Category Archives: Teaching

Maximally Multimodal

This semester I’m excited to be teaching a 300-level elective cross-listed in the English and Digital Technology and Culture majors as “Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information.” I’m thrilled to be teaching the material, and it’s let me do some cool stuff in the classroom that I haven’t done before. We’ve been reading some selections from James Gleick and elsewhere about Claude Shannon and information theory (which fit together in interesting and provocative ways with Lessig’s thoughts in Free Culture on piracy on the one hand and with Michael Joyce’s hypertexts and Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel” on the other), and grappling with Shannon’s idea that information and meaning are separable — which led me to put together a lesson plan that (1) used some technologies in the classroom that I’d never taught with before and (2) was fairly highly multimodal in its incorporation of graphics, sound, and interactivity.

I started by posing a question, telling students: I’ve got two songs in mind. One is an old song by a band that I grew up listening to and liked a lot, and brings back memories of hanging out in my friend’s attic room. The other is a newer song with a nice beat that’s at once quirky and catchy — maybe an information theorist would argue that those terms imply each other. Which song is better? (Yes, I acknowledged it was a rhetorical question, meant to highlight the subject of the day’s work.)

I then showed the two songs again, in graphical form

spectrogram 1

spectogram 2

and asked: Which one is better? Can you tell how they might be different? Do these images carry more or less meaning than my descriptions? Would I be illegally pirating music by sharing the spectograms of their waveforms at sufficiently high resolution? What would the RIAA say?

That got some discussion going. The next step was to play the songs: I had both an iPhone and an iPad with me, one for playback and one for listening with Soundhound, a song-recognition app similar to Shazam, which functions in the way outlined by Claude Shannon: by measuring patterns (moments of peak frequency and amplitude) against an axis of time or frequency and then compared to a hash table linked to a sufficiently large database. The props worked, of course, identifying the songs in a few seconds each. (YouTube videos are linked from the above images: yes, I got to play “Gangnam Syle” as a part of a lesson.)

In addition to those two songs — which have meanings, obviously, beyond their meaning to me or beyond their waveforms — I then pulled out a ringer: Girl Talk’s “Oh No,” which Soundhound could only identify as either Black Sabbath or Ludacris. The point I was trying to demonstrate from Shannon was concerning the profound difference between information and meaning, and some songs (or texts, broadly construed) have more meaning than others, which can interfere with analyzing them as information. I also made the point that by such a definition, when one is doing the “electronic research” to which the course title refers, one is not looking for meaning, because one cannot a priori do so: instead, we look for information, which we convert into meaning.

That was as good a job as I’ve done this semester of stirring the pot and provoking discussion, and it turned into a really good, energizing lesson. Now to figure out how to do more stuff like that.

Not Quite the End Yet

Last week, I taught the last classes I’ll ever teach at West Point, and this morning I enjoyed my final teacherly interaction with West Point cadets in administering a term-end examination. It’s bittersweet: cadets, for the most part, are awesome, and I’ll miss them, and I’m also moving on to a position elsewhere that I couldn’t be happier about. (More on that soon.) Tonight, though, I’m in a terrible little hotel room (the price was what I could afford, and my good luck from conferences past seems to have borne karmic consequences) in Raleigh, North Carolina, getting ready for a presentation tomorrow at the 2012 Computers and Writing conference, and using my Army computer to finish up the immediate grading requirements for that examination I administered this morning. (The Army computer uses a secure VPN client to access the grading system on West Point’s closed network, whereas the iPad I brought along for the sake of convenience and non-secure personal internet stuff like blogging and Twitter.) So I’m at an academic conference, thinking about the end of my (second) association with the Army, thinking about the technologies I use for teaching at a military institution and the technologies I use for scholarship, and the sometimes odd intersections (or lack thereof) between the two. And that makes me think about the intersections between the military careers that the cadets I taught will go into and what they might or might not take from their four-year experience at West Point. And so while that’s all well and good and a little bit too serious, I’ll also point out that when I walked into the one of the exam rooms this morning and told the remaining cadets they had five minutes left, one of them started whistling the synthesizer lead to Europe’s “The Final Countdown.”

