October 2007

“…we have to learn to read in order to learn by reading.”

Mortimer Adler
The Reading of “Reading” (1940:18)
How To Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education

Are the Freshmen Smarter than Us? asks a junior, after reading comments by first-year students on using a public wiki for a (required) writing course.

Prior to today’s Technology Fellows’ Seminar, I had been working on a post titled, “A method to the madness, or madness in the method?” Managing and facilitating two public online courses is a huge amount of work. No spontaneous dialogue has yet developed, although we are moving closer to that possibility. So far all the interaction has been structured through assignments of the “low stakes” variety, meaning they are not worth a huge percentage of anyone’s grade (although they count). As checkbox notes, there are “two very different opinions” being expressed by students in the two writing courses engaged in these “themed” courses, concluding “there is a big difference somewhere”:

There isn’t one comment [by the first-students] that says they don’t like the blog, publicity, or the focus on online gimmicks. This is a strange contrast to our Comm 375 class where many, including myself, have been very critical of the focus on online interaction. ~ checkbox

There are, in fact, criticisms from the first-year students but they are muted in comparison with the juniors. A solid handful of the first-year students are invested in improving the wiki, whereas some juniors seem more invested in resistance (a phenomenon I can relate to intrapersonally as well as value interpersonally).

Shorty763 (“I love the smell of critiquing in the morning“) suggests a practical (I’d say pedagogical) utility of blogs and wikis is keeping “animosity up…Th[e] fear of thinking your being too cruel or maybe to kind to someones paper is alleviated by using blogs.” Shorty763 references one of the first-year students:

I never thought I’d say this but I sort of like how other people, not just my teacher, are giving me feedback on my writing. It’s many different views and many different ways to help me improve my writing. ~ yepp0628 (comment #10, positioning students for written interaction).

I’m excited that ShiningintheWind (a junior) gave the title, “Adding to the Conversation” to her review of first-year students’ responses to feedback, explaining: “The Wiki and the blogs create a dialogue between writers.” Another junior’s observation compliments this view:

Through this avenue of communication and the fact that our writing is being posted for anyone to see, we are able to become involved in conversation with people who have an interest in what we write. ~ Keithjagger

There is room for caution (even as the positive evidence from these excerpts and other interactions continues to accumulate). For instance, balderdash1 expresses concern about scrutiny, citing introversion and hoping “my paper isn’t next.” I’m working on compiling all the specific criticisms – although the wikidesign teams have already clarified (and confirmed with the first-year students) that the biggest issue seems to be navigation.

As the Tech Fellows discussed linearity and non-linearity in our seminar today, I kept thinking: the wiki’s navigation system is extraordinarily linear. This is counterintuitive to the basic assumption that equates linearity with traditional print, and non-linearity with hyperlinked online code. The students (aha!) are not necessarily “lost” in the wiki because of its nonlinearity. They may be struggling because they expect nonlinearity and are confronted, instead, with a rigid linearity: unless one inserts links constantly to go from embedded pages to other embedded pages, the only way to get around a wiki is to “page back” an entire chain, and then “page along” another chain to your destination. Hidden code, the ease of WYSIWYG, and the loss of an orienting visual structure online results in the paradox of a print-like linearity that is too linear. (Luckily the wikiteam has some exciting ideas for addressing this matter. Hopefully we can get some of them implemented.)

In addition to expressions of dissatisfaction are admissions of the wiki’s unique benefits. For instance:

“frustrating yet…excellent,” writes anon136, continuing, “one thing people like is that students of different class years can interact with each other and read each others work, which Steph has made possible through the juniors reading freshmen work on political action, and visa versa.”

I hope to pull more of these explicit compliments out of students posts, too, although few are unadulterated. I am fascinated by the thoughtful mix of “pro” and “con” in many posts. The use of the wiki seems to have galvanized students to grapple with a range of positive implications and ideals, while simultaneously confronting discomfits from periodic confusion to (what may amount to) culture shock. Hopefully hopefully these tensions are balanced for the majority of students, and we are all going to continue to learn how to write more clearly and effectively about requisite content, intended audience, and authorial intent.


It just so happened that the day I had planned for the first-year students to do an activity called, “My Day in a Sentence,” was the day of a bomb scare. Following my own logic concerning parallel processes between the juniors and first-year writing students, I had asked the first-years to

1) blog about their day and eventually boil their experience down to one sentence

2) post a “Reply” to one of my blogposts about “learning that lasts,” in which they were to include their sentence, discuss what they have learned/are learning from ENG112 that they believe will stick – as in persevere into their future – and post a link to their original commentary in which they worked out how to express their “day” in a single statement.

