Monday, November 29, 2010

Seconds Thoughts about Blogging, Part II

My students have handed in "final" drafts of their blog posts. I put the final in quotation marks because the post isn't final until it goes online. But even then, because the student can go in and modify it as much as they want (as can I, but I'm going to restrain myself, intruding only to fix broken links and other formatting issues), it is never really "final." More about writing and publishing on the Internet that I need to get used to. Publishing anything online is permanent in that it is almost impossible to get rid of, but never concrete in that it can be edited, modified, and reshaped. So much to think about, teach, and learn.

But I digress. I have now read and assigned preliminary grades to my students' blog posts on education reform. Most of them are pretty good. Some are better than others, both in terms of their ideas and their style. Lots of bitterness about standardized tests and poor teacher quality (keep in mind, these students are mostly the product of rural schools). Some didn't follow directions, and others let their emotions get the best of them. A few, however, have made me once again re-evaluate the idea of putting these posts online, theoretically, for the world to see.

One of my students argued that we can solve the problems of urban education by creating public boarding schools. Another compared the cultures of different races to show that we don't need education reform but we instead need to reform cultures. Yet another accused all teachers of being lazy alcoholics who have serious mental issues. 


Interestingly enough, we had spoken (albeit briefly) about the idea of residential schools when we watched the trailer for the documentary Schooling the World.  Is our only understanding of what it means to be educated sending our kids to school? But we also talked about the challenges that schools and teachers face in overcoming the issues and challenges that students face outside of school. Taking the kids away from their families, though?

I promised the students that I wasn't going to be evaluating their actual suggestions but instead how well they argue the reform they propose. But it was hard to stomach a proposal that looked to recreate one of North America's darkest chapters, the residential schools. When I was a PhD student, I taught a man who had been a product of the residential school system in Canada. He told me stories about his experience there, and I couldn't help but think of him as I read about my student's grad plan for reforming urban schools (get rid of them and send them all to the country). 

And I cringe at what kind of reception an idea like that will receive when it goes live online, both for me and the student. Part of me thinks that I have obviously failed at teaching some of these students the critical thinking skills, or knowledge acquisition skills, they need. Will people reading the blog think these reforms are all ones that I advocated for in class (disclaimer, they aren't)? Will my student be equipped to deal with the possible mean and vicious backlash that the post will inspire?

But part of me is also proud that I created a classroom environment where students feel like they can take intellectual chances and possibly "fail." There was something refreshing about reading a few essay that weren't about how terrible standardized tests are or how awful their teachers were in high school. As misguided as I think their ideas are, some students genuinely tried to think outside of the box for this assignment. For that, I am proud.

But, I'll let you, dear readers, be the ultimate judge. Visit My ego can take it. But go easy on the students. I know the road to hell is paved with good intentions, my students really do mean well. There will be posts appearing throughout the week. Keep visiting or follow me on Twitter (@readywriting) for up-to-the-minute updates. 

Deadlines: Nice or Not?

It's that time of the semester. The time when students who have been mysteriously absent all semester start showing up, wondering what it is they can do in order to pass my class. My immediate response: "Build a time machine, go back to the beginning of the semester, attend class, and do the work you were supposed to have done up until now." I hold my tongue, but the kids have mostly been trained to expect bonus work, or credit recovery, in order to salvage their semester. Didn't do anything all semester? Here's a small assignment that if you complete it, you'll not only pass, you may earn an A! 

Not in my class. But I have developed a type of compromise: you have until the day before I hand in my grades to submit any and all major writing assignments from the semester. Now, I don't go advertising this policy on my syllabus or in class. But nor do I advertise any penalty for late work. In my writing class especially, the deadlines are built into the syllabus, but the deadlines are preceded by in-class exercises and homework that guides them through a process for writing their papers. If you attended class and did all of the in-class and homework, your paper will be ready by the deadline (not to mention be a much more polished piece of writing).

But my students always seem to have excuses. Some are valid (freshmen especially seem to end up in the hospital due to the fact that they have taken really poor care of themselves during the semester). Some are suspect (your friend was in the hospital, computer virus, had to go home to babysit). Other are outright ridiculous (I didn't know we had a paper due, I didn't understand it, I swear I emailed it to you because I don't have any money left to print it). I'm tired of trying to figure out who is lying, who is trying to take advantage of me, and who really needs the extra time because of circumstances beyond their control. So, while it's better for my students to hand things in according to the schedule, at the end of the day, as long as they get it in to me before my grades are due, that's fine.

