Month: September 2004

Dime-Store Epiphanies

With my schedule this semester, I’m unfortunately again no longer able to burn through two or three hundred pages and write an extended response each night — so I’ll be grateful for what I can get. I’ve been continuing to read Howard Tinberg, and very much enjoying what I’m reading. He’s in Massachusetts, too, but in Fall River, in that far southeastern corner of the state, so that the only way he could be further away from Amherst would be to be in Provincetown or Nantucket. Still, with all the thought-provoking discussions Cindy and Joanna and John and others have offered in relation to his ideas, and with the way that graduate students really get no exposure to the concerns of two-year institutions, I’m thinking about talking to my program and department chair about asking Professor Tinberg to come a couple hours west and give a lecture. There’s one other graduate student in my program with an interest in class studies and community colleges, and for the rest of us, I think it would be a big eye-opener and an informative and provocative exchange.

In my further reading, I was a little tickled to see that my supermarkets-of-higher-education analogies from last time weren’t entirely misplaced. Tinberg writes that in the community college, “what we hope to accomplish in our classrooms must be bigger than a narrow shopping list of ‘what our students need to know'” (12). Of course, I would say that the same holds true for four-year institutions. But there’s a tension here between narrowness and breadth, specialization and generalization, job skills and liberal education, that seems to sometimes shift or contradict itself, and I’m not sure how to sort it all out.
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Macho Teaching Swagger

Had a decent teaching day today, despite the all-day grim and rainy grey, and the way that the halls of the building I teach in retain humidity to a horribly swampy degree. Odd observation: on two successive days, I’ve had most of the students in one section show up well prepared, and most of the students in the other section show up poorly prepared. We moved ahead OK, but after explicitly going over the homework in each class and putting it on the board, I can’t figure out why one section felt so nonchalantly inclined to univocally admit their I-don’t-care unpreparedness and the other section was ready and eager to work.

When I was a sergeant and the squad was out of order, I’d drop them and do push-ups with them, calling out, “One, two, three, Zero; One, two, three, Zero,” until all of them got their backs straight and actually started doing the push-ups, and then we’d begin the count, “One, two, three, One; One, two, three, Two; One, two, three, Three;” up to twenty or fifty or whatever. After a while with me, if they were mad too, the squad would bellow out the Zero-count for at least the first ten reps or so, and they’d eventually decide how many reps we did. They’d get sadistic, too, seeing if they could slow down the count in the last five enough to make my arms quiver, seeing if they could make me keep up, to punish me with their discipline.

It was a lot easier than teaching college. I wish I had a handle on how to kick-start that sort of motivation and self-awareness in an academic context — but maybe that just marks me as a would-be authoritarian teacher, telling tales about macho Army swagger.

I hope not. I guess what I’m getting at is the idea of self-awareness and cohesion in a class, and trying to figure out why one section seems to hang together more than the other. Maybe some of it’s just random chemistry, but when I think about it, I realize that I teach the sections back-to-back on Tuesdays and Thursdays — and so maybe I learn lessons from one session about what does and doesn’t work and carry them immediately over into the subsequent session.

Perhaps. Every class is different. But I really feel like what I do doesn’t differ much, generally speaking. I plan well, I have the materials up, and we tend to follow similar routines in each section. One general difference might be that students in the earlier section often want to interact with me on a one-on-one basis, while students in the latter section often don’t hesitate to call out a public question when things are confusing. Still, it’s odd: I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a radical difference in character between sections. And maybe all the above ruminations are a way to talk about how I know it probably isn’t me, but I wish it was, because then I could try and help make it better.

(Addendum: not trying to call any of you out, discipuli. Just talking generally about how the classes went. If you like, I hope you’ll address the topic in your reflections on the in-class work.)

Weekend Achievements

Things I achieved this weekend:

  • Did a big, bold CSS re-design of our main course weblog. Very pleased with myself. Also got all the student-weblog-shuffling-after-add/drop completed.
  • Upgraded the courseware to from 3.0 to 3.11: kinda complicated, but still not quite as intimidating as Drupal. Which I’m still working on.
  • Gave a big chunk of money (well, “big” being relative to my bi-weekly paycheck) to the DNC.
  • Donated six boxes of books to the local library.
  • Finally got everything all cleaned up after last weekend’s Bad Poetry Party.
  • Made a really good salad with spring greens, arugula, black olives, scallions, cucumbers, grape tomatoes, bean sprouts, and a little bit of smoked mackerel. Shared it with a friend.

Things I’m still working on:

  • Reading Howard Tinberg.
  • Dissertating.
  • Laundry.
  • Putting off scooping the cat boxes.

