Sunday, October 30, 2011

College Ready Writing Has Moved

Welcome to College Ready Writing, Version 1.0. I am no longer updating this space regularly, but please head over to Inside Higher Ed for Version 2.0 of my blog.

Please feel free to continue to browse these old posts and comment on them. I'll be linking to posts here from time to time; the wonderful thing about the web is that the conversation can continue dynamically over time.

Thanks for clicking, reading, responding. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Big News! CRW is Moving Up!

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (or who troll Inside Higher Ed carefully) already know that I am now an official part of their Blog U! College Ready Writing is the newest member. I've already (technically) been blogging for Inside Higher Ed as a contributor to the University of Venus, but now my blogging will be over at Inside Higher Ed full-time. I'll still be writing for UVenus once a month, as well as contributing longer Views pieces (which I've recently started doing). 

I'd really, really, really like to thank all of you, my loyal readers for all of your support (and traffic!) over the past two years. It is because of you that I am able to take advantage of this opportunity to grow my audience, extend the conversation, and really participate more fully in the conversations taking place about higher education. The words won't change (much), but the visibility will be more significant.

I'm still not sure about what I am going to do with this space. Obviously, I'll keep the archives here, but I'm not sure if I'm going to do simultaneous updates. If you do "follow" this blog, please adjust your Reader/RSS feed/whatever system you use to keep track of all of the various blogs you follow. I hope that you'll follow me over there and tell all of your friends. When I get back from my conference on Monday, I imagine I'll do one last post with the link to IHE, front and center. 

Here is the text from my first post over at Inside Higher Ed, which I will link to the moment it goes live: 

To my regular readers, welcome to my new home here at Inside Higher Ed. I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of the blogging community here. I appreciate that Inside Higher Ed has been at the forefront of supporting academic bloggers and encouraging academics to write in ways that aren’t typically supported by traditional higher education. Blogging has been a liberating experience, and I’m curious to see what direction this new venue takes my writing. I doubt I’ll change much in terms of style or content, but one never knows.

(I’ve already edited this piece way more than any piece that’s gone up at the “old” site, so there you go.)

For those of you who are new to my regular blog (you may know me from here as one of the University of Venus writers), I invite you to click over to the “old” (virtual) place to check out some of the archives. I write about teaching, I write about writing, I write about balancing work/life, I write generally about higher education. I teach writing off the tenure-track at a rural state university. I study literature, translation, and a whole bunch of stuff in between. I am a mother of two and a wife of an academic (not in my discipline) who is on the tenure-track. I was born in Montreal, Canada, and I’ve lived and taught in two provinces and three states.

Being invited to blog here at Inside Higher Ed feels like approbation for a lot of work and writing. Almost two years ago, I was unemployed and miserable, and I took a chance and started to blog. Because I wasn’t in an academic position (and my family situation kept me from really looking for another), I was free to take chances with my writing and reach out and make connections that I wouldn’t have made otherwise. An answer to a CFP from the University of Venus put me in contact with Mary Churchill, to whom I owe a great deal, particularly in giving me to confidence to seek out this opportunity. I’ve connected to a community of academics (and former academics), none of whom I would have met had I not started blogging.

I kept blogging when I got my current teaching position. I’ve created, through my blog and Twitter, a Personal Learning Network (or PLN) that rivals any face-to-face professional development opportunity I’ve participated in. I find support and community, and I’ve been touched by the number of people who have reached out to thank me for a post on one topic or another, from practical classroom issues to personal admissions to irreverent observations. I’m looking forward to extending that reach and that community here at Inside Higher Ed.

So, welcome to this new space. I usually update three times a week, but this week is a bit of an exception as I am going to a conference and thus won’t be able to blog until I get back on Sunday (and if you’re in Toronto, tweet me or head over to Ryerson for the conference). 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bad Student: I Was an Undergrad Snowflake

(We're finally watching Bad Teacher because it's now available on PPV; it seems fitting that I write this particular post while Cameron Diaz plays a deplorable human being, let alone teacher, in the background.)

