Wednesday, November 14, 2012


I spent a while pondering what to write about for the blog today, because my thoughts on the World English articles have been nicely articulated already below, and we are forbidden from talking about Williams' "Phenomenology of Error." What brilliant insight or hilarious anecdote could I relate in lieu of a reading response? Well, I didn't get very far with that thinking, but a moment from one of my recent classes has been replaying itself in my mind this week so I thought it would be useful for me, at least, to articulate a response to it. It's not an exciting story of crazy classroom hijinks, but a far more common and mundane story of student-teacher communication taking its time to find purchase.

My students were discussing their Extended Synthesis proposals in groups of three when one my students called me over with a broad question: "What are we meant to be doing with the Extended Synthesis essay?" Upon further probing she rearticulated the question to be about how the students were meant to go about, well, synthesizing their Primary and Secondary Source essays to make this final essay. She introduced her classmate's topic as an example, and following her lead we talked as a group about the ways in which student B's previous work was going to inform her final essay. "Does that help?" I asked. But student A still had questions, and they were still broad – she didn't understand what the relationship between the three essays was supposed to be. I took this to be a question about the point of the assignment as a whole. That is, why, if I've already written about these issues in my other essays, would I be asked to write about them again? And so I answered by offering a rationale for the assignment that highlighted the importance of drafting, revision, and taking on feedback, thinking that this might clear the matter up. It didn't. What finally got us some traction was talking about the student's own proposal. She told me what she was thinking about focusing on for her Extended Synthesis, and how she got there via her previous work. It sounded great. She was on the right track, and that was all she needed to know. Problem solved, then. But it took a lot of class time and a lot of...I don't want to say miscommunication here – was it bad communication? Meaningless communication?

Anyway, this is getting long, so I suppose this is the part in that good ol' genre of teaching narratives for me to offer an epiphany that's going to change my life and teaching style forever. I'm not sure that's really possible here, but the lesson I took away from the exchange was that focusing on her specific work as the origin of her broader questions earlier on in the conversation would have been much more beneficial for both of us.

There was also a second issue here, which I'll leave as a question. Part of the problem, I think, for student A was that when she saw that student B's essay was coming together in a different way than her own she thought her own approach must be wrong. She had the ingredients (her two previous essays), but all of a sudden felt like she had been using the wrong recipe. What she wanted from me was the recipe (how do I combine my ingredients to make an Extended Synthesis pie?). The reason this was a problem was that part of the assignment is to make your own recipe – ie. figure out what you're arguing and decide how to use your previous work in the way that is best going to support your argument. I guess I'm wondering how common this problem is. I'm sympathetic; it's hard to make these decisions on your own. But what do you do when you've spent a semester trying to give students the tools they need to make these decisions, and they still want the recipe from you?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Untitled post, followed by Bruce Willis and some general grumpiness

So, it’s not that I disagree with the entire notion of Zamel’s article; it’s just that, once again, I feel like the article’s vision (and perception of teachers who don’t naturally or immediately subscribe to its vision) is terribly utopian, to the exclusion of some very real factors which contribute to the challenging climate Zamel seeks to redesign. Although the Unhelpful Art History Professor (as Ceridwen put it) doesn’t do herself any favors by adopting a haughty, dismissive tone, I couldn’t help but wonder if said Art History professor was not a professor at all, but a grad student, unceremoniously strapped with the responsibility, not only of learning to teach period, but with the added, daunting, sometimes impossible-seeming task of teaching English learners in an atmosphere not necessarily tailored for their success. I feel frustrated by this all the time. Do I think my life is the worst because of it? No. Do I think there are lots of things that are far more unpleasant than the uncomfortable, difficult-to-negotiate task of learning to teach, and then teaching, in less than ideal situations? Of course. And I absolutely agree with the notion, as I did last week, that there are myriad ways of measuring what a student has learned in a class, beyond conventions of composition, classroom format, and testing. But man, what am I supposed to do—and I mean this seriously, because I don’t know the answer—with an essay that doesn’t begin to complete the assignment, written in such a way that I am unable to follow the author’s argument on a sentence level? My only qualifications for this job are that I like to read and write, and I have a diploma that says I liked to read and write in an official capacity for approximately four years. I’m certainly not of the mindset that I can wash my hands of a student who makes life difficult for me in this way, but if this is a comp class and I am only just getting my feet wet here, how am I going to do the best job for this student, who lacks the requisite skills to communicate with me as a writer?
I obviously don’t think my students are at fault in this scenario, anymore than I am. And I want to do the best I can for them. So far I’ve had two very different experiences with the international students in my class: one student is eager to communicate with me as often as possible, to make sure he is getting the assignments and doing what’s been asked of him; the other has been rather aggressive and disrespectful about the feedback he’s gotten whenever we’ve had the opportunity to talk face-to-face. I don’t think I’ve ever been dismissive or callous about the fact that these guys are struggling and are at different places in their English development than their peers who grew up speaking the language. But I do wonder what tactics or methods I am failing to use, that might be more helpful to them, as well as more comfortable for me, to guide as well as instruct them through the course. How much training do I lack to do this as well as I would like to? (I’m guessing the answer is: TONS. Zamel-level training.)
Beyond that, I have seventeen other students who have their own issues with the course material and who also require my attention. It’s not enough for me to wipe my hands of the issue and say that I’m not paid enough for this, and I’ve tried—as I know everyone has—to do the best I can in this situation. But the fact is—learning on the job or not, I’m not as ready for this as I should be, nor as ready as they deserve for me to be. I genuinely wonder how Zamel’s argument might be altered if she considered, not only instructors who have had the full breadth of professional training to teach in their respective fields, but the zillions of TAs as well, who are let loose into this rather bewildering landscape, to teach the classes no one else seems to want to teach once they’re on the tenure track.

