The end of the semester and a response to “The End of the College Essay”

A lot of faculty go a little crazy at the end of the semester. Sure, everyone understands the pressures students are under, but non-academic-types might be surprised by the extent to which faculty are swamped and otherwise stressed out this time of year. Everything is due and then there’s all that grading.  I was at a department XMas function last night, and there was many a weary colleague taking a break from the final climb up Grading-Grading and More Grady-Grading Mountain.

Actually, it surprises me how much grading and work so many of my colleagues seem to leave until the bitter end of the term.

The writing classes I teach don’t have finals and I learned a long time ago to assign essays so that students get my feedback (and have a sense of their grade) long before the very end and to save finals week for revisions.  That’s pretty much what happened in my Writing for the World Wide Web class this term: I finished all the grading for that last night and they have until Tuesday to revise things if they want.

Tangent/reflection on the semester #1: Overall, the class turned out pretty good and in some interesting ways. This is the first time I’ve taught WWWW in person and not online in several years, and I have to say it’s as strange of a shift for me to go from online back to a face to face class as it was when I made the shift in this class to the online space a few years ago. That was one struggle. The other was the last couple times I’ve taught the class it was in the 7.5 week summer format. The short semester can make the whole experience feel overwhelming for students and for me, but when I took the 7.5 week class and expanded it to the regular 15 week semester, it felt positively airy and even underwhelming.

I was also a lot less of a “hard ass” in this class for some reason, and I can’t really say why. Part of it was because it was a small and chummy group, a lot of it had to do with the fact that the class was face to face. I routinely get the worse student evaluations for online teaching and I think that’s pretty common for everyone who teaches both f2f and online.

A good class, but there are a few “back to basics” moves I think I’m going to make the next time I teach it, probably this summer (or “summer 1” or really spring). Codecademy is great, but it’s not enough HTML/CSS, so I will probably be going back to one of the various big “how to make web sites” books like the Head First series so students really have to puzzle through the code a bit more; I’ll probably have a unit where we’re working specifically with a WYSIWYG app (though not Dreamweaver– too expensive and too much) to make some sites, and some more about modifying/using a CMS like WordPress (which is really the only one I sorta/kinda know). Along the way, I’ll probably keep the “Semester of Social Media” assignment because I think that’s been pretty effective, though I’ll probably retire Shirky and some of the other reading. /tangent

In grad classes that involve a lot of reading, I usually have a final to keep everyone honest.  I typically make some kind of essay/writing assignment due at the last class meeting, I distribute a take-home final at that last meeting, and while I’m waiting to collect their finals, I read/comment on/grade whatever they handed in. I collect the finals and power through them in one reading session, and I’m usually done with grading by the middle of the day after they are due.

Tangent/reflection on the semester #2: That’s what I’m doing/procrastinating about with this blog post right now, reading essays from my graduate students in the Rhetoric of Science and Technology class. An interesting group. The class started pretty much full with about 13 students in it (the cap on our graduate courses is 15) but it quickly dropped down to 8, with 7 finishing solid. I’m not entirely sure why that was the case.

In any event, it’s an online class, something that is not completely without controversy. I don’t want to spend too much time defending the merits of an online graduate course now, but I will note that the class web site has over 1500 comments on it.  If I very conservatively average those comments as being 50 words apiece, that’s about 75,000 words, or the equivalent of a decent-sized book manuscript. That’s a lot of writing about rhetoric from a small group of students to accomplish in less than 15 weeks, and if one of the marks of success of any writing class– from freshman comp to PhD seminars– is that students write a lot, then it seems to me a format that requires students to write for all interactions can be successful.

The next time I teach this, it will probably be face to face (we try to alternate that with some of these courses) and I will probably try to include for the second part of the term a book-length work. This term, I was thinking about assigning Thomas Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric, but I chickened out because a) I haven’t finished reading it myself, and b) what I have read (I’m through the lengthy intro and first chapter) is quite good but potentially too much for my MA students. I did assign the introduction though and that went over fairly well. So maybe it’d be worth spending more time with the whole book? Or another very current book on rhetoric and (even indirectly) “science/technology?” /tangent2

Anyway, this all brings me indirectly to Rebecca “pan kisses kafka” Schuman’s Slate piece “The End of the College Essay.” It’s an intentionally and intensely angry/attention seeking (and in that sense, quite successful) piece about student papers. Schuman’s (unsubstantiated) assumption is that students hate writing them and that she hates reading them (certainly a more substantiated claim). Here’s a typical paragraph:

Nobody hates writing papers as much as college instructors hate grading papers (and no, having a robot do it is not the answer). Students of the world: You think it wastes 45 minutes of your sexting time to pluck out three quotes from The Sun Also Rises, summarize the same four plot points 50 times until you hit Page 5, and then crap out a two-sentence conclusion? It wastes 15 hours of my time to mark up my students’ flaccid theses and non sequitur textual “evidence,” not to mention abuse of the comma that should be punishable by some sort of law—all so that you can take a cursory glance at the grade and then chuck the paper forever.

and this:

When I was growing up, my mother—who, like me, was a “contingent” professor—would sequester herself for days to grade, emerging Medusa-haired and demanding of sympathy. But the older I got, the more that sympathy dissipated: “If you hate grading papers so much,” I’d say, “there’s an easy solution for that.” My mother, not to be trifled with when righteously indignant (that favored state of the professoriate), would snap: “It’s an English class. I can’t not assign papers.”