There was an interesting discussion over at Prof Hacker about venting about students using social media. Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I, from time to time, make negative observations about my students. They are general and they never discuss grades. What I often am looking for are some words of encouragement and support, as well as a place to sort through my often conflicted feelings about how things are going in my class. And, more often than not, these tweets (and the responses to them) turn into blog posts (like the most recent one on plagiarism). I don't tweet anything that I wouldn't tell my students in class. 

But, as I wrote in the comments of the Prof Hacker post, 
I think that when we express some of our frustration about our students online, for me on Twitter, I think it shows us as human, who get frustrated and discouraged, just like our students. I also think that an angry tweet about, say, catching a plagiarizer serves as an immediate reminder that a) yes we will catch you and b) it will not be good.

Our classes don't always go as planned. Sometimes it can open up a conversation about what went wrong and why from both our perspective as well as the students. Also, I think some students need to know that certain behaviors are unacceptable from them, and that that is a "universal" sentiment, expressed through tweets and RT from lots and lots of professors on Twitter. 
I know that if I had seen behavior that I recognized as my own tweeted out by one of my profs, I'd have actually reconsidered my own attitude and actions. See, I was an undergraduate snowflake. In fact, I was probably the worst kind; the kind that still got really good grades, despite a) rarely attending class and b) putting little effort into the assignments. I left just about every single paper until the last minute, handing work in late, and just generally not caring about my classes very much.

(There were a few exceptions, of course.)

I kept behaving badly because I got away with it. No one called me out on my crap, at all. I know now that I must have driven my professors absolutely crazy. Either that, or they didn't care (and really, maybe they didn't). If there was a way that I could have known that they did, indeed, care and that my behavior (and, to be fair, the behavior of many of my classmates) was unacceptable, I probably would have changed it. It wasn't until I realized myself, through a mixture of professional quasi-failures and hitting an academic wall during my MA, that really, being a snowflake may have been fun for me, but it was totally unfair to my professors.

(In writing this, I am beginning to totally understand Worst Professor Ever's attitude towards teaching.)

My professors were human and professionals. They deserved better treatment than what I gave to them.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Peer-Driven Learning: I'll Need to Drive a Little More

We're at the half-way point of the semester. Mid-term grades are in. One of my classes handed in their "required" paper, while the other class has begun their presentations. I have some thoughts about how each class is going and how I will be doing this class next semester.

In my "stronger" class, the presentations have been excellent. The discussions have been interesting and the the students are clearly interacting with the material in ways I could never have hoped they would had I assigned them the same thing. Class participating seems a little better, though dominated by a handful of students. I'll have to "encourage" the students to find a way to include more of their peers in the discussions. No one has dropped the class. There have been no complaints about attendance or students not doing their "fair share." It's amazing.

My other class, we started with the required essay. This was a MISTAKE. Yes, it was a mistake that the students directed, but it's a mistake that I won't allow happen in the future. Here's why it was a mistake. Students wanted to get the required paper out of the way first, and as a result, the class turned into a traditional course, mostly directed by me. The students weren't engaging with the subject. Students stopped coming. Some students didn't even hand in an essay. The course became too much like a normal class, so they treated it as such. 

Now, we're on to projects of their choosing. The difference is incredible. Students who never said a word are engaged and excited. Attendance isn't a problem anymore (except for a few who I think are going to withdraw). The lesson is, do the unconventional first, because then they'll be hooked and more likely to produce good work, even on their "traditional assignment." I will still given students the choice of what they work on, how the project is formatted, how they are ultimately graded/evaluated, but I think I will set the schedule for them from now on.