So I’m hoping I’ve left a good impression on most of them. I know there were some who couldn’t stand me or the classes I taught — with across-the-board required courses like FYC and Advanced Composition, I suspect that at least a few of you, my colleagues and peers and friends, encounter the occasional angry or resistant student — and that’s fine. It’s not like teaching is a popularity contest. (Although I wonder what would have happened if I had walked into class wearing a crown and a blue satin sash that said “MR. CONGENIALITY” in glittery silver letters. Too late now.) But some seemed to respond well, especially in the writing- and technology-intensive FYC course I co-piloted last semester, which produced some of the most positive end-of-semester anonymous course evaluations I’ve ever received, not to mention a Pearson correlation between total words written for their daily writing assignment and performance on the final exam of 0.246 (hat tip to the co-pilot, there) with a P-value of 0.006, suggesting a confident rejection of the null hypothesis and a positive relationship between practice and performance, and enthusiastic endorsements of the pedagogical applications of technologies like 750words.com and the Eli online peer review application. Students seemed to like the stuff we did that had empirically verifiable (and blind-graded by faculty other than my co-pilot and me) positive effects on how they developed as writers.

But some folks it’s harder to reach, and I wondered about that at the end of this semester, as well, and where to place the fault or the blame. We have that commonplace about how teaching is rhetorical and one has to persuade students to want to learn, even in a military environment, where the ultimate act of insubordination that would seem to exist beyond any form of hegemonic domination or punishment would be the refusal to learn: if West Point endorses (and it does) academic freedom, then part of that freedom has to be the freedom to say, “No, I prefer not to learn.” Doesn’t it? (What’s the difference between learning and indoctrination, aside from degrees of gentleness?) A lot of the cadets I’ve had the privilege of working with at West Point have had an incredibly well-developed and confident sense of self — and while that’s a great asset for an officer and a soldier, I think it can get in the way of good education. Good education involves doubt. It involves questioning. And some of these essays that I’m grading tonight — the last cadet essays I’ll ever grade — don’t doubt or question enough. They’re far too confident in the positions they assert, and that’s what makes some of them fail, even as I admit that such confidence is what my current (not for very much longer, Magenta says) institution tries to instill.

I was going to pick up that thread about multiple technological systems and attempt to tie it to Liam Corley’s recent College English piece about veterans, but I think I’ll let that wait for another entry. It’s late, and I’ve had a long day.

In Logar Province, 2 May

The first officer with whom I shared an office (interesting intersection there: officer and office, one holding the other) when I arrived here at West Point was the irrepressible Major (MAJ) S.B., who continues to be a dear friend even though she’s since moved on to other assignments. (She was the one who — all the way from Afghanistan — put me in touch with Lieutenant General Caldwell for the Kairos special issue.) MAJ S.B. has an ear for the wry twist on the military cliché, and I’ve heard her suggest that one “Move out and draw fire” as a way of endorsing a decision to voice a possibly unpopular opinion in a meeting, and ask a cadet if he needs to “Take a knee and drink water” after performing particularly poorly on an assignment. I tried to respond with my own wry or semi-ironic twists on popular clichés about teaching, often noting each day as I left the office for class that I was headed off to “touch some lives,” with the implicit suggestion of a critique of the missionary-pedagogical impulse we sometimes hear voiced in composition studies and in the popular rhetoric around teachers. (Think Mr. Keating and the unfortunate implications of that well-intended representation of the figure of the teacher.) But that’s the thing, maybe: despite the misgivings I’ve voiced in my last two posts about the institutional obstacles to good teaching, good learning, and good writing that I feel I’ve encountered here (and, yes, I do feel they still manifest their presence here, and they are uniquely institutional in nature), the most rewarding part about working at West Point has been the teaching and the everyday lived experience of those clichés of “making a difference” and “touching lives.” I’ve done some good, I think, and much of that good has been owed to the cadets with whom I’ve had the privilege of working.