I have this policy in part because of karma; I was a terrible student as an undergraduate, and I rarely handed in assignments on time. I used every excuse in the book and sometimes didn't even bother offering one at all. But all of my professors allowed me to hand in my work and gave me full credit, however grudgingly. I can't help but smile inside when my undergrads come in, begging to be able to hand in their papers just a little late. Take your time, don't make yourself sick with stress and worry, and just hand it in to me when you have it done.

Is this an accurate reflection of real life? Probably not. Real life has hard and fast deadlines that need to be respected or else there will be some very real and potentially serious consequences. Don't ever miss an application deadline, and if your boss asks you for something by a certain day or time, you'd better make sure you do it. But in real life, there are always backup plans that can be put in place in oder to be able to mitigate the negative consequences of unforeseen events: work assignments can be handed off, divided up, or reassigned if you really cannot complete the work. There is also something to be said about the ability to say no, knowing when you have enough (or too much) work already, and thus telling your boss that if s/he wants it done well, they should assign it to someone else or give more time. But school doesn't allow for such flexibility. You are assigned work in each class, almost without regard to what else is being asked of you, and expected to get it done.

I know that students need to learn time management as well as the ability to take responsibility for their (often stupid) choices.  But this is the beauty of my system: the students who really want to do well (and typically have a legitimate reason for missing the deadlines) will take the extra time, come and see me to talk about what they missed, and turn in their work in a reasonable timeframe, not falling so far behind that they now owe two or more major pieces of writing. Everyone else will keep putting off their work, scrambling at the end of the semester to hand something, anything, in to me to grade. And the work that they do hand in is rarely, if ever, good enough to earn a passing grade. Because they missed the process, the work is sloppy, and often doesn't even meet the assignment requirements. The students work harder than they have all semester in a desperate attempt to pass a class they put off, only to (usually) fail anyway.

And those students who do manage to hand in work that's good enough to pass the class? Good for them. When they become a professor later on in life (like I did), hopefully they'll pay it forward as well. But I also know that, one day, what they have done in the past won't work anymore. I also know that it is only then that they will learn the lesson. And those students who participated in the process? They are rewarded with a relatively stress-free semester (at least for my class) and a good grade. 

I've always tell my students: I've got carrots and I've got sticks. Pick the one that works best for your motivation. 

Saturday, November 27, 2010

What Have I Been Up To?

After a flurry of posts, I've been really silent for the past two weeks or so. The end of the semester is near, and I have been attempting to figure out what the end of semester is going to look like for my students. I've sort-of gone off syllabus. I've been applying for conferences, publishing opportunities, and research grants. I've been doing mountains of paperwork because we're buying a house. My kids have been sick, husband away, and Europeans visiting. And, you know, Thanksgiving.

It's been a crazy two weeks.

But, I have also been blogging for a new education reform website, I've written about the seeming voicelessness of rural education, why my students think high school sucks, and asked, given all of the negative rhetoric recently, who will be our future professors? I invite you to visit the site and check out the talented and passionate writers who are contributing to the site. 

More posts here to come. Until then, enjoy the rest of the weekend.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Arts Education, Following your Dreams, and Higher Education (Part III)

Opening for Ben Folds on his current tour is the group Lady Danville (I'm pretty sure the "New Song" video was taken at the Chicago show I attended). They are, to me, amazing. Three young dudes making great music? Yes, please. I went up front to buy their CD and there was one of the members of the band, selling their stuff. Even though I'm pretty sure I have at least ten years on him, I gushed like a school girl: You guys were awesome. So great (giggle, blush - ugh). Funny thing was, he was as excited and giddy as I was: You really liked it? Thanks! That's so great! Thanks! 

Art and academia are often seen as being very isolated and isolating professions. For many artists, you spend hours or days or years locked up in a room somewhere, by yourself, creating. Academics spend the same amount of time, apparently, in libraries, archives, offices, labs, out in the field, again, by themselves. But of course, that's completely false. At one point or another, the artist emerges and shares their art. So, too, with the academic. 

