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

image source:
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…). 

image source:

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.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Comp/Rhet, "Integrating international students into society," and assumptions about the college student

My post this week is somewhat tangential to Neal Lerner's article "The Teacher-Student Writing Conference and the Desire for Intimacy," though it is in part informed by the article's portrayal of attitudes towards college freshman taking composition courses. Lerner's article asks us, in part, to think about the kinds of assumptions that have been made (& that we now make) about what our college freshmen look like, what their writing looks like, and surprisingly, how instructor assumptions about their students' upbringings affect the instructors' level of intimacy desired in their instruction. Lerner focuses on enrollment tension points, and attributes these moments of admittance "swelling" to the increased numbers of immigrant and poor, urban students (188). The anxiety over such a diverse group of students and the difficulties that the individuality of writing instruction often demands prompted universities to find ways to offer individualized instruction.

This anxiety echoes throughout the essay:

  • Samuel Avery, 1912: "This enormous influx of students has changed the general character of the student body... in the early days practically all college students came from cultured homes, or from homes animated by a burning aspiration for higher things" (188).
  • Burges Johnson & Helene Hartley, 1936: composition classes are "flooded with hordes who come from high schools overcrowded with students lacking the background of cultured homes and the tradition of good English speech" (193).
  • Neal Lerner describes the post-WWII composition attitude: "The goal was not necessarily to create meaningful relationships with students, but instead to deal with difference in the pattern established during the previous two enrollment tension periods" (196).
  • Lester Fisher & Donald Murray, 1973: "[T]he majority of the students were remedial, and they knew it. They were sent to us by their advisers. They feared writing -- they were scientists and agricultural majors, whites and blacks, athletes and wounded veterans; they were the bored, the angry, the apprehensive" (200).
Mourning the loss of the student body marked by "culture;" tradition and language usage; dealing with difference; lists of those on whom writing has turned its back. Finally:
  • Laurel Johnson Black, 1998: "Even in liberal classrooms, where difference may not be ignored or repressed but is 'celebrated' in thematic units on diversity, conferences still function to find ways to subordinate the personal experience and language of students to a dominant world view -- the teacher's" (203).

I don't know what to make of this, except to wonder, perhaps naively, if/how I am propagating this anxiety over difference in my own classroom approaches. I see my students struggle with ways of approaching difference, too, as some have decided to write about why international students don't try to befriend "the other students" on campus (I overheard some freshmen talking about wondering how UIUC helps support "integrating international students into society," as if they were ex-cons). How do we conceive of difference in our classroom? What are the markers of difference? Is freshman composition a course that teaches students how to fake coming from a "cultured home" where academic inquiry and "higher things" and "the tradition of good English speech" are valued? Do we help them find their own voice? What does that even mean; what does that look like? When talking with other comp instructors, how do we discuss the perceived mismatches between academic discourses and our students'incoming abilities without ultimately resorting to language that divides, separates, categorizes?

Also, this is funny, and even more tangentially related:

Teaching and the Student-Teacher Conference

I can't help it! Calvin & Hobbes is always relevant.

While Neal Lerner's article on the student-teacher conference focuses on the usefulness of conferences to the student writer and the varying degrees to which strained resources limit the teacher's time and ability to hold conferences with students frequently, I have to admit that leading up to our RHET student conferences I have been thinking more about the usefulness of these conferences to me as a new teacher. I hope that I will hold conferences that help the students to better understand the requirements of the course, where they are succeeding, and how they can go about improving their writing, but what I am really looking forward to is the chance to improve my teaching based on these conferences.

I have mentioned in seminar already that I am particularly challenged by the difficulty of gauging not just my students' grasp of the concepts we discuss in class, but their level of interest and engagement with it. It is hard to know whether to speed up or slow down when all you have to go on half the time is a sea of blank faces. The few office visits I have had already have been illuminating for me as they have suggested areas for me to focus on in future classes. Written assignments can indicate what a student's writing strengths and weaknesses are,  of course, but a one-on-one conversation invites questions that don't get brought up in class, and provides me as a teacher with a better idea of what needs to be emphasized and expanded on in class. It also provides a testing water for how to go about explaining concepts in ways that are readily understood. In a one-on-one conference I find myself rewording my points far more than in a classroom discussion, and I get a much better sense of what needs to be reworded and repeated, as well as which rewordings are understood. Is it too optimistic to think that after one-on-one meetings with all 19 of my students I will have a better understanding of how to approach full-class discussions in a more productive way for everyone? Or does having just one session of conferences mean that in a few weeks I'll be back where I started, staring a sea of blank faces trying to gauge how they're coping with a new concept and new assignment?

One thing that Lerner doesn't discuss in his article is the actual content of student-teacher conferences, and I wonder to what extent the content and focus of conferences do – or should – change depending on the frequency of occurrence. If we had a conference for each assignment, for example, it makes sense to focus primarily on the work the student is currently producing. But if I want my once-semesterly conference to benefit both me and the student for the rest of the semester, how do I tailor it to do so? Is that even possible? Indeed, to what extent should I be tailoring it, when this is the student's opportunity to ask the questions that he or she may not otherwise do?