I'm fascinated by this video on motivation. What worked with my students was to let the students do exactly what Dan Pink recommends (Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose), the results were impressive. In my "stronger" class, we never talked about grades. Not once. In my other class, grades became their incentive/reward/profit. And it didn't work. There was little autonomy (at least, they didn't perceive that there was; they saw that they were required to write a traditional essay and thus lost their autonomy), little desire for mastery (meh, writing, rather than mastery or attempting mastery of a topic that they are interested in), and their purpose was simply to get a paper out of the way and get the grades. 

Now, I'm trying to figure out how to provide this same kind of environment in my other classes. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Work-Life Balance: When Life Get in the Way

If you've been reading, I was actively working on achieving some sort of work-life balance in my family. This past weekend was our "fall break" and thus my husband and I had Thursday and Friday off of work. Because much of the support staff at our kids' preschool are students, the preschool was closed as well. This was a perfect opportunity to reconnect as a family and spend some time together.

And it largely worked. It was a beautiful fall weekend where we could enjoy our back yard, head out of "Court Days" in a neighboring county, and just spend time all together as a family. The kids became noticeably more agreeable, calmer, and got along better with each other. My husband and I even got to go on a date where we ate antelope for dinner and got to see the Boston Pops play here in Kentucky. I'll forever be able to say that I saw "America's Symphony" play Bohemian Rhapsody, accompanied by a 350+ member choir. Who head-banged. 

I was feeling pretty good about myself, my family, and thought that I was setting myself up well for the rest of the semester. My grading was done, my classes planned, my family happy; it felt good. Of course, it lasted about three hours. First, my 2-year-old son got sick. Then, my 4-year-old got sick. And the, I got sick. And not just a little sick. Washing machine continuously running sick. 

I'll leave it at that. 

I had to cancel classes on Monday because I physically couldn't make it. I was particularly troubled because it was supposed to be the first of the peer-driven class' presentations. The high-school/dual credit teachers I am mentoring had to also enter in mid-term grades, and of course there were any number of technical problems that prevented them for doing in on time. I was in no condition to be able to help them. My house is a disaster again. My husband, who was sparred the virus, is a wreck because has had to take care of everyone, leading to severe sleep deprivation. 

So, we're right back where we started, through no fault of our own. My teaching is in disarray (or at least it feels that way). My kids are out of sorts. My husband and I get to see each other fleetingly between clean-ups and running to class/work. I still have a conference presentation to write and an essay, and because I am still recovering, I barely have enough energy to teach let alone write academic prose (I said academic prose; there's always energy for blogging).

But there are bright sides. My 2yo son now asks all the time if he can help me. My daughter, even when she was sick, didn't get nearly as worked up as she has in the past. So I have to take a deep breath and accept the good with the bad. It's not the end of the world that my peer-driven class will be starting a class late; I had an extra class at the end worked in there just in case. And, my under-preparedness lead to a pretty fruitful discussion about grading and motivation in my classes today. 

I just wish I could go back to Saturday night, when all was well with the world and I felt like I finally had a handle on things. 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

I Write. A lot.

I blog here three times a week. I write about a paper a month for my academic career (either conference presentation or an article to be submitted to a journal/collection). I write the odd guest post or Views piece for Inside Higher Ed. I write a monthly piece for the University of Venus. I write emails. I comment on blogs, opinion pieces, and news stories. I write on Facebook and I Tweet. 

I write. A lot. 

I got an email from a colleague, asking me how I manage to write so much. To me, it's easy. I just do it. 

I've always been a prolific communicator. I can talk up a storm (my husband, after more than ten years together, still marvels at my ability to just keep talking). My years spent swimming was essentially one long opportunity for an internal narrative; I was writing in my head, constantly. I have boxes and boxes of writing from high school and college, mostly informal. I chose writing as my first profession because I love it. I think one of the reasons I became an academic was because being a professional writer (in my mind) wouldn't let me write enough. The thought of writing a 200-300 page dissertation didn't scare me; in fact, it was the most exciting part of my PhD. 

