UMass Writing Program


At the moment, we seem to have lost our only known audience. I am a bit concerned about this, as John was more than a passive reader of our writings: he was seeking engagement and . . . what happened? Perhaps his educational goals (regarding Asperger’s in general) and mine (regarding group decision-making) are simply too far apart? The last topic I had raised in our conversation concerned anticipation as a feature of communication. John had engaged the notion I posed that speaking whatever first comes to mind can be as problematic as speaking whatever one had already been thinking. He (rightly) corrected an overstatement of mine, in which I asserted that both stances lack the quality of anticipation.

Let me provide links to three different explications of the concept: “anticipation” as emotion, “anticipation” as used in the field of artificial intelligence, and “anticipation” as used in medicine, specifically the field of genetics. All three have some relevance to a consideration of the role of anticipation in communication. Storming, for instance, comes about in a group at least partly because of the juxtaposition of several individual expectations, as well as the degree to which structured institutional and cultural norms are recognized or experienced as present/absent. AI applies logic in a strict fashion in order to gauge what and how agents can make conscious decisions about the future, and genetics considers anticipation as a way of labeling the early signs of what will develop later into a disorder. In terms of communication – particularly in terms of the relationships that communication makes possible – anticipation can be divided into two broad categories, which (for simplicity’s sake) I will call “negative” and “positive.” In other words, I can anticipate the worst and craft my communication to either defend against ‘the bad’ or offensively assert ‘the good’ (roughly, what I desire); or I can anticipate the best and design my discourse to minimize ‘the bad’ and emphasize ‘the good.’ (Of course I am proposing these categories as extremes as ends of a continuum along which each of us fluctuate depending on a wide variety of factors – mood, energy, investment, personal history, amount of knowledge/experience, cultural background, etcetera – and all of these in relationship with the circumstances of the immediate situation itself.)

Track back in time with me, because I have to introduce another element of which none of you are yet aware. A colleague responded to the posting of John’s and my email conversation with a spot-on critical analysis; another friend emailed saying she thought I was rather hard on John, since I did not simply accept his offer to come to our class. At the time of those correspondences, none of you (students in the class) knew (yet) that John had contacted me, in other words, that someone is paying attention to what we do. I have been puzzling, can (should?) I bring all these threads of conversation with different individuals to our collective attention? What is the relevance of this particular conversation to group dynamics and, particularly, the processes of decision-making in groups?

I chose to ease us into a confluence of these conversations by assigning a question for the class that was (I thought, at the time) appropriate with where you/we were in our reading of the text (John’s book). I had been caught in the assumption that the title was a challenge to look John in the eye, and was surprised and dismayed to read of the painful associations he has with that particular phrase spoken to him as an unmeetable command. I considered that my experience was probably not unique, and also that there must be other interpretations. I suspected that the range of responses to the title would be interesting and open a window for us to learn something about ourselves. Indeed, the ways you reacted to the title varied! (In case you are wondering, this apparent tangent is within the scope of defining audience for the course webproject! In particular, I intend to illustrate something about “anticipation” and how we may want to consider it seriously as we confirm the scope of the project and begin to implement specific design ideas.)

Meanwhile, I am already talking with John (and my friends outside of class)…I want to bring you all into the conversation with John first…how? I create the next assignment, struggling with how to form a suitable question. I aim to illustrate how “understanding” develops: by and through our mutual struggling through associations, intuitions, assumptions, predictions, taken-for-granted meanings, and surprise developments (such as John Robison reaching out to us (!) from somewhere ‘out there,’ from his timespace ‘outside’ of the boundaries of our group-as-a-whole). The point is that when we forge connections between different events and elements we make them sensible to ourselves and others. If our perceptions and attributions of meaning differ from each other’s, then we are confronted with making choices about whether or not to invest in building something common or letting the differences determine the parameters of relationship.

What the_______?$%#$%^$%^$??

Anticipation. 🙂 In the midst of our (attempted, group-level) conversation with John (in which it is unclear to me how consciously students considered that John MIGHT READ what got written!), several other matters were raised, including goals for the coursewebproject.

“Our goal is to create something AS A CLASS. Not reach out to others.” Really? I like donwayneleach‘s passion for the driving motivation being the actual activity of co-construction, but do we want to totally disregard the audience? As getouttakingshous says: “Communicating what you feel and what you want to achieve does not come naturally. Sure, you can say what you feel and what you want to achieve, but that is not the same as communicating it. Communicating something makes it possible for your audience to feel the same feelings you feel about what you are trying to communicate.”