The first-year students’ actual comments do not seem “to follow” from the content of what I posted in “learning that lasts,” which was geared toward the junior writing class in which I document evidence of a crucial leap in their learning curve and admit that a particular lesson plan asked too much in one day. However, if one reads the entire discourse (all the links), I think some themes come into view that show the underlying pedagogical logic.

The communication department’s curriculum for the junior writing course privileges the semiotic method of analysis. This method came into renown during the 1980s and is regarded by many as past its prime. Nonetheless, semiotics is an excellent framework for developing genuine critical thinking (as opposed to simple regurgitation). The core transferable skill is the asking of questions. Recognizing when and where questions need to be asked, and figuring out how to aim questions so as to generate the information one needs in order to comprehend the contours of a conversation – and thus be able to say something that indeed adds to the conversation – is one of the most basic skills of academic writing.

The first-year students are learning how to ask questions of their own writing. While some are more specific than others in terms of what they are actually learning, almost all of the first-year students are able to articulate something fairly concrete. Of course this is exciting pedagogical evidence. 🙂 Meanwhile, the coincidental timing of the assignment with the unpredictable event of “a device in Herter Hall” allows a window onto some student reactions to this event on our campus. I collected the excerpts from each student post that mentioned the bomb scare onto one of the juniors’ CourseWiki pages. I placed this information there (instead of in the first-year CourseWiki) because I might come up with an assignment for the juniors – although I have not decided what that might be and/or how it could fit in with their curriculum.

If you want to read the original post and its entire chain of comments (about what ENG112 students are learning), go here: learning that lasts.

Here’s an example of a collaboratively-created (students-teacher) academic hypertext from UCLA. The hypertext (generically, a website) is composed of information and critique that is timely and relevant to current and prospective UCLA students. One section that caught my attention is on relativism and curriculum. The professor, Robert Samuels, established a palate of choices and criteria that students combined and integrated to generate the five areas of research that were ultimately included in the hypertext.

Their work is much more fancy than anything I’ve yet been able to inspire – to date. There are some exciting possibilities percolating now, and slow-and-steady progress from coursewiki to coursewiki.

The communication juniors do know several excellent questions with which to interrogate texts (see comments to Comm Juniors Awake!), although their focused attention on task leads some to neglect the provision of a well-crafted contextual summary. Combining “summary” and “analysis” into one product – with the two intellectual activities clearly differentiated from each other – marks the departure point of a crucial learning curve.

Meanwhile, I definitely did cram too much into one day. If I had just left well enough alone (as in, not gotten excited about meta-communication concerning the tension that is inevitably experienced when actual learning is occurring), everyone present would easily have made it through WikiDay Two.

Often I attempt to balance the seemingly-exclusive horns of this pedagogical dilemma: teach skill (decontextualized from real life) or praxis (skill put to informed use)?

What Teachers Make, or
Objection Overruled, or
If things don’t work out, you can always go to law school
Video By Taylor Mali

He says the problem with teachers is, “What’s a kid going to learn
from someone who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher?”

He reminds the other dinner guests that it’s true what they say about

That those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.

I decide to bite my tongue instead of his
and resist the urge to remind the other dinner guests
that it’s also true what they say about lawyers.

Because we’re eating, after all, and this is polite conversation.

“I mean, you’re a teacher, Taylor”
“Be honest. What do you make?”

And I wish he hadn’t done that
(asked me to be honest)
because, you see, I have a policy
about honesty and ass-kicking:
which is, if you ask for it, then I have to let you have it.

You want to know what I make?

I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional medal of honor
and I can make an A- feel like a slap in the face.
How dare you waste my time with anything less than your very best.

You wanna know what I make?

I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall
in absolute silence.
No, you can not work in groups.
No, you can not ask a question (so put your hand down)
Why won’t I let you go to the bathroom?
Because you’re bored and you don’t really have to go, do you?

You wanna know what I make?

I make parents tremble in fear when I call home at around dinner time:
“Hi, This is Mr. Mali, I hope I haven’t called at a bad time,
I just wanted to talk to you about something your son did today.
he said, “Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don’t you?”
And it was the noblest act of courage I have ever seen.

I make parents see their children for who they are
and who they can be.

You want to know what I make?