Mom, friends, educators, students: We don’t have to assign papers, and we should stop. We need to admit that the required-course college essay is a failure. The baccalaureate is the new high-school diploma: abjectly necessary for any decent job in the cosmos. As such, students (and their parents) view college as professional training, an unpleasant necessity en route to that all-important “piece of paper.” Today’s vocationally minded students view World Lit 101 as forced labor, an utter waste of their time that deserves neither engagement nor effort. So you know what else is a waste of time? Grading these students’ effing papers. It’s time to declare unconditional defeat.

Read the rest of it if you want more of this kind of thing, a lot of hate on students, a lot of hate on the work, etc., etc.

First off, this is what I mean about how a lot of faculty go a little crazy at the end of the semester. Having read some of pan kisses kafka, I think this is generally Schuman’s writing voice/shtick, and I hope it is an affectation and she isn’t really this “on the edge.” But when the end is here/near and people like Schuman (especially part-timers teaching too many classes at too many different places) are staring at a big stack of papers that represent all they have and haven’t accomplished as a teacher this semester and that stack is all that is between them and their meager holiday vacation, well, sometimes people lose their shit and throw open the window and shout at the world “fuck all of this!!!” And by the way, if you don’t want to read Schuman’s essay, “fuck all of this!!!” is a pretty accurate summary of it, in my opinion.

So in that sense, I feel her pain but it is just part of the job. I can only offer these previous thoughts and advice on grading. I’d especially recommend the timer because if you’re spending 15 hours reading final projects, you’re spending too much time, unless you have 120 students, in which case you have too many students.

Second, congratulations to Schuman for “discovering” what I think has been the conventional wisdom among composition and rhetoric scholars for decades: writing is a process and assigning “research papers” with no discussion of audience or purpose, no discussion or support for process, and no opportunity for feedback from readers is a waste of time. It’s lazy teaching that invites lazy student responses.

And personally, I hate the word “paper.” Besides the fact that I haven’t collected the physical, pulp-based substance called paper from students in at least a decade, to me the word “paper” in this context has the connotation of bureaucracy (as in “doing paperwork”) or policing (as in “show me your papers”). I much prefer the term “essay” because of its connotations of “try,” or the term “project” because there is hopefully not just one single document but rather a series of assignments and steps along the way that lead to some final presentation or essay.

Anyway, her blog post “My Un-Essay Essay Pedagogy” (which should be “My Un-Paper Pedagogy” but she, like most, clumsily assume that “paper” and “essay” mean the same thing) crudely sums up the conventional wisdom that I have learned and practiced as a teacher and a comp/rhet specialist for the past 25 years:  assignments with clear audiences and purposes, focused class peer review workshops, one-on-one conferences to talk about drafts in process, etc., etc. Better late than never, I guess.

And third, Schuman really seems to hate her students. That’s bad for them, but it’s also really bad for her. She ought to stop that.

Okay, on to finish my semester and that pesky MOOC book….

Among other things, a Latour MOOC?

Jeez, the blogging here has slowed down. I’ve been busy enough over at my hobby/community service blog, but the main reason I’ve been so slow in any blogging here I think has been kind swamped with things like the MOOC book collection of essays, an article I wrote about MOOCs that will hopefully be coming out soon, a proposal/roundtable for Computers and Writing, a sabbatical proposal, etc., etc., etc. Nutty busy time.

But I have kind of a stockpile of links about MOOCs and related topics here, so I thought I’d do a little blogging between other writing/grading/paperwork/laundry/etc.

Before the break, I’ve got to start with two upcoming MOOCs that I am certain I’m going to take. The first is one by Bruno Latour called Scientific Humanities. I shit you not. I would embed the video of Latour charmingly introducing the course here, but I can’t so go check it out on the site. The course starts January 20, 2014, runs until March 15, and it will be in English.  It looks like it will mostly be a series of lectures from Latour targeted at more of an “undergraduate” audience, but the syllabus of the course also promises Latour will be commenting on student blogs and “participation in public debates.” Go figure.

By the way, here’s a YouTube video from something called “LifeDailyNews” where the first four or so minutes is about French MOOCs offered through something called “FUN,” which stands for France Université Numérique. It pretty much sums but MOOCs generally– nothing really new, but in French (with a translation):

The other course I’m planning on taking is Cathy Davidson’s “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education.” Based on this Inside Higher Ed article, it looks like the goal is to mix this Coursera course up with some of the stuff going on with HASTAC and other folks at a bunch of other universities, and it looks like it’s going to be an academic “blockbuster” that will “question the rules” about higher education in broad and sweeping language. Or something like that. Here’s a quote from the Coursera course intro:

Welcome!  This course is designed for anyone concerned with the best ways of learning and thriving in the world we live in now.  It’s for students, teachers, professors, researchers, administrators, policy makers, business leaders, job counselors and recruiters, parents, and lifelong learners around the globe.  The full,  whimsical name of the class is: “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education: Or, How We Can Unlearn Our Old Patterns and Relearn for a Happier, More Productive, Ethical, and Socially-Engaged Future.”  That subtitle is inspired by Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen who has said that “all education is vocational” in the sense that it is our job, as educators, to help train people for the vocation of leading better lives.

