous of these women or hate them. It's because I recognize that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way beauty is portrayed, and it's not that the models are thin.

The problem with Victoria's Secret is that it sells an idea of what's sexy that is extremely limited. Yes, these women are beautiful. There's no doubt about it. But all of them are extremely thin, light-skinned (even the women who are not Caucasian, who are the overwhelming majority), and much taller than most women. The problem is not that they are these things, but that they are ONLY these things. 

There are no dark-skinned women. There are no short women. There are no bottom-heavy women or women with broader shoulders. Essentially, according the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show (and most of the media), the only people who are sexy are tall, thin, fair-skinned women. THAT is a problem.

Let's go deeper: The problem with the tall, thin, fair-skinned model is that it is not attainable for the majority of the female population. As super model Cameron Russell said in her TED Talk, having the features to be a supermodel is basically hitting the "genetic lottery." So, why, then, is that the standard if it is anything but standard?

Because CAPITALISM, duh. 

Consumer culture relies on the purchase of commodities. People only buy commodities when they feel need. People with money typically are able to meet many of their physiological needs without spending much. How, then, do we get them to part with the excess? 

We create social need or fear. The media presents a standard of beauty, which is anything but standard, so that women purposefully feel dissatisfied and imperfect. And we use the words "sexy/beautiful" or "ugly"  and "confident" or "jealous" to foster this feeling. We create a fear of rejection and convince women that they are lacking, so that they will fill the void with things-- cosmetics, clothes, hair dye, skin bleach, laser hair removal, gym memberships.... lingerie. 

This should piss you off.

If doesn't, also think about the fact that with Victoria Secret's PINK line, this dislike of the self is being sold to young girls, not just women. And remember that studies show that girls as young as 9 years old now think that they are fat and need to go on diets.

And because, PATRIARCHY, duh.

And on top of the media broadcasting these images, the messages embedded within are internalized and shared. Men tells us that sexy is tall, thin, and fair-skinned. They circulate images of heavily photoshopped, unrealistically thin women (women who are photoshopped to look thinner when they are already underweight) who somehow magically still have large, symmetrical breasts and butts. Also, they don't have pores, lines, or cellulite. We have people of both sexes telling us that if we don't worship these women as the most beautiful women on earth, we're jealous.

When we don't buy into the standard, we are quite literally stripped of our voices-- called ugly and ignored. Ugly is basically a word for useless women in our patriarchal society. If you aren't aesthetically pleasing, you become ugly. But of course, now that you see how the media markets beautiful, you also understand that most women easily fall into the "ugly" category.

So, these standards of beauty not only make women feel unhappy and drive us to buy products (that are mostly produced and marketed by men), but also create a culture where it easy to suck the power from women by simply insinuating that those unable to meet the unrealistic standards of beauty are not worthy of notice, not capable of saying anything worthwhile. They're just "fat, ugly, miserable, and jealous."

And just saying....

we all know Victoria's multi-billion dollar secret now: Victoria was a man, Mr. Roy Raymond, and the store was created so men didn't feel humiliated when they wanted to buy lingerie for their ladies, not to make women feel sexy.

Are you angry yet?

You should be.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fake Passes and Rapes: Athlete Entitlement Culture in the University

Today, Adam Weistein published a post titled "Jameis Winston Isn't the Only Problem Here: An FSU Teacher's Lament," in which he discussed how high-profile college sports are creating an atmosphere that fosters intimidation, cheating, and irresponsible behavior. And while I can't support his careless use of Islamic extremists as a metaphor for college sports culture, I can empathize with the struggles FSU teachers have faced when dealing with high profile athletic teams. I, too, have dealt with them firsthand, both as a student and as a professor.

The Almost Rape

As a college student, I was an athlete. That means I socialized with other athletes from other teams. In particular, as freshman, I took a liking to one of the older baseball players, and I decided to go to one of his baseball player house parties...

I bet you think you know where this story is going, but it's not... Nope, Baseball Guy didn't touch me inappropriately at all. He was actually a very nice guy. He wasn't drinking much, and I wasn't drinking at all, and we had fun talking over the loud music until we retired to his bedroom to cozy up a little. We did nothing more than kiss.

But then things took a turn... It was chilly out that night, and I was wrapped under layers of blankets. Baseball Guy and his baseball player housemates were hosting a few potential recruits, and so the party had been about showing them a good time. I had met a few, and they seemed like good kids. Baseball Guy wanted to check on them before he passed out, but seeing as I was cold and tired, he left me in bed while he went downstairs. I was pretty much asleep when I awoke to someone climbing over the top of me. I assumed it was Baseball Guy, but when I came out of my sleep daze, I saw that it wasn't Baseball Guy at all. It was one of the recruits! I was pinned under the blankets, still in a bit of a fog, and couldn't react. Confused and terrified, I laid there frozen and wide-eyed.

Lucky for me, Baseball Guy opened the door just in time and sent the recruit running in fear when he bellowed for him to get off of me. I can tell you that the kid's intention was NOT innocent, and he probably assumed I was drunk and passed out and an easy target. He also assumed that he was entitled because he was supposed to be shown a good time, a common trend in college athletics. He probably also thought that because he was drunk his actions would be excused... and he was probably right.

"Boys will be boys" would have been what I would have been told the next day by university athletic officials and university administrators. Had someone on the baseball team told him he was being a scumbag, beyond just being yelled at to get off of me, or told him they didn't want him on the team, it could have had a real impact. But as I've learned, male athletes, in particular, especially those in contact sports, are told "be aggressive. Take what you want. You're the star. It's yours."

Not drinking didn't save me at all, which is usually what rape-apologists, especially those siding with "poor athletes under a lot of stress" would say-- "if she hadn't been such a drunk slut, she wouldn't have been in that situation." But even if I was wasted, it wouldn't have given him a right to treatment as his personal entertainment. This kid just thought he was entitled to take what he wanted and there would be no consequences because he was a prospective athlete, someone who might make the school some money, and he knew it. The players knew they had to show him a good time if they wanted to bring his talent to their team. Reprimanding him or telling him "don't go after that girl" would have dampened his fun and affected his decision to come to the university. Happily, I never saw him again, so I assume he chose another school.

I'm fairly certain the incident was never spoken about again, which means he probably still thinks it's ok and probably raped some other girl at some other point before or after or both.

Summer Schooled

My almost-rape is, of course, an extreme case, and there are lots of very nice male student-athletes. However, the entitlement problem that leads to things like rape and assault start with little occurrences, like the ones I faced while teaching summer courses at a DI university. 

Coaches would make unreasonable requests on behalf of their players, like asking for final grades the same day finals were turned in. Or give me the "isn't there something we can do?" when players weren't doing well. Players would assume they could slack all semester and then pass. I failed a student whose excuse was "but I didn't know anything was due" for all the assignments that he had missed the entire semester. I was also asked, after submitting final grades, if there was "anyway to make up the work I missed" by several athletes, who had simply failed to do work at all. They were shocked they failed. I was even more shocked that they were shocked.