“…this context is unlike any other…” (Princess3, quoting John Robison)

Does the uniqueness of “this context” have effects on framing? Is there anything about this context being “unlike any other” that is important enough to convey? vertebralsilence argues:

“The difference between my communicative style and instincts and John’s are striking and yet the existence of DIFFERENCE is not exclusive to people on the autism spectrum. This difference exists between all of us – and maybe accounts for a great deal of flawed and failed attempts at communication. Could understanding these differences – isolating them, analyzing them – help us communicate better as a group? (and as individuals in the world at large?)”

Are any of our own “forehead-slapping moments” (churchofgoogle) worth some kind of representation in the coursewebproject? And/or, what about the different modes of communication, as described by sunshine775:

“everyone has different frames and ways of seeing a situation. When I start to engage in a conversation or speech I may say things that people in my audience may not understand or know how to make sense of it. I find it so much easier to sit down at my laptop and type out how I feel. I even find it easier than sitting down with my diary. I have formed some type of relationship where my fingers just fly across the keyboard and my thoughts flow from my head through my fingertips.”

“…the reason communication is difficult,” explains ontherecliner, “is not only do you have to express what you feel, but you also have to do it in a way someone else understands.” thumpasorus agrees that “… the tendency just to communicate in a stream of consciousness…” could be a problem. In other words, how proactively (how much anticipation!) can we garner among ourselves to mold the individual passions and interests of each member of the class into a collective representation?

“The thing is often times people’s reactions have nothing to do with the actual event but rather their own biases based on their own distorted view of reality… Reality occurs out there, what we make of it occurs in the mind. The question I often ask myself is where do I draw the line trying to think for others and act accordingly to that and where do I just say what’s on my mind.” (sedona1)

I would say, we are getting ready to take meanings (from our own minds, along some kind of individual-collective continuum) and put them “out there” as a “reality” which others can experience and interpret. What will we give them to work with?  It may be useful to revisit the what and the how.

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The rigid segmentation of course material into discrete “subjects” provides gaping canyons for student’s intellectual engagement. As the Fall, 2007 semester wraps up, my thoughts leap ahead to the next class and the next group of students. I want to challenge us to think beyond narrow definitions of “group” focused on “identity” to sophisticated notions of “role” and the ways our own day-to-day activities participate interactively with the larger sweep of social and political affairs.

My idea at the moment is to assign the novel, After Dachau (Daniel Quinn), for the first week of class. I read it in about four hours (see excerpt). I also want to show this media analysis from Al-Jazeera, on the divide in US news reporting over the Iran Nuclear Report. Pedagogically, can the students draw parallels between “fiction” and “reality”? In terms of continuity, might I be able to entice some of the students from this semester to keep talking about the important conversations we began?

Open access electronic versions of new (2007) texts in

  • Civic Life Online
  • Digital Media, Youth, and Credibility
  • Digital Media, Youth, and the Unexpected
  • The Ecology of Games
  • Learning Race and Ethnicity
  • Youth, Identity and Digital Media

And a new journal, due in 2009:

The International Journal of Learning and Media

“It is very upsetting to think that the Hawaiians must be unsure of their national identity” (w26s1, Comment 2).

“I never knew the history of the United State’s occupation of Hawaii and now that I do, I am somewhat bothered” (keithjagger, Comment 11).

Checkbox (quoted in the title, Comment 9) concisely summarizes an historical dynamic. Pedagogically, I am trying to operate on several levels, simultaneously modeling practical writing skills, laying groundwork for (a chance of) spontaneous dialogue, and enacting both a lived/living (organic) relationship among students and teacher (who is also a learner), and between the university setting’s “container” and the public sphere (i.e., the rest of the real world).

Aisforastronaut describes the learning activity:

“We are all researching to fight for something,” is an interesting and powerful post if you know the context. We learned about Hawaiian Independence in class through a film, and the freshman writing students had to post comments about it. Our job (the juniors) is to figure out what else Steph’s post might mean. There is a lot that can be taken out of this. Right now, Steph’s two writing classes are working on research papers. Through this post Steph showed how to take other people’s words and using them to develop an argument and present information by using citations (by crediting them). Steph just took words and ideas (research) from students’ comments to make a meaningful post that ties many possibilities together (Comment 5).”

Relevance of Good Research

At the practical level, balderdash found it “interesting how the post created a conversation with student blog posts instead of factual documents upon which usual arguments are based” (Comment 27). Students noticed specific skills and conditions necessary for writing a good research paper:

“To write a good research paper we also need a lot of resources,“ says pylee (Comment 31), a sentiment echoed in the vernacular by treschouette as the “need to do ‘hella’ research” (Comment 21). This means “you need to know the facts!” (anon136, Comment 1), “[recap] everyone’s opinions” (ajch, Comment 26), and be selective by “pick[ing]the best line” (unknown29, Comment 19). E388 summarizes: “With every argument, there are different sides, and with that comes the different reasonings why we each favor one side over the other” (Comment 22). “In this type of a situation, an informative argument,” explains mjollnir89, “…conciseness and accuracy are the most important aspects. The arguing party is in charge of garnering massive amounts of information and sifting through it to obtain the useful facts and combining them into a logical train of thought” (Comment 29). The most pithy argument of the need for good research came from confusioniseasy:

“You need to understand information on all levels and sides,

so if something is thrown at you, you are

not squashed like a bug and look like a fool”

(Comment 15).

