Category Archives: teaching

Blogging and the Paperless Class.

I recently manned (womanned? personed?) a table at our school’s little tech fair; my subject was this post’s title. I am using blogs exclusively in my classes now–I’ve dropped Moodle, wikis or other platforms.  For me the choice was not between blogs and paper– but that’s the choice for many of my colleagues, hence my title.

For me the choice was mainly between blogs and some educational CMS like Moodle or Blackboard.  I stopped using blackboard a few years ago for three reasons.  First, because it’s so integrated with our registration system that students who were on the waitlist or waiting for financial aid to clear would not be able to access any course material.  That was a disaster every term. Second, It’s proprietary software which is very expensive for our school, and I stay away from that whenever I can on principle. Third, It’s proprietary software and can’t be modified at all.

Fourth, (ok, four reasons) and maybe most importantly, apart from their time here in school, when will anyone need to know Blackboard again?  This is the same reason I ultimately abandoned Moodle.

Even the students who plan to someday teach will by that time need to learn entirely new systems or versions.  Blogs, on the other hand, are being used by wider and wider groups of people, to create personal websites, and often by businesses to create websites as well.  I find this development interesting in itself, as an example of technological affordances being exploited.  No longer just about online journaling, blogs are used to create all kinds of websites because they are so easy to update.

Wikis are cool in many ways, but the open source types all seem to have steep learning curves and after trying to use them for a few semesters and finding that even my grad students had a tough time, I decided it wasn’t worth the time it was taking from class.

So, I decided that if students were to get comfortable with any Web 2.0 platform, blogs would most useful, while having a shallow enough learning curve that they would not take up too much time in a one-semester course that is already interrupted by mandatory furlough days.

Tonight I’ll be giving an actual presentation about using blogs to campus faculty; we’ll see how many people show up!

Teaching alternatives ways of searching

I was reading a draft of a paper for Bernard about democritizing web searches.  I won’t go into the details of the paper–it’s not published yet.  But, I do want to mention two search tools that I had never heard about before reading this paper, and I’ll give some short quotes from Bernhard on those:

  • Clusty — a search engine that divides results into thematic clusters that users can use to navigate up to 500 results at a time. The cluster list provides a first overview over the search subject and by showing aspects that users were not aware of direct them in new directions.
  • TermCloud Search — a search interface designed to map a topic rather than provide the shortest way between a query and a document. Using the simple tagcloud principle – keywords are shown in different sizes according to relevancy – the goal is to make the user aware of the concepts surrounding her query and to encourage exploration rather than quick answers.

Both of these could be really useful in teaching students about searching because they offer an alternative to Google’s approach of trying to give users the most relevant (meaning most popular) results first.  I think these could alleviate the concern many teachers and librarians have about students who just google everything rather than going into the library and browsing shelves–that they don’t make the same connections or experience the serendipity that can arise from looking around rather than right at the result you want.

Encouraging classroom participation

After trying a variety of different tools, I’ve come to some conclusions:

  • IRC chatrooms work much better for discussion than web forums, even though they are synchronous and so are less convenient.  Unless people know each other well and really care about talking to each other, exchanges on web forums always feels obligatory.
  • Including a picture of yourself makes a huge difference in how well peers remember each other and how interested they are in engaging–an interesting avatar can be ok too, but I think human faces, especially if they can be seen clearly (are big enough, in focus, etc) really makes people feel more connected.
  • The simpler the better, even if it means a little less functionality, especially for people unfamiliar with tech.
  • The less experience people have with tech, the higher expectations they have for it’s performance.

I’m sure there will be more, but this really stood out to me.

New Media (or whatever we call it) at the MLA

From 27-30 December I made the traditional pilgrimage of English faculty everywhere to the annual conference of the Modern Language Association, since time immemorial held between Christmas and New year’s. This year, lucky for me, it was held in San Francisco. Bigger and … well, bigger than ever. Forty-eight concurrent sessions every day, from 8:30 am to 10:30 pm every day.