But that art is often rarely created in complete isolation. That's we have schools, movements, collectives, troupes, and other ways that artists support and work with each other. While in Chicago, I also met a young woman who had left her small town in rural West Virginia to pursue her dream of becoming an artist. She was working with a bunch of artists whom she had met in art school and they were working and supporting each other in order to create art and make a living. She was living her dream and loving it. 

I come home and I read about how reference letters in academia for women that talk about collaboration are held against the candidate. “We found that being communal is not valued in academia,” it read. When I told my husband about the findings, he was completely unsurprised. Communal, he said, isn't as important as being independent and self-motivated. My fellow University of Venus bloggers (ok, she's one of the founders), Mary Churchill, tweeted "grad training is currently creating insecurity, arrogance, and depression rather than collaboration." Why are we recreating the worst stereotypes of the solitary, tortured artist, when the artists themselves long ago rejected that model?

If anything, academics should be learning from artists who look to collaborate and share their work with the widest possible audience. We should be open and honest about how challenging the life of the mind can be, but also how rewarding it can be, much like choosing to become an actor, musician, or painter. There are still academics out there who want to share with their students and colleagues. (For two examples, check out here and here). After reading these tributes to being a teacher and academic, can you imagine either of the two writers doing anything other than what they currently do? I can't, and I can't imagine it for myself, either.

We cannot give up hope in higher education, in some form or another. And to survive, we're going to have to start working, and I mean really working, together. Things are going to have to change. 

Let's go. Who is with me? 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Arts Education, Following your Dreams, and Higher Education (Part II)

As I said in my previous post, Almost Famous is one of my favorite movies; another would be The Muppet Movie. I grew up with Jim Henson. Sesame Street was my favorite show. The Muppet Show used to reduce me to hysterical laughing. Fraggle Rock was a Sunday night ritual (it aired on Sunday evenings in Canada on CBC). I was completely mystified and fascinated by The Storyteller. I still remember where I was where I heard that Jim Henson had died (in my friends' ecology classroom in grade seven during lunch period; they were working on projects and their teacher had the radio on). When asked the questions, who would have lunch with, dead or alive, I always answer Jim Henson. 

When I found out that a special exhibit of Jim Henson's works was going to be in Chicago at the same time I was there for a conference, I knew I had to go. The morning before my panels, I was on the bus heading out to the museum. Once again, tears welled up in my eyes the moment I saw Kermit sitting there to greet me. I was further overwhelmed with emotion as I watched parents and children, generations really, enjoy and interact with the exhibit, which included pieces and clips from as far back as Henson's commercials produced for the Washington, D.C. market. 

I was struck by a number of things in the exhibit. One was how determined Jim Henson was to get into television. He would do whatever it took, including taking up puppetry. Contrary to popular belief, puppetry was not Henson's first passion; it was one that he picked up out of necessity and then fell madly in love with. He was open; art, puppets, commercials, late-night tv, children's shows, whatever it took. And once he had made it, he pushed himself and those around him to new creative heights. 

That is the other element that really struck me; how much collaboration took place within the Henson family. Henson was someone who had a very unique perspective, could be difficult to work with (what creative person isn't?) but ultimately he inspired and helped everyone around him become more than they perhaps ever thought they could be. Without Jim Henson, Sesame Street may have only been an interesting footnote in the history of television. Instead, it has gone on to educate and entertain generations of children. 

I picked up the book Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street while at the museum. The book opens at Jim Henson's funeral and it shows the impact that his life (and death) on the group of people who worked in their way to create Sesame Street. Time and time again, the people who were involved in the show had little to no interest in children's television.  But, there they ended up, working together to create television history. For Jim Henson, it wasn't just about being creative and innovative, it was about helping as many people as possible achieve their dreams, too.

I'm also reading Kermit Culture, an academic collection of essays that deal with The Muppet Show. In the first essay, Ben Underwood discusses how Henson manages to turn the viewer into a Muppet when they watch the show, bringing them in on the joke, in on the collective experience that was The Muppet Show. Television is a blend of a collective and solitary experience. When Henson was growing up, television was rare and so the entire neighborhood would gather in the living room of the one house that owned one, turned viewing into an experience similar to live theater or performance. Today, with hundreds of channels and multiple TVs per household, this is not a very common experience. But the performers and audience have always been cut off from each other. Jim Henson managed to bridge that gap. 