It's All in Translation

Dark and foreboding view.

Yet again, our Pro. Sem. Reading has left me feeling conflicted and inadequate.

Based on my own experience in a French Literature class (not to mention the maze of puzzling acronyms in these articles), I imagine that it’s incredibly bewildering and frustrating (but sometimes possible, or at least not entirely unrewarding) to take a freshman composition class as an ESL student. I have students in my class who seem to be struggling to understand instructions and class discussion. Sometimes they struggle actively and sometimes they just sort of disengage from the class dialogue. Occasionally (and this will make me sound like Zamel’s Unhelpful Art History Professor) I wonder if students are deliberating misinterpreting things they don’t want to hear (for instance the fact that they may not use Google to find secondary sources). But I don’t have any background or training in ESL instruction and I’m not sure how to help these students. If I were an Ideal Superteacher, I’d be fluent in all of my students’ languages and I’d facilitate a multilingual discussion about the ways that language ideologies shape rhetorical practices and then they’d all write brilliant papers that I would grade and return immediately. Sadly, I’m working with a more limited skill-set and I feel more like I’m struggling to herd a varied group of students through the assignments on the common syllabus before the semester ends.

In some ways, though, I already feel like a translator; I’m helping my students interpret and master academese. We spend a lot of class discussion time taking apart terms that the e-text explains only briefly. We brainstorm synonyms for analysis, argument, discipline, and rhetoric. They’re gradually starting to use these words (and mean and understand them) when they talk about their own work. But sometimes I’ll use a word for weeks before I realize that I’m confusing them with it (for example, I’ve just decided we should talk about ‘conventions’ on Friday). I feel a bit like a diplomat trying to convey messages from the Common Syllabus/Rhetoric Department/Big Scary World of College Writing to my students. It’s a big responsibility and I’m not sure that either side would think I’m doing a good job (and I feel guilty because I don’t seem to have a way to convey my students messages back to the People In Charge). So, yes, I agree with Zamel’s assertion that a pedagogy designed to benefit ESL students (one that encourages students to explore and reflect on new meanings/concepts) would benefit all students, but I don’t feel we have the time or know-how to implement one for Rhetoric 105.[1]

[1] Zamel, Vivian. Strangers in Academia: The Experiences of Faculty and ESL Students Across the Curriculum. CCC 46.4/December 1995. p.519.

I don't want to be a grammar Nazi

Wow. I really like this idea of writing in one's on version of English, "Taking ownership of English, or appropriating the language by confidently using it to serve one's own interests according to one's own values, helps develop fluency in English" (Canagarajah 592). It made me think that in low stakes assignments, like this blog, I tend to use my own way of speaking and talking about things and often, they're very rambling and roundabout and weird and probably confusing (and I apologize for this) but they resemble my thoughts more rawly, more closely, than academic writing. In my academic mode,  I take pains to avoid idioms or other odd figures of speech, even metaphor or anything 'overly poetic,' (AS IF!) and they tend to be very planned out (contrived, perhaps) and straightforward (and thus, many of you readers of my blogs are probably thinking, OK. So maybe he deserves to be in grad school). Anyway, I'd like to discuss here my own experience of a phenomenon I have observed in the classroom regarding English language learning students who seem to want to be normalized.

Beat my papers! Beat that non-standard shit out of them! Maybe not in those specific words, but I have been explicitly asked by two of my English language learning students to point out more grammar and syntactical problems in the paper and I am quite reluctant to do this for several reasons. 1) I don't like to focus on grammar and syntax but their argument, it's rhetoric and logic. 2) Many of the conventions are essentially arbitrary and I can't really explain them in a manner that feels, well, factual or honest. Also, they're continually changing. For instance, split infinitives (and I never understood this term --the infinitive is already 'split' --it's two words, for Heaven's sake, unlike infinitives in most other languages) are lately receiving more acceptance. It seems to be a matter of style --a writer's individual style.

Few things irritate me more than when some cretin points out that one of the most famous lines in cinematic history contains a split infinitive. Shut up. Because Star Trek is awesome.
 3) I can't. I simply don't have the time to mark all the missing commas, misplaced articles, hanging prepositions, and split-infinitives, although I have actually tried it and realized, HOLY CRAP! How can my student even read his paper under all my ink (err, word document comments)?!

I think the key lies in somehow having them re-evaluate their own sense of what English is --which English --whose English and what kind and  what time of English. One way of doing this is very inefficient and a bit unoriginal but I can't emphasize enough the fluidity of the English language in history. Old English is unreadable for most people! Middle English is one step closer in understandability (oh my God! I can't believe that's a word according to MS Word!) but even Chaucer, one of my all-time favorite writers, was torture for me in Middle English. Something that screams of hypocrisy is what happens when certain academics bitch about the language being corrupted by anything from 'non-standard' dialects ('Ebonics' or 'Spanglish') to text-messaging yet they teach Shakespeare, whose version of English no longer the 'standard!' And that's one of the reasons it's so important to read Shakespeare and other versions of English --to see the way the language changes --its fluidity and mutability and extendability (Hamlet) --and in many ways, these same bitching academics are cheapening the literary works they seek to uphold as super-texts (this status I don't support either). I think I may try to find an article which discusses the history of the English language which won't put my students into a coma.

