What and why do students and faculty (and anyone else) want to and not want to write?

I read two different education media articles the other day that both spoke to me in oddly similar ways about the reasons for (or for not) writing. First there was from IHE, “What Students Write,” which is a sort of review/essay about Dan Melzer’s book, Assignments Across the Curriculum: A National Study of College Writing. The article is good and the book sounds great. The very short version (based on just the article) is that Melzer studied over 2100 different writing assignments across the curriculum at about 100 different institutions. Not surprisingly, most of the writing assignments teachers give are shitty, mostly an exercise for students to prove to the teacher that they can repeat back in a written text (an essay, an exam, etc.) what was in the lecture and/or reading.

Melzer calls this largest category of writing assignments “student to examiner;” I would more cheekily call it “parroting,” or “Polly wants a cracker” writing. Oh, and students better repeat what the teacher said correctly. Here’s a quote:

Short-answer and essay exams made up about one-fifth of assignments in the study. Melzer said in an interview that the testing scenario makes sense, given the constraints on professors’ time. Offering multiple opportunities for feedback in a non-test scenario takes a lot more work, he said. But such opportunities are critical to writing development and lead to better student outcomes.

“There’s a lot more testing with the teacher-as-examiner going on than we probably think, and that’s a real negative to me because it’s such a limited kind of writing,” Melzer said. “It should make people think about how we can improve upon the situation and have student do richer kinds of writing.”

Professors are also “obsessed” with grammatical correctness, even when they claim to value critical thinking, the study says.

In the other corner comes this from CHE, “Anatomy of a Serial-Plagiarism Charge” about Mustapha Marrouchi, who is a postcolonial lit professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. There’s more about the case in an article behind CHE’s firewall, but the gist is that Marrouchi has apparently been plagiarising to different degrees for decades, this despite the fact that he was enough of a “big shot” in the field to get hired away from a previously high-paid spot at Louisiana State to an even sweeter gig at UNLV. What the non-firewalled piece I’m linking to here does do is highlight a number of incidents that do look kind of fishy.

So, what do these two articles/incidents say about what it is that students and teachers write and read, what they want to write and read? A few thoughts:

I like to write and always have. Writing is one of the few things I am actually good at and I can recall being rewarded for my talent as far back as grade school. I like to read too, though like a lot of my students (especially the creative writing types), I like to write more.

I write and read every day, but I still have a hard time with “assigned” writing, meaning for me not assignments from a teacher (I’m not taking any classes) but writing I am supposed to be doing for some other reason. There are at least three projects I’m procrastinating on right now to write this post instead. The same goes with reading. There are a stack of academic books and novels I am supposed to be reading right now so I can be a better person and a good intellectual, not to mention to be prepared to teach in a couple of weeks. But I am more likely to be reading the links to things on Twitter or the listicles on Facebook about which Hollywood stars began their careers as strippers.

So I guess there are some ways in which these reports of lazy writing assignments and serial plagiarism are not that surprising to me. Like everyone else in my field, I try to develop writing assignments with a clear purpose and audience beyond just writing to me as the teacher and beyond just having students prove to me they did the reading and/or were otherwise paying attention. I do think it makes a difference. I think students learn more from such assignments, I find this writing a lot more pleasant to read and grade, and I think it helps students to not plagiarize. It’s a bit of a cliché, but I also think it’s true that there’s a difference between assigning writing and teaching writing.  So when professors give the sort of stupid assignments that Melzer is writing about in his book and with no actual teaching involved, it’s no wonder that those professors are disappointed and even angry about their students’ writing.  Garbage in, garbage out.

But good assignments aren’t a cure-all. Not everyone likes to write just to write, and students frequently don’t like to write and thus resist new assignments. I gave a talk back at the CCCCs in Louisville in 2010 (a talk I should probably assign myself to revisit and rewrite into a longer essay) about using the movie RiP! A Remix Manifesto as a topic and a guiding principle for teaching first year writing.  Among many other things, I said that while it is certainly more pedagogically effective and ethical to give writing assignments that are not parroting, many of my students ultimately reverted to writing five paragraph essays. When students do this, I think it is because it is the path of least resistance (it’s always easier doing something you’ve done rather than doing something you haven’t done before), but also because students don’t trust me. Perhaps for good reason. They’ve had years of previous school writing assignments where teachers obsessed over their repeating what the book/the teacher said and where they were dinged on the grade for grammar stuff. And the whole situation is by definition not “authentic” since it is writing assigned and tied to a grade. Students are “made” to do this– at least in the sense that it’s tied to requirements for a class and a grade. Even assignments that ask students to “self-reflect” on something on their own are still assigned.