I used to keep an extensive diary. I used to have terrible insomnia, my mind continually racing, unable to relax. This was even after being up since 5 AM, swimming for a total of 5-6 hours, a full day of school, and some after-school activity, before swimming. Writing was one of the ways I could organize my thoughts, get them out of my head and on to paper. I would do it usually late at night when I should have been sleeping. Of course, that got difficult when I started sharing my life with someone. And, the insomnia went away after I had kids. I still have some nights where I can't sleep, but not with the frequency or intensity as before. But, there was something missing. And what was missing was the writing. 

I still write to organize my thoughts, to get them out of my system. As much as my posts are often reflection, writing for an audience forces me to at least make some coherent sense of the multiple strains of thought running through my head. Take, for example, writing about teaching. I just really write what I am thinking about my class. It forces me to actually reflect on what's going on, rather than spinning it endlessly in my head (or pretending that it never happened). While I don't have to worry so much about it being "polished" I do at least want to make sure there is some cohesion to it. I'm a little ADD to be honest, which means I can get particularly obsessed with things (ironic, I know). Writing is a way for me to actually think it through (rather than simply obsess over it) and then once I hit publish, to let it go. It's actually quite cathartic. 

Friday's post, for example, on my supposed failures in one of my peer-driven classes. As soon as I posted it (in fact, by the time I had finished writing it), I knew that I was being too hard on myself, as many of the comments points out. But, if I hadn't written the post, put what I was feeling down "on paper" I would have probably carried around the guilt and frustration. Now, I'm fine (a really great long weekend with my family really helped with that). Writing, for me, is about finding balance in my life. If I don't write, I'm missing an important part of who I am and how I stay sane. It's always been this way. 

I really hope it always will be. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Peer-Driven Learning: Plagiarism, Motivation, and Acceptance

I've written already that I need to work on accepting the strengths and limitations of each of my peer-driven learning classes. But this week has really tested my patience, my resolve, and my faith that this change in approach is really a good thing. 

My...less-enthusiastic class has been struggling. Their first paper was due on Monday. I realized during the drafting process that one of the reasons this class hasn't embraced the peer-driven concept is because they are insecure/unsure writers. The first day that they were supposed to have brought drafts to class for peer-review, only three did. And this was after I forced them to go to the library to do research for their paper. Instead of sending them away, I was able to quickly find an available computer lab and take them their to actually write their draft (those three who brought a draft did the peer-review work by themselves). Turns out, the majority of the students did in fact have a draft but were too afraid to let anyone read it. I was able to work with each of them through their various issues and they came away from the class with a bit more confidence and a workable draft (or at least a better sense of how to get there).

I am a little ashamed to admit that I was feeling pretty proud of myself after that class. I was able to help the students rather give the knee-jerk reaction of simply dismissing them and their apparent lack of motivation. Sometimes, a good teacher needs to discern what the students want or need, even in a peer-driven setting. And I also knew that the direction we had initially set in the class probably needed to change. On Monday, when the entire class was there to hand in their essays, I announced that on Wednesday we would re-evaluate how we approach the rest of the semester. Did we still want to all work on the same topic, or would individual groups like to work individual topics of their choice? Did we still want to do group work? Did we still want to do projects? Be here on Wednesday if you want a say in the direction of the second-half of the semester.

A little less than half the class bothered to show up.  Now, I will give the less-than-half of the class that did show up credit. They came full of ideas and prepared to defend them. We sat down in a small circle and came up with a second-half plan (which closely resembles what the other class is doing right now). But, we are going to waste Monday's class forming groups for the other students who weren't there. 

And then, today, when I was grading their papers, I came across one of the most blatant case of plagiarism of my career. The student found a conference presentation on poverty and education online. It was even a Word document, so all the student did was take the first few pages of the presentation, double-space it, and stick her name on the top. The language was so obviously beyond the student's level, that it was the giveaway I needed. A simple Google search turned up the paper immediately. 

