Category Archives: Teaching

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.”

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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).

My Homework

The semester is underway, with lesson 2 of 40 taking place tomorrow. We had our academic convocation this afternoon, which was a pleasant enough ceremony in the Dean’s and Superintendent’s reminders that academic endeavor is of first importance in what we do. The need for such a reminder likely seems odd to those familiar with the environment of higher education, but here there are some who are occasionally eager to emphasize Sparta at the expense of Athens.

This semester I’m teaching EN101, our first-year composition course, and our course director has selected a new course reader. To increase our familiarity with the selections from the reader and our familiarity with one anothers’ interests and professional styles, and perhaps also to help remind us of what it is we’re asking our students to do, he assigned us homework: each member of the EN101 faculty was asked to choose one selection from the reader and write a two-to-three page summary and response essay. (I think assigning teachers to write at least one essay similar to what students are doing before the semester gets underway is a pretty good idea: I like that our course director did it, and wound up learning something valuable.) Two to three pages is not a lot of space, and I didn’t particularly cover myself in glory in what I wrote for the assignment: I’ve assigned summary and response essays in the past, and it’s not the most fair thing to ask of a student, since the genre almost demands that they respond with something fairly simple and basic.

That’s what I came up with, at least. This is some of the poorest writing I’ve done in a while; not really interesting or even original, with over-used analogies and recycled truisms that are likely familiar to most of us. I guess the thing I’m least unhappy with is the organizational device or trope, but even that is a bit of a gimmick. Why post this, then? For one, it’s a way to get me started blogging again after far too long a dry spell; for another, it’s a way to remind myself to carefully consider what I’m asking students to do, and what I expect them to get out of the assignments they complete. I’m not assigning a summary and response to my students this semester, and I’ll think hard before I do so again.

(And yes, it’s even got five paragraphs. Gah! What the hell is wrong with me?)

Cursus Imperii

In the Romantic view of Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole, civilization proceeds from an idealized “Savage State” and to a desolated version of that state ultimately returns. For Cole, as for Jos

Shankar via Lunsford: Spriting Talkuments

On pages 9-10 of Writing Matters, Andrea Lunsford cites a number of terms Tara Shankar invents in her 2005 dissertation, including

the key term spriting. By ‘sprite,’ a portmanteau combining speaking and writing, Shankar means speaking that “yields two technologically supported representations: the speech in audible form, and the speech in visual form. Spriting, therefore, equally encompasses digital speech recorders, speech editing tools, and any speech dictation recognition tools that would use speech in addition to text as an output mode” (15). The product of spriting she identifies as a spoken document, or talkument. . . Finding that students produce talkuments collaboratively with the greatest of ease, Shankar concludes that “spriting seems to admit even closer, more integral collaborations than does writing, perhaps because spriting can more easily incorporate conversation as both planning and composition material” (236).

I find this particularly interesting as I begin the Spring semester and ask my students to engage in some brief, regular low-stakes writing; in keeping a daybook. Last semester when I did this, the daybook took a variety of forms from blog to paper journal to daily text file, and as I’m increasingly syncing my composing media (phone to laptop to index cards to notebook to work and home computers), I’m realizing that I’ll be composing via the spoken word as well as the written word, and that I should give my students the same latitude.

12 Beliefs About Teaching Writing

As the XO for our first-year composition course, I’ve been drafting the staff syllabus, which serves as something less than a template for new instructors and as something less than a guide for veteran instructors. Textbooks and due dates for the major graded assignments are shared requirements, and there are a few readings from the handbook and the rhetoric that we ask all instructors to assign, but beyond that, it’s perhaps not as regimented as one might expect at an institution like ours.

Still, in drafting a staff FYC syllabus and preparing to sell it to incoming faculty, I’ve found myself needing to articulate to myself my core assumptions about the teaching of writing. They follow, and I’d welcome additions or arguments.