Then there’s my cynical connection of assigned writing (bad assignments in particular) to Mustapha Marrouchi. I don’t know anything about him or his scholarly work beyond what I read in The Chronicle. But based on that reading, here’s a guy who has had quite the successful academic career by publishing convoluted literary and cultural theory liberally sprinkled with plagiarised and otherwise paraphrased quotes. He’s been doing this for years, and while he has apparently sort of/kind of been called on this before, he’s only just getting into serious trouble for this now. How did this happen and how did he get away with it that long? Is it possible that so few readers– academic or otherwise– read  Marrouchi’s work that no one really noticed it as a serious problem for more than 20 years? Did no one care?

And why did Marrouchi do this anyway? As the examples in that CHE piece make clear, it wouldn’t have taken a whole lot for Marrouchi to cite his sources, to write “as Terry Eagleton put it” or whatever. Was he as a writer just too lazy to cite his sources? Was much of Marrouchi’s scholarship the equivalent of the five paragraph drudgery assigned to him by academia so that he could get another line on his CV? What’s going on here?

I guess this gets me back to the question about what and why does anyone write anything. But I don’t really know the answer to my questions, not even for myself as a writer.  All I can say is do the best that you can with writing assignments, hoping for the best but understanding the inherent limitations of the rhetorical situation that is Education generally. Make all writing as engaging and as new and as thoughtful as possible.  Don’t make students do dumb assignments just so they can do dumb assignments that get some grade. Don’t write dumb and/or plagiarized scholarship just so you can write scholarship.

Posted in Academia, Reading, Scholarship, Teaching, The Happy Academic, Writing | 3 Comments

Salaita and the limits (or lack thereof) of academic speech on social media

The latest installment in the story of academic freedom versus social media comes to us from one Steven Salaita. Here’s a long quote from this Salon piece, “Return of the blacklist?” that more or less sums up what seems to have happened to him:

A few weeks ago Steven Salaita had reason to be pleased.  After a full review by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he had received a generous offer of a tenured, associate professor position there — the normal contract was offered, signed by the school, he had received confirmation of his salary, a teaching schedule, everything except the final approval of the UIUC chancellor.

In academia this is not at all unusual; departments and schools are told to go ahead with the offer, so as to be competitive with both the candidate’s current school and others that might be bidding for their talent.  Salaita is a world-renowned scholar of indigenous studies (and also a frequent Salon contributor). At that point, as required by academic protocols, upon accepting the position he resigned the one he held at Virginia Tech.

But final approval never came.  The Chronicle of Higher Education reports today that “Phyllis M. Wise, the campus’s chancellor, and Christophe Pierre, the University of Illinois system’s vice president for academic affairs, informed the job candidate, Steven G. Salaita, on Friday that they were effectively revoking a written offer of a tenured professorship made to him last year by refusing to submit it to the system’s Board of Trustees next month for confirmation.”

According to Inside Higher Education: “Sources familiar with the university’s decision say that concern grew over the tone of his comments on Twitter about Israel’s policies in Gaza. While many academics at Illinois and elsewhere are deeply critical of Israel, Salaita’s tweets have struck some as crossing a line into uncivil behavior.”  Nevertheless, IHE goes on to report: “But as recently as July 22 (before the job offer was revoked), a university spokeswoman defended Salaita’s comments on Twitter and elsewhere. A spokeswoman told the News-Gazette for an article about Salaita that “faculty have a wide range of scholarly and political views, and we recognize the freedom-of-speech rights of all of our employees.”