I don't know what to do. I make the course peer-driven, empower the students to make their own decisions about the direction of the education, and I still can't get better than 45% attendance. I told the students that if they didn't show up that others would make the decision for them. This saddens me, not just for the success of the class, but for the future of democracy; the students don't seem to care if someone else decides their future for them. And, I know all of the reasons why students plagiarize, but thought that I had managed to remove all of them. 

I don't know what else to do but accept that some students aren't motivated. Or that there are many, many factors that I can't control. Then, why continue with peer-driven learning? Why put up with the stress and the added work if more than half the students don't even care one way or the other what they learn or how? 

Even writing that, I know why. 

It's just this week has been really, really hard. I'm still working on acceptance. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Work-Life Balance: Some New Rules

In case it wasn't clear from my last post, our family has been having some work-life balance issues. I was incredible moved by how the post seemed to resonate with many other academic couples/parents. It's a constant process of negotiation, re-evaluation, and compromise for many of us. I'm not sure if it reassures me to know that our family is not alone in our struggles or saddens and angers me to know that there so many of us sacrificing so much for an academic job. 

The point of this post is to outline some of the ways I am trying to achieve some sort of a balance in my professional life and family. It's especially challenging because I am not on the tenure-track while my husband is. His conference trips are fully funded, mine are not. He has a list a mile long of administrative responsibilities, I don't. How can you achieve balance, when one member of the academic couple clearly has a number of advantages (funding) and disadvantages (administrative responsibilities)?

The first thing I did was to jump on the first chance I had to increase my amount of travel/professional development funds. I agreed to mentor high school English teachers who are teaching in our dual-credit program in exchange for a generous amount of money for professional development. There is obviously a trade-off - the increased responsibilities add to my workload, but now I can go to a conference and not worry about if we can afford it or now. Last year, I had to cancel going to a THATcamp that I was really looking forward to because we couldn't afford it. This year, I have my own funds to tap into. 

And, I am not rushing home anymore if I don't have to. I'm not showing up the day of my presentation and leaving as soon as I can after it's over. I'm staying until the bitter end. I'm reconnecting with old colleagues and classmates, and hopefully meeting and creating new connections with people I only know virtually (or not at all). My kids are old enough (and my husband more than capable) of running this household for five days while I'm gone. If we are serious about one day finding a tenure-track job for me, then I have to do these things.

But that's my professional life. At home, I am almost forcibly scheduling time for all of us to spend together. We have a four-day weekend this weekend (Fall Break!) and while both my husband and I have a pile of grading to do in order to get our mid-term grades in on time, I'm making sure we take a day-trip together, without work intruding on us. Plus, more date nights for me and my husband. 

I'm trying to focus on the things I can change, including my own behavior and reactions. I know this sounds all very zen (and painfully obvious), but I have to give myself a break and give my husband a break. I have to remember to make the most of the time we do all have together, and the time we have apart. I'm going to keep blogging, because it's something I do for me. I guess I'm frustrated because I began this semester hoping we'd do better this time achieving a sort of a balance. 

It's always a work in progress. 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Our Two-Headed Problem: A Letter to my Daughter

"Mommy, why does Daddy always have to go back to work after dinner and miss my bedtime? I want him to have a different job so he can be home."

This week, my husband, who is also an academic but who, unlike me, is on the tenure-track, was besieged by professional responsibilities: candidate dinners, night grad classes, faculty senate meetings, social gatherings that represent important opportunities to network and appear like a good member of the "community." To make up for the lost time, he woke up earlier than usual to go into work and prepare for class. Many weekends every semester, he is also away at conferences.

My daughter, who is four, was getting fed up, which lead to the quote above.

I want to tell her how lucky she is that her daddy has the job that he has, given the academic job market, heck the general job market. That not being an academic does not guarantee better hours; one of her classmate's dad is always on the road for his non-academic job. Another one of our friends is overseas in Afghanistan, leaving behind a wife and son only a little younger that she is. That daddy is home more nights than he is away is a gift we can give to her.