Are we fulfilling that educational objective, from kindergarten to professional school?  Or are we training students with the methods, philosophy, and metrics designed for the Fordist era of the Model T?  Since 1993, when scientists made the Internet widely available, our lives, our work, our occupations, our culture, and our entertainments have changed tremendously.  Far too little has changed inside our educational institutions, in the US and internationally, to prepare us for the demands, problems, restrictions, obstacles,  responsibilities, and possibilities of living in the world we inhabit outside of school.  This course addresses one key question:  How can we all, together, work to redesign higher education for our future… not for someone else’s past?

Like I said, I’m signing up and I’m curious about this both because of the connection to the history of “alternative” methods for delivering education, because of the connections to technology, and also because it’s a MOOC. But I have to say these two paragraphs sound pretty puffy to me. More links/thoughts after the break.

Continue reading “Among other things, a Latour MOOC?”

Commonplaces for “The End of the Humanities”

By commonplace, I am thinking in terms it as one of the progymnasmata, which (as Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee discuss it in various editions of Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students) were the structured exercises in classical rhetoric pedagogy. To quote Crowley (this is from the first edition) quoting Erasmus, here are some commonplaces that students would “amplify” or “elaborate” on as rhetorical exercise:

  • It matters what company you keep.
  • The safest course is to believe no one.
  • War is pleasant to those who have not experienced it.
  • The best provision for old age is learning.

This is a fuzzy definition for me; I’m not sure I see the difference between a commonplace, a cliché, and a genre marker, other than the connotations– that is, commonplaces and genre markers are more noble than clichés.  In any event, I’m using the term commonplace because on Facebook the other day, Daniel Smith pointed to the NYTimes op-ed “The Decline and Fall of the English Major” by Verlyn Klinkenborg with the comment “At what point does a commonplace become a genre?” And then, later that same day, via (I think?) John Walter, I came across Michael Bérubé on Facebook taking on a remarkably similar NYTimes op-ed “The Humanist Vocation” by David Brooks. So I thought it might be an interesting writing exercise to try to begin to tease out some of the key commonplaces/genre markers/clichés of the “End of the Humanities” piece.  I see it as a public service; it will make it easier for future writers to keep up with the demand for such pieces in the mainstream media.

So, what does it take to amplify and elaborate on the commonplace “The humanities are in decline”?   Here’s a list/comparison to get started:

Continue reading “Commonplaces for “The End of the Humanities””

Week 5 of English Composition 1

Before news about Composition I, some MOOC reading round-up:

  • As Nick Carbone pointed out on the WPA-L mailing list, it seems like journalists taking and reporting on MOOCs has become all the rage as of late. Just goes to show you that contemporary journalism gets everything interesting from blogs like this one. From the Larry Gordon of the LA Times comes “Hitting the MOOCs instead of the books” about his experience in a “Principles of Public Health” course from UC Irvine, and in the New York Times A.J. Jacobs’ “Two Cheers for Web U.!”  I think I like the NYTimes piece a bit better because of its humor and snark (favorite line: “The professor is, in most cases, out of students’ reach, only slightly more accessible than the pope or Thomas Pynchon.”), but both pieces are ultimately pretty fluffy written by good writers who haven’t thought a whole about education since they were in college.
  • “MOOC Mania: Debunking the hype around massive open online courses” by Audrey Watters on The Digital Shift blog is a solid essay about MOOC stuff, though I have to say it sounds like something I’ve read already.
  • “They mean to win Wimbledon!” is a post by Jonathan Rees that circles around an obscure Monty Python sketch to make the point about MOOCs being this invasive species trying to take over higher education. Interesting enough reading, but….
  • …. the main reason I’m linking to it is because it discusses this essay from Inside HigherEd, “EdX Rejected.” In what is clearly at odds with the race into the MOOC business by so-called elite institutions, Amherst College said thanks but no thanks to edX’s invitation to join their consortium.  It’s a good read that speaks highly of both Amherst’s administration and faculty.  My favorite responses quoted in the piece are from Adam Sitze, who is a law professor.  There’s this:

Sitze, though, compared edX and MOOCs to a litany of failed dotcoms, including other education ventures with similar ambitions. He said MOOCs may very well be today’s MySpace – a decent-looking idea doomed to fail.

“What makes us think, educationally, that MOOCs are the form of online learning that we should be experimenting with? On what basis? On what grounds?,” Sitze said. “2012 was the year of the MOOCs. 2013 will be the year of buyer’s regret.”

and this:

Faculty also worried about edX and its broader effect on higher education, particularly edX’s plans to grade some student writing using only computer programs.