This has been followed by a number of defenses of Salaita. I think the most articulate one I’ve read is from my long-time blogging friend Michael Bérubé, who at the AAUP blog defended Salaita’s academic freedoms. Among other smart things, Bérubé writes:

Nothing in Professor Salaita’s Twitter feed suggests a violation of professional ethics or disciplinary incompetence. The University of Illinois is therefore clearly in violation of a fundamental principle of academic freedom with regard to extramural speech; moreover, your decision effectively overrides legitimate faculty decision making and peer review in a way that is inconsistent with AAUP guidelines regarding governance. Those faculty members who engaged in the process of peer review for Professor Salaita cannot be said to have been unaware that he has strong opinions on the Israel-Palestine conflict– as do many millions of people. To overturn faculty peer review on the basis of a Twitter feed, therefore, is to take a page straight from the Kansas playbook.

The “Kansas playbook” being about that state’s board of regents rather silly social media policy, which I blogged about way back here.

In a kind of interesting twist, former AAUP president Cary Nelson defended the University of Illinois’ decision to not hire/withdraw the offer to Salaita. He writes about it at Inside Higher Ed in “An Appointment to Reject,” and the basic premise of his argument seems to be two-fold. First, Nelson thinks Salaita’s tweets are horrific. Nelson quotes from several of them– and Salaita is a pretty crude dude– and calls him loathsome, sophomoric, irresponsible, sordid, bombastic, and anti-Semitic. But his second reason is more or less based on a technicality. He writes:

I should add that this is not an issue of academic freedom. If Salaita were a faculty member here and he were being sanctioned for his public statements, it would be. But a campus and its faculty members have the right to consider whether, for example, a job candidate’s publications, statements to the press, social media presence, public lectures, teaching profile, and so forth suggest he or she will make a positive contribution to the department, student life, and the community as a whole. Here at Illinois, even the department head who would have appointed Salaita agreed in Inside Higher Ed that “any public statement that someone makes is fair game for consideration.” Had Salaita already signed a contract, then of course he would have to have received full due process, including a full hearing, before his prospective offer could be withdrawn. But my understanding is that he had not received a contract.

And in the Chronicle of Higher Education article about all this, Nelson is quoted as saying “Academic freedom does not require you to hire someone whose views you consider despicable. It prevents you from firing someone from a job for their views.”

More thoughts after the break. Continue reading

Posted in Academia, Social Networks, The Happy Academic | 2 Comments

Here’s what I think grades mean; what do you think?

I’m preparing syllabi for the fall term (we don’t start until after Labor Day, happily), and I’m mulling over including the section after the break, “What do grades mean?” This isn’t coming from any specific exigence– not even my less than great course evaluations– so much as it is coming from what I guess I feel like an increasing need on my part to be as transparent as possible to my students about various things.

Most of this text is based on stuff I have sometimes included on syllabi for first year writing, the place where I’ve seen the greatest discrepancy between what does and doesn’t constitute a certain grade. I think a lot of this text is plagiarised borrowed from several other places. And I should point out that I’m not convinced that including this language will make a whole lot of difference in terms of students complaining (or not) about their grades. But it’s a try.

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What I Learned from My Crappy Student Evaluations

My teaching evaluations for this past winter (what everyone else calls spring) semester came in, and man, they were pretty bad, some of the worst (maybe the worst?) of my career. At least the worst I can remember. Jeez.

It’s probably a bad idea for me to reflect too much on them this shortly after getting them, but it does prompt me to write a couple of things about these evaluations in particular and evaluations in general. Maybe for next time I get these kinds of evaluations, maybe for others out there who are looking through some student evaluations themselves.

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My own two body experiences from both sides of the search committee table

Kelly J. Baker has a two article series at Vitae on the “two-body problem”– that is, academic couples. Part one is here; part two is here. I think it’s smart stuff, and while I don’t agree with everything she says, I feel like I can relate both as half of an academic couple and as someone who has been on hiring committees trying to figure out the coupled status of applicants. Though my own two-body experiences have been a bit different.

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When is it okay to make fun of grammar?

Remember Weird Al? Yeah, me neither. Well, no– that’s not true. Of course I “remember” Weird Al from lots of different parodies over the years, all the way back to “My Bologna” to “Like a Surgeon” to his latest releases that have come out this past week. It’s just that I don’t find myself thinking about Weird Al one way or the other– except when he pops up in the media once in a while, like now.