But how else might I get them to rethink their own understanding of one, standard English through, for instance, my own evaluation of their writing? I can't help but feeling like they want me to 'fix' their 'broken English.' It's a weird reversal of what one of my beloved undergraduate professors once said, "We bleed their papers" with the red ink pen. But it's like these students want me to bleed their papers. It all feels very prescriptive/surgical/colonial, even. Even colonial. In a word, or a couple of them, Grammar Nazi. I don't know --I take it too far, perhaps, but it makes me feel very uncomfortable. Some of my ESL students seem to see their language as inferior and not a way in which they can access information and attain success in a Westernized world. I try to emphasize their creativity, their improvisation in their struggle to express themselves in this medium of the English language and I will continue to do so but I can't help but feel they are dissatisfied. "I want my writing to be professional," said a Chinese student on during conferences. "I want you to tell me what I need to do to make it professional." What does professional even mean? I don't really know how to teach this. And I don't want to. I want to teach them how to express themselves and to communicate with others creatively with their writing. AND THIS SOUNDS SO ABSTRACT AND TRITE! How do I explain this to a chemistry student who has already been inculcated into the doctrine of the primacy of the English language, one English language? Am I really setting him up for failure in a system in which the dominant system that often does not emphasize improvisation and other modes of creative expression --where his word choice would be strange or 'other'? Am I not really being hard enough on him? I feel like Batman --I want to give the students what they need (whatever that is), not just what they want. But they won't learn what they don't want to. And maybe like Batman / Christopher Nolan, I'm just confusing everyone:S

Aren't we all English Language Learners?

Yes, Tim, I agree. I want my students to use the Oxford Comma, but it's probably not going to happen just like I don't know how to teach them how to use commas without circling every comma in their paper and writing next to it "comma splice" or "no comma" with the hopes that they'll look up what a comma splice is.

"The acronym ESL (English as a Second Language) is used here because it is the commonly used term to refer to students whose native language is not English. Given the inherently political nature of working with ESL learners, it is important to note that at urban institutions, such as the University of Massachusetts at Boston, most of these students are residents of the United States. Furthermore, in the case of a number of these students, English may be a third or fourth language." -Vivian Zamel Notes for "Strangers in Academia" 

While I only have two international students, I would say that I have a lot of English Language Learners that are transitioning their writing from probably what they would normally use in texts, tweets, and Facebook to academic writing. While some of my students have  more of a grasp on the idea of academic writing, all of my students run into trouble here and there with comma usage, capitalization, sentence structure, and I really don't know how to go about addressing these issues without just shooing them to the Writers' Workshop and hoping a tutor there will explain what the Oxford Comma and the difference between a sentence and a fragment.

In some ways, I feel like I am failing my students because mechanics and grammar are a part of writing, but I'm not addressing it because I'm supposed to teach them composition. I wonder, if I don't do it, who will? I have been trying to focus on the strengths of my student writing, but isn't it a disservice to not address the numerous problems that are there? On the other hand, I don't have the time to go through every paper and circle every comma, capitalization, fragment, etc, and on top of all this, I felt like I was being discouraged from teaching little details of grammar during orientation. Yes these little things don't detract from their overall arguments, but not using commas correctly or writing in complete sentences distracts the reader from the strength of the overall writing.

Why yes 1779 pages will make you a better student by providing an amazing pillow with soft pages to sandwich your head in between so you can get quality sleep. Can I get this for free? I know I'll fall asleep better at night.

So what do I do? I have a month left in the semester, and I can quickly review A Comprehensive Guide to the English Language  and whip up some lesson plans about clauses and phrases that no one has heard of ever before. I bet $5 it won't make my students better writers, but they'll be able to spit out grammar jargon like a gorgon.

Oh that shrieking? She's just talking about adverbial clauses.
What I'm trying to say is that I see issues in the grammar and mechanics in all my students, and the whole notion of not addressing these topics is probably not benefitting anyone. Maybe giving them tools to talk about grammar might make it more accessible and give them more confidence in their own writing. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Because not now, when?

"Life" by Oblyvian.

Reading Jody Shipka's article was an unusual experience for me, so let try and recount the experience for you:

1) I can't remember how many times I've commented on the blog. Let me check...Oh God! Althusser! Really intelligent things from my peers! I need to think of something intelligent to say about this article!

2) But its almost midnight. Maybe I should be working on my peer review activities for tomorrow? I don't want to be that person who comments at midnight. But now I am. And now you're also the person who talks about commenting at midnight. Where does it end?!

3) "Students must always account for the specific goals they aimed to achieve with their work and then specifically address how the rhetorical, material, methodological, and technological choices they made contributed to the realization of their goals" (287). Amazing! The students are accountable for their own standards.

3a.) Wait, what does that look like, exactly? What actual physical strategies would one use in a classroom to prepare students for a task of this sort? Is there any sort of modelling involved?

Am I supposed to already know how do discuss rhetorical, material, methodological, and technological choices with my students? How does one scaffold such an assignment? Can I do this as a first-time instructor?