"Composition is a subject best discussed in quiet rooms" (In honor of tonight's debate)

I feel depressed after reading the Learner article, which could be summarized as such: For over 100 years, educators have acknowledged the crucial role of individualized instruction, yet have continually failed to arrive upon an effective method of implementation. I see no solutions on the horizon either. I imagine Learner, whose article was published prior to the 2008 economic collapse and the ensuing austerity measures, would only conclude with greater pessimism if his analysis was extended to the present; after all, this "has always been a case of too many students, too little time, too much writing, too few dollars." As humanities departments continue to be starved, the current unsustainable trajectory seems to be more students, less time (for instructors), and less dollars.

To me, any attempt to foster improved instructor-student relations in freshman composition classes is futile within the corporatized university. The lack of satisfying individual instruction is obviously a symptom of a problem far beyond the agency of english graduate teaching instructors, who, facing a job market that is both squeezed dry and stuck in the glory days mentality of research>teaching ability, must focus on their own work.

A separate issue: how much would it even benefit a student to regularly conference with a rookie teacher, completely inexperienced in the world of rhet/comp? In the semester that my students are supposed to be learning how to write, their guide is a do-it-yourself etext and an "instructor" that doesn't know what material is going to be covered in class more than a week in advance. Would they really improve drastically as writers if they spent more time with me? The individual contact I have had with my students has filled me with guilt: "am I giving them bad advice?" We did get five days of orientation, so we know what we're doing I guess (I kid). I shouldn't be so cynical as the individual instruction I have given my students so far has gone pretty well. I've just felt like I don't have the authority to be giving the advice I am giving, and I fear that they are taking the words of an amateur as gospel. 

Something else that interested me in the article was the resistance over the years to science and technology. Learner touches on the reliance on computerized work, and also, in response to Glicksberg's quotes, states: "The chilling, soulless world of the scientist needed to be countered by the humanistic methods of the English teacher and, specifically, through the understanding of students as individuals." I wonder how much room there is for individualism and humanism in a prefabricated e-class that strongly discourages the use of any literature. I say this as a student who switched his major from Business to English after reading literature in my freshman composition class in undergrad. It was refreshing to read the words of Charles Glickensberg in response to the encroachment of the sciences on the humanities:

"The scientific Huns are on the march, and their objective is not only the elimination of English composition from the curriculum. If they had their way, they would sack the buildings in which the liberal arts are taught, raze them to the ground, and pour salt on the foundation. The new scientific barbarians, now that they have produced the atomic bomb, are determined to capture the citadel of education, adapt it to their own special ends, and establish a dictatorship of the physicists and technocrats."

About Conferencing...

(instead of a megaphone substitute chalk)

I have to admit that I feel both relieved and unsure about my own teaching practices after having read Neal Lerner’s article on conferencing. This is largely owing to my assumption that all of my teachers/professors have a rationale for setting up their classes and conferences the way they have but Lerner’s essay reveals to me that these rationales are based more on working with limited resources than what is in the best interest for the student. This balancing act in turn effects our own perceptions of what teaching is as opposed to what we wish it could be.
    Personally, as a new T.A. the words of George Herbert Locke resonated with me; this idea that we long to offer students “direct, personal, and often intimate intercourse with professors (or T.A.’s) of maturity and human sympathy”. I won’t speak for everyone but I know that I have always wanted to set up my course in such a way that I can become acquainted with each individual student, determine their proficiency level, and proceed to tailor instruction to meet their needs, all while maintaining a personal and respectful relationships. In other words, I fancied myself as heir to the role of Mr. Feeney (minus the creepy living next to my students and following them through life part). This of course presupposes an abundance of resources, the most important of which is time. As a T.A. I have 18 students, which may not sound like much, but getting to know them personally as well as where their proficiency levels are at in order to tailor instruction can be daunting, if not altogether impossible. Not to mention that I also have my own course work to attend to and (GASP!) a social life to maintain.
    The article points to multiple “tension points” in American universities with regards to enrollment and the subsequent strategies (conferencing, writing lab/workshop, peer tutoring, etc.) that emerged to deal with the “hordes who come from high schools…lacking the background of cultured homes and the tradition of good English speech”, as Burges Johnson and Helene Hartley so eloquently observe. In general I agree with Johnson and Hartley in that it appears as though students are coming to college with lower writing proficiencies (I won’t label them as culture deficient hordes though) and that it seems unfair/unrealistic that the responsibility of bringing their writing skills up to par should fall solely on the shoulders of an instructor that will usually only have them for one semester. How much can be achieved in one semester? To this I would say, “As little or as much as the student wants”. With all of the aforementioned strategies/tools available it seems to me perfectly possible that a student could significantly improve their skills. If students could only analyze what their own shortcomings were regarding writing and seek to improve them we instructors could go about helping them succeed. In this way conferences would be very beneficial; even if students did not have the vocabulary to voice their issues in a one on one conference these issues can be overcome, but of course all of this is predicated on student effort. Unfortunately, rhetoric courses are not on the top of the interest list for most of our student body who would rather focus on their science courses. Bearing all of this in mind I think am most in agreement with Donald Murray in that “his teaching role is even less active and much more a mirror for students to see their intent, their needs, their problems.” At the very least after having read this article I don't feel bad about not being able to hold 18 hands at the same time.

Lerner, Neal. "The Teacher-Student Writing Conference and the Desire for Imtimacy." College English 68.2 (2005): 186-208. Web