I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to mentor cadets on how to approach the essays they write as a component of their applications for Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships, and in numbers of scholarships won, West Point has most often trailed behind only Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and sometimes Columbia. I’ve helped contribute to that success, but perhaps that’s less of a way of touching lives than it is of being touched by cadet success. I’ve had a cadet ask me to speak at his commissioning ceremony, where he made the official transition from student to officer, and that felt good.

Yesterday, I was reminded of the other side of the work I’ve done here. I got word that a student I taught in my fall 2007 EN101 composition course had been killed on May 2 in Afghanistan by an IED.

When I got that news, I went back to my files and looked over what he’d written to me, and last night, I struggled to write a letter to his parents about how I remembered him.

He came to my course straight out of cadet basic training with the typical tendency toward being tentative that such an experience engenders: after one’s been tested and punished for two months for doing things wrong, there can often be some hesitation to venture any sort of answer or response. But he warmed up, little by little. He came to meet with me in my office. He sent me emails about wanting to do some creative writing, to write stories and poems and character sketches. He told me he did his best writing alone, away from others and away from distractions, and he liked to do a lot of it at once. He was quiet, thoughtful, sometimes a little shy and eager to deflect attention away from himself, but always smart and committed and more than anything else, sincere. Later in the semester, he told me that he had learned “the value of weighing the strength of my opponents’ arguments against my own,” suggesting an intellectual maturation that tried to bridge differences and see perspectives other than his own rather than dismissing them. I didn’t see much of him after that first semester in EN101, but he was always deeply respectful and earnest. In that first semester, he had a somewhat hesitant smile accompanied by a momentary downward flicker of his eyes — a gesture that said to me, “Hang on just a minute, sir; let me think this through” — that set him apart from some of his plebe classmates. Still, as I would see him in the halls in later years, he would develop a confidence and an ease that also set him apart, but it seemed to me a wary ease, a way that he was always taking things in and paying careful attention to what was happening around him. He graduated less than a year ago in May 2011.

My misgivings about the notion of “touching lives” have to do with the ways that they place the emphasis on the role of the teacher. To my mind, having taught here, even a lousy day in the classroom is almost always going to be better than a day not in the classroom: that’s why I do this. But the teacherly experience goes in the other direction, as well. We need to keep in mind the ways we’re shaped and affected by students. To, sometimes, remember.

Beltane

Today is May Day, the workers’ holiday and the Beltane counterpart to my own birthday, Samhain, and Tink and Zeugma’s birthday. They had tuna and catnip and are sleeping off their indulgence, my two nine-year-old girls whose attention has seen me through the estate lawsuits following my mom’s death, my dissertation completion and defense, my first academic job, my first and last military deployment, my year-long engagement and the first four months of my marriage to my wife, the Orientalist. We’ve talked some about the impulse toward orientalism — toward the alienation of difference — in the productive work that West Point asks cadets to perform in thinking and writing about other cultures.

I’m thinking tonight about work, about time, about value. I’ve recently critiqued what I’ve seen as the limitations of the current-traditionalist pedagogy that I’ve tried to revise and move forward, while trying to acknowledge at the same time the strengths I see in the faculty and in the students, who — more than anything else — carry this institution. The biggest difficulty I see, and one of the reasons I think I’ve been unsuccessful, is the perspective here that orients us toward seeing value only in the reified text-as-object. The work of writing (and the work of grading that writing) is to be deplored and ignored here: what matters is the texts-as-objects that students read and the texts-as-objects that students turn in. These texts-as-objects are largely imagined as timeless and beyond intervention: they exist to be assessed and praised and discussed and passed or failed, but are almost never imagined as nascent or possible. We imagine texts here as almost always existing in the perfect tense. As complete. Literary texts are beyond intervention, and are never imagined as under revision or composition.

I remember here a missed opportunity: I went up to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt museum in Hyde Park one rainy day, and saw the series of drafts — four different versions — of that famous speech about attention and value and recession-era economics into which the phrase “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” did not make its way until the final draft. I asked for access to the originals in the FDR library and made copies, intending to show them to my students as evidence, or to ask them to further revise FDR’s speech. The lesson never happened; a casualty of the semester’s obligations. And yet there are so many opportunities here to help students become a part of the Army’s ongoing aggregation and revision of texts, not the least of which seems to me to be the wikified Request For Comment on volumes upon volumes of Army Field Manuals and doctrine. What better real-world exercise, with real and enduring payoff to the Army, could one want? It’s even got its own self-contained assessment measure: what changes made by cadets might make it into the final published version?