Lucky for me, I had a strong supervisor, who had my back when I stuck to failing athletes or having to put their eligibility in jeopardy. But the pressure to give these students leeway was immense. Basically, these athletes were told that they were exceptions to the rules of higher education. Someone would "take care of it" if they messed up.

Of course, when things don't go their way, these athletes become aggressive and throw temper tantrums because they've been taught that intimidation is the way to succeed. They'd try to guilt me into passing them, making me feel like I was letting the whole university down by preventing them from playing. They've been told the university needs THEM, not that they need the university. 

Imagine being told this your whole life: do what you want because someone else will make sure you're successful no matter what. What things might you have done if actions had no consequences, if someone else would always be to blame? It might have started with cheating on exams, but I'm fairly sure it would grow worse as you got away with more and more harmful activity.

Remember the Job Description

We call them student-athletes, but we treat these talented players them like athletes who just happen to take a few classes. If we don't prioritize academics over athletics, or at least make them equal, and give these student-athletes the tools to succeed as normal human beings, seeing as most of them will never go pro, we are inviting horrific events-- rapes, beatings, hazings, cheating, etc. It's not a far stretch. 

But even when the horrors are more subtle, like someone plagiarizing a paper, we are simply failing these students by removing their sense of personal responsibility. These students will most likely struggle to be successful once the "golden years" pass if we fail to teach them how to negotiate their time, how to spring back from personal failures outside the sports arena, how to make amends when they have done wrong, and how to empathize with other human beings. 

If we shift the culture and move towards holding athletes responsible, what we will ultimately find is not failing sports programs, but programs with student-athletes who are truly role models for others, who inspire people with their actions on and off the field and who know how to succeed beyond the field. We will start to create leaders, people who have persevered through tough mental and physical practice and are able to help others do the same, rather than those who take advantage of "the others' weaknesses." And those would be people I would want to play with.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Langer's Six Strategies of High-Performing Teachers

For last week's writing center professional development, my colleagues and I read George Hillocks' literature review on Middle and High School Composition from Smagorinsky's Research on Composition: Multiple Perspectives on Two Decades of Change. The chapter heavily concentrates on state-wide and national assessment, mostly via standardized tests, giving you an idea of what middle and high school writing education has become- an endless series of exams and rankings. Bleh!

In this chapter, Hillocks cites Langer's (2001) discussion of six strategies used by high-performing teachers. They are:
  1. applying a variety of teaching methods and approaches that "integrate the skills taught with ongoing larger curricular goals"
  2. integrating testing-based skills into the curriculum
  3. pointing out connections
  4. teaching students strategies for organizing thoughts and making tasks more manageable, focusing on the "development of meta-cognitive strategies"
  5. taking a "generative approach" that reiterates and makes connections to already-learned material, even after that unit/lesson/objective is over with
  6. creating social contexts for learning
Now, I recognize that these six strategies are all still in some ways shaped around the evaluation of teachers by their ability to get students to pass exams, which seems to be a very backwards way of educating anyone, but I still think the bigger picture, here, is an important one for educators to consider. The impact of high-performing teachers is best summarized in these lines:
English learning and high literacy (the content as well as the skills) were treated as social activity, with depth and complexity of understanding and proficiency with conversations growing out of the shared cognition that emerges from interaction with present and imagined others. (Langer, 2001)
The teachers who help their students to excel the most are those who recognize that learning and producing knowledge are social activities, built on conversation and interaction. Furthermore, Langer's findings demonstrate that learning and knowledge production are tied to an interdisciplinary approach that emphasizes connections and connect-making.

The problem is, of course, that most of what is being implemented as a result of current "education reform" steers educators away from the six strategies. We put lessons and units in boxes. We rank students by their individual accomplishments, rarely on collaborative efforts. We encourage them to succeed as individuals, and we encourage competition with peers to prove one's worth. We push for narrowly defined disciplines and sub-disciplines and call for specializations.

At the same time, we also know that beyond the microcosmic classroom, collaboration is important. Communities need people to come together, as do professions and academic disciplines. None of us can succeed on our own. We need everyone's skills pooled together. Most problem-solving in life requires integrated, interdisciplinary approaches. Communication, the very basis of our society, requires people to share information, negotiate, interact, and make connections. So why on earth aren't we teaching these skills? Why are those who do the "exception" and not the rule?

I'd argue that we've put far too much on individualism for the sake of individualism rather than pushing people to excel so that they may contribute to the whole, make things work better. That's what we have begun to teach in school- succeed at any cost, make a name for yourself, and leave the "weak" behind.

But literacy involves everyone! The United States created mass education so that Americans could be a community of knowledgeable individuals capable of making decisions that would benefit the entire community. The more individuals who are stomped down by this race to the top, the fewer people we will have to contribute to our society. This may seem like a good thing for those in power, but with time, it will break down the fibers of the community, leaving even those in power with much less power.

By returning social interaction and interdisciplinarity to education, high-performing teachers do more than just prepare students to meet standards. They tap back into this American democratic ideal of an educated mass, encouraging students to dive beneath the surface of texts and arguments and have educated conversations with peers, the stepping stones of social participation in the democratic microcosm.

The problem is that these high-performing teachers are considered extraordinary-- not the norm. So for those of us who teach or mentor pre-service teachers, the questions become:
How can we revise the standards for teaching high school writing in a way that is fruitful for all involved? How do we encourage development of educators who use socially-integrated, interdisciplinary, hybrid methods of teaching to help students achieve success on exams and, more importantly, beyond?

Friday, August 23, 2013

iSearched & iFound:

Using the iSearch Model to Improve a Previously Dreadful 5-week Online Comp Course


Last year, I taught my very first online class. I thought I"d be awesome at it, seeing as I'm so connected to social media and constantly using the internet. Gosh, was I wrong! The whole class felt like a trainwreck to me. It was hard to keep students motivated. I realized I was not always as clear as I thought I was being, and I didn't get final projects that demonstrated the kind of in-depth thinking and writing improvement that I was used to seeing in my 15-week face-to-face classes. Changes had to be made.

The problem with my first summer online course was that I was unwilling to try something I hadn't done before. While I was up for trying new technologies, I was sticking closely to what I had done in my face-to-face classes, simply trying to reshape time frames and assignments. Online is not the same thing as face-to-face, and a 5-week class is not the same thing as a 15-week class.

#iSearch for a Better Strategy

This year when I was asked to take on another summer course, I knew I had to approach the task differently. I was ready and excited for the challenge. I always like my classes to be 2 things: fun and challenging (in a positive way). And while the class still needs to be rigorous, I know that I have to be realistic about what students can accomplish. Many of the summer course students were athletes with hectic schedules or international students, travelling between their home countries and the U.S. At the same time, I didn't want to cheapen their learning experience, and I wanted them to see improvement in their ability to compose academic writing.