“They came in and they said, ‘Here’s a machine grader that can grade just as perceptively as you, but by the way, even though it can replace your labor, it’s not going to take your job,’ ” Sitze said. “I found that funny and I think other people may have realized at that point that there was not a good fit.”

Amherst is an unusual institution even among elite institutions, teaching all of its courses in seminars and never with multiple-choice exams. Still, I think it’s an interesting development.

Anyway, on to English Composition 1:

Continue reading “Week 5 of English Composition 1”

English Composition I Week 2 and 3

April is always the cruelest month in academia because it’s near (or, at EMU, is) the end of the semester, which means there are all kinds of last meetings, end of the school year celebrations and recognitions, planning for spring/summer teaching, etc., etc. So I’ve fallen behind in the English Composition I MOOC, though I did manage to throw together write an essay for peer review. Here’s an update on some of what’s been going on in the class, at least for me. It rambles on quite a bit in part because this post (and other posts, of course) are as much notes for future MOOC writing as they are anything else.

Continue reading “English Composition I Week 2 and 3”

Assigned Interest

While Annette and Will and I are vacationing on a trip to Florida over the Xmas holiday to visit my in-laws, I have been spending a lot of time planning my teaching for the winter (what everyone else calls the spring) term, especially English 516. The planning makes me nervous though in a good way. I haven’t taught the class for two years, and I’m looking forward to getting back into it, but I’m facing two basic challenges. First, this is a class that ages quickly, so there’s a lot new with this syllabus. Second, I am going far out onto a limb and including a longish unit where we will be participating in the Coursera MOOC “E-Learning and Digital Cultures” being done by folks at the University of Edinburgh. It’s going to be very meta: an online class about writing and technology will take another online class about learning and technology and then talk about the experience both as students in that class and in this class. I think it will work out, though since I don’t quite know what those folks will be doing, there’s a lot of guess work on my part. Stay tuned.

Anyway, one of the things I came across while doing all of this planning is “Grading in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” by Claire “Tenured Radical” Potter. She makes a lot of good points; here’s my favorite part:

This year I also had a new thought, as I read my own papers, and also peeked at pitiful Facebook status updates by colleagues grading across the land:

Why do we assign students papers that we don’t actually want to read?

This led me to a second question:

If we don’t want to read the papers we assign, why would our students have any interest in writing them?

Then I came to yet another question:

Do the students not sense this lack of interest in their writing by many of their teachers, and might this not have something to do with the indifference they themselves sometimes display to the quality of their own work? 

And finally, I thought, if what we are seeing here is a national game of “garbage in, garbage out,” then:

Could this be one of the constellation of reasons that students plagiarize and purchase papers? I mean, given the choice between baking a cake and buying one for someone who doesn’t give s damn about cake, would you bake or buy?

I would buy. Unless I thought I would be caught, and then I would bake. Grudgingly. And I wouldn’t worry about filling in all the cracks with icing.

For the most part, I agree with all of this, which is why I try (though it doesn’t always work out that way– see below) to not do this, and as my years in the classroom build up, I am more and more comfortable with only assigning things I am likely to want to grade or at least read. Case in point: I decided to not to assign a long (15-20 page) researched seminar paper in 516. It might be the standard deliverable for English department graduate courses everywhere, but students too often come up short in these papers (and I don’t blame them for this), they are probably not fun to write, and they are frequently not much fun to read. So instead, I’m assigning a number of shorter essays, blog posts, and a shorter seminar paper, something of a length that might (hypothetically) be good for a journal like Present Tense.

But I don’t think this is a complete solution and I think there are some alternative answers other than the ones that Potter is clearly implying. For example, why do we assign student papers/essays we don’t actually want to read? I can think of at least three reasons why I’ve done this:

  • I felt like the assignment was something students should do/should demonstrate in writing because it was “good for them” in the way that something like pushups or medicine is “good for you even though you really don’t want to do/take it.
  • A certain stubbornness and/or wishful thinking. I have given writing assignments that I was so convinced should work that I kept on trying them over and over, thinking things would be different the next time. This becomes all the worse when there is one student out of 20 or 30 who completely nails it, which fools me into thinking that it must be a worthwhile assignment.
  • I didn’t have a choice. I can think of plenty of assignments I had to give as a graduate assistant or part-timer that I thought wasn’t a great idea but which I dutifully assigned and graded because I was told to do so. Heck, I’m a full professor and there are still some assignments I give because I am required to do so.

Are these “forced assignments” the reason as to why students are often “indifferent” to their own writing to the point of plagiarism or worse? Certainly that is potentially a reason, particularly for plagiarism in my view. But again, I can think of at least two other reasons to explain why indifferent, bad, and plagiarized writing sometimes happens with even the best of assignments:

  • Students have different priorities– or a lack thereof– when it comes to a particular set of assignments. These different priorities might be understandable (e.g., the single mom working two jobs to make ends meet might not be able to spend as much time as I would prefer on that essay) or inexcusable (e.g., the beer pong tournament enthusiast), but the point is school in general and my class in particular is often enough just not high on the list for a lot of students.
  • Students have different interests. Or another way of putting it: just because I think an assignment is interesting and engaging and is asking for something worth writing or reading doesn’t mean my students will think the same thing.