I doubt such work would be valued here, though: too close to the real world, and too close to the writing cadets might actually do. It might make a difference, and that would be a problem, because there’s a pedagogy here that insists on its own preservation in a sort of harmless ahistorical amber. The Department will not soon produce anything rivaling the bionic foot that cadet engineers are working on developing for veterans: textual work here is consistently about understanding and appreciation, rather than production. (I’ve lately seen some impulses, incompletely theorized and executed, toward productive textual work that might properly be in the domain of MFAs in creative writing and related disciplines, if such expertise were respected here.) How does the work of writing get done here, on holidays or other days, with or without cats or friends or wives to whom we might read it as we work through it?

I’ve done some time-use studies. With a colleague, I’ve done some correlation studies. But for the most part, we don’t know, and I think we don’t really care to know.

Thoughts on Leaving

I’m leaving this place, bound for another gig that is in many ways my academic dream job come fall 2012, and thinking about what I have and haven’t done here. What have I done? I think I’ve been an insistent voice for recognizing how complex and challenging it is to teach writing, although despite (and perhaps often because of) my insistence, I haven’t always been good at asking people to listen to what I’ve been saying. What haven’t I done? Despite the enormous efforts of other people who I’ve worked with and who’ve preceded me here, smarter and more hard-working than me, and despite what I’ve tried to add to those efforts, I don’t think the understanding or acceptance of writing instruction has changed much here. I get the sense that EN101 Composition is still viewed as an unpleasant slog by many instructors, and still viewed as make-work and drudgery for the students who are too uninspired to appreciate great literature and the instructors who are too dim to teach great literature. I get the sense that writing instruction is still viewed primarily as a matter of didactics in mechanics, as a way of noting those students who are deficient and remedying enough of their deficiencies  that they don’t excessively embarrass themselves, and beyond that as a set of classroom discussions designed to excite students enough about great ideas in great texts that they’ll write something sufficiently interesting that the instructors can look pass the errors and infelicities in that next pile of 60-some papers waiting to be graded. That’s the felt sense I’ve found myself kicking against here, at first in puzzlement and then in concern and frustration and finally in resignation, and almost always too vigorously to help myself gain allies.

We don’t teach the writing process here. We don’t even know what it is. We attend to product, product, product. The required sequence of assignments sets up stacks after stacks of essays to grade, leaving us relentlessly bleary-eyed in commenting and wondering time after time why students wait until the night before they’re due to write them. I think that maybe, just maybe, I might have gotten one or two people to listen to the arguments I’ve taken up from other composition scholars that it’s foolish and entirely counterproductive to fold together feedback on substantive and organizational issues with feedback on style and grammar and punctuation and mechanics: why comment on the latter if the former is going to change anyway? That’s not how professionals write, that’s not how scholars write, but plenty of instructors seem to imagine for the sake of pedagogical expediency that the two can magically be wrapped up into one. If I’ve convinced one or two people to separate substantive review from editing, that’s a victory, and one that I hope might stick. But the habit of writing? I can count on one hand the instructors I’ve met here who are interested or engaged in the regular habit of writing. Most of them are civilians and publishing scholars. For all of the Army’s advocacy for training and for the ways that repeated practice gets one better at something, I continue to be surprised by the apparent belief that daily practice in the work of the primary focus of the composition course is irrelevant to student success — and then, again, instructors are surprised when students wait until the night or the day before an essay is due to write it, and assign and reward quizzes and discussion participation and everything but regular writing.

