Wednesday, September 19, 2012

I'm glad I had to take four English courses...

This is partly in response to the Downs/Wardle article and partly personal reflection so bear with me. At my tiny liberal arts college, Oklahoma Baptist University, students were required to take four English courses, including the basic Comp I and Comp II and two additional literature courses which examine some major literary works within historical, social, and political contexts. Complaining about these requirements abounds from students (as a student worker for one of the instructors of these courses, I saw my fair share of disgruntled business major responses). Also, I became aware of some tension between a few of the professors in the School of Business and the science division of the School of Arts and Sciences and the English and History department professors. Some had the idea that the Western Civilization classes (the third and fourth English requirements) were something of academic missionaries, converting students in, for instance, computer science into English majors.

Case in point, me. I began as a computer science major. I was a stubborn one, remaining in the program for two years. It took everything the English Department had to lure me into its clutches: I converted, I mean, changed majors after taking the fourth and final required English class. The classes made me realize there was some value in English studies. Some. Just a little. I realized that if I continued to work in computer science the rest of my life, even while making money (...a lot of money...), I might be miserable. While I am not going to complain about coming late to the major and really having to rush to complete my work within four years, after reading the Downs/Wardle article, I feel that if I had taken a Writing-Studies oriented FYC class, I think I would have realized sooner the value in studying English. I lied. I'm complaining.

On a smaller scale, this kind of a structure (and I am now more conscious of the differences between UIUC's program [which I feel, contains some of these techniques in the Downs/Wardle article] and my own college's), young writers at least become more familiar with their own writing: not only their strengths and weaknesses, but also their self-confidence. I may sound like a complete sap but the stories concerning "Jack," about how, in his own words, "I really started to think for myself" (567), and another student, "you made me feel like my opinion mattered" (573) it brought tears to my eyes a bit. Yes. It did. I thank you for your pity. But that's what I think RHET 105 or really, any other comp class should be about: about thinking not just writing.

But that's easy. It's obvious, really. How do we get there as incredibly inexperienced instructors? I think perhaps the key lies in a comment near the end of the article: "the course has the added benefit of educating first-year students, adjuncts, and graduate students about the existence and content of the writing studies field" (578). Maybe it sounds elementary, but the class is a learning experience for both students and teachers (certainly for this teacher), as much as it is an exercise on improvisation and adaptability. This is not what my students learned in high school and this is not exactly what I learned in my college classes --and I think it may be beneficial to communicate this two-way learning experience.


A couple of weeks ago, I was loading up my links for the class and stopped by The New York Times for one last news update before class, and I saw this nifty little thing about words that were used at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. Anyways, I thought, "Cool! I'll show this to my students because it deals with words and something like rhetoric!" When I started introducing it, I asked, "How many people watched the Democratic National Convention," which elicited no response since it was 8am. "How many of you follow politics?" (no response) "How many of you are over 18?" (all of them raise their hands) Imagine my shock. It might look something like this:

So after finishing the Noticing and Observing Essay, I decided to wage a war to make my students more aware of the world around them beyond the university setting, and maybe eventually I can push this into a way of engaging a conversation about politics. I know I only care about this because I'm appalled that the students area more engaged in the presidential election, but I can't just let it go. For homework, I asked them to pick a newspaper article from a reputable online newspaper, summarize it, identify the intended audience, and try to figure out the larger conversation it engages.

For a while, I was concerned about how I would make this connect to the course as a whole, but after a while, I'm starting to figure out that it's working somewhat. The newspaper articles led to a discussion of what primary sources go into a news article--interviews, statistics, first hand observations by the reporters--and how the articles fit into a larger conversation. Going over the homework assignments, I wasn't really sure all of the students got it, but some of them definitely did while discussing articles on issues that were important to them whether it was the Chicago teacher's strike,  studies on smoking, or island disputes between China and Japan. I'll admit that some students picked articles that might to appeal to a teacher, but some of them really brought their own interests.

