COM375: political letters

Ok ya’all. I’m having a rough day, and I can’t quite organize my time so that my mind can relax and trust everything is going to get done.

I’ve been working, just now, on your peer evaluations. So far I’ve recorded about a third of them. (I did warn you about that study, right?) Here’s the deal. I’m reading them, and I am so proud of you. Honest! I just had a huge upswelling of emotion as I recognize your earnestness to do the task and to think well of each other.

Here’s the game plan:

1) I’m learning how to work with Excel so I can create a spreadsheet that holds the data in such a way that I can manipulate it (you know – that statistical thing) to convey “answers” to certain questions. (I have an excellent tutor, Mr. Christian Wernz, who I’m hoping will actually come talk with us…)

2) I have to apply for the informed consent. Technically, I probably “ought” to have done it already, but that would be following an old, traditional, tired, and literally outdated format for social science research. If we accept as given (as our discipline of Communication supposedly does), that any act of agreement or disagreement is socially constructed, then what I/we have been doing is creating a frame where all of you and one of me (!) can create a study that meets with the broadest permission.

What I mean by that phrase, “broadest permission,” is the largest percentage of informed consent. The best studies (according to a basic assumption of people who like to count) are those with the highest percentage of participation. In reality (well, from the minimal knowledge I have about quantitative research), there are always reasons to discount some of the data. The way I’m interpreting the principle behind the procedures for discounting data, is:

for the purposes of this study in our class, it really is ok if some people don’t want the peer evaluation results included.

Why do I emphasize this point? Because the group-relevant reason I felt that rush of admiration for the way you are all stepping up to the task of peer evaluations (and I do know that this particular activity represents a special task) was that – as much as you want to feel good about each other and allow each other as much benefit of the doubt as possible – you are not letting anyone off the hook.

As I would predict in the early stages of group formation, you are all rating each other generously. This pattern makes those instances of critical feedback particularly significant. When the norm is to accept “whatever it is” that others give (i.e., how much they “contribute”), indicating that you want something either “more” or “different” from another person is risky. I am proud of those of you who have been willing to say something less than ideal about a classmate. And – the kicker is (!) – those of you who have rated your peers uniformly “great” are giving generally strong subjective reasons for these ratings. In other words, you truly accept the participation achieved by your classmates.

I am impressed.


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.

Not only have I got my own two courses using the UMassWiki, a colleague is also using the public wikispace for an Honors Colloquium. Although not yet confirmed, a few additional colleagues have expressed interest in collaboration between courses, among our students (the next behind-the-scenes step).

The juniors (Communication) began with anonymous WordPress blogs. Their first entries are about the movie, Babel, a good chunk of which we watched on the first day of class (start from the last page, “last” comment and read forward to track chronologically). The second entry is a semiotic analysis of my hairstyle, inspired by a sentence in the introduction of our assigned textbook which asks what someone might be “saying with scissors.” An optional (extra-credit) entry, rewriting the first assignment summary of the argument in a short story by Todd Hasak-Lowy, Willpower, Inc., did not attract any takers.

The third entry returned to Babel, after we watched another portion of the film (included in the link above).

Roughly simultaneously, the first-year students also began anonymous WordPress blogs, beginning with their first impressions of learning in ENG112 on the first day of class, followed immediately by reflections on a movie, in their case, The Wall. We returned to the learning: ENG112 category for some reflections on the biographical introductions written by peers, and their reactions to feedback from me. The most recent blogging regards their process of finding and developing a subject concerning which they can engage the full, social/political “conversation” by writing a letter to a targeted individual or population who has the ability to influence problem-solving.

To date, the blogs are running autonomously, although there is now some overlap in topic as the juniors also have to write a letter engaging some sort of civic action (for the juniors, this is a less-weighted assignment; for the first-year students this is the most heavily weighted assignment).

Interaction among the respective coursewikis has just begun. The first-year students’ introductions (officially, an identity narrative) were written biographically by a peer. Each student then came up with a one sentence “prelude” to introduce the essay written about them by a classmate. Some of these prelude sentences were read and analyzed by a pair of Juniors during a WikiQuiz (designed to familiarize them more with the wiki as well as engage in critical analysis). After anticipating what they prelude sentence was leading them toward (they had no prior knowledge), the juniors read and wrote a brief analysis of what they found and its relation to the prelude. This is a prepatory assignment for their political letters. (There were not enough teams to cover everyone’s work so I’m scrounging up other possibilities before I have the first-year students read these analyses and feedback.)

Interaction going the other way, from the first-year students to the juniors, is occurring on another topic. The juniors read and had to agree or disagree with a quote about reading by Mortimer Adler. In explaining their stance, some confusion about Adler’s point is evident. So I asked the first-year students (working in triads instead of individually) to read the same quote, and express Adler’s point in one concise single sentence. I have not quite worked out the next step yet (gasp!)

Meanwhile, I sent the juniors off to read some cultural analyses of newspaper articles by seniors in Honors 491G: “Cross-Cultural Re-Entry Seminar” for seniors who have participated in a study abroad program. These assignments will be posted later this week.

A civic discourse component is emphasized in both the first and third year required writing courses. This is the most important unit in the first year course because of the emphasis on research; for the juniors the importance is moderate (at least according to each course’s respective grading rubric).

I’m asking each of the juniors to start their brainstorming process now, here, as a ‘comment’ to this post. The directions ask the students to write

concerning the political issue of your choice. Imagine (“write-out-loud”) how to narrow the scope of the issue so you could reasonably expect that the information in your letter might elicit a response. Brainstorm which audiences might be appropriate for your letter, e.g., who is in a position to actually do something? What will you recommend as a solution?

The first year students have already done something similar: decision-making: research.