Part of the reluctance to assign regular writing is the mindset that everything assigned must be graded and evaluated by the instructor. If it’s not graded and evaluated by the instructor, it’s not worth doing, and of course the students catch on to that mindset very quickly, and so they don’t take seriously any activity that doesn’t have a grade attached to it, especially in an environment where there are such considerable burdens on their time. As a result, we get students who don’t exert themselves unless they know someone’s evaluating them. I’m not sure if this is the environment that produces or is produced by the institutional urge toward capital-I Inspiration, but there’s a relationship there between the sometimes corner-cutting spirit of “cooperate and graduate” or “get along to go along” and the idea that our students require incredibly and extraordinarily motivating examples in order to persuade them to want to succeed at the very highest levels. Most of us understand — in ways that students sometimes do not — that performing well is not so much a matter of being brilliant or fearless in that crucial moment as it is a matter of trying to do the good, right thing day after day. A lot of the time, the pedagogy here doesn’t reflect that understanding, which strikes me as deeply strange, because a useful pedagogy of officership — one would think — would be one that turns away from bravura performances and offering models and privileging the “best that has been thought and said” and toward an ethic of doing the right and good thing every day. We don’t do that here, and we don’t do it because of the institutional structures we’ve set up. We reward doing the (sort of) right and good thing on lessons 7, 18, 27, 36, and on the Term-End Examination.

It’s clear that I write this partly in frustration: I love this place, I love the commitment of the students, and I love the commitment of my colleagues. I’ll be sad to leave. But the frustration comes from seeing adherence to tradition working against not only the overwhelming body of peer-reviewed scholarly evidence supporting best practices in writing instruction, but also against fundamental pedagogical common sense. I wish I’d been able to make more of a difference, and I wish I’d figured out ways to have been more persuasive. I wasn’t and I didn’t, and I’ll leave this place feeling that in large part I failed at what I was hired to do.

Commodification and Time

I boasted yesterday that I “work the hell out of the clock.” It’s true: I do. But I’m having second thoughts about that boast. Is it a good thing to “work the hell out of the clock,” either in class or out of class?

I think it’s important, certainly, to respect classroom time and student time, and to do so by planning well, which means planning at once precisely and flexibly. My first-year composition course has an arc marked by graded events, and sequences of lessons that lead up to those graded events, and I plan those sequences themselves both at the small scale and the grand scale while at the same time allowing enough space for things to shift right or left on the calendar as they need to. I’m one of those teachers who always overplans his classes, always having ready to go more than we’ll have time to do. At the same time, I’m also one of those teachers who always cuts himself short, insisting that students have their minimum of 20 minutes each class to write what I ask them to write. Respect the time.

That’s something that not enough people here say, or maybe that not enough people here do, cadets and faculty alike. We abuse time on either side, teachers assigning cadets too much to do, cadets at all levels giving themselves too much to do, to the point where the plebes (who are still earnest, still eager to succeed at everything) in class nod like those mechanical water-sipping birds, because they’ve tried to complete all the tasks set upon them, rather than realizing (as upperclassmen do) that there are some tasks at which they will fail.

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Clocks

Here’s one way to start a rumination on the uses of classroom time in teaching writing: at West Point, classes are 55 minutes long, and I work the hell out of the clock. The section marcher renders the report at the :00 second mark, and we go until I dismiss students, usually no earlier than about 54 minutes and 50 seconds after that :00 second mark, and certainly no later than the 55:00. Our class time is precious and I plan it well, including incorporating at least 20 unbroken minutes (and often more) for students to write during every lesson. Students’ time outside of class is equally precious: West Point cadets are overscheduled, and one of the essential things I can do for a plebe is to respect the time he or she spends beyond my classroom. I do so scrupulously.

Here’s another way to start a rumination about time: I’m turning 42 in a little over two months, and while I’m thinking about time and economy, it seems appropriate to note that in 1748, a 42-year-old Benjamin Franklin wrote in “Advice to a Young Tradesman” that his “friend, A. B.” should “[r]emember, that time is money.” I never liked that saying. Taken as a component of the broader argument of the “Advice” piece, the statement makes sense, but I don’t like the way it categorically commodifies the dimension across and within which we all live our lives. Time is money? Well, yes, it can be. Time is theft? Sure, if you do it right and avoid your workplace internet filters. Time is a gift? Certainly, if you’ve lost a loved one to an illness.