Don’t get me wrong– I think Potter is about 70-75% right and it is probably best to think of assignments as “treatments” that must be administered no matter how painful for everyone involved. But no matter how interesting and inviting the assignment, there’s nothing I can do if a student isn’t interested in writing about something that might be interesting.

Welcoming our robot grading overlords

Well, no, not really– but I thought that post title might be provocative, sort of like writing essays in a way that tricks the grading software.

There’s been a lot of discussion on things like WPA-L and elsewhere about “robo-readers,” as this New York Times piece sums up well, “Facing a Robo-Grader? Just Keep Obfuscating Mellifluously” and this further discussion on Slashdot. The very short version is it turns out that machines are just as capable of scoring writing that is completed as part of standardized tests– things like the GRE or SAT or other writing tests that ask students to respond to a very specific prompt.  Writing teachers of various flavors– the WPA-L crowd in general and Les Perelman from MIT in particular– are beside themselves with the wrongness of this software because it’s not human, it can be fooled, and cannot recognize “truth.”

Of course, ETS and Pearson (two of the companies that have developed this software) point out that they don’t intend this software to replace actual human feedback, that they admit this is not a way to check facts, and the software is not a good judge of “poetic” language.  And I’ve also seen plenty of humans fooled by untruths in print.  But never mind that; writing teachers are angry at the machine.

Now, I mostly (though obviously not entirely) agree with my WPA-L colleagues and Perelman, and, as I wrote about in my previous post, I’m not a fan of education that eliminates teaching and minimizes the opportunity for learning simply to jump through a credentialing loop.  So yes, I would agree that taking a batch of first year composition papers and dumping them into the robo-reading hopper to assign grades would a) not work and b) be bad.  Though again, it also appears that the people who have developed this software have the same position.

But let’s just say– hypothetically, mind you, and for the sake of argument– that this kind of software and its inevitable improvements might actually not be evil.  How might robo-grading (or maybe more accurately automated rating) software actually be “good?”

For starters, if this software is used in the way that ETS and Pearson say they are intending it to be used– that is, as a teaching/learning aid and not a grading tool per se– then it seems to me that this might be potentially useful along the lines of spellchecks, grammar-checks, and readability tests.  Is this a replacement for reader/ student/ teacher/ other human interaction in writing classes of various sorts?  Obviously not.  But that doesn’t mean it can’t be useful to readers, particularly teachers during the grading process.

Let’s face it:  the most unpleasant part of teaching writing is grading– specifically “marking up” papers students turn in to point out errors (and in effect justify the grade to the student) and to suggest ideas for revision.  It is very labor-intensive and the most boring part of the job, as I wrote about in some detail last year here.  If there was a computer tool out there that really would help me get this work done more efficiently and that would help my students improve, then why wouldn’t I use it?

Second, I think Perelman’s critique about how easily the machine is fooled is a little problematic– or at least it can be turned on its head.  It seems to me that if a student completing some standardized test writing is smart enough to out smart the machine– as Perelman demonstrates here— then perhaps that student actually does deserve a high grade from the machine.  It’s kind of like Kirk reprogramming the “no win” Kobayashi Maru test so he could win, right?

Third– and this is maybe something writing teachers in particular and writers in general don’t want to accept– writing texts that are well-received by machines is a pretty important skill to master.  I know that’s not the intention of this robo-reading software, but my writing teacher colleagues seem to suggest that this is not only an unnecessary skill but a particularly dangerous one.  Yet there is an entire web business called Search Engine Optimization that is (in part) about how to write web pages to include frequently searched keyword phrases so that the results appear higher in search engine– e.g., machine– results.  The keywords and structure of your resume can be half the battle in getting found by a potential employer who is using searches– e.g., machines– to find a match.

Anyway, you get the idea.  No, I don’t think we ought to turn over the teaching/grading function in writing classes to machines, and I don’t think a robo-grader is going to be able to look into the soul of the writer to seek Truth anytime soon.  But I think the blanket dismissal of and/or resistance to these kinds of tools by writing teachers is at best naive.  It’s probably more useful to imagine ways these tools can help our teaching practices in the long run.

Boldly (or foolishly) going where I haven’t gone before: HTML5

I’m teaching Writing for the World Wide Web right now, a course I’ve taught about once (sometimes twice) a year since I developed it back around 1999/2000.  There’s always been a coding component to the course, and despite the changes in web publishing that have taken place over the last decade or so, I still firmly believe students in this writing course should have to get in there with HTML and CSS, even with things like wordpress and social networks where coding is really unnecessary.