4) In a way, it seems that the assignments the common syllabus sets out for our students are a kind of "essay-ified" version of what the assignments that Shipka describes. It seems that her goal in these multi-modal assignments is to have students closely read the world around them and consider the rhetorical arguments launched therein and to choose a rhetorical standpoint from which they can also contribute to that (textual) world. It seems though, that this is an issue of time. I do genuinely want to do something along the lines of what Shipka describes, but when and how will I find the time to do it? Why did life take the cookie away and will I get it back?

Supplimental Readings and Recognizing my Academic Interpellation: A Confessional

Figure one: Louis Althusser with paraphrased theory of subjectivity. Don't worry --I'm not really going to talk about this.
The Shipka article was a fascinating read on how to construct a assignments (by not constructing assignments) that are more creative and, more importantly, I think, more conducive to creative thinking --something I'm all about. My problem is that, really, it's almost like I'm interpellated. Yes, shit just got real, or, at least, Althusserian. What I mean is, it is difficult for me to break out of my ever-more-apparent lasting impression of the standard English comp course, despite all of the professional seminar sessions, the tutorials, the peer mentor sessions, and many other things.

I'm very interested (maybe desperately interested) in finding a way out of this trap of uncreative thinking as I find myself putting in way too much prep-time and getting far too little input (and often nothing near real conversation) from my students during class discussion. But what is this trap, exactly? I feel like I'm confessing here but... here it is. Get ready.  I... lecture... too much and too often. I know, right? Terrible! It's embarrassing really --but, honestly, it's my go-to course of action whenever people aren't talking --I feel like I need to say something in order to make the class productive. Time's a-wastin' y'all! It's hard to get over this feeling urgency and reverting to my lecturing instincts. More sadly, as a result, my lack of creativity may be contagious --spreading to the students and manifesting itself in subtle, quiet symptoms, literally --they're quiet! And their work demonstrates that they have a great deal of intelligence and the potential to be creative when applied in an area that interests them --this class is just not very interesting a lot of times. I feel this environment may even be stifling --cutting them off from the creative thinking necessary to design and commence and complete their own thoughtful, thought-provoking assignments as in the Shipke article.

I think I have a solution to this problem --at least a partial one. Instead of focusing on not lecturing, perhaps I should look to do something else instead. In other words, (and to be really depressing and Althusserian), I can't over my interpellation but I can get around it... maybe. There is just not enough material in my class right now to prepare students for an engaging session --I am doing almost all of the prep and A LOT of the talking (or should I say, I get the prep and the students miss out on a chance for an engaging class session). Aside from the e-text or some homework writing often based on sample essays (usually from other students which I am under the impression that many do not take seriously), or some other major boring shit, students get very little prep for the standard RHET 105. So, in short, I need MORE interesting, engaging (and more as in more) outside readings and we need to talk about them. In class. In short, I should focus more on preparing my students for class and less prep (or at least different prep) for myself. Through this, we could have meaningful conversation, debate, and serious thought-provoking stuff --ultimately, creative thinking and creative assignments (perhaps even designed by the students, as Shipke describes) will result.

After having begun this project of assimilating supplemental readings (which will be my final project for this course), I have to decide on whether or not to create a themed course. On the one hand, the themed course could be limiting, aggregating thought around one idea or a collection of closely related ideas. On the other hand (as I tend to argue), it could provide more depth and interest in a particular subject and, hopefully, some creative insight based on some serious research. Either way, I think outside readings, themed or free-stylin' could provoke thought and giving a shit, and could make this class (both my current class [it's not too late! I have to tell myself that] and RHET 105 in general) more of a market place of ideas --a center of creativity.

Walk B4 Run

I largely agree with the consensus. While I can see the benefits and creative joys of expanding the composition experience for freshmen students presented in this article, I think it is too much too soon. While reading, I did, however, find myself thinking in several places that some of the broader multimodal strategies could be incorporated quite successfully.
            In 2010 I was part of a fellowship program that took 20 Native American researchers, with specific historical or cultural projects in mind, for the purpose of each creating a short documentary. The two year process started with workshops on archival research, followed by learning how to use film editing software. With less than 6 months to go before the projects were to be shown in front of the national sponsors, the coordinators were in a panic. This was a pilot project of theirs that was to be the flagship for many more and involved some important federal programs with deep pockets and the films being submitted so far were crap.
            The problem: there was very little attention being paid to script-writing and research organization. The project fellows had almost universally found photos, maps and documents then tried to build a script based on them. It should have worked the other way around, script first, images later, with multiple revisions in-between. Once we figured this out and started helping each other through scrapping and restarting the whole process with a written framework it all came together and we all lived happily ever after.
            So, all this to say, while multimodal is fun and perhaps more engaging, there is a foundational necessity to acquiring good writing skills and a logical structure.
            A secondary, but equally important component of RHET 105 is facilitating the adjustment to a more self-reliant environment. Despite repeated discussions that this is “not your high school English class,” I still have a few students frustrated with not having a detailed point-by-point prescription for an “A.”
But I will keep this article handy when designing next sememster's plan and will most-likely incorporate some of the proposed assignments, or at least their conceptional possibilities.