Reading the Down and Wardle "Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning "First-Year Composition" as "Introduction to Writing Studies", made me feel a little bit better about my self-serving project to get my students to become engaged with the world and spending precious time talking about Libya, the Arab Spring, and the implications of the attacks on the U.S. embassy with regard to the presidential election and future involvement in the Middle East. The student reflections quoted in "Teaching about Writing" that made me feel all warm and fuzzy included, "...I never before realized that every written text is part of an ongoing conversation..." (569) and "...I have learned that research is joining an ongoing conversation" (573).

I'm not at the point where I can tackle everything and I certainly don't feel I'm the best person to stand at the front of the room to talk about writing studies. Some of the ideas posed by in the Down and Wardle article might not work so well for a class of freshmen. For example, I'm not convinced that giving students readings on writing studies is going to help them analyze their own writing when they've never done a research project and they might never do a research project described in the reading (561). I'm also not convinced that reading an article about rhetorical reading strategies is going to be helpful because they might never have to use those skills (561). Although discussing reading strategies could be helpful, I'm not sure it's the best way to teach it. What some scholars consider efficient and effective might not work for every student, and even though I have brought up close readings with my students, it might be better if they just figured it out what is most efficient for themselves.

I don't entirely buy that engaging specifically in writing studies is going to help students see a context for their work or what they're interested. Does the conversation they engage in always have to be scholarly? By including hashtags on their tweets, they're already engaging in a larger conversation whether its about an episode of Project Runway or Muslim rage.

source: Huffington Post. I know my blog posts make me look like I know things about Twitter but I don't.
At a minimum, I see the value in context because it can be applied to any field. What is the context for this experiment? What conversation does this article engage? This one study relates to what other studies and what other questions in the field? I'm not sure news articles are the best way to go about it, but I'm seeing some promising stuff. It might not be related directly to Writing Studies, but I think it's more important to place ideas and writings in context to student's lives and in what they're interested. Maybe, if I'm lucky, they'll even start thinking about the election.

What Would Writing Intensive Studies Look Like?

They just need something to chew on...

In “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning ‘First-Year Composition’ as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies’”, Downs and Wardle assess many of the pitfalls of traditional mandatory freshmen writing courses. These classes often fail to prepare students for college-writing across a variety of disciples because they emphasize mechanical skills, separate writing from context, and assume the existence of a unified academic discourse that does not exist in practice.  Downs and Wardle rightly suggest that this model needs to be rethought and they propose transitioning to an ‘Intro to Writing Studies’ class in which students study the writing process (their own and others), thinking reflexively about it as they begin to draft college-level writing.
 While I think an ‘Intro to Writing Studies’ course would be highly beneficial and appealing for many students (particularly those who are already interested in and enjoy writing), I’m not sure that such a class will be any more universally helpful than the current model. I imagine that many eighteen-year-olds would be bored and put-off by the thought of a course that asked them to read about and study writing (even, maybe especially, their own). Such a course might be the academic equivalent of enrolling people who hate exercise in a 5:00 AM boot-camp—you might change some of their habits, but you risk alienating them further before you’ve even started. If you really wanted to help these individuals maintain active lifestyles, it might be better to encourage and support them in the pursuit a specific activity (swimming, biking, etc.) that they already enjoy.  Similarly, I think writing-intensive classes across a variety of disciplines should provide opportunities and support for students to dig into their own interests, enter an intellectual conversation about them, and engage in written work. This requires a course that asks them to focus on sustained writing projects and to think reflexively about those projects, but it need not be a ‘writing’ or an ‘English’ class. For instance, my younger brother might be described as a ‘reluctant writer’, but, when he was given the opportunity to choose to write a paper on prohibition and the history of drinking, he became an engaged and thoughtful reader.  He developed ideas that he wanted to share and became invested in the process of organizing, writing, and revising those ideas. He grew as a writer and as a problem-solver, developing mental persistence and a put-all-the-details-on-the-page-and-see-what-they-say attitude that have been useful to him in chemistry and engineering. (Side note: while I agree that self-reflexivity is crucial to skill transfer, I was otherwise fairly disappointed by Downs and Wardle’s approach to skill transfer. Certainly, we should strive to help students write across contexts, but I would argue for more nuanced and holistic thinking about education and experience. I’m convinced that I learned many of my “writing skills” through calculus, yoga, baking, and kayaking. And that engaged writing helps students develop a wide variety of other skills, some of which may not involve written words at all. Because the brain is a mysterious place.)  This happened in a U.S. history class that was writing intensive—and provided structure and guidance for student writers—but not explicitly about writing. Perhaps, in the long run, it might be more helpful to integrate supported opportunities for writing (and reflexivity about writing) into a wider variety of classes so that students can learn to create and reflect on the kind of writing they need to produce within their own academic contexts.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Comp Wars