WA has a new album out and one his parody songs is called “Word Crimes:”

Sung to the tune of “Blurred Lines,” it’s a series common “grammar nerd” criticisms that are ridiculously picky (it is a parody, of course) and that rhyme in funny ways. As someone who appreciates word humor, I thought it was funny and I didn’t think much more about it. Ha ha.

And then the hating/backlash began.

There was Forrest Wickman’s Slate article,”Weird Al Is Tired of Your “Word Crimes” in New Video,” which goes into equally silly detail in out pet-peeving WA’s pet peeves. A more pointed critique came from Mignon “Grammar Girl” Fogarty here, “Weird Al’s “Word Crimes” Video.” She is not amused:

Perhaps the most troubling thing for me is seeing teachers who say they are going to use this in class because kids will find it funny and it will make them care about grammar. The entire ending of the video is putting down people who have trouble writing. The video says it’s OK to call people who can’t spell morons, droolers, spastics, and mouth breathers. Really, you’re going to use an educational tool that tells your struggling kids that they’re stupid? It just blows my mind that any teacher would think that’s OK.

It’s also hard for me to separate my feelings about this video from my feelings about his 2010 grammar videos that reinforce simplistic ideas, such as one in which he goes off about signs that read drive slow being wrong. The problem is that slow can be used as something called a flat adverb. The sign isn’t wrong, but drive slow is one of those things that people who don’t bother looking things up love to rant about. Those videos were extremely popular, so I imagine at least a few people told him that he got it wrong, but his comments from the NPR video suggest to me that he didn’t take the time to listen to those people and figure it out—that he still thinks he was making those signs better. If, as he says, “correcting people’s grammar is kind of a big deal” for him, then with the kind of power he has, I expect him to get things right.

The bottom line is that I don’t believe in word crimes, and I don’t believe in encouraging people to think about language that way.

In my Facebook world of comp/rhet folks, there seems to be a fair number of people in the Grammar Girl camp, finding WA’s song offensive– it’s not funny to make fun of people who can’t spell, it’s not funny to make fun of people who can’t write, we don’t need to be calling bad writers dumb, etc., etc., etc.

First off, I’m not going to “mansplain” anyone about the definition of parody. That’s a recipe for disaster. Though one fun fact: here’s the second link I found on Google searching for parody. That WA is everywhere right now.

But in a tradition that includes  a “modest proposal” to eat the children of the poor and more recently a runaway hit Broadway musical that skewers Mormonism with lots of filthy and hilarious songs, it seems kind of strange to me for people to get bent out of shape over “Word Crimes.” Even for a Weird Al video, this is pretty tame stuff.  Where were these people with arguably more offensive WA parodies like the racially charged “White and Nerdy” (fun fact– this video has Key and Peele in it!), or the food/fat-hating “Eat It” and “Fat?”

So, is it ever okay to parody and/or make fun of bad writing, grammar, and students? Are these even more off-limits than fatness, religion, and eating babies?

Don’t get me wrong– I don’t think it would be fair to make fun of/mock particular students in public, which is where sites like Shit My Students Write more or less crosses a line. There is at least the illusion that these are “real” quotes from “real” students– though I think that the realness here is debatable. Though some of the stuff on that site is pretty funny.

Of course I don’t think a prescriptive/pet peeve approach to grammar is write for teaching at any level and I’ve never done that. Of course it’s not useful to call students dumb or accuse them of committing “word crimes” or whatever. Of course.

But bad writing is funny and fair game for parody, and you know what? there are “word crimes” of various sorts. We see them every day in bad apostrophes or stupid exclamation points or “unnecessary” quotation “marks” or even passive aggressive notes.  My experience has been that these kinds of “word crimes” are ones that students at all levels recognize and they’re often actually an entry into a less picky discussion into what constitutes correctness and the rhetorical/persuasive impact of effective or ineffective grammar.

So lighten up, people. But don’t get me started on that bastard’s mocking of the Amish.