Time is context. In 1748, Franklin was writing in the context of what was still a largely mercantile and manual-labor economy. Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776. Raymond Williams argues that the broad cultural changes associated with the industrial revolution started around 1780. Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville was executed in 1793, but his treatise The Commerce of America with Europe (translated and published in English in 1795) declared that

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Inverting the Classroom Model

I haven’t had much to say here lately because I’ve been doing a lot since my return (in June) from Afghanistan. In terms of teaching, I’ve sought and received permission to pilot what I think is a unique and forward-looking (for West Point) variant of our first-year composition course, and that variant has been underway since 16 August. A colleague and I saw two qualities that we considered characteristic challenges associated with the traditional ways writing plebes write at West Point, and — with permission from our leadership — have designed a first-year composition course that attempts to respond to those challenges.

The first challenge: I believe that it’s too easy to allow the classroom work associated with composition courses to focus on activities other than writing. I’ve been in many composition classes here and at other institutions where the students discuss readings and approaches and the teachers facilitate work and manage discussion and sometimes stand at the front of the classroom and show students things. Compositionists know and agree and emphasize that the work of the writing class is writing, and yet — in many classes — students simply don’t produce much text, largely because of the way we apportion the work of the course. Too often, we’ll ask them to perhaps start working on their essay assignments in a class or two, and then to complete that writing for homework and bring it in the following lesson in the form of a draft essay, and too often they’ll come in with only a page or a paragraph or two that they dashed off in 15 minutes. There’s a whole complex of related problems associated with that mode of instruction: instructors think they are responsible in some way for “delivering” or “covering” what they envision as course content, and so they attempt to describe or demonstrate to students what an effective introductory paragraph looks like, or review the passages in the book that discuss effective transitional expressions, or talk with their students about what the author to whom the students have been asked to respond in their essays might have really meant, in order to help the students engage with that author more insightfully. I don’t believe such activities do much to help students become better writers.

The second challenge: the classroom work associated with many writing courses uses tools and modes of work dedicated to producing texts that look like they should be printed in a single, unified format on 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper, even if those sheets of paper are never physically turned in. In other words, and as many scholars in the field of computers and writing have lately been pointing out, we dedicate ourselves to preserving a unitary genre and document model that is no longer the world’s dominant mode of textual production. In mummifying and fetishizing this model, we turn our students’ attention away from the many other ways that texts get produced: we privilege the thing itself, the dead thing, instead of attending to the textual practices and ways of writing (the verb, not the noun) that will help students improve as writers. We need to help our students gain the critical approaches and skills in using the tools, techniques, genres, and modes that will help them adapt to diverse and changing writing situations and produce texts appropriate to those situations, whatever those situations may be.

In response to those two challenges, my colleague and I have designed a first-year composition course that (1) inverts the usual classroom workload and (2) asks students to use an array of digital tools, media, and technologies to respond to that inverted workload.

We’ve inverted the classroom workload by moving the work of writing into the classroom, and moving the discussion and delivery of course-related material outside the classroom. In other words, our students write while they’re in class, and discuss and seek guidance from one another and from us when they’re outside of class. During every class session of the semester, we give students at least 20 minutes (and often longer) to write, using the site 750words.com to do so. Students who wish to pass the course with a C must write 750 words every lesson for 40 lessons: when they’re done with our course, this single requirement will result in C students having written 30,000 words. We encourage students to adapt, revise, and copy and paste those 750 daily words into their formal graded essay assignments and into their weblog writing. Furthermore, because that daily writing displaces some class time that might be ordinarily devoted to class discussion or delivery of course materials, we off-load the discussion as homework to be undertaken on the class weblog, to which students are also required to contribute. In that way, the discussion is shifted to an outside-of-class writing activity that the instructors moderate and manage and contribute to, while what would ordinarily be homework is shifted into the classroom. While we might have students show up to class not knowing what’s going on because they haven’t read the blog, we will never have students show up without something written, because their work will always be there on 750words.com. And we believe that simply doing the writing — that minimum of 30,000 words by semester’s end — will help them get better.