Jim Henson changed the face of TV with a bunch of puppets. His legacy isn't just the people who worked most directly with him, but the millions of us whom he welcomed into his world, changing us into Muppets. The best dreams, Kermit once said, are the ones we share. Shouldn't we, in higher education, be aspiring to the same things? 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Arts Education, Following your Dreams, and Higher Education (Part 1)

This weekend, I went to Chicago for a conference, but also to get away and recharge my intellectual batteries. One of the things I did while there was to attend a Ben Folds concert. I love live music shows. My mom used to take me to concerts when I was little: Raffi; Sharon, Lois, and Bram; Sesame Street Live. Our house was always filled with music. The record player was one of the first pieces of technology I knew how to use. But there was always something very special to me about going to see a live show. My musical idols were right there on stage. And I was able to sing and dance along with hundreds of other kids who loved the music as much as I did.

My first "real" concert was when I was 12 and I went to see New Kids on the Block. Yes, I was one of those girls, screaming uncontrollably at the five fresh-faced boys from Boston. I was in line at 6:30 in the morning, waiting for tickets. It was my first "rock" concert, filled with cigarette and pot smoke, screaming girls, lighters aloft during ballads, and everyone screaming and singing along. From then on, I was really hooked.

I think I have seen over one hundred concerts, both large and small, in my short life. I'm not a music snob, so my concert-going experiences are pretty straight forward and read like a 20-year history of pop music, with a Canadian twist: Barenaked Ladies, Tragically Hip, Our Lady Peace, Planet Smashers, Moist, Tea Party, Blue Rodeo, Sarah McLaclan, Jean Leloup, Moxy Fruvous, along with U2, Green Day, Coldplay, The Cranberries, Bon Jovi, Madonna, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stone Temple Pilots, Weezer, and countless little local bands who played the local bar I frequented when I was an undergraduate.

I first saw Ben Folds when I was working as a music critic for my college newspaper. I had given his band, Ben Folds Five, debut album a favorable review. They were opening up for another band at a small, but well-regarded, concert space/bar in Montreal. I got to interview him for more than an hour after the show. The resulting article ran over two pages in the next edition of the paper. It was my first, and only, brush with fame and the music industry. I was, to put it mildly, too much of a fan. For me, I liked what I liked, and what I liked was the live music experience, shared with tens, hundreds, or thousands of other people. Musicians facinated me because they did something I could not: play music and write songs. But the mystery of how they did it would forever remain unknowable.

That is why when the movie Almost Famous came out, I was hooked. It bombed at the box office, but I dragged every single one of my friends and family to see it. It is one of those movies that I watch and re-watch constantly. I loved everything about it: the naive kid who is obsessed with rock and roll and gets to go on tour with the band and write for Rolling Stone. The Band-Aid who loves the band and the music and will do anything to stay close to it. And the rock star for whom making music and being famous are in constant battle. For me, the movie perfectally encapsulated how I felt and how I thought about music. You had the two opposing forces thinking and writing about music: Lester Bangs who is always alone in his experience with the music and William Miller (Cameron Crowe, the filmmaker's, alter-ego) who gets to experience the music over and over again with a crowd of adoring fans and a smaller family of music lovers. When they all break into song, singing along to Tiny Dancer on the tour bus, my heart melts every time.

I had taken piano lessons as a kid, sang in the school choir, played clarinet in the school band, and even sang in my friends' basement band. But music was never really in the cards for me, anymore than drawing (my 3-year-old gets mad at me because my drawings are so bad), dancing, or acting. I love and appreciate all of these forms, but cannot perform them at an even reasonably amateur level. But the collective experience of enjoying, appreciating, and interacting with art with others is irreplacable. When the house lights go down, the crowd cheers, and the first notes of the song start to play, I start to cry.

It's something I try, however small, to recreate in my classroom. There is something to be said about the collective experience of learning and discovering something new, be it music, a great piece of literature, a scientific discovery, or new knowledge. Participating with my students in the journey of creating their blog posts, no matter how nerve-wracking, is probably the closest I'll ever get to creating art. As Kermit says at the end of The Muppet Movie, the best dreams are the ones you share with other people.