It's a thin line between fries and shakes

“It’s a thin line between fries and shakes” -The Chappelle Show (I thought to link to the Youtube clip here but I did not want the possibly offensive language to offend anyone so if you're curious, offend yourself)

After reading the Shipka article (and subsequently Calgary and Alex’s postings) I found myself wondering how UIUC goes about implementing these different pedagogical strategies, that is whether fries (linear essays) or shakes (multimodal compositions) are preferred. The easiest way to see this would be to simply look at the “Common Syllabus” and Writing at the University Of Illinios E-text that the Rhetoric department issued to each of us first year instructors.  While the “Common Syllabus” and e-text point (almost emphatically) to untraditional authorship practices like co/group authorship that are meant to give students a preview of what is to come in their major related courses as well as the “Real world” (whatever that is) this is about as far as the college/department is will to go. We only need to look at the grading break down to see that there are 4 essays worth a whopping 75% of the class and similar to Alex and Calgary’s posts, I don’t think that this is a bad thing: most students come to the University with differing experiences/facilities with writing so spending a semester trying to normalize these practices is quite beneficial (and isn’t this why composition courses like this were made in the first place?)
    All of this is not to say that I disagree with Shipka’s article, in fact I agree with a lot of her findings and arguments. The notion that students can compose multimodal productions in response to an assigned task opens up the possibilities for students to pursue various creative solutions. Drawing on semiotics Shipka argues that linear writing based assignments have unfairly dominated composition courses and don’t accurately reflect the increasingly diverse medias that student now face whereas multimodal productions have the potential to do exactly that. As Shipka notes there can be some resistance from students due to the overwhelming possibilities that can result in a sort of paralysis regarding deciding on a certain project. But this multimodal thing seems to be catching on and perhaps, among other reasons I’m sure, this is why in UIUC’s recent conferences for first year Rhetoric students they can submit either a traditional essay or a multimodal poster (even though this limit’s the possibilities significantly). During our orientation to teaching the course this conference was mentioned and it was suggested that students could prepare a presentation (paper or poster based) of their “synthesis” essay since all students would do this in class anyway. I find it a little odd that this multimodal aspect is presented at the end of the semester but maybe what is really intended is a trickle down approach to changing the Rhetoric courses all together.

Or maybe a multimodal framework was just beyond us first year instructors so they are easing us into this way of thinking as well. Either way, I would probably say that UIUC likes to dip their fries into a shake before eating them.

Multimodality: A Polemic

"Man, I wish we had a floppy disk"

After reading this article, I have decided to scrap the final writing assignments for my class, and instead, implement a final project based on textures, sounds, scents, and even tastes. I am thinking I will ask my students to choose a word, explore its etymology, and create a fragrance that represents the misconceptions a modern audience may have about it. Though, in the event that this assignment is too prescriptive, I may allow them to bake a casserole.

Kidding aside, I find the radical posturing of anti-written word sentiment expressed in this article to be off-putting. Maybe it's because I haven't spent years in the field of pedagogy, but I find it far-fetched to think of the written freshman composition essay as this hegemonic beast that must be slayed by the multimodal revolutionaries. The marxist struggle invoked by the epigraph confuses me: "By privileging composing as the main site of instruction, the teaching of writing has taken up what Karl Marx calls a 'one-sided' view of production, and thereby has largely erased the cycle that links the production, distribution, exchange, and consumption of writing" (Trimbur). "[T]aken up" seems to imply that this is a recent development. Maybe I'm wrong, but hasn't written composition always centered the teaching of writing? Didn't Karl Marx use the power of written rhetoric to expose a "one sided" view of production? Writing is what college students do. Whatever field the students of our rhetoric 105 courses choose to pursue, odds are strong that they will be forced to write. That is what sets the agenda. They will be forced to write throughout their college career; we try our best to teach them how to write for the occasion. What's so bad about the written word anyway? I quite like it.

This article reminds me of something Spencer mentioned in class: in these journal articles, do the authors only present the things that work while concealing some of the negatives? While reading this article, I was thinking two things: either the author is an inspirational figure, able to lead her students to stunning intellectual heights, or she is teaching cream-of-the-crop students. I seriously doubt the results she presents are typical. In my wildest dreams, I can't imagine my students putting in the effort of the students written about in this article. Then again, maybe I'm partly at fault in that regard.

One final thing: These articles always seem to conveniently leave out who teaches freshman composition classes. If every large state university was stocked with freshly minted Writing Studies PhDs, up-to-date on the pedagogical cutting-edge, tasked with teaching freshman comp instead of upper-level courses, and with a stake in the outcome of this kind of project, maybe this utopian vision could flourish; however, the reality is far different. Underpaid, overworked adjuncts and (particularly literature) grad students have more pressing concerns than the dismantling of the oppressive written word.

*This post was written in a state of high fever.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What *are* we preparing them for anyway?

I was excited by the student projects that Jody Shipka describes in her article. I would love to implement a similar assignment in a future RHET class, and I readily accept that this sort of project teaches students the same writing and research skills that they will need for other, more traditional writing-based assignments. However, like Calgary, I do have some reservations regarding the idea of a class that is wholly based on this multi-modal task-based framework, and would therefore like to consider the integration of a project like this into a more traditionally writing-based class. After all, aren't we preparing our students (or at least trying to prepare them) for the writing they will encounter over their college career? And isn't it only fair that we give them a chance to work on the more traditionally-structured academic writing that they will be asked to produce while the teaching focus is on their writing? For instance, when I am grading literature essays, my feedback is geared toward the student's skill at literary analysis, and while the student's skill at writing will inevitably inform the final grade, it's not what I'm teaching. The composition class, then, is a one-semester chance to give the student's writing skills the attention they deserve without taking away from important discipline-specific teaching and learning. I've noticed that my students this semester seem to respond very well to the example essays in the etext; I suspect having a model of the kind of work they are being asked to produce gives them confidence in their own ability to produce, as well as reassurance and guidance.