Additionally, we’re using sites like 750words.com (which encourages private writing) and our class weblog (which demands public writing) and zoho.com (which we use as our online collaboration tool for their more formal essay-assignment writing, but also serves as a cloud-based writing application) to get them to shift up and change the ways they write depending on the contexts and audiences and purposes for which they’re writing: in other words, the ways we ask them to use the digital tools associated with the course are also ways of training them to be agile, adaptable rhetors. Technology is context, and context is an inescapable component of the rhetorical situation, and to pretend that the 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper is the only delivery medium for student writing is to radically shortchange a student’s adaptability to a diverse range of rhetorical situations. If we help students write (and write a lot) in different ways and in different contexts for different media and different situations, we cannot do other than help them improve as writers.

That, at least, is my hope.

Negotiating the Administratosphere

I had a productive first meeting with the person I’m working with on the Afghan side here, the acting head of the Languages department, and have started to develop a sense about the specifics of the areas — curriculum development, teacher mentoring — on which he’d like me to focus. The project our American mentor team has taken on feels enormous and a little bit diffuse, with undefined boundaries or limits beyond that of the departure of the American mentor presence from this extraordinarily young institution of higher education in less than three years, and a philosophy that can mostly be summed up as an orientation toward helping the Afghans draw together and perform all these administrative and curricular and pedagogical tasks, literally inventing the university in its entirety as their own, on their own. I still struggle to get my head around how big a project this is and how many moving parts it has and how swiftly and carefully we have to move. Today, on the peeling-paint wall over my corner desk in the office, I scotch-taped up a quotation from T.E. Lawrence’s “Twenty-Seven Articles“: “Do not try to do too much with your own hands.”

barracks

One thing I know I need to do in order to be helpful here is to step back and get perspectival distance on the assumptions about teaching and writing I’ve built up over the past twelve years or so. So in my meeting, I listened a lot, asked questions, and took notes. After I went back to the office and typed up the notes, I opened two of the books I brought to help reset my assumptions to zero: Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj’s The Elements of Teaching Writing and Cheryl Glenn and Melissa Goldthwaite’s The St. Martin’s Guide to Teaching Writing. (I’ve re-read Erika Lindemann’s A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers too recently to be able to come to it with fresh eyes.) There’s much to commend both books, beginning with Glenn and Goldthwaite’s observation that “The first thing any new teacher must do is gather information” (3), perhaps glaring in its obviousness save that I’ve been working hard to do precisely that in an environment where I’m off-balance and uninformed, where I don’t know any of the ropes or routines. Certainly, I’ve been “mak[ing] inquiries about the academic level of the students [that the Afghan instructors here] will be teaching” (Glenn and Goldthwaite 4) and “[t]ry[ing] at this point to find out all [I] can about the backgrounds of the students [they] are likely to encounter. Until fairly recently, teachers of writing have treated all students as if they were very much alike, but that convenient fiction is no longer feasible to maintain” (Glenn and Goldthwaite 5). The second quotation is perhaps even more true in an institution drawing from a population incredibly diverse in terms of economic status, literacy and previous education, and language and tribal background — Uzbeks, Nuristanis, Pashtuns, Hazaras, Tajiks, and others.

sandbags

And I like the way Gottschalk and Hjortshoj begin, as well, by posing some fundamental questions: “What is wrong with student writing? … Who is responsible for improving student writing?” (4). Who ought to be able to teach writing (5), and “[w]hat is good writing” (7)? Gottschalk and Hjortshoj then move to big-picture concerns about writing and learning, about philosophies of teaching, and about course design (12-13): this seems smart to me, to orient oneself to the biggest and most important concepts, the overarching frame, before one starts to work on the details. I know which courses and which aspects of curriculum my Afghan counterpart wants the most help with, and I have a loose sense of what pedagogical areas he’d like me to help his faculty work on, but my sense is vague and limited, and it’ll take more time and talk — weeks, I think, at least — to refine and broaden and specify that sense.