I spoke about new media and my belief that we need to ditch that term, and expand our attention to a wider range of issues than are currently getting much play in the US, –I’ll upload my remarks shortly. There was a panel on Participatory Education 2.0–quite good; a workshop on evaluating digital scholarship for tenure–grim; a panel on E-literature–contentious and quite a few others as well.

The participatory education panel included remarks from Cathy Davis (Duke) about the HASTAC project (which is aimed more at faculty than students), Howard Rheingold (Stanford) about the set of tools he’s been developing and his basic thoughts. His essay in Joi Ito’s book, FreeSouls captures most of those ideas. And Greg Niemeyer (UC Berkeley) spoke about the Black Cloud project which involves students and schools in measuring air quality in their communities. You can join the project at the main Black Cloud page. This was really a valuable panel more for making me aware of possibilities than anything else.  Rheingold in particular has done a lot to integrate technology into his classes in ways that enhance participation and I can see things I shoould do very differently.

The E-lit panel was about “Genre, Form, and Cultural Practice in Contemporary Electronic Literature” and included leading lights from the E-lit scene: Scott Rettberg, one of the editors of the Electronic Literature Collection, Vol. 1, and Sandy Baldwin who directs the Center for Literary Computing at West Virginia University, Maria Engberg who has just finished her PhD but is already well-known for her work on digital poetry, were the main speakers, while John Cayley responded and Jay David Bolter presided over the panel.

The basic question boiled down to “what is electronic literature” and was unresolved. Sandy and Scott had almost opposite views on whether it is better to define it broadly or narrowly. For me the highlight was going to lunch with Maria, Sandy, Jay, my friend Aden Evens and my co-panelist Joe Tabbi afterward, where we could continue the discussion less formally and over some yummy Thai food. 🙂

I’ll write about the tenure workshop later, but for now here’s a link to material organized by the MLA Committee on Information Technology.

There were even a few tweet-ups, but they weren’t as well-organized as might have been, given the technology, and this was complicated by the lack of an open wireless network in the conference meeting rooms. Really I would have thought that would be a given for a huge national conference by now.

Along with attending the conference, I also visited an exhibit on Participatory Art at the San Francisco MoMA and got to hang out with some people I mostly only connect with via Twitter and Facebook, so that was great. More on that stuff later as well.

Her Literacy Narrative

OK, I asked the students in my graduate seminar on teaching composition and literature to write a literacy narrative–the story of how they learned to read and write. Since they wanted an example, here is mine. I first wrote it as part of my dissertation back around 2001. This has been updated to reflect more recent developments. I chose then to write it in third person, which I find still seems good to me, because even now I feel rather alienated from quite a bit of my own writing–so much is done to meet quite rigid criteria. –Grant -writing, for example!

So. Here it is.

From an early age she loved pictures, especially in books that were visually busy, like those by Richard Scarry, or books that described things, like field guides to amphibians. She would pore over these for hours on end, memorizing the pictures and words. She can still remember them, from hellbender, reticulated quartz, to cumulo-nimbus. She grew to think of words as captions, as handles with which to grab bulky trunks of reality. She never did learn to sound out words, as she usually learned the whole word all together, but she learned to fake it for school.
She knew how to read well before starting school, and so was frequently chided for reading ahead in the group assignment or wandering off to hide under a table with books on secret codes, strangler figs, or little boys named Pablo growing up in large, hungry families. The complexity of the world fascinated her, and she loved adding more and more details to the universe growing in her head in the same way she like to add more and more detail to pictures, until she had filled a page with curling tendrils of graphite that were random, but balanced.