None of this is to say that I think we should coddle them by teaching them from within their comfort zone only. In fact, I can see the huge benefit to forcing them outside of their comfort zone by assigning the very assignments that Shipka describes (what would a prompt for this sort of assignment look like, by the way?), which require students to consider their goals and rationalize their process in a way that many academic essays may not. But if the skills they gain through these projects are the skills that they will continue to use in their careers as writers, wouldn't it also be useful to make the transition of these skills to more traditional writing assignments a focus of the class by including them in the syllabus as well?

Even if it teaches students all they need to know about the process of writing, a multi-modal task-based assignment isn't going to give them practice with the weird and wonderful quirks of academic writing (and hey, maybe that's OK?), but if students are going to be faced with academic writing later on, should we ignore the opportunity to let them work on it while their writing skills have their instructors' full attention?

Also (this isn't totally unrelated), here is a great Onion article in honour of student evaluation time.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Re-imagining composition

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Welp, I’m not sure how I feel about the Shipka article…so I guess what I’ll do is try to talk about my reservations here without rambling or ranting. That is to say, I will try to be coherent.
On the one hand, Shipka addresses in her article certain pitfalls of conventional, compulsory composition in college that I have personally observed and would absolutely seek to avoid when designing my own curriculum. As an English major in undergrad, I was pretty sure the only reason I was able to complete certain written work for professors without wanting to bash my head in, as some of my peers always seemed to be on the verge of doing, was that I genuinely enjoy writing and have an aptitude for it. There’s nothing mysterious or confusing about composition to me. It can be tedious but I can understand it (somewhat intuitively) in ways I have little to no hope of understanding other disciplines (which others may grasp somewhat intuitively). Yet the “fill-in-the-blanks or ‘cookbook’” (284) methods of composition seem to lend themselves to the manifestation of apathy, boredom and frustration in those students, who are hard-pressed to identify the usefulness or purpose behind the written work they are assigned. To some, writing is a mystery and a drudgery and something to survive. This is a not insignificant fact, which should be considered when designing coursework. But I don’t necessarily subscribe to the notion that students’ discomfort with written composition necessitates a complete overhaul of composition curriculum, such that writing becomes only an equal or lesser part of the whole. Certainly I have witnessed classes in which too much emphasis is placed on achieving a prescribed set of goals to attain an acceptable grade, without any explanation or even indication from the professor as to the function of said tasks and what students should take away from the various elements of written composition with which they are asked to engage (from research to drafting to peer review to revision).  But this is a part of our own curriculum at UIUC that I am particularly pleased with: a focus on process in research and composition, which de-emphasizes the often unfathomable (for some) rules of grammar and seemingly arbitrary conventions of format and style. Which acknowledges that the fundamental elements of written composition may be more easily accessed and employed when the student writer is allowed to engage with a topic or their own choosing, based upon their own specific interests. And the curriculum here is still writing-centric. I don’t question Shipka’s interest in redefining our perception of what college composition is or could be, but do take issue with an apparent desire to institute a multimodal curriculum in lieu of one which is focused entirely on writing. It seems to me that we are talking about two separate methodologies, which have equal value and could be taught within the same program--separately or as two distinct classes within a block. Maybe I’m just a curmudgeonly person who values language and written expression to the point where I am unable to see this issue without bias (possible!), but I still think that a class which focuses exclusively on writing and its processes should be compulsory for undergraduates. In fact, I think it’s essential (but that's another blog entry). Of course the old model is broken in many ways but that doesn’t mean you re-invent the wheel, necessarily; it just means you have to find new approaches and philosophies. Shipka has done that obviously, and I appreciate her efforts; I’m just not entirely sold on her vision of how and when her ideas should be employed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Few Words for Empathy

Is it our responsibility to inspire students? I think so, if by inspire we mean encourage creative activity and engage in intellectual discussion. Is it our responsibility to teach social activism? I’m alarmed by this idea. It implies a particular kind of activism as an end goal. We aren’t elected leaders and our students are individuals with their own histories, interests, and agency. (Even their apathy may be a kind of agency, a way to adjust to or resist a particular educational dynamic. And we should recognize this.) I think we should be attempting to understand our students’ lifeworlds (in order to meet them in real dialogue) rather than rocking their worlds.

Last fall, I took a seminar on culture and education with several K-12 teachers. Each week I was amazed and humbled by their dedication to understanding their students’ diverse backgrounds and values. They worked to develop curriculums and evaluations that met students’ needs rather than imposing their own cultural standards on the classroom. This is not to say they didn’t demand and encourage growth. But there is a difference between opening minds (in a cultural of thoughtful dialogue) and mobilizing minds.

Certainly, I think we should expose students to new ideas and make the familiar strange. (I think we’d have more a open-minded student-population if we required everyone to take an anthropology class.) We can model respectful dialogue and thoughtful engagement. We can suggest ways for students to self-reflect and become aware of their own biases. We can speak persuasively and demonstrate the power of words and ideas for our students. We can remind them to evaluate the author(s) behind a text and consider an audience’s probable reaction to it. We can encourage them to ask questions and we can try to give them honest answers. But we do not have (and I would not want) the power to change their minds. Such change is internal and multi-faceted (and mysterious) and students’ minds are their own.

Who Care About Libya?

I would love to structure my class into a way that made students care about the things that I care about like the presidential election, Middle East foreign policy, cosmopolitanism, poetry, but I have reservations about making Rhetoric 105 into Sara teaches what she wants and makes kids write papers.