cars_ready

Glenn and Goldthwaite take a different approach, focused much less on the big-picture questions: while they devote pages early on to constructing a syllabus, it’s not so much about course design as it is about administrative requirements, which strikes me as odd, or at least as not an approach I would choose. They assert that “The first details you should find out about are the number of credit hours the course carries and the number of times the class meets each week” (Glenn and Goldthwaite 3) and ask, “Must students write and submit a certain number of essays? Must they keep journals or reading logs? Is there an official policy with regard to revisions? peer evaluation? teacher conferences? evaluation and grading? Is an exit exam required?” (4), which are all relevant and important questions, but not the things at the front of my mind as I first beging thinking through the design of a course. Similarly, they focus on the administrivia of teaching writing in their account of the first two days, enumerating “bureaucratic tasks,” syllabus review, introductions, dismissal, more “bureaucratic tasks,” and the clinically characterized “diagnostic” writing assignment.

As I try to stand back from my assumptions and think about the Afghan students and instructors here, I still can’t help but say: this isn’t how I would want to start thinking about a course, and it isn’t how I would want to start teaching a course. Certainly, the administrivia are necessary, elements of a sort of logistical scaffolding that makes other things possible, forms of enabling the work-behind-the-work that does deserve to be at times foregrounded upon, reflected upon (“How do you write? Where are you when you write? For how long at a stretch? What do you need to know or do in order to be able to write? What are the non-writing tasks that make you able to write?”), but it’s not an end in itself, and not something that one should lead with.

Contrarily, I would want the first day of a course to give some idea of the overarching picture, the plan, a glimpse at the big idea or big picture, and a sense of how the work of the class will go, an engaged task as a taste or warm-up for the semester’s work. I imagine myself starting class today, this 26th of January, and I imagine:

“Welcome,” I say. “This is a writing class.

I believe you can write, and that you can write well. I know that you learn by doing, and this class will be in doing writing, in engaging the process, and in learning and practicing how to internalize the habits that will make you a better writer. So we’re going to start by doing today: I’m going to ask you to write.

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Call Me الَّبِحُ

I was happy to see Rebecca Moore Howard’s recent post on Ten Principles for Teaching With a Handbook. I agree with every one of the principles she proposes, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how teaching with a good handbook often gets undervalued. Composition instructors often want to focus on (and argue about) what we characterize as the “content” of a course: in textbook terms, we have intense and longstanding debates that often focus on the course reader at the expense of our attention to the course rhetoric or the course handbook. I’m now starting year five of teaching writing and contributing to program and curriculum development at my current institution, and out of our cadre of instructors, I’m the only one who’s taught first-year composition every year. That’s valuable to me.

One reason it’s valuable to me is that we’ve had the same handbook for five years. It’s not Becky’s Writing Matters, which I’d love to adopt and have argued for, but the Little, Brown Handbook has served us well. (This is the part where I have to tread carefully because of who I work for and because I can’t use my position or my employer to endorse something. So: not endorsing; just saying what we use and how we use it, in a similar fashion to the way soldiers of all ranks describe the effectiveness of the M4.) When I got to my institution in 2006, we were using the 10th edition; we’ve since upgraded to the 11th. But one of the ways in which we adhere to Becky’s Principles 9 and 10 is that our first-year students get the handbook — the LBH, as we call it, in our institutional fondness for initialisms and acronyms — at the start of their academic careers, and are required to use it as a reference for all their subsequent writing, until they graduate. And our institutional policies refer to it by name and cite it. That’s some powerful stuff.

So I’ve got some acquaintance with our handbook. It’s no substitute for a rhetoric, but I enjoy teaching with it, and I’ve heard tell of students who get so familiar with it that they take it with them when they deploy after they graduate. And I found in our lesson conference meetings in the reorganization week run-up to the start of classes that I’ve internalized mental links to almost all the sections in the book: talk to me about citation practices or the rhetorical situation or fused sentences or nonsexist language or errors in the use of determiners or the distinctions between revision, editing, and proofreading and I can give you chapter and verse.

I’ve decided to take on a title for myself, and I made that title public at one of our lesson conference meetings: with the help of the Orientalist, I’ve figured out that my name should be الَّبِحُ: al-Lebihu, “The LBH,” with the understanding from Becky that the handbook is not the equivalent of شريعة, Sharia (law), but of الكلام‎, Kalam (dialectic).