Learning to write was odd. She did not like lined paper–books had no lines and the lines felt confining. So she wrote very small, so as to have more room around her on the page, until teachers forced her to only write with crayons so she would have to write large. She shuddered every time she touched a line with her crayon or pencil. She reverted to tininess as soon as possible, which was middle school. One day a teacher insisted on changing the words she wrote because they “didn’t make sense.” To her they had been exactly right, but now she can’t remember any more her original understanding. She only remembers that it is lost.
At that time, her writing was mostly good, because she rarely talked, but read lots of long novels, like Dracula, and Wuthering Heights. She also read a lot of fantasy and of course, the field guides and dictionaries. Her prose ended up being rather dense and filled with peculiar words like axlotl, pestiferous, and her construction was rather Victorian. The teachers seemed to like it and her. She also was enjoying art class, in which she always had at least one idea to work on and tended to take a long time about finishing up because she wanted her work in the world to exactly match the idea in her head.

In high school she ran into trouble and Some of it had to do with writing. She still was reading very well and always had things to say in class, in spite of dirty looks from her classmates. Unfortunately, the high school teachers did not like her writing. They though her words were finicky, her ideas tangled, her transitions invisible, and since she clearly had read and understood, they thought she was lazy. She did however take a drafting class, where she learned to write very very neatly, which seemed to slightly improve others’ attitudes toward the substance of her writing, as well as the form. In English class, she resigned herself to earning Cs.

This unhappy state of affairs continued through all four years, so that in college, in spite of excellent test scores of various types, and an abiding delight in reading, she did not major in English. She majored in biology; lab work was fun and she still got to read things like field guides. Biology turned out to allow little time for electives, and so for a while she switched to anthropology to mask the fact that she was actually taking many art studio and history classes, and aesthetics, and other things her parents felt were not financially wise. These art classes were very helpful because, besides teaching her about art, they taught her about what she now knows as rhetoric. She learned about audience, and context, and how to communicate an interpretation or argument. She learned that while sketchbooks and other kinds of practice are very helpful, drafting is at best a gamble and often an expensive one. Once you strike off a piece of wood or stone when sculpting, you couldn’t very well put it back, and starting over took more money (squeezed out of an already tight budget) and usually did not produce the same result. Drafting was best done with little scraps of metal and wood, or inside the head where anything was possible.

Because she liked the professor, she took a class on semiotics and realized that she might have something useful to say about language after all, and English classes could be very good indeed. Perhaps she could then get a job like his in which she was paid to read books she liked and talk about them. So she decided to major in English, figuring that she would work the art in somehow, thus avoiding a potentially traumatic debate with her parents over Job Prospects. Of course, by now she had reached her junior spring, and so she squeezed all of the requirements into three semesters and one summer. As she would often read two-five books in one day for fun, she did not see any difficulty with this plan, except that some of the classes she might want to take might conflict with each other or be unavailable. She majored in English, and though she still had some of the same trouble as in high school, she managed well enough to graduate with moderately good grades. She also enjoyed finally meeting people in class who loved books as much as she did.

After working at a few poorly paying jobs while living at home, she realized that she had to find some work that would pay more and not kill her soul with boredom in the first six weeks. Around that time, she heard that her old high school need substitute teachers. She remembered how cruelly these poor souls had been treated when she was enrolled, but decided that since she knew many of the students already and knew the school rules, she would be safe from the worst difficulties. Over the protests of her youngest sister, who was still in the school, she started teaching, and finally found work she enjoyed. Thoughts of how much better college had been than high school led her to set her sights on being a professor, and thus to head off in search of an advanced degree.
Graduate school was rather a shock.

On the one hand, everyone was interested in reading, and being smart was valued, and professors treated students more like colleagues. On the other hand, some people were afraid of looking stupid, and some people were focused very narrowly, and some people like to argue to make themselves look smart. Like anything, it was neither good nor bad, but it was different from any other experience she had faced, and so was harder in that way. She loved the work—all the reading and analyzing and discussing–and she decided not to worry about looking stupid, or about people whose motives seemed self-aggrandizing. She consciously resolved to resist a narrow focus because it seemed to make people rather sour, and to make new ideas scarce; she also was very stubborn and refused to give up the fun of her comic books and artwork and all the other interests she had accumulated over the years.