When I first learned and started teaching this stuff back in the mid-1990s, you could make analogies between making web pages and the early days of printing:  that is, the first printers made the books, wrote the books (or printed previously written books like the Bible), and sold the books, all pretty much out of the same shop.  Back in the day, working in “web publishing” meant you wrote copy and you wrote code, and you probably did some other computer server stuff too.  I don’t think that’s as true anymore, at least based on what I see in ads and what students out on the job market tell me.

That said, I think a “working knowledge” of HTML and CSS is still pretty important even for that tech/pro writer who is only going to be writing copy that goes into a CMS or that someone else codes/deals with.  I had a student a few years ago in this class who had (still does, actually) a “real job” as a tech writer and she told me that after my class, she was able to have completely different and more productive conversations with the person who actually deals with the company’s web site.  So even if this student doesn’t do a whole lot more with HTML and CSS herself, I feel like my mission has been accomplished.

Now, I’ve always had a bit of a “learning along with my students” approach to code.  One of my first publications was “Teachers Learning (Not Teaching) HTML With Students: An Experimental Lesson Plan for Introducing Web Authoring Into Writing Classes.” The title is basically what it’s about:  instead of “teaching” coding to students– which suggests and/or requires a certain level of expertise that is above and beyond the students’ knowledge– why not try to learn how to do HTML along with students?  I called this an “experimental lesson plan” because back then, I really did know more about HTML coding than the vast majority of my students.  But I kind of put myself in this position of learning along with my students when I first started messing with CSS.  In fact, I was a “leader” in a workshop on CSS (along with people who knew what they were doing, Bill Hart-Davidson and Steve Benninghoff) where I knew nothing about CSS, and it was a good year or two of teaching Writing for the WWW after that before I finally got a working knowledge of CSS under my belt.  Anyway, all this is to say that I have had plenty of these “let’s learn this together” kinds of experiences in this and other classes, and generally, I think it works out.

So with that in mind, I decided to give this HTML5 thing a whirl in my class, even though I knew nothing about it before the term began.  We’re using Head First HTML5 Programming, which builds off of the book Head First HTML with CSS and XHTML.  I like the approach that Eric Freeman and Elisabeth Robson take in explaining HTML and CSS in that book and it seems like they do a pretty decent job of picking out the highlights of what’s most important to understand and what you need to know.  So I am willing to trust them when it comes to them explaining the basics of HTML5.  And this brings me to a disturbing realization that is settling in as I try to learn with/teach my students this:  I’m not sure I understand HTML5, and I’m not convinced I ever will.

I’ve always thought it was kind of silly when people claimed that HTML and CSS were “programming languages” because, well, they’re not– or, without going too deeply into the definition of “programming” (let alone “language”), HTML is just not that complicated, and CSS is only just a little more complicated.  It certainly is not learning a new language. In contrast, HTML5 is essentially javascript, and that my friends, that is a computer language, and thus there is a reason why this book is called HTML Programming.

I am barely ahead of my students in the book as I write this post (and no, I didn’t read the book before I assigned it, something I do all the time, believe it or not), and I have two reactions so far.  First, this is waaaaay over my head, though since many of my students are better at and more practiced in mathematical equations than me (the last math class I took was in 1984, and I learned the other day that my high school freshmen-level son has now eclipsed my math skills based on his coursework), they might have a better handle on this.  We’ll see.  Second, I am not yet convinced that this is something that needs to be in a class about writing for the web, for while I think a working knowledge of HTML and CSS is pretty important for understanding how content online works and it is definitely a “writerly” activity, it seems to me that HTML5 so far is so much more programming-oriented.  From what I’ve learned so far, I don’t think I need to know HTML5 to successfully write web-based content in the same way I don’t need to know how my transmission works to drive my car.

Mind you, it’s interesting, much in the same way that it might be interesting to take a class in transmission repair.  I’m just not sure it’s necessary for me and my students to know, and I don’t think I’ve ever put myself so far out there on teaching “learning” something along with my students.

Nothing Personal

I don’t know Geoffrey Sirc.  I have met him, I think, but that’s about it.  The only other thing of his I have read (other than the essay that is the topic of this CCCarnival, his CCC article “Resisting Entropy”) is his contribution to the Wysocki et al collection, “Box Logic.” I have always thought it was a so-so piece, though my students tend to like it a lot more than I do.  By the way, it’s interesting as I look back at that 2004 essay and read the opening sentences:  “Let me confess: it has been a frustrating last several years for me in my writing courses. The rapid advance of technology has meant a pedagogical dilemma for me: just what do I do in the classroom, what do I teach?”