  1. The course starts and ends with student writing, quite literally: writing is the first thing they do upon entering the classroom for lesson 1, and the last thing they do before leaving the classroom after lesson 40.
  2. Writing is first a verb and second a noun: the activity is always foregrounded before the product.
  3. Three or four major writing projects, with time taken to engage the diverse components of the processes of writing (generative writing, developing, drafting, seeking and receiving feedback, revising, editing, proofreading, publishing, reflecting) feels about right for a semester. Five feels like too many; two like too few.
  4. In working with the classical canons, invention and organization always come prior to style and delivery, both at the project scale and at the semester scale. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.
  5. The course requires both a handbook and a rhetoric. The rhetoric often best serves the earlier functions (invention and organization), while the handbook often best serves the later functions (style and delivery). This tends to set up a rhythm in assigning readings.
  6. Revision always leaves portions of writing behind. Students, like all writers, will produce writing that they do not publish. That doesn’t mean that such writing should be discarded: save it, come back to it, maybe not in this class, but later. Get students used to setting aside portions of their work.
  7. Difficulty is productive, and should be acknowledged as such. When a student says, “This challenges me and I don’t know what to do,” we should take this as a point of entry rather than a roadblock. Respond: “How? Why? At what point?” Then respond: “I’d like to hear more about that. Can you write about it?” The worst writing often comes from what is taken for granted; from what is easy. The best comes out of complexity.
  8. Don’t mark error at all on early drafts. (No: really: don’t.) On later or final drafts, don’t mark every error. For each essay, talk to students before they turn in a later draft about the two or three or four errors they want help with. Go to the handbook for those errors at the later-draft stages.
  9. One learns to write by writing. The core focus of a course on writing is writing. The direct method of instruction seems self-evident; from those who would advocate alternative methods, I would require supporting evidence. I am suspicious of any syllabus that seeks to privilege a third text — a reader — over a rhetoric and a handbook. Such privilege indicates to me both a belief that the material of a writing course is not writing, and a belief that the writing course is a proper vehicle for indoctrination.
  10. Publication is essential. Writers must have the opportunity to see readers — not just the teacher — reading and reacting to their writing. Writing has value, and the value of students’ work must be acknowledged, must be celebrated. Point blank: publication makes writing better.
  11. Major assignments must have links between them. A project begun in an earlier essay should lead in some way to a later essay. Students’ written reflections on their projects should foreground those links, and instructors’ written responses to student writing must acknowledge and foster those links, as well as acknowledging students’ writings as trajectories rather than as strings of individual performances.
  12. Students should self-assess, repeatedly: metacognition is essential to knowledge transfer. Ask students to write reflections about their essays on the days they turn them in. They’ll like being able to call your attention to the ways they’ve improved, and what they think is best about their essays. You’ll like the guide to grading that their reflections offer. Ask them, though, to be not only evaluative but descriptive: understanding how they write, and putting it in writing, will help them as well as you. Take their reflections seriously, and show them that you do so by engaging them and responding to them.

Last Day of Classes

The President came to visit campus yesterday, along with three Chinooks’ and two Sikorsky VH-3Ds’ worth of Secret Service and support staff, so classes were canceled and we dropped a lesson, making today the last class for two of my composition sections.

On the first day of the semester, I had my students do something called “the envelope exercise,” adapted from an exercise one of my grad school colleagues came up with: first, I gave an empty envelope to everyone in class. We read, out loud, two paragraphs from Peter Elbow on freewriting and how to do it. I then asked them to fill in the endings of the following sentences, in as much depth and detail as possible, on a piece of paper. I wouldn’t see what they wrote.

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Optempo

It’s one of the words I think academia could adopt from the military. It refers to the pace of operations, and implies the considerations that such a pace places on all involved, instructors and students. The term implies, as well, the differing priorities for all involved, and the ways that students’ priorities are often obscured from instructors’, instructors’ from parents’, parents’ from students, and so on.

It’s an administrator’s term; a pace set by staff syllabi and due dates, by objectives and phase lines. But what academia knows and doesn’t admit, and what the military seems to know and admit and sometimes gauge better, is how optempo works on all involved. There are measures of optempo, and I’d like to see them more widely considered. I’d argue that when we construct outcomes statements, one of the things we need to consider is optempo, for instructors and students alike. Not only how much students are writing, and in what form, but how much instructors are responding, and how swiftly instructors are able to return feedback on students’ drafts. Certainly, that’s a matter of employment and staffing logistics, but it’s also a matter of syllabus planning, especially when programs are offering or requiring staff syllabi.