Updates to follow as events warrant. Yes, I know it’s riveting stuff. Stay glued to your monitors, folks.

Reading Tinberg

At John’s recommendation, I’m (finally) starting to read Howard Tinberg’s Writing and Knowing in the Two-Year College. I look up to John, and his recommendation is certainly enough for me, but I was talking with a compositionist colleague in the computer lab today, and my colleague — with some puzzlement — asked me, “But why are you interested in community colleges?”

It gave me pause. My initial reaction would have been to say, “Well, with my interest in socioeconomic class, why would I not be?” But what does that mean, really? How might an interest in class incline a university-based graduate student towards an interest in community colleges?

John and Cindy and others have talked about this before, of course, but the institutional blindness that university-based compositionists maintain towards teaching practices in two-year colleges continues to amaze me. Here at UMass Amherst, almost all students (seem to) have the same goal: a four-year degree. Such homogeneity of purpose is at least somewhat useful to me in defining the relatively homogenous economic ends that four-year students see their degrees as serving, but also dangerous, in that it helps students and faculty see both their purposes and the purposes of higher education in general as serving a rather homogenous and unified capitalist market economy. (OK: that conclusion is a big leap, and I’ll leave it open for further interrogation.)

On the other hand, students at two-year institutions constitute a far more diverse population, who envision far more diverse purposes for their educations. Some are there for accreditation, some to earn transfer credits, some for continuing education and career purposes, some simply for financial reasons, and so on. These purposes seem to me to much more adequately fit with the paradigm of the diverse and not-necessarily-capitalist economy posited by J. K. Gibson-Graham. In the very first paragraph of his Introduction, Tinberg confirms both my hopes and my fears vis-a-vis perceptions of the purposes of two-year colleges, naming the two missions of such institutions as being “to provide vocational training and to prepare students for transfer to colleges and universities” (vii). That’s pretty grim: we’re either creating a worker class or pushing students into the fancier schools. Yes, Tinberg addresses schools’ diversity of purposes, but he also sets up (or, perhaps more properly, perpetuates) a scary binary.

But at least he’s explicit about it. University-based compositionists, by and large, seem to me to happily and entirely ignore the “vocational training” aspect, or else take it for granted, as something not worth mentioning. So: is that perhaps due to the relative homogeneity of our classes, as compared to those of community colleges? My dissertation-blinkered perspective makes me want to holler that all of this is so, so economic in nature, and I’d be really grateful for either a confirmation or a reality check.

Third Person Equivocation

It’s been a long day, and a long week. Had two good sections of first-year comp today, and we got a lot of productive work done; I also had a morning meeting and and evening meeting and a couple hours’ work at the library, and didn’t leave campus until nearly half past eight. Despite the fact that I’m working on my annual fall cold, I’m feeling OK. Add-drop is over, my two sections are stable, and the students are learning the ropes: things feel like they’re working well, although I did get a comment today that things move so fast as to be pretty confusing. That’s something I’ll need to work on — while, as I’ve said before, I value the back-and-forth and varied activities, I understand how the cycling from whiteboard to screen to discussion to typing and back again during a single class can be incredibly disorienting.

Did some re-visiting tonight of economics texts I’d seen before, and found some useful stuff. Duncan Ironmonger’s excellent essay “Counting Outputs, Capital Inputs and Caring Labor: Estimating Gross Household Product” (Feminist Economics 2[3], 1996, 37-64) performs a wonderfully insightful (and firmly grounded) analysis of how many non-market economic activities are simply ignored by mainstream economic statisticians. According to Ironmonger, “In everyday language we have come to use the word ‘work’ to refer only to paid work. Thus, when people are challenged to consider everyday household chores they tend to think of these activities as ‘nonwork’ time, done in free time without the constraints of a work contract. People often say household chores are not work because they enjoy minding children, cooking or gardening; this enjoyment is a process benefit from the activity which cannot be transferred to another person. One coutner to this argument is to say that not all household tasks provide enjoyment and ask, ‘How many people enjoy cleaning the toilet?’ The point can also be made that, for many people, much of the time spent working in paid work is enjoyable. The level of enjoyment of the person working is not the criterion to distinguish between work and leisure. Meal preparation, whether in the household or in the restaurant, is valuable work because of the meals provided, not because of the pleasure the cook obtains through the act of cooking. The meals are the outcome benefits that are transferred to those that eat them” (40, emphasis in original). So too with housework, and Ironmonger makes substantial employment of time-use studies of household industries versus market industries and concrete valuations of household labor to draw the rather startling conclusion that Australia’s Gross Household Product is at least equal in size to Australia’s Gross Market Product. In other words, the household economy — the sum total of all household labor and production — is at least as large as the market economy. Yeah: yow.
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Aaaaand We’re Off!