Instead of focusing on traditional writing goals, I decided that the most important things I could teach my students were to be more rhetorically aware and better at performing research. So, I went with an iSearch project. iSearch projects ask students to come up with a research question, perform in-depth research and analysis on that topic, and come to conclusions based on their findings, rather than arguing a hypotehsis from the get-go. The final product of an iSearch project is not a typical research paper, but a presentation of the research process (which, yes of course, includes the research too).

For the purposes of my class, I gave project instructions and asked students come up with a research proposal in week one. Then, encouraged students to comment and give feedback on each others' proposals (with some guidance for proper feedback).


Now that my course has come to a close, I am happy to report that the short iSearch-based online course was a success. In unsolicited feedback from students, they commented on enjoying the writing in the course, feeling that they learned a lot, and stating that the teaching was "good," which in my mind means I did ok.

But where I really see the success is in the final projects. The vast majority of my students went above and beyond in their research, in their presentations (most of them chose Prezi as their Web 2.0 component), and demonstrated clarity and precision of prose. I enjoyed reading all of their final projects and learned a lot from them, too. It was a fairly painless grading process, as far as grading goes that is.

The iSearch lent itself to student engagement, which was a problem in the last online class. Students genuinely wanted to know more about the topic, so they would check online every to learn more about it and to hear from others. Plus, the central focus throughout streamlined the experience, and students could focus on research and writing.

So what worked this time? Here are some things I learned:

  1. Focus on the big goals. The first time around, I was simply aiming to do too much. I needed to really fine-tune a few important concepts/skills rather than try to tackle everything I could teach them. This time I really thought about what my priorities were as an educator. I had to skip sentence-level instruction for the most part. I did make up for it, though, in other ways.  I encouraged students to seek grammar help from me or on a grammar hotline GoogleDoc and offered resources for them to check out on their own. 
  2. Give them (mostly) short, but meaningful writing tasks. Last time, I was simply asking my students to jump into too many genres, and in retrospect, it was mostly for the sake of exploring genres-- which, to be fair, I did think would help with rhetorical awareness development. This time, I assigned only four genres--proposals, progress posts (blog posts about their research and reading responses for each week), comments on classmates' blog posts, and a final iSearch research presentation via Web 2.0. The genres were varied enough to show them that formulaic essays are not the only kind of academic writing, but narrow enough to keep them from being overwhelmed. They were also manageable within the short time frame. By the time they got to the final project, they had enough information to quickly put together a longer draft, rather than jumping into a new essay.
  3. Don't ask them to use too many new interfaces. The first time I taught the course, I wanted my students to develop digital literacy and experience all kinds of digital interfaces-- Twitter, WordPress, GoogleDocs, GoogleSites, etc. It was too much. It's hard enough to teach students how to write, let alone how to navigate multiple new interfaces. This time I chose to use WordPress for the course and for each student's class blog. I told them about how to use Twitter for research, but did not make it mandatory. I also made the final presentation a Web 2.0 presentation and gave them a list of technologies that they could test over the five weeks. They would only have to choose one, though, which allowed them to use whatever they were most comfortable with and what best displayed their ideas, rather than having to learn and use everything for class. 
  4. Assign useful readings. During my face-to-face Composition class, I sometimes assign readings that can be used as models for the genre in which students will be composing. In a five-week online course, there simply isn't enough time to discuss and deconstruct models in ways that are useful to the students. I decided that I would only give "useful" readings, ones that describe genres, writing processes, or conventions or ones that they choose that directly inform their research. My favorite "useful" pieces come from, namely "What is Academic Writing?" by Irvine and  "Annoying Ways People Use Sources" by Stedman. Students enjoy the writing style, but also learn a lot about the conventions of research-based and academic writing from these pieces. I provide some guidance for finding sources that contribute to students' research projects, but I don't "assign" anything in particular.
  5. Use repetition. Try to keep the same deadline days for every week. It's one step better if you keep most of the weekly requirements the same-- post every week by X day, comment by X day, etc. You can add one or two new things on top of the regularly scheduled work, but anything more than that and students will forget what is due, feel confused, or become overwhelmed.
  6. Allow for more depth than breadth. This is the number 1 reason I believe the iSearch project worked for the online course. By focusing on a single question, which they were presumably passionate about answering, students were able to engage with the material and try new genres. In a week or two's time, they would barely have time to scratch the surface writing about new topics. The iSearch kept them focused on synthesizing ideas, analyzing texts, and working on the clarity of their prose and ideas in writing. In this way, they were able to focus on communication rather than content. That is not to say that new ideas weren't introduced through research or that their research questions did not evolve, but that they were able to sustain analysis, instead of starting from scratch multiple times. 
All in all, if I taught this course again, I would keep it nearly the same, though I might introduce the Grammar Hotline earlier. As far as contract grading goes, the iSearch simplified that too. I found that far from being overwhelmed by having to check up on the many small writing assignments I gave last semester, this semester, it was easy to track the progress posts and my students' comments to one another. I knew the criteria for each post was clearly defined and because I narrowed down the genres, it was far more simple for me to establish the parameters of the contract.

The iSearch was a great method. I saw students learning, interacting, and showing pride in their work. To me, that says #winning.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Access, Voice, and Globalization

Today, my Facebook newsfeed was covered with stories about government-mandated oppression and silencing across the world. At least 94 protestors were killed in Egypt by state security forces. A US woman was deported from Bahrain after writing articles and comments on social media that the Bahraini government decided "incited hatred against the government." 

As I read these headlines, I was also moved by an email I received: a student could not participate in my course because the government of the nation where this student resided blocked access to many sites. The student could not perform unbiased research-- or perform research at all, in some cases-- so the student was forced to withdraw, hoping to take the course again when back in the U.S.

This made me think hard about the globalization that many universities aim to promote. In my online summer course, for example, I have several international students, and they are taking the course from their home country. While I took into consideration time frame issues, language barriers, and the ways that cultural notions of identity might affect their writing, I did not consider permission to access information or speak about that information. I did not consider that freedom of speech is not a right in every country.

I come to education with a very Western view. I believe in democracy. I believe in freedom of speech. I use a more hands-off approach to teaching, rather than an authoritative stance, and I don't mind or discourage students when they have different views from my own. But these instances make me realize the challenges to embracing a globalized society and appreciating diverse cultures. How do I even begin to work within the frame of a culture that considers most of what I stand for is a threat to its way of life? Can I educate those students? How do I respect their culture and still teach in a way that I believe is most ethical? What is ethical? 

For all the complaints I make against the United States of America and its government, I feel very lucky to live here, where I'm allowed to make those complaints and where I am allowed to have a voice despite being a woman. This is highlighted for me when I see headlines like the one I mentioned or hear people speak about their own governments that restrict information access. I know that my voice is shaped by cultural forces, and that a truly free voice is an ideal that likely cannot been reached, but I have been able to develop my voice in ways that would not be possible in more restricted areas of the globe. Is my freedom to develop my voice oppressive to others thought? Is it freedom or oppression if I ask students to buy into the view that unbiased research is important and that authority figures are fallible? Am I expanding their worldview, or am I making it impossible for them to complete their American educations? 