And I haven’t read any of the books he is reviewing in this essay.  I at least own Hawk’s book and I suspect I would agree with Sirc’s review of Shipka’s book, though I also suspect I would like Miller’s book and, if I was a WPA, I might look to the Harris et al book for some ideas.  My own limitations thus make it difficult for me to evaluate the quality of Sirc’s review in relation to what he’s reviewing.  But it seems to me that this is such an odd and provocative essay because it’s only partially a review.  The rest of it is something else.  He writes in the opening paragraph:

On a personal, practitioner level, one always wishes for more sustained wonderfulness in the work of one’s students and so turns  to the classroom credos others have formed as a result of their own sustained  practice in the field, looking hungrily for inspiration from their pedagogy. On  the professional level, especially after doing historical scholarship and seeing,  shockingly revealed, a recursive, abysmal spiral of the same essay-based pedagogy from the field’s origin onward, one can’t but wonder why the field on the  whole seems so stunted and contrary and so looks for illuminating answers in  how others have surveyed and interpreted the field, finding, perhaps, hidden  avenues leading out of otherwise dead ends from the patient reconsideration of roads taken and not.

As I think about this passage and the one I quote from eight years earlier, it seems to me that Sirc has, for lack of a better way of putting it, made up his mind some time ago on these matters.  Which, I suppose, is its own form of entropy.

The most problematic part of this review for me is the way that Sirc just hammers Thomas Miller for his book The Evolution of College English:  Literacy Studies from the Puritans to the Postmoderns.  Like I said, I haven’t read it, though with final chapter titles like “At the Ends of the Profession” and “Conclusion:  Why the Pragmatics of Literacy Are Critical,” I can kind of imagine why Sirc is less than impressed.  There’s a long passage on page 510 where Sirc, foaming at the mouth a bit, takes up the value of Henry James (who I personally could never actually read when I was a student and who I have not been moved to return to either), New Criticism, Wordsworth, and all things literary.  Sirc concludes this passage:  “Part of refiguring English studies means rethinking composition’s sniffy attitude toward literariness; it means our subfield’s reimagining literature as a cultural value and practice, refiguring how it fits in a first-year course centered around writing.”

I hear echoes of this conversation from a week or so ago here, and my basic response is the same.  It’s not that literature cannot be an engaging part of a first year writing course; it’s just that a first year writing course shouldn’t be about literature, and it turns out there are a lot of texts and subjects and ideas that can ennoble and enrich students’ minds and souls other than literature.  I majored in English and then I was in a creative writing program where the goal was making literary art, so this idea that there was something besides literature that could be of cultural value took me a while to accept. And from a more pragmatic point of view, if you want to make first year college students hate all things literary, make them read and write about The Ambassadors.

Now, I do think revisiting the history of the field ala Hawk and others is useful, and I can see Shipka’s assignments and alternative approaches to writing as provocative and engaging.  I also think these things are happening in lots of writing classes right now.  Or at least they are happening along side uninspiring and regressive pedagogy, which is one of the long-standing problems of our field:  the teacher who believes in students making objects as research projects works right along side the teacher who feels the five paragraph structure is critical and who is a stickler for the use of who versus whom.

Then again, I wonder about Sirc’s response to Harris, Miles, and Paine’s book.  He seems particularly critical of their grading rubric language, which I agree does come across as a bit robotic.  Sirc writes:

Let’s please end the sham of this all-too-common editorial board/peer review practice: I’ve received good feedback from editors, but never such that I radically rethought a piece or even did more than tweak. More often, I’ve received  misguided, even atrocious editorial advice. Outside feedback never really enters  into what I’m doing. James writes to Wells in 1902: “certainly I shall not again  draw up detailed & explicit plans for unconvinced & ungracious editors. . . .  A plan for myself, as copious and developed as possible I always do draw up”  (Horne 376). Peer response remains popular, I suspect, because a certain fiction  of audience is easily teachable and helps reduce the complexity of creation into  a simplified sort of flow chart—do X to cue Y in your reader, do Z to give your writing authority. My students are taking a class with me; one of the benefits is  that they get to have an ongoing conversation about their writing with someone  who knows something about writing, who can help coach their work, identify  strengths and weaknesses. The thought of blowing off a class in a coffee shop,  listening to students’ pleasant, phatic comments on their assignments, would make me wonder if the whole thing was worth it.

It seems to me there is a space between valuing useful feedback and ignoring editorial response because the author knows best, between believing that as the teacher you are The Expert and turning over the whole enterprise to the students to sort out for themselves.  In my own growth as a writer, particularly as a fiction writer, peer review was critical.  I learned from the feedback of others of course, but I also learned a lot about myself in learning how to give others feedback on their writing.  So when I teach peer review in writing classes, I’m not trying to get the students to do the work for me– though when peer review works (and I will be the first to admit it often does not work well in first year writing classes), it does help.  Rather, I’m trying to teach students about the process of peer review and how it helps to both give and to receive feedback on writing in order to become a better writer.

And besides all that, my guess (again, I haven’t read it) is Harris, Miller, and Paine have written/edited a book useful in addressing the extremely practical and real conditions inherent in first year writing programs.  These are mandatory courses taught to very inexperienced students who frequently come into college with extraordinarily inaccurate ideas about learning let alone writing, and taught by comparatively inexperienced teachers who are rarely familiar with the scholarly and theoretical discussions of the field.  At any decent-sized university, we teach a couple hundred of these classes a year, all of which (in theory) are supposed to be meeting common outcomes and goals, all of which (again, in theory) under the guidance/direction of professionals who occupy that weird institutional space between “professor” and “administrator,” the WPA.  And despite (or maybe because) of its service/quasi-janitorial space on the academic food chain, it is a course that others at the university see as enormously important, especially when it comes to fixing the problems of students’ writing in other courses.  That, I assume, is the real world context and purpose behind Teaching with Student Texts.  So, given that Sirc is a critic of this institutional function of first year writing in the first place, it is probably not that surprising that he’s not a fan.