I want to tell her that all of the extra work that he does is, in part, because he has won external funding, increasing his work-load, but also increasing our take-home pay. That mommy and daddy are up to our eyeballs in debt because of all of the extra schooling we did to get where we are, and those bills have come due. All of our small luxuries (like going to McDonald's) come from mommy and daddy working hard to make sure he gets tenure and I get renewed year after year. 

I also want to tell her that her father and I have made every decision we could to try and maximize the amount of time we can spend together. I gave up a tenure-track job so our family could stay together. We live a block from campus so we don't waste time in the car driving to and from work. We could move to a bigger city, but we would sacrifice at least two hours a day in drive time. I know many, many other academics (and non-academics) who sacrifice even more than that. 

But I also want to tell her that, in that moment, I wished we both had different jobs. Jobs that didn't pay my husband twice as much as I am making, even though we have the same qualifications and essentially the same job. I wished we didn't have a job that requires us to work 60-80 hours a week just to fulfill the minimum requirements. I wish that my work wasn't what is pushed aside in the name of the quest for tenure. I wish I wasn't stuck with the entirety of the "second shift" of cooking and cleaning. I wish I wasn't also left all alone all those nights (and mornings) that my husband has to go back to work. I wish weekends could be weekends rather than a negotiation of who gets to go to their office to catch up and which four hours we'll get to spend all together as a family. 

But I also want to be a good role model for her, show that I don't resent my situation, or that I am settling. I don't want to raise the proverbial "snowflake" and shelter her from the harsh realities (which really aren't that harsh). But, I also need her, at that moment, to go to bed and get some much-needed sleep. I am overwhelmed in that moment by anger, shame, and fear, none of it directed at her, but all of it so powerful that I almost start to cry in front of her. 

"I know you miss your Daddy. I miss him, too. And every night isn't like this, you know that. And, you know that Mommy and Daddy work hard to make sure you and your brother have everything that you need. We both love you very much. Daddy will come up and give you a kiss goodnight when he comes home."

I come up later to find her curled up with a picture of her and her father, asleep. I go back downstairs to try and work on my own teaching prep, my own grading, my own research, alone. I am grateful for everything we have: our health, our house, our jobs, our family and friends. I just wish I had a little more time to enjoy it, together.

Addendum: After I finished writing this, I was completely emotionally drained. My two-year-old son woke up early from his nap and we were able to spend an hour together, snuggling in his bed, reading together. Sometimes all it takes is just an hour. I still stand by this post, but today I feel a lot better than yesterday. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

To Steve Jobs

I have to admit that I was really choked up by the news of Steve Jobs' death last night when I got on twitter just as the news was breaking. Which I was reading on my iPhone. And then I got on my MacBook (the last old-school white one I'll ever own) to read tributes, reactions, and watch the Fail Whale tell me that Twitter was over-capacity as we all took to social media to collectively mourn Jobs.

I was just old enough in 1984 to remember the first big Apple commercial that ran during the SuperBowl (although I think I probably saw it the next night during the evening news). It scared the crap out of me, but there you go. I had never seen a commercial like it. We didn't own an Apple (we had a Vic 20 and a Commodore 64), but in what would be junior high, one of my best friends and I would stay up until 3 AM writing our own scripts for our favorite TV shows on her Apple computer (I have no idea which one it would have been. It was around 1990-91). 

I was late coming to Mac computers myself. I owned PCs, unfortunately, but when Blue Screen of Death started appearing far too regularly, I got my first MacBook. I've been hooked ever since. I spent entirely too much money on a second generation iPod (the one that still had four buttons on top). When I opened the box, all I could think of was that it was the prettiest thing I had ever owned. Two things that Apple, under Jobs direction, did best: design and usability. I loved my iPod, and I loved having all of my 8000 songs all in one place. 