Adding to a Conversation

With respect to laying a foundation for further dialogue, students’ respond by summarizing and reflecting on the specific example of the Hawaiian Kingdom’s case to the World Court, displaying different points-of-view, as well as critique the case (debating the merits of the Hawaiian nationals’ argument) and the activity (its effectiveness as a teaching tool). Beginning with the critique of the pedagogical method:

“[The DVD] was hard for us to watch…because it was assumed that we had more information than we did” (redsoxfan218, Comment 23). Keithjagger presented a different side: “the DVD on Hawaii was good in the fact that it showed us there is something to be learned from the manner in which the Hawaiians argued their case” (Comment 11). From the dvd to the blog was another layer that evoked comment: yepp0628 admitted that the transition “slightly overwhelmed me. I had to read the blog two times to fully comprehend and see the connection in the arguments” (Comment 30), while redbeardthewriter expressed a starker reaction: “I don’t really understand if Steph is looking for something in particular or looking for me to dredge up another idea on the matter” (Comment 17).

It remains to be seen whether an actual dialogue about Hawaii’s status will develop from students’ responses, but the range of perspectives necessary to provoke new thinking is present. w26s1 describes the situation as a “catastrophe” (Comment 2) – from the context I do not know if w26s1 refers to the Hawaiian nationals’ successful case in The Hague or the US takeover of Hawai’i. ““50 states, after all,” says rocketsredflair, “is an even number that has fit nicely on the US flag” (Comment 4). Carmella confessed to a state of “turmoil as to the relevance to Hawaiian independence” (Comment 8).

Oddity33 observes: “its amazing how many people can have such different opinions and ideas of one text” (Comment 7).

“The fact that more than a hundred years have gone by and Hawai’i has not given up their kingdom (well not entirely) and that they have recieved international recognition as a Kingdom and not a state of the U.S. is incredible” (hippo86, Comment 13).

“[T]he Larsen’s team comes up, the people in the team try to fight back the United States. They become the first one to speak for Hawaii kingdom and people” (winglsammi, Comment 28).

Iplayball muses, “i am still unclear as to the exact stages of “occupation” that the us is in hawaii. The question that comes to mind is “did the u.s somehow take control of hawaii without permission? and if so isnt it ironic that america fights other countries for doing this exact thing?”” (Comment 20). Adc92388 echoes iplayball’s concern: “The whole ordeal makes us as students consider the role of the government in our daily lives, and how we want to be treated as citizens” (Comment 16). Providing a contrary view, checkbox argues, “The fact that the US was repeatedly invited to participate in these proceedings and chose not to do so is not a confession of guilt but an announcement of indifference” (Comment 9). RandomActofKindness went further, “I’d rather go fishing” (Comment 18).

Metalcircus expresses doubt, if not disbelief, asking, “Is there really any chance….[the U.S. will concede Hawaiian sovereignty]?” (Comment 12) Pragmatically, kmb04 outlines a common dilemma: “even with a deep research your argument can still fail. Sometimes it is not what is being said but who is saying it…. This does not mean that those with no power should just give up, what they say still sticks out in some people’s minds and even if they can’t change the actions of an entire country, they can change the actions on a person to person basis” (Comment 6).

Beyond the University: From Academia to the Real World

“I want to believe that for lasting change to occur, intelligent thoughtful action must be taken.” Likeboldcolors continues, “But it’s so slow. It can be really frustrating to wait and have the patience to stick with the processes necessary” (Comment 14). Like research, actually talking through the differences and making compromises in order to shift out of conflict is painstaking work. I had asked if it is possible for people/s in conflict to “argue peaceably.” Oddity22 suggests such an idea is “an oxymoron. I always believed that a disagreement was one thing and an argument was a completely different thing, an argument was a disagreement gone crazy. Peaceably arguing? i dont know” (Comment 7). Aligirl22 defines a critical factor:

“…both parties have to want to argue in a peaceful manner.

Its much easier to fight with force and anger and hatred…” (Comment 3).

Ciaobella adds a layer of interpretation, speculating as to why and how the activity is useful to me (as teacher/learner):

“Steph uses quotes from blogs that her students have posted in regards to the U.S and Hawaii. She uses these quotes possibly to advance her own knowledge of the current situation and asks us, being her students, to post our opinion creating new thoughts and ideas” (Comment 10).