Of course, I am also curious about university policy. I have seen almost every university push for globalization by advertising the number of countries that have sent students to the university, by pushing students to study abroad, and by allowing and promoting the existence of cultural organizations on campus. However, at least an adjunct, I have never seen any policy in regards to international students' abilities to complete work from their home countries. Does the university consider that governments may restrict access or limit free speech when they allow students to take courses online internationally? And how do they expect me, as an instructor, to respond when a student says that he or she is unable to fulfill the requirements of a course because of government restrictions in their home nation? 

In this instance, I can only continue to develop more questions. It is too soon in my thinking process to come up with answers. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Across the Divide

High School and Higher Ed. Writing Instructors Come Together

This Monday, I attended a great event, Across the Divide, a writing forum that connected high school writing instructors from multiple disciplines with college writing instructors (mostly FYW). The forum took place in the form of a 2-hour roundtable talk that was based around organic discussion. It was held in a beautiful conference room at Biotechnology High School in Freehold, NJ, where several of the high school teachers were currently teaching. 

The conversations were insightful, constructive, and fun. You can watch the conversation and check out the live-tweet feed to see for yourself!

Just a quick aside: I found out about this event from my twitter pal, @ReadyWriting. I was immediately interested because I don't think there are nearly enough opportunities for high school and college educators to collaborate. Plus, I am an alumna of the school district that was hosting the event and still live in the area. However, I didn't learn about the event from local media outlets; I learned about it from someone hundreds of miles away via tweet. Props to the power of social media.

Anyway, some really great things happened at this roundtable. For one, high school teachers and college writing instructors got to talk to one another. Connecting educators across the vertical divides can be a challenge. This was a great way for us to recognize each others' wants and needs, as well as those of our students. And of course, I loved learning more about what these teachers were doing in their classrooms.

Furthermore, there was no "blame game" going on in the room. Often in education, we pass the buck-- How many times have you head "why didn't they learn that in high school?" or "Didn't they teach you anything in first year writing?" This event, however, was a testament to how bright and motivated educators across grade levels are. It also showed that we shared many of the same notions of "good writing," "good writing instruction," and had many of the same goals for our students.

Some of the things that were discussed included:
  • Interdisciplinary learning: Many of us noted that putting subjects in boxes was detrimental to students' learning processes, that they were most able to engage when they could make connections to other content/contexts. Students had a hard time seeing English as anything but literature, and therefore, they were unable to transfer the skills. Part of this had to do with testing, but we saw that part of it had to do with educator's "that's not my job" attitudes that box disciplines in narrow constructs.
  • Using Multiple Genres: One of the things that the Common Core introduced this year was more information texts, which through some high school teachers for a loop ("not my job"). At the forum, though, we seemed to agree that students needed to be exposed to more genres and learn how to read texts that are informational because it will help to remove the idea that English is only reading Literature and writing is only figuring out what literary devices are used in a piece. It will also enable them to read, understand, and evaluate different texts outside the classroom, and in a world where they are constantly bombarded by text, this is essential.
  • Rhetorical Awareness versus Content Learning: Rhetorical awareness was something that the college writing instructors was not taught/encouraged much in high school writing classroom, and the high school writing instructors seemed to agree and see a need for more. They also noted, however, that time constraints made doing anything more than reading a text with students difficult sometimes. Time to discuss rhetorical concepts was limited.
  • Form versus Formula: We all agreed that there may be a time and a place for a 5 paragraph essay, but there is a difference between The Five Paragraph Essay and an essay that happens to be five paragraphs because that is the best way to write about the issue. It was important to us that students recognize the difference between matching a form to a purpose and audience and simply choosing a formula and filling in the blanks. 
  • Encouraging Students to Take Risks: Partially because of testing, partially because of cultural ideologies, partially because no one likes to be disappointed, and sometimes because of laziness, we noted that students seem to fear taking risks and many of them seek "right answers" to questions that don't need/have "right answers." We want to find more ways to encourage students to take risks and move beyond marking experimentation as failure, even when it doesn't go as planned, because that is how real learning occurs.
What was evident across the board is that we all had a passion for teaching. Everyone who was there wanted to be there to improve our students' experiences with developing as writers, which perhaps goes against cultural rhetoric that suggests many teachers are just skating by or are there because they want summers off. The people in that room were dedicated to improving the lives of others. Each one clearly held her or himself accountable for improving their practice, volunteering to take on professional development on their own time that day. We were all engrossed in the process of teaching and revising our teaching strategies as new contexts demand. It was obvious that we were all enthusiastic about learning new ways to help our students, which included keeping up-to-date with research in the field, checking in on the conversations happening among professional peers on social networks, and talking to current and former students. And we all agreed that these conversations were useful and likely necessary, but far too rare. Why is that?

The group plans to meet for several more sessions, though no dates have been selected. Those interesting in joining, either face-to-face or via GoogleHangout, can contact Michelle Lampinem (@MichLampinem) or Sarah Mulhern Gross (@thereadingzone) for further information.

Monday, July 1, 2013

How to Lose a Job Before You Get It:

Cover Letters and the Consequences of Lacking Rhetorical Awareness

As I wrote about in my last post, I've been working part-time at an IT company as a technical writer for the summer. One of the tasks that have been entrusted to me as part of the technical writing team is to filter through applications for a full-time entry-level technical writer. I thought that choosing between the qualified candidates would be a difficult task. Instead, finding a qualified individual has been the harder job. It's shocking how many people claim "excellence in written communication," yet fail miserably at effectively communicating.

There are several composing models that I could use to think about these issues. I could consider Flower and Hayes' thoughts on defining a rhetorical problem-- better writers see more layers. I could consider Lloyd Bitzer's theories on about exigences, audiences, and constraints. These applications are ineffective because they seem to only consider exigence, the problem. I'd even argue that some of them are not consider exigence completely. They are considering their problem or purpose for writing-- finding a job. What is clear is that these applicants do not possess rhetorical awareness. Their focus is too narrow and sometimes inflexible.

So, let me share some of the things NOT to do when writing a cover letter, especially if you are writing a cover letter for a technical-writing position:
  • Do NOT read only part of the job application. Read the whole thing!!! I will say that 9/10 cover letters that I received did not fulfill the requirements listed on the job posting. If you can't follow simple directions and did not read an entire short ad, I will have to assume you will be just as careless with your work if hired. If we're talking rhetorical concepts, I definitely am doubting your ethos.
  • Do NOT explain how this job would just be a 9-5 to fill your pockets so that you can commit to other aspirations, such as working for another company or financing a book project. I am not looking to hire someone who does not really care about the job. I am not looking to spend my time training someone who will leave as soon as they can. I am not looking to build your portfolio. I am looking for someone who wants to do the job for which they are applying and do it well. Consider your audience. 
  • With that said, do NOT tell me everything this company can do FOR YOU. You are supposed to show me what you can do for the company. I do not care if I can provide you with the education necessary to get you into your actual dream job. As a matter of fact, like I said before, I'm not going to waste my time on you if you've already told me you want to move on as soon as you've learned enough. People who send me lists of ways the company can help them are clearly not considering the rhetorical problem/situation/ecology in any complex way. They are thinking only of their own problems, not of what prompted the job ad in the first place-- a need for a qualified, dedicated applicant.
  • Do NOT send a cookie-cutter letter, especially if it's only three lines long with a note telling me to call you. An obvious lack of effort will never be a positive selling point. Plus, hiring managers are usually employees who have other tasks to do outside looking for a new employee. In other words, I'm busy. I'm not tracking you down to chat. Tell me what I need to know, and then I might be interested in learning more. Make a logical argument for why you fit this position in this particular context.
  • Do NOT forget to proofread. If you are trying to claim excellence in editing and proofreading, you look [insert a whole slew of negative attributes here] when you leave typos in your cover letter and/or resume.