But it was perhaps one of George Lucas' cast-offs that, for me, is one of Jobs' greatest achievements: Pixar. If it wasn't for Jobs' belief in the little computer animation company that went on to create the Toy Story movies, The Incredibles, and other classics. My daughter was never into princess movies when she was really little, but she adored the Pixar movies. We all loved the Pixar movies. Her first full movie in the theaters was Toy Story 3, and we were able to have our first full family movie, little brother included, when we went to see Cars 2 (which, regrettably, wasn't Pixar's finest moment, but whatever). 

It is really my kids lives that will be and currently are being shaped by what Steve Jobs shepherded into the world. My daughter knew how to work my iPhone before she was 18 months old. She could find videos, her puzzle app, her number match app, Tap Tap Revenge...Neither of my kids understand why they can't just swipe their fingers across my computer screen to make it work. Their world, they ability to connect, to collaborate, and to learn really have the potential to be greatly changed by the inventions Apple brought to us. But, as Seth Godin said in his brief tribute, A Eulogy of Action
I can't compose a proper eulogy for Steve Jobs. There's too much to say, too many capable of saying it better than I ever could.
It's one thing to miss someone, to feel a void when they're gone. It's another to do something with their legacy, to honor them through your actions.
Steve devoted his professional life to giving us (you, me and a billion other people) the most powerful device ever available to an ordinary person. Everything in our world is different because of the device you're reading this on.
What are we going to do with it?
I think that's the real question now. What are we going to do with it? Steve Jobs did, in fact, change the world by putting tools in our hands that we never had access to before. Now, it's up to us to make this world a better place using them. I hope for my kids' sake that we do. Personally, I keep asking myself, how am I going to use these tools to help my students learn? I started this process through my peer-driven learning experiment, but I need to integrate this thinking into all of my courses. 

I honored Steve Jobs in my own way today, but reading my students the riot act, for not performing to my expectations, for not even attempting to achieve their best. I doubt it was anything close to his infamous tirades, but while I hate being negative and berating my students, it was nice to know that Steve would probably have approved.  

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Peer-Driven or Paternalism? It's all about the Process

My Basic Writers have turned in their narrative essays. And I am so thrilled with the results. While not perfect (and, really, what writing ever is?), the improvement was significant enough that they even noticed it when they compared their first draft(s) with their last draft. And, there were eight of them. 

Yes, that's right, we did eight drafts of this essay. Eight steps, to be precise. I won't go into all the gory details because inevitably I'll make someone mad because I either skipped an essential step or had a step that is contrary to an essential pedagogical approach. Regardless (see how I just skated over that?), the students who took the process seriously wrote stellar essays. 

This is the sort of "disruption" I enjoy, showing students that they can, indeed, write an excellent essay if they just give themselves the chance and take advantage of the resources that are available to them. And this is where the idea of peer-driven learning butts up against my good, old-fashioned maternalistic (or paternalistic) teaching style. Would these students have done the drafts if I hadn't essentially forced them to? They receive "homework" credit for doing the various drafts and taking the process seriously (not sure what the students who printed six copies of their essay and just labeled them the various draft names were thinking). 

But, they saw the results. They saw that they were able to write better essays, better than perhaps they thought they could. So, do I regret "forcing" them into the process? No. Do I wish there was a way where I didn't have to coerce them into it? Yup. And I'm sure there is a way, but it's hard, particularly with basic writers who often resent having to take a non-credit course to begin with. A non-credit course becomes the lowest priority on many of my students' list, making it an upward battle for me as an instructor. 

So, I use force, because, damn it, I do know better. I know what they need to do to become better writers. I'm not sure what I can do with this disconnect, between peer-driven learning facilitator and paternalistic teacher. Other than maybe admit it and keep trying to be better. Or, throw it out to you.

What do I do? 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Now You See It: Backward Thinking on Where Education Innovation Should Take Place

I'm in the process of re-reading Cathy Davidson's excellent book, Now You See It (here's my initial review). My Freshman Writing classes are done with Fahrenheit 451, and we're moving on to a more optimistic view of the future. This is (obviously) the first time I'm teaching this book, and it's going to be a challenge to come up with assignments both large and small to engage the students with the work. Not because it's a difficult book to engage with, but because it's new, and as Cathy Davidson points out, the new is hard.  