But more on that in Part II.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Getting Nervous about using a Blog Assignment

In my writing class, both advanced and developmental, we are talking about education reform and going to be crafting an argument essay/blog post on what each student thinks is the most important reform that needs to take place (or, as I put it to them, one thing that will make high school suck less). My more advanced writers are coming in with their first drafts next week, while my developmental writers will spend the final three weeks of the semester working on it. We were talking today about the assignment and what the students should include/do/say in their blog posts in order for them to be effective, etc.

The reaction of the students thus far to the assignment has been mixed; on the one hand, a blog post is much shorter than a traditional essay, and so they are very excited about that. On the other hand, it's going to be out there, in public, for everyone to see. A few of the students are actually more worried about not getting any comments than what people will say. More than a few are excited about the possibility of making their views (based on some very negative academic experiences) public. But some are, justifiably, intimidated by the mixture of new technology, a new approach to their writing, and a real, rather than theoretical, audience.

I was honest with them; I am nervous, too. This is the first time I have used blogs or, more appropriately, a blogging assignment, with my students. This resulting blog posts are as much a reflection of me as it is of them. One of my students came up to me after class and asked me, what if they are all bad? Well, I said, we'll see. Would I scrap the idea? No. It will be fine, I reassured him (and myself). 

But what if it isn't fine? What if other professors (you know, people with tenure) decide that this idea is too radical and, suddenly, I find that my contract isn't renewed for next year? What if there are some administrators who don't like the education reform suggestions that my students are offering?  What if this project is interpreted as a political (and not educational) tool that I am using to indoctrinating my students? Education reform suggestions are a dime-a-dozen these days; what if I am setting my students (and myself) up for a rude backlash? 

What if they are terrible? 

I have to be an optimist, and, judging by the ideas about education reform that my students have been coming up with in class discussions/debates, I am less worried about the quality of the ideas in the posts. I am also not too worried about the reaction of my peers; unless I heavily promote it within the institution, no one will probably notice. But I am still surprised by my own level of apprehension now that the day is here and these blog posts, for a long time just a item on a syllabus, are a reality. 

My blog is a reflection of my thoughts, my teaching philosophy, and personal interests. My students' blogs, on the other hand, will be a reflection of my ability to put these elements into practice. What goes on inside the classroom is usually pretty private; especially in higher education, a professor's classroom is their proverbial kingdom, to run and rule as we see fit. Now, I am opening up my closed kingdom to the wider world. The result of my rule? What my students put out there.

It is exciting for all of us, but very, very scary at the same time. 

Monday, November 8, 2010

Conferences? Yes, Please!

This weekend, I was in Chicago for the Midwest Modern Languages' annual convention.  I organized and chaired the section on Canadian Literature (my original academic love).  We had two panels of three presenters each. Four of the six were graduate students, another a recent PhD, and one final panelist from the U.K.

It was, in theory, everything that is wrong with the academic conference. There was only one other person in the room to hear our presentations, other than those presenting. Everyone read from their papers. Chicago is an expensive city and most of us were paying for the conference out of pocket (I, thankfully, had some departmental support). 

It was fantastic. 

For an academic like me, a conference like this is a professional lifesaver. I don't work with or really know anyone close by who is interested in Canadian Literature. And because I am so far removed from people doing work in the field, as well as starting to work in a different area (Caribbean literature), it is hard for me to keep on top of the latest developments. It was wonderful to talk about Canadian literature with others who are as passionate and knowledgeable as I am, if not more so. These scholars are doing really great, even groundbreaking, work that will broaden our understanding of parts of Canadian literature. 

It was also great to meet members of the next generation of scholars. It is really easy to get jaded given how tight the job market is and how unforgiving being on the tenure-track. Who wants to be a professor, who wants to get a PhD? People like the ones I met with in Chicago; passionate, brilliant, motivated, and  each one with important things to contribute to the field of Canadian literature. 