Usually, I like to think about composing through a broader, more complex ecological framework. I could talk about all of the other issues that may affect composing processes-- who is typing their cover letter on an iPhone, who has been hit hardest by economic decline, etc. In this case, though, simply remembering to consider three things-- the task they are being asked to perform, the audience they are being asked to address, and the limitations of what they can share with that audience-- would have helped these writers immensely.

This is why it's extremely important that rhetorical awareness-- rather than just form or content-- is a center piece of writing instruction. Every writing event will not call for the same performance or product, even ones that seem extremely similar. Those who cannot locate the elements that influence the writing event and ask the right questions of themselves will be unable to perform and produce effective writing, and they may miss out on real opportunities as a result.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Expert as Novice: Reliving the Freshman Year

image from

For the past few weeks, I've been working part-time at an IT consulting & network integration firm in downtown Manhattan as part of the technical writing team (which is really just me & the existing technical writer). The thing is, even though I’m (somewhat) proficient at writing for academic purposes, technical writing is a whole new ball game. While my writing is clean and easy to read, I don’t always have the knowledge to write what needs to be written. It’s a bit confidence-shaking. I’m feeling like an intern rather than someone whose specialty is writing.

Feeling like a beginner isn't easy, especially when you've devoted your entire adult life thus far to studying English and Communications, and even more so when as a writing instructor and writing consultant, I’m supposed to be an expert writer. It’s true that I can write for many contexts. Heck, I can even teach writing in the disciplines! But writing in the professional domain about information technology has proven challenging, and my lack of content knowledge is extremely frustrating. I know if I knew more, I could write better.

This brings me back to some of the literature that I have been reading for my dissertation. Sommers & Saltz’s study “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year,” for instance, talks about the struggle that freshman face as they are placed in a new writing environment, where they are expected to perform as experts without already having expertise. While it it is the process of writing that these freshman struggle with, it is also the writing that helps them to make sense of complex concepts and gain expertise. Furthermore, they find that students who embrace their novice status are the ones most likely to make the greatest strides in writing development and learning in general. Continued writing is helping me to gain an understanding of the IT field, but embracing my novice is still a challenge.

Rehearsing New Roles: How College Students Develop as Writers by Lee Ann Carroll also speak into my situation. Carroll thinks writing assignments need to be redefined as literacy tasks because they require much more than just a handle on writing skills, such as grammar and organization. Writing tasks require some knowledge about the content area, an ability to negotiate the needs of the audience with the needs of the writer, to understand form, and perhaps to navigate information. Many literacies are involved in the composition of a single piece of writing. And with new roles come new literacy needs. In this case, my inability to perform as I would on, say, an essay for a Writing Studies course is directly related to being asked to perform a new role and a lack of information technology literacy. I am missing the necessary vocabulary and am fairly unaware of the conventions of the field. No matter how cleanly I can write, I will not be able to produce the quality of writing that someone who has in-depth knowledge of the field will be able to produce. My performance as a technical writer is affected by this lack of knowledge. Again, this is extremely frustrating to someone who supposedly has “mastered” reading and writing, with nearly 10 years of higher education devoted to it.

To cope with my lack of knowledge, I have been reading, taking notes on style, and asking questions-- and I am learning a lot-- but the process of learning to be an effective technical writer at an IT firm is still a much slower process than I’m comfortable with. Even when I feel that I’ve said something as precisely as possible, I am often told “that’s great, but here’s an even better way.” The person I am working under is great in that he tries to encourage me, but still, sometimes, I feel like my work is more of a burden to correct than a lightening of his workload. It can be totally disheartening.

It really makes me empathize with my students. It makes me see that they probably are giving me their best efforts and that my feedback to them may come as a surprise. It shows me that while they may understand my feedback in theory, they may not know how to put it into practice. Furthermore, encouragement is nice and may be genuine, but without specifics or if always followed by “but here’s what you need to fix,” it may wind up being meaningless. On the other hand, this experience also shows me that with time, effort, a willingness to research concepts and revise their writing, and a careful eye for rhetorical analysis, students will be able to make significant progress. Finally, this progress likely will not come in rapid epiphanies, but as a slow, non-linear coming into awareness.    

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Little Kids and Language Learning

Even though I spent my early years in a bilingual household-- my grandparents, aunt, father and their friends all spoke Greek and English-- I lost my connection to the Greek language when we moved from the duplex my family shared with my grandparents to our own single-family home in New Jersey just before my 5th birthday. While I may still know a few words here and there, I am by no means fluent. I don't know what it's like to know two languages, let alone use them interchangeably.

Which is why I'm fascinated by my boyfriend's 3-year-old sister (aside from being one of the coolest little kids I know). My boyfriend and his family are Brazilian-- not of Brazilian descent, but actually from Brazil. His sister, though, was born and raised in America. Dear BF is completely fluent in English (even more so than some English-speaking people I know I'd say), and his mother speaks enough to get by, though she is more comfortable with and prefers to speak in Portuguese. His little sister can easily switch between English and Portuguese. 

What amazes me about the little peanut is that she knows when to use which language. She can say something in Portuguese to her mom, and then turn her head and speak to me in English. She'll speak in whichever she feels like to my BF, sometimes jumping between languages from sentence to sentence. Clearly, she is able not just to speak both languages, but to think in both, as well. Dear BF can do this too, and I think he's awesome. His ability to switch spoken and thought languages instantly absolutely amazes me. On the other hand, I somewhat expect an adult to know in what context a particular language is appropriate. Most adults can identify others as able to speak to English or another language. However, I thought that would be beyond the comprehension of a 3 year old.

It leaves me with many questions for those who grew up multilingual or have taught their children to be multilingual: 
  • How do you learn two languages at once?
  • At what point do you start to think in another language?
  • How do you learn to differentiate between multiple languages as you learn them, knowing that you've learned a word in one language versus another?
I'm interested in learning other languages, and I'm wondering what I can learn from little kids about acquiring new vocabularies and their cultural contexts. I bet it would also be useful to building better ways to help first-year writers, who often struggle to acquire disciplinary vocabulary and "general writing skills"/academic language simultaneously.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Prospectus: Lessons from a Struggling Writer

My longtime readers already know that when I began my doctoral program, my intention was today study Victorian literature, specifically Children's literature of the Victorian age. A little less than a semester in, however, I decided to flip to the dark side of Comp/Rhet, and I've loved every minute of it. The problem is that I began my doctoral program with a background in British literature and Children's literature, and because I already had a M.A., I was fast-tracked in my residency requirements. This meant that while I normally would have had three years of full-time classes, I was cut down to one-- nice for my wallet, not so nice for my brain.