This article about Queensborough Community College provides a glimpse into the kinds of battles that go on over the first-year composition course.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Show or Tell?

     Some of the students in my Rhet 105 class seem to only comprehend the concepts set before them when they have a sample in which to model from, others seem to do better with detailed verbal instruction. And still others ask what "exactly" is required from me? Even after we have gone through the material multiple times. Up until recently, I had only discussed the wider goals of the semester briefly and done a quick exercise to introduce the writing process. We had been focusing mainly on the Observation essay. Realizing that several seemed lost, and kept thinking of this assignment as a stand alone essay, I decided to back up a bit and readdress how this first assignment fit in with the longer term  goals and how it fit into the overall writing process. I broke the semester into a step-by-step diagram for the visual learners, illustrating how each unit, and each essay assignment would inform the desired skill set promoted by the next. I let them know that Observation Essay was to teach them how to create research questions, not conclusions, and that we would next take these questions and start shaping them into exigent and researchable topics.

     This realization of how I had originally failed to give a broader context to the current course is what I interpreted the passage from the Wood, Bruner, & Ross article quoted by Sara to describe, or at least as it applied to my situation as a new teacher.
     I think that the scaffolding design laid out in the Common Syllabus works to the advantage of both the students and new instructors with little experience in curriculum design and lesson planning. I agree, however, that the Common Syllabus serves best as a reference guide rather than a strict, unyeilding agenda. The pace of learning needs room for some flexibility.
     On the topic of class size and individual levels of competence, I think the strategy of group work is beneficial. Students with more understanding helping those with less. It might help to keep students ahead of the curve from losing interest, foster camaraderie, and bring along those less adept a bit faster. I also like the multi-modal approach to engage differing learning styles. The variety of instruction improves attentiveness.
     I also found that my students were less than enthusiastic about the Etext ---- most of them stated a preference for a hardcopy text.

Writing Process Rap

(Warning! Not all that impressive, but it did remind me of a few of my students)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

While thinking about Wood, Bruner and Ross’s study reading I was struck by the assumption that it (and our beloved Rhetoric directors) make and whether or not this assumption is productive; namely the designation “expert” that we as newly minted T.A.’s are accorded. According to the aforementioned trio of psychiatrists a successful tutorial process is one in which an “adult or ‘expert’ helps somebody who is less adult or less expert” to achieve a goal. I could say with near certainty that we all are certainly more adult than our students but the question of “expert” is what gives me pause since the structure of this course is relatively new to all of us. Although the week long training course we all had prior to taking ownership of our respective Rhetoric sections was informative by no means did it leave me feeling like I was an expert who could even begin to really implement scaffolding techniques. It is for this reason that I have largely stuck to the common syllabus (in which I recognize the scaffolding technique. To bring it back to the article, I agree that for a student to succeed in their work that “comprehension of the solution must precede production” but in a sense I feel like I’m still going through the comprehension part myself. Unfortunately my course load does not exactly leave me with huge amounts of free time in which I could come to grips with the overall structure of the course, not to mention the assignments that are scaffolded (not a word, don’t use it) in. My methodology to the course thus far has been to focus on the current unit, wrapping my head around it and hoping that during the short period between rough draft and revisions that I can transition myself into and through the next unit. In this sense perhaps I am more “expert” than my students but employing scaffolding techniques correctly (like simplifying the task to avoid unwanted alternative methods or helping them maintain direction, not to mention how to control their frustration), but only slightly. The Rhetoric database has been very useful in that they have made available the work of previous students so that modeling a solution for the students is possible as well as giving us (the T.A.’s) the opportunity to see a completed work in the hopes that we will recognize the parts that make up the whole. All of that being said, I still wish I had more time to sit with the course materials after our training instead of being fed to the freshman with nothing but a common syllabus to cling to. But I know that my facial stubble, corduroys and cardigans scream “EXPERT” to the students, so I could just rely on the illusion.