Yes, my own knowledge is advanced on two levels: in terms of content (the struggle Hawaiian nationals face in gaining US recognition of their claim), and at the contextual (abstract) level of distinguishing discourse (habitual, patterned ways of speaking certain set knowledges) from dialogue – Ciaobella’s generation of “new thoughts and ideas.” Of course, these are some of the ultimate goals of quality research: not only summarizing the perspectives on a particular issue (topic) but also actually adding an observation or recommendation or angle that allows new or different understandings to develop. The process of assigning students from different classes to read each other’s work does seem to inspire a high(er?) quality of interaction: “I can totally see my fellow classmates minds at work. One believes this conflict [between Hawaiian nationals and the U.S. Government] to be peaceful, while another believes that there is no chance for the problem to be solved” (pinkpanther89, Comment 25).

Two updates: The University of Hawai’i campus at Kapiolani will offer “Introduction to the Hawaiian Kingdom,” a 200-level course in Hawaiian Studies, this spring. David Keanu – who presented the slide show in The Hague during the Proceedings of the International Tribunal – has just had an article accepted to be published in the Journal of Law and Social Challenges (San Francisco School of Law), vol. 10, Fall ’08. The article, “A SLIPPERY PATH TOWARDS HAWAIIAN INDIGENEITY: An Analysis and comparison between Hawaiian State Sovereignty and Hawaiian Indigeneity and its use and practice in Hawai`i today,” (available for download as a pdf) distinguishes between the tribal sovereignty granted by the US government to (some) Native American tribes and the independent sovereignty recognized by Great Britain and France (1842) and the U.S. (1849) and reaffirmed by the 1999 international arbitration proceedings at The Hague of the Larsen Case.

A question lingers:

Now what? Does the conversation end with the articulation of varying points-of-view, different capacities for hope, and limits to imagination? Or do we find a way to carry on talking a new kind of talk based on learning the diversity of opinion and complexity of obstacles? Shall we go through the motions, saying all the things that have already been said over-and-over again, or shall we find ways to say things that have not yet been uttered – and keep saying them until they lead to change?

. . . and keep saying them

keep saying them until

saying them until they

saying until they lead

until they lead to

they lead to change

lead to change

to change

change

says redsoxfan218 (comment #7 of “I already miss those Hawaiians“).

unknown29 wrote “research is a really important step in writing…if we want to write something purposeful we have to do good research and apply the rhetorical situation to it” (comment #5). pbandjelly noted, “Everything that was presented with evidence…The speakers knew their case very well and any question that was asked of them they had a quick comeback and good support for waht they had to say” (comment #2).

mrcapatiller, though, is bumming: “Laws and Lawyers and Legislation and stuff like that make me want to go live in the woods….because it [Hawaiian independence, legalization of marijuana) wont ever happen even though it is so obviously the right thing to do” (comment #6). 😦 Why is mrcapatiller’s response so different than mjolliner89, who claims: “It was a relief to see the success of their hard work and solid belief. This case gives me … the knowledge that with earnest and quality research, lives can be changed (comment #12).

ajch adds a voice of critique, “they assumed the audience knew more on the topic to begin with, then they actually did” (comment #8), which is a complimentary concern to assuming that the audience knows what’s in your own mind more than they can actually mindread. PinkPanther89 adds that not all issues are of equal significance, although I would nudge back and ask what is of consequence that debates about body piercing enable us to bring into focus? I’m not sure I can say as much for Wright5, who concurs with PinkPanther89: “The Lance Larson case is much more serious and intense” (comment #13).

treschoutte adds a new term, describing the arguments as “peaceful” (comment #11). Is it possible that people can learn and/or choose to argue peaceably?

redbeardthewriter expands on an argument raised by ntourloukis in the Junior writing course. You’ll have to read the detailed critique for yourself, I cannot pull out a paraphrase and do either the economics or identity politics any justice: “These people are nuts” (comment #14). I will say, though, that I think the argument about legal precedence having no bearing is a stretch, if not an outright admission that US national law is a scam. mjollnir89’s summary cuts through some of redbeard’s hyperbole: “The fact that Larsen’s team was able to dredge up documents from the 1800’s and use them effectively in a modern court hearing is amazing. It showed me the different ways in which a conflict can be approached.

winglsammi seems to agree with redbeardthewriter, stating “everybody in the world know that the United States will not give up Hawaii” (comment #15). There is a potentially confusing historical element about the US use of Hawai’i during WWII. I say this information is “confusing” because I do not know how relevant the US military’s use of Hawai’i is to the facts or ultimate outcome of the matter of national sovereignity. (Which reminds that there are, actually, international laws regarding “occupation” – the US is supposedly following these in Iraq in the here-and-now).

Finally, for clarification, the US was repeatedly invited to participate in these Proceedings and chose not to do so. (They may have submitted written documentation of some kind; I am not sure.)

“…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.

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