So much of the book resonates with me because I've actively sought jarring and unfamiliar experiences: I decided to not to attend an English university in my hometown on Montreal, instead choosing attend a smaller French university; I headed North and West to do my PhD; my first tenure-track job was at an HBCU (and as to why that's "strange," take a look at my picture). Even now, this Canadian city girl is in the middle of Appalachia. Every single one of these choices has forced me to confront my preconceptions and, as Cathy Davidson (and obviously others) points out, this disruption is essential to learning: "Learning is the constant disruption of an old pattern, a breakthrough that substitutes something new for something old. And then the process starts again" (5). 

(This, by the way, is going to be the "free write" discussion question I post to my students before we start any class discussion; how many of them have experienced that as a part of their education?)

I've always been restless. I need to feel like I'm moving forward, challenging myself, really learning. As much as I enjoyed my undergraduate experience, I knew that any job I took, any job that I was trained for, would bore me to tears, and that I hadn't really been challenged intellectually. Grad school, it seemed, held the promise of greater intellectual stimulation. But I am forever grateful for the Université de Sherbrooke for providing me with such a wonderful environment in which to learn. 

Sherbrooke started as a service city for a large and fertile farming area in south-eastern Quebec. The university itself, founded in 1954, in still one of the youngest free-standing universities in the province. All things considered, there was no reason why the university could or should evolve into one of the most innovative and dynamic universities in Canada. But it did. It's medical school, in 1987, moved to Problem-Based Learning, and now is cited as an example for other schools to follow. It's engineering school also works largely on a problem-based program. It always seemed strange to me that Sherbrooke was ranked in the "Medical-Doctoral" category (medical school notwithstanding) because the focus was so squarely on the undergraduate experience. 

My program was no exception. I was studying "professional writing" in English (yes, I went to a French university to study English). Our program was small, professionally oriented, but also one that responded not only to the needs of the job market, but also the needs of the students. We learned HTML and web design back in the mid-1990s. In an English program! I edited our small student newspaper, oversaw the birth of the online version (no longer available), and had lots of informal opportunities for translation. When a large group of students (from my year and others who were ahead of us) were voicing their displeasure about the program, I organized a meeting between the faculty and students to discuss the direction of the program. We were writing publicly in many of our classes before we even knew that's what we were doing.

I was lucky. While I was being "trained" so to speak for a profession (to be fair, multiple professions: journalist-editor-translator-web writer-technical writer), it was in an environment where we were free, in fact, encouraged to create our own jobs, our own profession. It was never hidden from us that, while jobs were almost a guarantee (this was during the tech boom), self-employment and being a freelancer was an attractive option. We were connected with alumni who had successfully gone off on their own. We were, as a small English program in a large French university, a community who worked together, took care of one another, and helped each other succeed. I loved that. 

I compare my undergraduate institution with the one that I am currently teaching at. The experience for my students couldn't be more different. And yet, this is a place where education should be on the cutting edge of innovation. The programs that most of our students major in (education, nursing, vet tech, engineering tech) are perfect for Problem-Based Learning and a more collaborative style. But, in a cruel irony, these are the programs that are most rigidly standardized and controlled by external (and internal) accrediting bodies. And in most of our other programs, we prepare students for urban, white collar jobs that just don't exist in our region. 

One expects cities to be the centers of innovation, but I think we need to look to rural colleges and schools for new ways to teach and learn. Scratch that, we need to liberate rural colleges and schools in order for them to better serve their students, providing for them an education that they can use in their communities, to improve their communities. But, we don't, in part because we assume that rural students are "less than" their urban (and urbane) counterparts. Those who can, leave. Those who stay...

This is, Cathy Davidson would say, an assumption that needs disrupting. Innovative, relevant, and enriching education can happen anywhere. Sherbrooke proves that. I want my students to prove that, too.

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