(I had to post a completely unnecessary photo of my cats since I don't know how to insert other cool stuff. Sorry)

"Frustration Control"

Near the end of their study, Wood, Bruner, and Ross list six so-called scaffolding functions of tutoring. The fifth is frustration control:

“There should be some such maxim as ‘Problem solving should be less dangerous or stressful with a tutor than without’. Whether this is accomplished by ‘face saving’ for errors or by exploiting the learner’s wish to please’ or by other means, is of only minor importance. The major risk is in creating too much dependency on the tutor” (98). 

Frustration control has been one of the more frustrating aspects of my classroom in the past week, in part due to my fear of putting my students in a position of dependence on my experience with creating research questions. Two groups of students were particularly frustrated. The first group came up with a small handful of mildly interesting potential research topics; when I asked them what the associated question would be (to whom is this subject important and why?) they became noticeably agitated. Their responses indicated that they saw this as a matter of the instructor “knowing the answer” and being in the position to give that knowledge—and, for some reason, not doing so. They seemed ready for me to simply tell them what I thought their question should be. What’s difficult, I believe, about teaching students to develop research questions is that the type of instructor-student interaction that takes place is “the usual type of tutoring in which one member ‘knows the answer’ and the other does not, rather like a ‘practical’ in which only the instructor knows how”—but with the added element that the students kinda sorta do know how: will be using pre-existing writing skills and knowledge (which they know they have, but according to their diagnostic essays, think that they do not have (89). It seems, for the most part, that they’ve never been asked to use their skills in this way. 

Since my frustrating experience last week, I resolved this week to try some new approaches to frustration control: one particularly helpful method was making the students themselves responsible for controlling one another’s frustrations. When the groups presented their topics and questions in front of one another two things happened: (1) the students were able to see that everyone struggled to some degree with the assignment, even the groups who hadn’t chosen to write about squirrels, and (2) the students held one another responsible for discussing the relevance of their research questions. By the end of the period, my students had slightly more developed questions and seemed more comfortable with the assignment in general. I’m wondering, though, if I could have somehow lessened their frustration earlier on or whether frustration simply needed to be built into the course in a more overt way. 

Maybe I’ll know when I get that paper about squirrels? 

Works Cited:
Wood, David, Jerome S. Bruner, and Gail Ross. "The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving." Journal of Child Psychology 17 (1976): 89-100.

Is this Scaffolding? & thinking about failure

"In the terminology of linguistics, comprehension of the solution must precede production. That is to say, the learner must be able to recognize a solution to a particular class of problems before he is himself able to produce the steps leading to it without assistance" (Wood, Bruner, & Ross 90).