These guys are shaking hands. Should I care? Who are they?
If you didn't watch the debate, you won't understand this meme!
But I think my inexperience in teaching has led me to miss this golden opportunity to force students to care about the presidential election, and I can only hope that in 4 years, I'll have a room of eager 18-19 year old students willing to think about registering to vote and I will have the tools to teach them all the important things about being an American citizen. The only thing is that I'm not teaching a Political Science class and I'll confess, I didn't take a single American Government class in my undergraduate years even though I majored in Political Science. International Relations was my main focus, and even though I talked with my students about the attack U.S. Consulate in Libya and my students wrote their newspaper analysis on articles about the attack, my students didn't even remember where Libya was located.

I'm a country!
Clearly, I haven't structured my class to address current events or foreign policy or Libya and my asides in class are only asides. Reading J. Elizabeth Clark's "Versus Verse: Poets Against War" I kept thinking, wouldn't this be amazing? I could teach poetry, foreign policy, AND composition with low stakes writing assignments and papers and my students will be educated in everything wonderful in life and I will change the world. Could I throw in readings about Responsibility to Protect? Cosmopolitanism? Could my students be better citizens of the world? I could teach international poetry about important things like war, immigrants, and culture and make them understand what other people elsewhere and thinking and feeling? Thinking about Adam Barrows "Teaching the Literature of Revolution," should I force them to read literature that has emerged from the Arab Spring to drive home my personal views about the importance of paying attention to what's going on in the world?

But that's not my job, is it? Is it better that my students research something they're interested in like women's equality in sports and university nutrition and diversity at the college level? Are they only researching those things because I'm not forcing them to open up their minds and research foreign policy or exposing them to poetry about war? If I threw out the etext and provided a packet of readings on foreign policy to teach them about how to read scholarly articles and poems to teach them reading for meaning, am I helping the students or just standing on my graduate teaching assistant pedestal and proclaiming "You must care about the things I care about!"

I am on my ottoman pedestal with all that is important--Santa Hedgehog. This is what I care about! (not my dog.)
It's something for me to think about for next semester and what I would change and improve from this semester. Would I even want to veer so far from the common syllabus and the etext? Would it really benefit the student or just make me feel good about that class I'm teaching? Which is more important?

Authority, Revolution, the GEO, and Halloween Candy

I’ve spent a little time this week wondering whether or not to tell my students about the GEO’s currentstruggle to protect the tuition waivers of graduate students like me. I’ve decided that I will; partly because I’ve been so adamant that they think about and tell one another (and me) what they “give a shit” about (one of our own course blogs is aptly titled “Give a Sh*t”) and I feel compelled to let them in on something I give a shit about, and partly because I want them to be prepared for the possibility that their instructor may be on strike and that they’d be left to their own devices (and my trusty syllabus—good luck! godspeed!). Having seen the way some of my students choose to use unstructured class time, the prospect of these students directing themselves through the remaining weeks of the semester is a little unsettling. In either case, partially what is at stake is my authority (and responsibility) as an instructor, my students’ authority (as learners), and our combined authority and responsibilities as this weird community that the Rhet program has produced.

Explaining the GEO’s current situation has the potential to threaten my authority in the classroom: I implied at the earlier weeks of class that I’d taught this course several times before. I never straight-out lied, but would generally say things like “Students who work on such-and-such an essay in groups, in my experience, tend to earn higher grades on those essays.” The students either don’t catch on that “my experience” in my head and informed by office chatter, or they just don’t care whether or not I’ve done this before. In the more recent weeks, I’ve been letting on a bit more about myself: I’m a student too! I write papers all the time too! Yeah, it is hard! Yeah, citing stuff does kind of suck! It’s a weird meditated position and I can’t quite describe how it affects my authority: does it make me less of an “expert” on writing because I’m kind of like them (sans the taylorsfwifophilia)? They way I’ve framed my classroom is a as a kind of crash-course on thinking like a college student: in that sense I’m (almost) totally comfortable with my authority position. Grad students are supermegadouble college students.

To make a longish blog post longisher, the connection between these thoughts and this week’s reading came in the same portion of Barrows’ essay that Calgary pointed out. What is at stake in using one’s authority as an instructor to “radicalize” one’s students? Is it somehow an abuse of power? Is it redeemed by the fact that I’m asking them to think critically about their institution and its priorities? They’re so excited to be fresh-adults and college students: are they ready to be seen as sources of revenue and to see me as a source of labor?

On the other hand, it’s close to Halloween, so I have an excuse to bring candy to class.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Barrows, Chief Illiniwek, and checking privilege/assumptions