Now that I'm at the dissertation phase, I'm struggling. I picked three areas of interest for my comprehensive exams that were somewhat useful, but not directly applicable to my dissertation. So at the moment, I'm forced to play catch up with all of the readings that I missed over two years of lost residency and to figure out how comp/rhet researchers write. I don't blame anyone, and I certainly wouldn't say "I wish I never switched fields." I'm quite happy with what I've chosen, but it has been a challenge.

I've been trying to perfect my prospectus for two semesters now, and it's been a painfully slow process. At one point, I scrapped an entire semester's worth of work and started from scratch. With that said, I am learning some things along the way about how to prepare a prospectus:

  1. A dissertation prospectus is not the same thing as the prospectus for a Master's thesis: This was my first wrong assumption. I figured because I did one well, I would be good at doing the other. Not so. A dissertation prospectus is a much more intensive task. 
  2. Writing more is not necessarily writing well: When I heard "this is not ready for approval," I automatically thought that meant I had to add more texts and explanation. That wasn't the case. What I needed to do (and still need to do) was think more deeply about the issues and focus in on the key points.
  3. How you frame your review of the literature is just as important, if not more important, than the works that you choose to include: As an English major, I know that the nuances of language can change the meaning of a phrase dramatically. I had a hard time seeing the difference between presenting ideas and presenting my ideas about others' work, which was often directly related to the way I wrote about the texts. I also couldn't see that I was supposed to be filtering in the works that directly applied to my work and wanted to talk about everything ever written about my subtopics. Having models is a good start, but learning to make the switch is not automatic. I'm still working on it.
  4. Read other prospectuses and ask questions: I wish I knew more about writing the prospectus itself when I started and more closely analyzed others' prospectuses and literature reviews. I'm not sure I understood the function of the prospectus, other than to tell what research you thought you were doing, but it's more than that. It's about the importance of your contribution, the relevance of your ideas, the rationale behind your methodologies, the subfields that you want to connect with, and how you're speaking into what's already been. Asking questions and reading for models earlier on would have saved me time and energy. 
  5. Own it: I'm still working on this one too. It's hard to remember that the dissertation is about YOUR contribution to the field and about your entrance into the scholarly conversation. 
Now, I'm not saying I've got these things down. Far from it. In fact, my chair had to remind me about just about all of them yesterday. And for all I know, I might still be missing the mark. However, if I realized these 5 things earlier, I probably would have been much further ahead than I am now. Wiuth that said, this whole process has been a learning process, though, and I'm looking forward to working through my ideas more productively and effectively now and taking these strategies to future research.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

End of Days

Every time the semester ends, I feel a little sad. Yes, I'm happy to take a break from school work. Yes, I'm happy to have a break from writing comments on papers for hours. And yes, I'm overjoyed to avoid my 1 - 1 1/2 hour commute each morning and afternoon. But it's hard to watch students go when you grow to like them as people and know how much more you could accomplish with more time.

This year was particularly emotional for me, as I taught at my alma mater. I watched students follow the same paths that I did. It wasn't hard for me to put myself in their shoes. I sat in some of the same classrooms that they sat in. I had some of the same professors that they had. I told stories with my friends in the same cafeteria. I did the same things outside of class in the same residence halls. And I remembered my FYW course, which I did not like very much. I did not want my students to have that experience.

I think, as a whole, I stuck to my values. I embraced the idea that learning should be challenging but fun, and I worked hard to show students how writing can have an impact on their daily lives. I still have some work to do, some things to improve, some new ideas to implement  but looking back, I'm proud of what I did this year. I'm even more proud of what my students did this year.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Take the Plunge: Mina Shaughnessy's "Diving In: An Introduction to Basic Writing"

Last week, I had to read Mina Shaughnessy's 1976 essay "Diving In: An Introduction to Basic Writing" for our professional development session at the writing center where I work. I've read her book Errors and Expectations (1977), but this was the first time that I had a chance to read any of her shorter works. Though the article is nearly 40 years old, the problems and solutions described by Shaughnessy are still applicable today.

Shaughnessy's main argument in the piece is that educators need to stop considering basic writing "a writing course for young men and women who have many things wrong with them" (291). Instead, she argues that writing instructors need to begin to examine their own teaching and learning processes and the complex and contextual needs of their students. To show how these issues manifest themselves in the university, Shaughnessy outlines a "developmental scale for teachers," complete with four stages. They are:
Guarding the Tower: gate-keeping and denying access to those who seemingly do not belong, a tactic of self-preservation.
Converting the Natives: assuming outsiders can be "tamed" and fashioned after the elite class, though they can never truly be part of the elite.
Sounding the Depths: realizing there is complexity and that students of all kinds have something to contribute.
Diving In: meeting basic writing students head-on, dealing with their complex needs, and breaking the tradition of thinking "what's wrong with them" 

Though the terminology is controversial, as it is steeped in racial and colonialist overtones, the message is clear. It's not "them" who needs to be fixed; it's "us," the educators, who need to reevaluate our methods. We need to be aware of our own practices, be willing to assess the needs of our students, and quit using one-size-fits-all pedagogies. We need to stop thinking these students are broken and realize that they simply need someone to guide them through the things they have not been privileged yet to know. We also need to stop privileging antiquated ideas of "the typical college student," the ones who come from high performing high schools with a middle class enthusiasm for formal education. These are ideas that are still practical and useful in our current educational climate.

Here are some things we can do to help students, especially basic writers, based on Shaughnessy's ideas:

  1. See students as people with real problems, passions, and pursuits.
  2. Do not think of students as empty vessels or know-nothings who need to be filled with your greater knowledge.
  3. Accept that students bring their own knowledge and literacies to the classroom, even if they aren't the "standard."
  4. Be willing to learn from students.
  5. Remember that at one point, you didn't know either.
  6. And... you didn't know what you didn't know until someone made you aware.
  7. Don't use "it's not my job" or "they should have learned that in [insert course or grade level here]" as an excuse not to help a student with a task that you have the ability to help them with.
  8. Recognize patterns of error and needs rather than worrying about "correctness" (what's correct anyway? whose version of correct?). 
  9. Don't just mark errors. Explain your thought process.
  10. Offer models of academic inquiry and inquiry processes. Students often need to learn how to ask questions more than they need to learn answers.
  11. Do not underestimate your students. 
  12. Challenge students to complete meaningful tasks, but also be willing to help them along the way.