At first she studied literature, and everything went pretty well. But after a while she started teaching writing, and took classes about how to do that, and things got very complicated. She studied theories about how writing worked and how it was best to teach, and while they sounded good, none described what worked best for her when she wrote something herself. In fact, her way of writing was not mentioned at all, except sometimes as an example if an immature way to use language. Well, this made her feel rather doubtful of her approach and she gamely tried to adopt the process described in the books and theories. Her writing started disintegrating, and professors were impatient, having the same reaction as those high school teachers, thinking she was just not working very hard.

This was upsetting of course, but as mentioned, she was stubborn and she decided that she did not accept this approach to writing and not only that, she decided to prove her way was just as good, though different. At first she was angry and impassioned, because the more she studied some of these theories about writing, the more she understood that they weren’t really about writing, but about thinking. The people making these theories believed that thinking and words became one—at least for any complex topic in the mind of any grown-up person.
Around the same time, a long-held interest in Asian culture began to coalesce around China. She studied Buddhism and Daoism, and rented many films and bought many books. She felt curiously at ease in the culture. Many of the books she read mentioned the difficulties Westerners, especially Americans, had in relating to Chinese culture and people. She kept waiting for this discomfort to make itself known, but it did not. Here and there she had chances to meet Chinese people, and became very close to some of them, who told her she was Chinese at heart, that she understood poetic logic, that her way of thinking, especially about language, was very Chinese. She did not feel particularly qualified to judge this herself, but as she began studying Mandarin, she felt at home in it, and enjoyed learning each character, slowly but surely.
After being in school for very nearly thirty years, she managed to combine very nearly all of these experiences into her doctoral dissertation.


Well, writing the dissertation was harder than anything else because there was so much to think about and as usual, none of it wanted to be arranged into neat and orderly rows on a series of neat and orderly consecutive pages. But, the Graduate School was quite strict about this, and wanted double-spacing and one inch margins on top of that, so she decided it was not worth the time or effort trying to argue for the necessity of side-bars, call-outs, and all the other textual apparatus she really would have preferred. At least she was allowed footnotes.

Eventually, after many many revisions, it was done and she was released into the fun-filledterribly busy … curiously satisfying world of composition. She got a job teaching writing at MIT where she was stuck teaching science writing, which got a bit dull, but was among people who like herself might not be so comfortable writing at all. And they appreciated comic books, SF and speculative fiction, and few people were scared of computers. So it wasn’t bad. Eventually though she realized that writing was so un-valued at this place that she would never get very far in the very explicit hierarchy of the school. In fact, they would not even put writing teachers on the committee concerned with writing requirements.

After a job search that was less painful than what most experience, almost as much fun as taking the Graduate Record Exams over and over and over… she took a job at a smallish, western, state university. The first year she wrote mainly comments on student essays, and they were most of her reading. The second year she was tricked talked into becoming director of composition, which (sadly) she had some talent for. Or at least didn’t hate as much as some people seemed to. She struggled to start writing again that year, because a pre-tenure review was looming. Thanks to the faculty writing group, she produced two articles, one of which (so far) has appeared in print. But writing was still a struggle. It was still a terribly boring conclusion to much more interesting thinking and reading and talking.

Finally, appallingly late in the game, (even later than for Peter Elbow!) something shifted. After getting involved in several mailing lists, writing every month for webzine, leading far TOO MANY grant proposals, proposing too many conference papers that were accepted, and then–and this seems to have been the most important point… finding something to explore that was even more interesting than her dissertation subject had been, she found that she didn’t mind writing so much. In fact, she even kind of liked it.