Like I said, I haven’t read these books and and I don’t know Sirc.  But by the end of this essay, I feel like I know a lot more about him than I do about the books he reviewed.

Teaching and the shifting definition of technology

I read Steven J. Corbett’s “Technology and Teaching” in Inside Higher Ed this morning mainly because I was quoted in it and that doesn’t happen too often.  I show up in the beginning of the piece:

Is it a given that technology enhances the acts of writing, as it does the arts and sciences of film-making, design, engineering, data collection and analyses, and so forth? What about the teaching and learning of writing?

In a flurry of recent exchanges (subject “Writing horse-shoe-of-horse-heading-east Technology”) on the Writing Program Administration (WPA) listserv, scholars in writing studies have argued these points in some theoretical and practical depth. Maja Wilson, from the University of Maine, sums up the argument nicely: “Steve [Krause, of Eastern Michigan University], and others were arguing that to teach writing, you need to teach the tools available now and not teach or allow the tools on their way out (pen, pencil), because if you aren’t teaching the tools, you aren’t teaching writing. Rich [Haswell, professor emeritus from Texas A&M University], and others argued that, while teaching the use of all those tools can be a good thing, it isn’t necessary to teach writing: writing itself transcends the particular tools, so while teaching the tools can be involved in teaching writing, it isn’t necessarily the same thing.”

Corbett then goes on to explain the “pros” and “cons” of teaching with “technology” in a fairly user-friendly and pro-technology sort of way, making points that would not surprise anyone who does even a hint of scholarship in teaching with technology.  A lot of what he’s suggesting here as new has been standard practice for lots of folks like me for years and years.  But that’s not really a criticism though because I don’t think that is Corbett’s audience.

Anyway, I largely agree with what he’s saying here, though I thought I would gently raise two issues.  First and foremost, Corbett doesn’t define technology, simply assuming it means “computer stuff we all don’t take for granted nowadays.”  I raise this as an issue in part because that was one of the points I was trying to make in that email exchange on the WPA mailing list he’s quoting.  Writing is inherently tied to tools and technologies, and literacy itself (as Ong talked about tons of times a long tine ago) is a technology.  Try writing something without a tool and see how it goes and you’ll see what I mean.

But I also think the issue of defining technology is more than philosophical hair-splitting because I think far too many people teaching writing– especially those who throw up any resistance to “technology” in the writing classroom– use their short memories as a way to resist new things.  Corbett doesn’t mention word processing, email, or even computers as technology per se because those things have been naturalized to the point that they fit into that “stuff we all take for granted” category.  This is understandable:  I haven’t seen an essay from a student written with anything other than a word processor in at least 15 years, maybe more.  Everyone has an email account nowadays, and I can count on one hand the number of students I had last year who didn’t own a computer.  But a) this doesn’t mean that there still aren’t problems with “taken for granted” technologies that writing teachers ought to discuss (I can’t tell you how many students don’t know how to do things like paginate, indent, double-space, and similar such things on something like MS Word), and b) let’s be aware that today’s new-fangled and cutting edge technology is likely to be “taken for granted” tool of tomorrow, and maybe, just maybe, teachers shouldn’t be so paranoid about trying something new.

So for me, one of the main ways I am trying to convince, cajole, con, or otherwise persuade the reluctant to consider current technologies for teaching writing is by trying to remind them that they have always been using technology to teach writing, and a lot of those “stuff we all take for granted” technologies were once resisted.  The current fears of “technology” (e.g., social media, laptops, cloud computing, etc.) all existed with “stuff we take for granted” (e.g., word processors, spell checkers, email, etc., and if you go back far enough, ballpoint pens, typewriters, pencils, etc.).

The other issue I have is pretty petty, but I’ll mention it anyway.  Corbett writes:

And the issue of students being distracted by social networks like Facebook is a valid concern for any techie teacher. A recent Inside Higher Ed article suggests just how distracting the thrall and temptation to visit online social networking environments in classrooms can be for students. But the article also suggests (and I would agree) that a vigilant teacher can stay on top of the problem of the compulsive web-surfer often simply by watching students’ eye movements and gestures. By circulating the room frequently, and training ourselves to be aware of the subtle and not-so-subtle eye and hand movements that can belie a Facebook frequenter, we can take steady steps toward keeping students attentive and on task.

I see his point and I’ve certainly experienced in my own teaching.  But as someone who frequently multitasks myself (meaning I have a FB window and G+ window open right now, I’m listening to the radio, etc., etc.), I think that teachers need to get over the whole “I must be the complete center of attention” thing a bit.  Or they need to be more interesting.