Shaughessy ends these essay with these words: "DIVING IN is simply deciding that teaching them [basic writers] to write well is not only suitable but challenging work for those who would be teachers and scholars in a democracy" (297). If we want democracy, we can't have a fixed notion of who can and cannot be educated. We can't say, "oh they'll never make it" or "they're not 'college material,'" or only a small, likely homogeneous, group of students will ever have the opportunity to succeed. If we want to encourage diversity and all of the wonderful things that come from the intersection of different ideas, then we need to take the plunge and dive in.

Shaughnessy, Mina. "Diving In: An Introduction to Basic Writing." College Composition and Communication 27.3 (1976): 234-39. Rpt. Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. 3rd ed. Eds., Victor Villanueva and Kristin L. Arola. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2011. Print.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

CCCC - The Public Work of Composition - Post 2

The Four Big To-Dos of #4C13

It's been a week and a half since I returned from the annual Conference on College Composition and Communication in Las Vegas, NV. I wanted to avoid the bombardment of #4C13 posts that immediately followed the conference. But now that a little time has passed, I want to share with you what I learned during my (way too brief) time at CCCCs. These are a few things you should be doing if you are interested in the field of Composition.

Stop Being Afraid of Data

In the panels I attended and presented in, one thing became obvious: there is need for more empirical and qualitative research. While "big data" has become a buzz word, the presentations that I attended that were based on empirical and/or qualitative research were doing important work that managed to speak into the needs of students and other developing writers while still taking into account the concerns administrators and other stakeholders in the education field. Research enabled these presenters to show faults in public rhetoric concerning education/Composition/writing, build cases for effective pedagogical practices, and/or demonstrate institutional value, which might lead to continued or additional funding. Truthfully, I found these to also be some of the most engaging presentations. 

What I also began to consider, as a result of these presentations, is that when we allow those outside the field of Composition to do writing assessment and data collection for us, we give them permission to form studies and analyze findings that will help them achieve their own goals. We need to more carefully consider the outcomes we wish to achieve, the questions we need to be asking, and the ways that we go about collecting that data. 

Collaborate More Often

Some of the most influential presentations that I attended featured collaborative efforts, whether scholars came together to undertake large research projects that would be impossible to do with just one individual or worked through their ideas for panels together. In the roundtable on Feminist Rhetorical Practices (Next Steps? Responses to Royster’s and Kirsch’s Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies) led by Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford, collaboration also became the center of discussion and a major component of the Q & A session. The big take-away from that session was that we need to be asking "what does scholarly collaboration look like?" and "how can we make sure collaborative work is valued?
The panelists reminded us that structures can be restructured and that messy isn't necessarily a bad thing. Ironically, I had not intended on going to this session. I accidentally sat in the wrong room and didn't realize until the panelists began to speak. It turned out to be a good thing, though, as I was inspired to think much more deeply about collaborative practices and to consider new perspectives. 

Attend Panels that Don't Directly Apply to Your Interests

When you only seek out knowledge you already have a foundation in, it is more difficult to accept new theories. More or less, those types of panels reaffirm what you already know. As I said at the end of the last "to do," going to the wrong panel turned out to be great thing. What I've learned from conference going, and not just at this conference, is that going to panels that don't immediately speak into your research interests can be extremely liberating. You begin to think in more cross- and inter-disciplinary ways, and you are given new sets of questions.

Be Friendly

I don't know why, but I had this crazy notion that CCCCs would be filled with stuffy scholars who anxiously awaited the opportunity to rip into others' ideas. I thought it would be a very competitive atmosphere. I thought there would be "camps" according to scholarly followings. Lucky for me, this was not the case. People were very nice, willing to talk and share ideas, and engaged in the process of learning. Some of those scholars whose work I most admire were willing to take a moment to shake my hand or answer my questions. Sidney Dobrin's response to my presentation and my own dissertation advisor Anne Ellen Geller's comments were not only kind, but they made me want to push myself to do more qualitative research and continue to dive into difficult projects. In other words, being friendly not only made me more comfortable, but ensured that future generations of Composition scholars would want to continue to invest in the field. Friendliness, in the case, creates sustainability.

On the flip-side, being friendly myself, even though I was nervous, helped me feel more confident and build connections. Needless to say that because of my interactions with others at the conference, my impression of my field is now a positive one. I think of Comopsition as an interactive network of colleagues in scholarship.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

CCCC - The Public Work of Composition -- Post 1

If you’re reading this post, it means I've landed safely in sunny Las Vegas, NV and am most likely sitting comfortably in the Riveria Hotel, where the 64th annual Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) is being held. I’m a first-time attendee this year. The theme, “the public work of composition,” drew me in, being that it speaks directly into one of my research interests, Public Discourse.

On the schedule are many interesting panels, ranging from inquiries into digital literacy and service learning to “everyday writing” and writing centers. Scholars such as Kathleen Blake Yancey, Victor Villanueva, and Ellen Cushman, will be presenting. I am also looking forward to seeing the familiar faces of some of my favorite professors and classmates. Anne Ellen Geller’s presentation is “Waiting for IRB: Researching Seniors' Meaningful Writing Experiences across Three Institutions” (C.14). Harry Denny will present at a panel titled “Developing Methods for Self-Sponsored Writing Center Assessment”(F.16). Derek Owens’ Friday morning presentation is called “Writing Program as Sanctuary: Cultivating Student Testimonies as an Ecocultural Imperative” (G.16). Fellow doctoral student Lauren Williams is also presenting in a panel about digital literacy and basic writing. Her talk is “Rethinking Basic Writing for a Digital Future: Replacing Assimilation with an Agenda of Empowerment” (D.28). The schedule really makes me wish I had the ability to be in multiple places at once. The organizers did an outstanding job putting panels together, and the conference smartphone app helps you to keep track of them all.

Aside from the panels, there are some great speakers on board. In particular, I’m looking forward to hearing from Richard E. Miller, whose work has really influenced my doctoral education. His book Writing at the End of the World offers insight into the teaching of humanities that complicates the traditional rhetoric of the field. You can read my old blog post for more on the book. Currently, Miller publishes solely on his blog Text2Cloud, writing about issues such as publicness and privacy. I was disappointed to miss him at SUNY COW, so I’m thrilled I will get to see him at CCCC.

I have the honor of presenting, as well. The panel I am presenting on is called Ecological Productions: Space, Publics, Texts, Identities (G.15). It runs Friday, March 15 at 9:30 a.m. My particular presentation deals with First Year Writing students’ concepts of public and private, based on an archival study of 102 e-portfolios and blogs. I’ll be speaking alongside my fantastic St. John’s colleague, Chris Leary, and Ohio University doctoral candidate, John Whicker. I am extremely excited—and a bit nervous—to have Sidney Dobrin, premier ecocompositionist and a scholar I admire greatly, as a respondent!

Over the next few days, I hope to be able to blog about my experiences at CCCC. In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more, CCCC is offering materials online and participants are live-tweeting on the #4C13 hashtag.