Maybe because she worked so often in collaborative way, which accorded much better with her sometimes intensely sociable nature; or maybe because the subject alone was so compelling (for more on this, read about the Book Project). Or maybe she had become so insanely busy that she could no longer think so much ahead, she had to think while writing, she had to stop resisting and let her entire cognitive process shift. In one way, this was a grievous possibility to consider, because it might be that all she gained in writing she had lost in visual/kinesthetic creativity. Or maybe not. Maybe learning is not a zero-sum game. Maybe one can gain skills without losing others. It’s something she’ll have to wait and discover.

The effect of habitual contexts on tone

Sounds complicated, but all I actually mean is that for a long time I’ve used IRC, IM, and email to talk mainly with friends and colleagues rather than students, because my students generally have preferred to talk with me in class. But, this term I have to communicate with my first year students mostly through email, IM, etc. and I find that I’ve grown so accustomed to being in friend/colleague mode that I continue in that tone with my first-year students. Hopefully this will be ok…last fall I was pretty friendly with some of them and late in the term I had to give a rather stern talk about how my liking them would not stop me from giving them a bad grade, I would just feel worse about it.

But maybe I’m worrying for nothing. Or about the wrong thing. Maybe the one who really causes trouble will be the colleague who has registered so he can see what I’m doing in there…

And, we’re off!

The semester has started and students are starting to find their way to the Moodle site, where so far, they are managing to register and upload pictures of themselves, set up their profiles , etc. So that’s a relief. Now I just hope my grad students do as well.

Meanwhile, we are scrambling through two grant proposals and the co-I who was helping me with the one that’s due next week got food poisoning two days ago. Argh. I think we will make it anyhow, but it’s going to be close, and stressful. And, the worst thing is that we are still trying to contact potential speakers for the workshop series; if they say yes, we immediately need commitment letters, 2-page CVs, and biographical blurbs. This is a big change from the last grant cycle’s requirements, which said that the letters would strengthen your proposals, but weren’t required. So that’s been a lot of fun to deal with; I love emailing people I don’t know (and those I do) and asking for huge favors. On the up side, they’ve been quite nice about it, and two of these lovely people have said yes so far. If we get the grant and run the series, I’ll brag about who they are. 🙂

Where to Begin…

As I approach the first week of classes, the pace has picked up on campus quite noticeably in several ways. I’m getting about four emails a day from people trying to schedule meetings I am supposed to attend, my department mailbox has received a flurry of paper about various events, and students are already asking me for syllabi, though classes don’t start for another week.

I’m excited though, because this term I teaching a composition class entirely online and themed around online community and participation; I think it will be really cool! Also, my grad class will be fun–I’m finally teaching one I’ve taught before–so I can incorporate things that have worked well before and drop those that didn’t. –It’s nice to finally get to a “second draft.” I kind of wish I could teach two sections–it’s been over-enrolled by almost half again several times since last spring.

And, the books I shipped via ground transport from the Netherlands have finally arrived, and seem to have survived their journey intact. –I was starting to wonder what I could possibly do fro here if they didn’t show up. The box of cocoa powder leaked a bit, so now the books all smell chocolatey. Which, if I was going to choose a scent, isn’t bad at all…

"True North is in the Eyes of the Beholder"

Today I spent about 7 hours reading “writing proficiency (something) tests” –I always forget what the S stands for because everyone just says “WPST” all the time. Anyway, it’s exhausting to read and score (holistic scoring on a 6 point scale, 2 readers for each test) so many. I think I read about 60-70, about 8 hand-written pages each. They were actually better this year then last fall, which is when I last participated in the reading.

Anyway, after a while we all just get kind of punchy because we’re drinking coffee and reading and reading, and stumbling across phrases like the one I share in this title. This was an actual title of an essay exam. Just think about it for awhile. And we had our perennial debate over what exactly we care more about; correct usage or clear arguments. I think this time I was more convincing about the importance of argument.

So I hope the trend continues, that students seem to be more ready by the time they take the test. One interesting note–students were writing about generational differences and without fail identified experiences with technology as on of the main differences between their own experience and their parents’ or grandparents’. I was impressed at their awareness.