I've spent most of my prosem prep time puzzling through this quotation from this week's reading. I want to respond positively, but to be honest, I'm not entirely sure I understand the implications of this passage. Initially, I took it to mean that students must be able to understand a solution to a problem before they can adequately reproduce it without my assistance. Translating this into terms comparable with Rhet 103 (or 105), I take this to mean that students cannot successfully write an observation essay if they cannot comprehend the steps necessary to completing that goal. This might become helpful to me if, say, a particular group is struggling to identify a productive research question embedded in their observations. If I were to point out a particular observation to them -- one that I know will lead to an interesting topic -- and encourage them to focus on it, my actions would only be productive if they understood the process well enough to see why I chose that detail for them to focus on. This kind of scaffolding I can certainly support. (pun!)

However, this attitude is somewhat at odds with Zach's post, which emphasizes the importance of independence and potential failure in the college learning process. Ideally, scaffolding provides students a structure that enables them to make sense of their mistakes when they fail; wouldn't instruction without this sense of escalating skill-building create an environment where failure results not in learning but in blinding frustration? Failure is an integral part of the learning process, and this failure has to occur in a setting that's been constructed to make sense of that failure.

I wonder how much of this is really, truly "scaffolding," or if there's even a difference between this vague support structure I describe here and what is called "instructional design." Is it somewhere on the continuum between a carefully-constructed syllabus that builds skills and the primarily K-8 phenomenon differentiated instruction?

Scaffolding as Crutch

Perhaps due to its now-ubiquitous usage as a teaching technique, the scaffolding metaphor, as explicated by Wood, Bruner, and Ross, does not seem particularly revelatory to me. Instead, many of the aspects seem rather self-evident: eliciting the interest of the student, focusing on mastering the area of knowledge just beyond the student’s comprehension before advancing, and maintaining direction as an educator all seem standard fare. Granting that much of what Wood, Bruner, and Ross propose is perfectly reasoned, I will use my blog post to play devil’s advocate and discuss shortcomings I find in the scaffolding method at the heart of our Rhetoric 105 courses.

Typically, after going over a certain portion of material in my class, I will stop to ask my students if they have any questions. In the vast majority of instances, they do not. While this may be due to social anxiety, lethargy, or other factors, I believe that, mostly, they do not have any questions because the material covered is not challenging. This is where I believe the scaffolding method falters. In an attempt to avoid student failure and frustration, scaffolding has the potential to undervalue the intellectual capacity of students. Relating somewhat to a point Alex brings up in her post: how do we properly institute scaffolding (a technique devised for individual learning) in a class of 19? Do we gear the scaffolding towards those with the least knowledge? If we do, does it alienate the rest of the class?

In my own experience, I have made the most gains as a student when I have been challenged and allowed to fail. In our rhetoric courses, we ask our students to “consider stakes” when attempting to establish exigent research questions. If scaffolding eliminates frustration (if students know the pace of the course is dictated by them) then what are the stakes? If there is no possibility for failure, how are the students challenged?

The first tenet of the scaffolding proposed by Wood, Bruner, and Ross is “Recruitment.” They state: “the tutor’s first and obvious task is to enlist the problem solver’s interest in and adherence to the requirements of the task” (98). This sounds perfectly reasonable, but when taken to excess, it could pose a problem. Relating this to the Rhetoric 105 course, I believe that the attempt to reach the students “on their level” is potentially taken too far. Not because it caters too much to the interest of the individual students, but because I have found it to be ineffective as a teaching device. I highly doubt that the etext elicits more engagement from the students due to its technological and interactive nature; on the contrary, my students seem completely disinterested by the videos embedded in the etext. In addition, the simplicity and brevity of the material as well as the informal tone (presumably attempting to reach the students “on their level”) in the etext seem to foster a similar indifference.

I am aware that there are other issues that come into play with the Rhet 105 course. There are many non-native speakers who would have difficulty in a more challenging class. I wonder, though, if our students are being infantilized. After all, the subjects of the scaffolding study were 3,4, and 5 years old. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"Scaffolding" in a large classroom environment

Getting students to recognize the solution.