Posted in Funny, Internet, Teaching, Writing | Leave a comment

Thoughts On Cruising

And by cruising, I do not mean an illicit sexual activity, nor do I mean the sort of thing that high school kids used to do in their cars up and down University Avenue in Cedar Falls when I was a teenager. Rather, I mean cruising as in aboard a ship at sea– specifically, a cruise aboard the Norwegian Cruise Line Getaway.

Here is a link to a set of pictures on Flickr.

This cruise was a gift to Annette and me (and Will, too) from Annette’s parents, Bill and Irmgard, to celebrate our 20th anniversary and their 50th. It was a generous and thoughtful gift, though I have to say that taking a cruise wasn’t exactly on my list of things I needed to do before I died. I’m glad I had the experience; it just never occurred to me as something I would ever do.

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Posted in Family, Family and Friends, Travel | 2 Comments

More MOOC than I can chew: three (or four?) summer courses

Both my summer teaching and my coordinator duties are wrapping up on June 26 or so, and then I am transitioning into– well, not work. Actual summer “vacation,” more or less. The last time I had an eight week or so break with no direct obligations to EMU– that is, I wasn’t teaching and I wasn’t doing quasi-administrative work– was Spring 2010. Even when we were in Paris last summer, I was still actually working and responsible for things. I was wrapping up an online class and emailing with folks about coordinator duties for the upcoming term (thankfully we had quite robust wifi in the Paris apartment).

Anyway, as part of this break and also as part of trying to ease back into my sabbatical project of sorts, I’ve signed up for some more MOOCs.   Continue reading

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A #cwcon 2014 in Pullman recap

I had an educational/fun time at the Computers and Writing Conference last week in Pullman, and I promise I’ll get to that after the jump. But let me get some complaining out of the way first.

I still wish that there was something more of an “organization” behind the annual Computers and Writing Conference, something more akin to the ATTW or RSA or CPTSC or whatever– not necessarily as structured and rigid as giant organizations like NCTE or the CCCC, but something more than the current non-structured affiliation (sorta/kinda) with a standing committee of the CCCCs which lacks an electing process, term limits, and (IMO) transparency. I’ve already voiced these complaints on mailing lists like tech-rhet– and by the way, my complaining a few months ago surfaced at this conference in the form of a few people saying to me stuff like “I’m glad someone finally said something” and a few others obviously avoided me. But maybe more organization isn’t necessary since there are other more organized groups out there. Anyway, got that off my chest. Again.

I still wish C&W would be held in an accessible location more than once every four or five years. Last year it was Frostburg, Maryland; this year, Pullman; next year (and of course we didn’t know the conference was going to happen at all until a few weeks ago), it’s going to be at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, which is just over an hour’s drive away from Minneapolis.  Not so distant past locations for the conference include Muncie, Indiana; Lubbock, Texas; and Normal, Illinois. Maybe for 2016, we need to go really remote, like Guam. (Actually, that might be kinda cool, Guam….)

I am still feeling a little “conferenced out” in general, and I only went to two this year– this one and the CCCCs in March. This complaint is not about Computers and Writing; it’s about the place where I am personally and professionally with academic conferences. Sure, I can and do learn a lot from attending conference sessions (see below) and a conference presentation does count on my C.V. for something, even if only five or so people come to my session (also see below). But with my meager travel budget (this jaunt to Pullman was completely out of pocket for me since I spent my money going to the CCCCs) and with other scholarly venues to present my scholarship (e.g., here, journals, more local events, etc.), I think I really need to rethink and to cut way back on the whole conference thing.

(Of course, I say that and then I do something different. There’s a pretty decent chance that I’ll go to at least three conferences next year, though two of them would be in Michigan).

Alright, enough whining. C&W 2014 in Pullman was pretty cool.

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A Delicious Kale Salad Recipe

Yes, you read that right: I’m posting a recipe for a very delicious/vegan/low-fat kale recipe.  Why? Because I’ve made this a couple of times for different events (including a graduation party we went to last night) and people tend to ask for the recipe. That and I’m waiting for a YouTube movie to upload in the background, a video for a class I’m teaching right now.

So if you only come here for MOOC stuff, comp/rhet stuff, or my witty academic job market banter, move along. If you want to try a kick-ass kale salad recipe, read on.

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