I make kids question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write, write, write.
And then I make them read.
I make them spell definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful, definitely
over and over again until they will never misspell
either one of those words again.
I make them show all their work in math.
And then hide it on their final drafts in English.
I make them realize that if you got this (brains)
then you follow this (heart) and if someone ever tries to judge you
by what you make, you give them this (the finger).

Let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true:
I make a difference! What about you?

How do students write for civic action? The writing curriculum for both the first-year students and juniors at UMass has a civic component: students are required to identify a social problem, research the issue and its context thoroughly, understand the structures in society that set the boundaries for possible resolutions, and then target a particular individual or group of people who has an actual chance of effecting a change that moves the problem toward a solution.

The students I’ve taught over the past few years know only how to write a research paper on the problem itself; in general, none of them know how to situate the problem within larger social contexts, let alone devise an actual path through the chaotic maze of cultural and institutional systems toward a desired endpoint. In other words, these students have been trained to write in a vacuum, as an exercise to satisfy a curriculum. Recently, a bright student in a junior writing class balked at the idea of actually sending his writing anywhere. “I’m not going to publish in the Collegian! That’s not who I am!” He wants to write to a friend.

Other students have suggested the Internet as an outlet to the larger, less concentrated populations they wish to address: college students, for instance, or young girls struggling with eating disorders. Someone suggested email.

The Technology Fellows have been discussing the efficacy and ethics of using social networking sites as either sources for study or outlets for student writing. The question is why a teacher would ‘move in’ to (colonize?) territory that has been created and maintained as social space, especially when there are so many other internet resources such as blogging and wiki’s.

Critiquing the writing that occurs in social space seems a worthy task, especially as students present themselves online through these media (e.g., Facebook, MySpace, Orkut, Black Planet, LiveJournal, Xanga, Good Reads, Dairyland.)

My immediate reaction to having students publish to these social networking spaces was, why? The image in my mind was of a standardized requirement in the curriculum, e.g., “for this assignment everyone must publish to a social networking site.” Ick. (I struggle with the enforced conformity of students being restricted to common formats anyway, which are usually chosen for the convenience of the teacher.) However, I can see the benefits of potential circulation if students’ publish specifically targeted writing to a social networking site. Probably I am now going to encourage some of my students (with suitable topics and addressed audiences) to experiment with getting their work distributed through a social networking site.

Meanwhile, the ethical jungle thickens, as I just came across an interesting critique of over-spreading a new information sharing concept and template, from SiliconValleyWatcher.

A social media release is a revised press release that is functional for journalists operating in the computer/information age. The problem is with the use of social media releases to bypass journalists. Tom Foremski proposed the original notion, and a couple of designers have developed and promoted a template.

While such overt public announcements are not (yet!) what students will do, there is obviously an element of promotion necessary to circulate their texts to intended audiences. (The Writing Program is also worried about the circulation of texts to unintended or even undesired audiences.) The question raised by Mr. Foremski regards the respective roles of “journalist” and “citizen” in the construction of public knowledge. Mr. Foremski is absolutely correct in stating:

Companies and their PR firms create self-serving materials. And if those materials, under the disguise of social media releases, fool readers into thinking these are the same as if written by journalists– it does not make the world a better place.

I absolutely agree. Student/citizens are not (yet) representing larger corporations. But, can they (we?!) “fool readers into thinking” that our information is as good as that written by journalists? (Is this what Mr. Foremski means by “the same”?)

Similarly, if those self-serving materials find wider distribution than news stories written by journalists because of sophisticated tricks and techniques–it does not make the world a better place.

Again, I agree that material with the widest distribution is almost always that which garners the most support and believability (along a widely-varied continuum from gullibility to credibility). Pedagogically, I wonder how students will ever develop the skills to discern the differences for themselves if they are not “out there” gaining practical experience. If some of them do write well enough to convince others, this is an optimal achievement of the intended curriculum, is it not?

A retort against Foremski’s concerns comes from Kevin Dugan. He points out that content is the issue, not format. Hmm. I’d say both matter a great deal (see Web 2.0: The Machine is Us/ing Us). Dugan’s view adds nothing of substance to the deeper questions about who has the authority and wherewithal to shape public attitudes that inevitably orient individual identities to participation or passivity.

I have assigned an excerpt (Part One) of Jeannette Winterson’s Art Objects for a unit called “Interacting with Texts.” I am wondering how many students will notice and follow the objection impulse of art, and how many will consider works of art as objects.  Perhaps they will surprise me and discern both angles in Winterson’s prose?  Then the challenge will be how well can they summarize their integration: what commonalities and distinctions are created between material things and rhetorical action?

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