"Scaffolding" as it is laid out in the study "The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving"[1] is a method of tutoring that not only considers, but also teaches, the individual "component skills" (89) required of a student in order to be able to complete a larger task. In this particular study, scaffolding involved ensuring that 3, 4, and 5 year-olds were able to assemble appropriate pairs and then groups of blocks in order to construct a pyramid, but it is easy to see how this method can be usefully applied to range of other teaching situations at all levels of learning. What is particularly interesting to me, however, is the question of how to apply scaffolding, which is described in the study in terms of a one-on-one tutoring situation, to a larger classroom setting.

As it is described in the study, scaffolding should allow for trial-and-error, allowing students to figure out certain tasks on their own before tutor intervention either corrects or builds on the student's progress. This means that each step is determined in response to the student's success with the previous one, and not predetermined. But what is the best way to go about this when you have a class of 19 students, whose responses to each step may vary widely? How do you develop a single task in response to 19 different assignments? Is it possible to address everyone's needs this way?

One way to deal with this may be through the use of examples in class. Wood, Bruner and Ross note that "the learner must be able to recognize a solution to a particular class of problems before he is himself able to produce the steps leading to it without assistance," and also cite a study that illustrated the ability of students to "discriminate between good strategy and bad" in a game of Twenty Questions, "even though unaided they could not produce good strategies or even good questions" (90). I have already found it useful to be able to use essays written by previous Rhetoric students to illustrate points in class and encourage my students to think about the smaller activities we engage in as a class in the context of the sort of graded writing they will really have to produce. Using good examples from the work of students currently in the class may also be useful, although I would not want to use current examples of bad work in the same way. This way, students can compare their own writing with examples of well-written work (it would be important here to use varied examples where possible, so as to emphasize that there is not a single, correct mode of writing, but many) and recognize the ways in which their own work could improve. Even this, I feel, would be better paired with individual written feedback, in order to properly prepare students for the next assignment.

And what of those students whose work produced the good examples? I worry that too many levels of scaffolding would not provide enough of a challenge for them. How can we create a classroom environment that is challenging and stimulating for these students, while also taking advantage of the clear benefits that scaffolding presents?

[1] Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976) "The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving." Journal of Child Psychology.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


Even though social networking sites have been around for years now, students still remain unaware of the repercussions of posting hateful messages on Facebook and Twitter. Six years after four Syracuse University students were reprimanded for creating a Facebook page criticizing a teaching assistant, at least one Ohio State University student is facing the consequences for racist tweets. 

As an Ohio State graduate and a Chinese American, the tweets made me furious, since several of them are directed specifically at Asians. Racism is intensely complicated for me because most people wouldn't consider me a "real Asian" since I speak English "properly" and was born in America. Still, I get questions like “Where are you from?” and even after I insist that I was born and raised in Maryland, I get the follow up question, “Where are your people from?” For me, those questions are offensive, but in light of the Ohio State tweets, they pale in comparison.

After noticing numerous racists tweets, students created a tumblr (OSU Haters) so people could report offensive tweets that they saw, which eventually lead to administration taking action against one student posting on Twitter and a conversation on racism in the university community. Even though the administration took action, what lessons did the student posting the racist tweets really learn? Will the dialogue at Ohio State really have a lasting effect on the community? or is this another issue that we'll face again in a few years in a different form? 
While the Ohio State tweets have started a conversation, it will probably be intensely difficult to alter or educate diversity and tolerance. Is it my job as an educator to bring up this dialogue with my students? Richard Miller’s “Fault Lines in the Contact Zone” addresses the difficulties in confronting students as an educator. Is there really a right way to go about it? Avoiding discussing racism doesn’t remove it but will I really be able to educate if I go about it the wrong way? Miller points to examples where issues have been discussed in the classroom, but nearly 20 years later, have the tactics changed?

The OSU Haters tumblr is definitely a step in addressing racism in the university community, and the idea is spreading to other universities. As a teacher, I do have the ability to bring up the issue to my students, but if it starts with race issues, will it lead to gender issues, social classes, politics? I only have one semester.