Well, today was it: along with peer review of students’ “middle” drafts, we launched the small-group student weblogs, linked from the main page of The Vast UMass College Writing 113 Online Empire. Forty students, two sections, eight weblogs named after — well, um, that’s their little weekend extra credit project, and I’m figuring they’re all more than smart enough to find this place, so I’ll keep my mouth shut for now. For me, it felt like a fine and productive day for both sections, with none of the usual add/drop week mad panic to get everybody up to the same speed. As I’ve noted before, a day in the classroom — even when it goes horribly — almost always feels better to me than a day when I’m not in the classroom.

I pitched the weblogs as not necessarily mandatory, suggesting that keeping a private paper journal that only I would see as being OK, too, but doing my best to make a persuasive case for the beyond-a-grade value of public writing and interaction. Today’s initial entries are already up, as well as a couple comments (!), which I didn’t even require yet. So I’m pretty psyched. Next week, we’ll start a discussion of what makes a good post and a good comment, and start trying to put our conclusions into practice.

For right now, I’m gonna listen to some 80’s hair metal and have a couple glasses of wine to celebrate a good day in the classroom.

As for my students who find this place: you’re plenty welcome here, of course, and I’ll ask you to understand that I’ll only talk about the class in general terms, and never mention — even anonymously — specific people here. It’s important to me to see your writing and your privacy respected, and I’m never going to talk about you behind your back. If you ever have any concerns about what gets posted here or on your weblogs, please don’t hesitate to talk to the Writing Program’s director or ombuds officer, who will have the administrative privileges to correct any problems on the weblogs, and who can also express their concerns to me without divulging your identity.

So, now: let’s do this.

Does Velcro Help Learning?

A good friend of mine who teaches high school wrote this keep-the-computers-out-of-the-classrooms polemic. As you might guess, I don’t quite agree with everything he says, although I love the fact that a high school English teacher leads off with Stooges lyrics. His joke about Velcro got me thinking, though, about the ways we frame our discussions of computers.

Consider three examples:

  1. Someone poses the question, “Does technology help learning?” For many people, the impulse is to immediately respond, “Well, yes. Of course.”
  2. Someone poses the question, “Do computers help learning?” For many people, the impulse is to immediately respond, “Well, yes. Of course.”
  3. Someone poses the question, “Does Velcro help learning?” (Velcro is, after all, a technology.) For many people, the impulse is to immediately respond, “. . . Whahuh?”

If you think long enough about it, I’m sure that you can come up with some possible ways in which Velcro can be put to productive pedagogical uses. And that’s kind of the point: we’re so smitten with the computer as fetishized object that we’re blind to the particulars of pedagogical context and practice. (Charles Moran and Pat Hunter critique this inattention in their excellent essay, “Writing Teachers, Schools, Access, and Change,” in Todd Taylor and Irene Ward’s Literacy Theory in the Age of the Internet.)

Thanks for the insight, Jay.

Educational Comment Spam

I’ve been receiving comment spam lately from (under the cover of other URLs), who claim an affiliation with the University of Phoenix (note the alternate URL). Usually, I don’t worry too much about comment spam: just put them into MT-Blacklist (my personal blocklist now has over 2,000 entries, with many naughty words) and go along my merry way. But this comment spam I found particularly irritating, because it associated itself with for-profit education. Now, I’ve taught for the for-profit UMass Division of Continuing Education (note the URL), and I have to say, I don’t much like them, both for the way they treat their teachers, and for the downright nasty practices they’ve historically engaged in against academic labor. But maybe this example will highlight the particular problems I see with online for-profit education:
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Teaching’s Assembly Line

Today was a good teaching day with my sections of computer-lab first year composition. I’m happy to see the students, and I was grinning when I left campus. I like them a lot. And we got a lot done today, even though I overplanned, like I always do, and we didn’t get to everything I had in mind, so there’ll be plenty of overlap and catch-up time with the new add/drop students.

As I indicated yesterday, we did break up the activities, moving from individual writing to one-on-one peer interaction to individual writing to group sharing and discussion, back to peer work and individual writing. This back-and-forth is something, to me, that feels much more native to the computer classroom than to the paper-and-pen classroom. In the paper-and-pen classroom, a discussion or one-on-one peer work or small group collaborative writing can go on for the entire class session, but in the computer classroom, I always feel like I’ve got to mix things up and shift from task to task, and I wonder why it’s so.
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