If you got to this blog by following the link on one of my impromptu business cards, I’d like to say a very special thank you for checking out my site! I hope you’ll share some of your insights in the comments sections and return for future discussion. Looking forward to hearing from you!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Narrating Writing Experiences: When Students Want to Know Teacher as Writer

Today, as I attempted to prep students for one-on-one conferences, I had them answer a list of questions to bring to our meeting. My last questions was "Do you have any questions for me about writing?" I expected a bunch of requests for specific instruction, such as "how do I write the perfect conclusion?" or "what are some ways I can come up with topics?", but what I got instead were several questions about my own experiences with writing. They asked me about my feelings about writing, whether I deal with constraints, the kinds of vocabulary I use when I write, why I teach writing the way I do, who my favorite authors are, and what I consider "good" writing.

I guess what this suggests to me is that I need to be more transparent about my own struggles and successes with writing. Students want to know who their teacher is as a writer. They don't seem to want to me to establish credibility and claim myself as a writer. Instead, it seems like they are genuinely curious as to what happens in the upper ranks of academia. Or perhaps, they just want to relate. This is something I did not expect when I posed the question.

Typically, I resist talking about my own writing in class. Partially, this is an attempt to avoid sharing to0 much of my personal preferences with my students. I don't want students to feel isolated or constrained if they feel like we don't share views. I also don't want them to shape their writing around my interests thinking that they'll earn higher grades. I like to see what they can come up with when those types of constraints are removed.

Not sharing the personal is only part of it. The other part is that I don't talk much about my experiences with writing because I assumed students would find it boring. Sure, sometimes I'll throw in a "yeah, I have a hard time with focusing too when I have a lot of ideas about a topic" or other little quips, but I rarely offer narratives. What these questions suggest, however, is that maybe I need to do more of this.

I'd love to know how much students want to know about their instructors' writing. Do you want the examples and narratives? I'd also love to know how much instructors are already sharing with their classes. Do you offer quick one-liners? Do you take the time to share narratives about your writing experiences? Do you have question-and-answer sessions about writing, as one fabulous colleague of mine said she has done?

Friday, February 8, 2013

Observing Others: Mentorships and Two-Way Learning in the Writing Center

Two days a week, I work in a writing center. I have been working there since July of 2009, with one break in between to do a year of a Doctoral Fellowship. The whole experience has been wonderful. I learned a great deal of what I know about teaching writing and performing Writing Studies scholarship in this center. Because I have been there for a while, I also have the pleasure of helping to train new tutors (we call them "writing consultants").

In this particular center, we typically have a summer training session, where we role play and read articles related to writing centers and writing studies. Then, we move into a mentorship phase. For the first week, a new consultant will observe the sessions of an experienced consultant mentor. After a session or during downtime, the new and experienced consultants talk about those observations and any lingering questions. The following week are "training wheels" sessions. The new consultants hold their own sessions while the more experienced consultants observe and possibly chime in, depending on the new consultant's needs. At the end of the session, consultants review what was written on the mentee observation sheet, which is usually a list of good things with a few strategies for improvement. New consultants usually take this time to ask questions about sessions that they found challenging or things they realized they might need to know for the future. All in all, the training is meant to be a positive experience. I think this is why the word mentorship is important. It establishes a positive relationship, rather than a purely critical one.

This year, I finally had a schedule that allowed me to work closely with a single incoming consultant. I don't have IRB approval for this post, so I won't go into too much depth, but I can give you a basic outline of what went on. New Consultant and I worked together 2 days a week. From the start, she seemed to have a good grasp on what was expected of her and the foundations of a good session. During two weeks, she asked good questions, and I saw her running effective sessions. Even though my mentee was new, when turned out on her own, she did great. And I don't think it has much to do with my training.

Why I'm really writing this post, however, has less to do with what that consultant did (as this is not a study of her technique) and more of the experience of a mentorship. I think it's important that mentorships exist, whether in writing centers, teaching programs, or student-faculty/student-more-experienced-student scenarios. Although one of the individuals in a mentorship typically holds more knowledge or wisdom, it is a two-way learning scenario. While New Consultant learned what she needed to know to move forward, I learned some things that would improve my own consulting.

As I was observed for 12 hours of sessions, I found that I was more self-reflective about my consulting practices. When my mentee had questions, I had to step back and think about what I had done and why I had done it. Plus, I wanted to be a good role model, so I made sure that I was setting a good example by attempting to maintain balanced dialogue, getting students to write in a session, and making sure to keep up with administrative tasks, even more so than I usually would.

When my mentee finally got to her hours of "training wheels" sessions, I was impressed by her strategies. She was very effective, perhaps even more so than I was. I actually was reminded of things I needed to work on in my own consulting as I watched her.

In the end, there is no doubt in my mind that mentorships are great learning models. New Consultant and I both worked on our practices together through observations and dialogue. During this time, we also formed a relationship. This means that if one of us needs help during a session, we feel comfortable enough to ask the other. This also means that we can talk about writing and other things freely, and that the atmosphere of the writing center becomes a friendly one rather than simply a bunch of people who work together in a square space in the library. I see how this model would benefit students and teachers alike, but I think that needs its own post to be considered.

So what are your thoughts? Have you had mentoring experiences? Did you enjoy them or hate them? Did you learn, or were they dead ends?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Kate Kessler's "Composing for Delivery"

Today, I went back through my folders of research, trying to get back in the swing of the semester. I picked up the article "Composing for Delivery" by Kate Kessler. The article was initially published in the November 2005 edition of The English Journal. In this article, Kessler makes a fairly convincing argument for doing what she calls "composing for delivery" or creating "a call to write" for students in a Composition course. Building off the fifth canon of classical rhetoric, delivery, she implements a curriculum that forces students to write for purposes beyond the classroom (which, may I add, she never denotes as "real world"). She finds that as a result of this method students learn to compose with their own purposes in mind while also considering audience and effective rhetoric. In this particular article, Kessler observes how students develop rhetorical sensitivity through letter writing (actually mailed to the intended audience) and proposals. The end result of this teaching style is that "Students are encouraged to know that their compositions have civic as well as academic meaning" (93). They also seem more prepared to shift genres without simply relying on a formula.

I buy into Kessler's theory. I admit that I assign some similar tasks in my classroom and that my motives are the same. I want students to see themselves as engaged in the larger social sphere, as citizens with the necessary tools to make changes. While some might argue that Kessler should be teaching her students to succeed in academia by teaching them how to write academic essays instead, I fully support her methods. I see a greater need for teaching rhetorical sensitivity than academic forms. Students who are rhetorically sensitive will be able to see how to work their ideas into new genres without simply filling in a premade structure. They will see how they want to present their argument and what word choices are appropriate for the audience that they wish to address rather than "Do I have 5 sentences in this paragraph? Is my thesis at the end of the introduction?" And these lessons will translate from the classroom into other areas of their lives, which is what most of them want to recieve a higher education for in the first place.

Finally, what I really love about Kessler's piece is that it reminds us all that educators should adopt pedagogies they can live by. If students see us-- professors, GTAs, writing consultants-- engaged with writing in the way we want to tell them to be engaged with writing, it shows them that writing isn't just a tool for teachers to give grades. And I think it simply makes it easier to go to work, knowing that you believe in and live by the philosophy you present day in and out.