And I don't want to just interact with these academics online; call me old-school, but nothing beats the energy of a face-to-face encounter and exchange. It was a really great graduate seminar. We discussed our papers, what's going on in Canadian literature and universities, as well as our general ideas about academia and the direction of universities more generally. We represented the Anglo university systems: Canada, US, and U.K. I got to hear about the impact of the recent government cuts from a person directly affected by them (she was told not to hold her breath). One of the presenters called out how we view and form knowledge, questioning the silos education still force us into (she made her department create a new comprehensive exam: North-American literature). We talked about digital humanities and open-source journals (they are all creating and editing new open-sourced journals, funding by the Canadian government). 

But outside of the conference, I was refreshed intellectually as well. Chicago is a wonderful city, full of cultural and arts events. I was able to leave all of my work (and family) behind for three days and just think. I didn't even bring my laptop. I bought a book, for fun, and spent one night reading. It happens less than you'd expect. I tried Alligator hot-dogs and enjoyed all-you-can-eat sushi. I met a young woman from a small town not too far from here who is now in Chicago trying to make it as an artist and start a web comic. I saw a concert and a Jim Henson exhibit, both which inspired me, and I will be blogging about it later this week. 

It never would have happened had I stayed at home. I might only go to one conference a year (probably this one again), but it's worth every penny out of my pocket. 

Monday, November 1, 2010

It's All in *How* You Say it: Thinking About Tone

Today, I talked to my developmental students about making sure that the "tone" of their essays is appropriate. We've already talked how they can look like we're wearing sweatpants to a job interview when they don't adapt their writing according to purpose and audience, but the students needed reminding, especially since this was their first "formal" essay (the first essay was a narrative). I've read drafts and, while their writing has dramatically improved, they are still writing like they talk. 

I talked to them about not using contractions, avoiding using slang or txt language, not swearing. I mention that they really don't need to use the first person when they write essay most of the time; what sounds stronger: "I think this is true" or "This is true and here's why?" Not to mention that it's redundant for them to say "the book that I read"; if it's not in quotation marks, properly referenced, I assume that you have thought it, read it, observed it, etc. It's your name at the top of the paper, isn't it?

I warn against trying to hard to sound "formal" in their writing by using big words, complex sentence structures, or trying to give their essay an over-inflated sense of importance/significance. The worst mistake a student can make it to use a word incorrectly, write sentences that don't make any sense structurally, or make ridiculous statements (real example: "For over 100 years, women have been battling with how they are portrayed on television). Simple, I tell my students, does not equal simplistic. Clarity is  their best friend. 

Finally, I talk to my students about eliminating what I call "punctuation words"; those words that we use when we speak that act like punctuation. Starting sentences with "So," "So then," "Well," "You know," or "I mean." Using "like" or "um" or "uh" as commas (don't laugh, I've seen it in papers). Or ending sentences with "right?"or, once again, "you know?" This is particularly revealing to the students, and the discussion always makes me incredibly uncomfortable because I am now hyperaware of how I use all of these formulations when I lecture. I mean, who of us doesn't, right? 

I try to wait until my developmental students have a good chunk of their papers written before hitting them with this lesson (and requirement to revise). This way, students are not frozen early in the process, focusing more on tone than they are on content. It's rewarding to watch students scrambling through the drafts of their essays as we talk, crossing out words and trying to reformulate sentences as we talk about these issues. It also helps them to see how easy it is to fix later, as well as how big of a difference just ten minutes of relatively minor editing can make.

I wonder a lot about how good we are as academics at adapting our tone. Or how accepting academia is at our attempts at changes in tone. I've written about my own process of adapting my tone and style (scroll down about halfway) and how higher education often frowns upon anything non-academic. People are quick to blame academics, especially in the humanities, for writing in a style that is essentially incomprehensible to a general reader, and thus adding to our increased marginalization (see the recent cuts in language departments and humanities funding in the U.K. as examples). Our audience, as academics, is primarily other academics. Not necessarily because we want it to be, at least not exclusively, but because it has to be in order to get tenure. As academics, we learn quickly what tone we are expected to maintain in our writing. Why are conferences so bad? Because we don't adapt our writing for a spoken presentation. Why bother? The line still appears on your C.V., and it's easier to polish it up for publication, which is what really matters.

If we have our own challenges in adapting our writing, why are we trusted with helping students do the same?

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