As I started reading primary source essay drafts last week, I had a couple of people tell me how typical it is for students to zero in on U of I's mascot controversy when they start to work on their semester-long research projects. The colleagues I spoke with were pretty down on this topic and at first I didn't understand why: I had already read one of the two mascot essays I knew my students were writing and I loved it. It fulfilled every aspect of the assignment and was incredibly thoughtful, driven by curiosity and a desire to understand both sides of the issue. Then I read the second essay. This one was not as well-organized and also presented me with a dilemma. The author is one of my favorite students, someone who is always present, alert in class, respectful, easygoing, and clearly eager to do well and produce quality work. But this essay, beyond its structural/organization issues, was plagued with generalizations and assumptions about the opinions of those who oppose the Chief Illinewek mascot. She had grown up admiring “the Chief,” in part because of family ties to the university, and she was upset that she had been robbed of her opportunity to “honor” him. My knee-jerk reaction was to try to change her mind. Immediately. “SHE IS SO SMART AND FUN TO HAVE IN CLASS; I MUST FIX THIS.” But the idea of imposing my own ethics/politics on her also made me uncomfortable: I certainly couldn’t tell her that some of her attitudes about Native Americans and how protest groups “should” react when faced with demeaning/trivializing stereotypes of their cultural heritage felt awfully bigoted and closed-minded to me. Right? As true as they may be, it’s hard to imagine anyone reacting gracefully to accusations like that. And the point is to teach her to write persuasively and to improve on the skills she brought with her to the class. There were organizational issues to deal with, as well as a questionable source with correspondingly faulty analysis, and because of these things, she wasn’t convincing anybody about her stance on the issue, right or wrong. Dealing with those things is my actual job, so how much responsibility should I take on when it comes to issues, however meaningful they are to me, that lay beyond the course's aims?
            The reading this week complicated the question for me, particularly the article by Barrows who asks quite astutely: “when the majority of students I teach assert, in all sincerity, that ‘the rest of the world hates us because we have all the power, riches, celebrities, and sports heroes, and they’re jealous of us,’ how can one not wish to unsettle the arrogance, paranoia, and xenophobia informing such a statement?” This was an attitude I saw in my own student’s paper, particularly in her indignation toward those who sought to deprive her of her beloved mascot. She expressed very little interest in understanding the viewpoints of those who would argue so passionately against the mascot; rather, it was her instinct to dismiss them completely as spoilsports. Barrows’ efforts to adjust some of these attitudes is totally worthwhile to me and I appreciate his approach in the classroom, how he has designed a course with the goal of checking the privilege of a certain "type" of college student: sheltered and spoiled to varying degrees. It’s given me a lot to think about in terms of how I design my next Rhet 105 section, whether or not I can build assignments and exercises into the course that will challenge my students’ preconceptions from the beginning, without jeopardizing their trust in me as in instructor. I feel like there must be a fine line between imposing my belief system on a classroom and challenging them to check their assumptions about race, gender, imperialism, capitalism (and the bounty of other issues in a very long list…). 

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Once again, I wish I had read that sooner

I could say that about almost every article we have read so far but the Summer Smith article particularly struck me with the notion that my students and I would have benefited from the author's advice before the first paper. Still, I come armed with this knowledge as I finish up (and by finish up I mean actually begin and eventually finish) grading the second unit essay and beyond. In that regard, I'm thankful for procrastination. Anyway, "The Genre of the End Comment" on the one hand, crystallized some vague notions I have had about what not to do and made me aware of some mistakes I have been making in the process of end comments and comments throughout my student's papers.

Some stupid things I have been doing include the fragment. This one is probably the most stupid and pointless (and shame-inducing) as it obviously has no purpose other than functioning as a very small and uncomfortable pillow shielding the student from the hammer blows of constructive criticism. I found myself somewhat urgently looking back through my graded papers and preliminary drafts. There I found, "Good job." "Great point, overall." "Nice work." How about, "Bullshit?" My flagrant fragments are only setting my students up for failure, as I feel they are both vague and arbitrary. Why is it nice work? What is nice about it? What am I even referencing?

Another mistake of which I am now aware is my sticking to the compliment-criticism-compliment sandwich form. It is so tired in so many ways. This end-comment's formula has likely become ingrained into students through high school and in order to more effectively guide students, instructors (in college!) need to try something different --something healthier than a bullshit sandwich. It would certainly catch my attention if an instructor addressed me personally, commented on my successes specifically and examined my (paper's) failures critically but encouragingly.

I was glad to know that some of my techniques seem to be productive. I tend to focus on a paper's specific strengths and weaknesses while not overloading it with comments. I usually tend not to use fragments and I feel as I get to know students better, I will approach praise and criticism more personally. I will say I am not afraid to address some papers more critically than others while not soullessly tearing into students' self-confidence. That's good, I think.

My End Comment for Smith's "The Genre of the End Comment":

She does a lot of things well in her article --clarification of the study, a comprehensive overview of genre, logical conclusions, and definitely made me more aware of my potentially unproductive and even detrimental employment (and internalization) of the conventions of the end-comment genre.

However, I am somewhat unclear as to how comments might effect students. In several footnotes, Smith mentions a study by Claudia Keh concerning students' views of the helpfulness of different comments --however, I feel I would have benefited from more specific examples. Granted, the theories implied in her argument are highly logical and I want to believe them but I cannot help but be somewhat suspicious.

I would also argue that perhaps concluding the end comment with some praise is not always the best strategy even in the coaching genre as seem to be implied (264). I have read another study focusing on managerial practices and often when a co-worker receives constructive criticism followed up by some sort of praise, there is often a tendency to entirely disregard the criticism in favor of the praise. This has to do with a psychological theory based on the observation that we remember the first and the last items in a sequence better than the rest of its content and perhaps this applies to writing and speech as well.

Finally, I am a little reluctant to examine the end-comment outside of its context(s): its situation at the end of a paper full of other comments and perhaps in relationship to other comments on previous drafts of the same paper. There is a tendency to comment less on final drafts than preliminaries, I think.

However, these 'shortcomings' I feel, are just avenues for future research on a fascinating subject of which I was unaware before Smith's interesting piece.