It’s what makes me think I’ve overplanned this semester: in trying to map out my students’ writing, I’ve failed to map out my own work in relation to that writing. I’ve tried to do too much, and the way I’ve paced my own work in relation to the syllabus I’ve set has been short-sighted. That’s something to think about when I lay out the calendar grid for next semester and next year: not only where my students are going to be, but where I’m going to be.

It’s odd for such a concern to come up so late; that it hasn’t come up before. That optempo has always seemed like a given; something unalterable.

Isn’t it?

Academic Category Error

People in my academic discipline sometimes conflate “military” and “war.” From what I’ve seen of the broader scape of academe, that’s not uncommon. In listserv discussions, interactions at conferences, calls for proposals, and hallway conversations, there’s a common assumption that any association with the military must commit one to a monolithic and intolerant ideology supporting all war, always, in all contexts.

Two nights ago, on Monday, Eugene Jarecki showed up on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart promoting his new book. (Jarecki wrote and directed the award-winning 2005 documentary Why We Fight, which — while voluminously researched and attempting to provide the appearance of scrupulous fairness — mostly did a very good job for 99 minutes of proving that Jarecki agreed with the cautions offered in Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” speech: to paraphrase a number of critics, the movie was an op-ed piece, not investigative reporting.) He had some good things to say about today’s links between the defense industry and American foreign policy, and with Stewart’s prompting and assistance, he made a number of solid points fully and clearly in the nine minutes or so that he had.

Stewart’s a breezy interviewer, and I think Jarecki would have fared better with a more deliberate pace, perhaps even with being asked to read a passage from the book out loud, NPR-style, though that seldom plays well on television. (Would that it did.) I say this because Jarecki was invited here to West Point to talk to people — cadets and faculty — about his movie after its release, and accounts of those conversations have traveled, some of them making their way into his new book, and some of them making their way into our Dean’s annual address to faculty — all faculty, military and civilian — where I first heard them two months ago. I quote here from Jarecki’s book, The American Way of War, published ten days ago:

Located in wooded isolation some 50 miles north of New York City, West Point is very much in its own intellectual orbit, not entirely removed from the workings of the American defense establishment, yet not entirely in sync with them either. On my first drive there, I recall the incredulity with which friends and family reacted when I called from the road to tell them where I was going. They were surprised that a military academy would even show a film like Why We Fight, let alone invite a self-acknowledged critic of U.S. defense policy, to address its best and brightest.

As it turns out, this incredulity reflects a prejudice that sweepingly and mistakenly equates bad foreign policy with those entrusted to implement it. While soldiers come in all types and no single generalization can be made, one finds inspiring abundance on West Point’s faculty of responsible thinkers who feel a responsibility not only to train their cadets in the military arts but to educate them more broadly about the strengths and weaknesses of the nation’s foreign policy system.

Jarecki’s words are a careful and instructive counter to the myopic conflation I describe above. When our Dean read those words, and conveyed them to the faculty with an argument about their importance, they helped me see something more about teaching at this place, and about why I’m teaching here and want to continue to teach here. The engagement with diverse and critical perspectives that Jarecki describes is something I’ve seen here far more than at any other college or university I’ve attended or taught at, and seen especially with a remarkable openness in the classroom.

It’s remarkable the things cadets are unafraid to say and the criticisms they’re unafraid to make, reasonably and professionally, and how calmly and precisely they’re able to disagree with one another on loaded issues, and then think nothing of it and move on to celebrate and support one another. (Mostly.) In my class, they’ve just finished a unit on multi-modal argument, with more than a few of them giving presentations on similar or identical topics in rapid succession, and the kaleidoscope of perspectives has been refreshingly more wide-ranging than some of the homogeneous arrays of ideological and rhetorical commonplaces I’ve seen elsewhere. And in many ways more liberally accepting; more embracing of what Benjamin Franklin called “all these scatter’d counsels.” That ideological diversity and tolerance strikes me as one of the most valuable assets that a democratic nation might promote in its military, and one that I wish I might see more of in academe’s broader scape.

Kairos CFP: dot mil

Here’s part of my excuse for not posting much lately. Alexis and I are pretty excited about it. And I might be soliciting some of you, dear readers, for contributions.

Call for Proposals

Kairos Summer 2010 Special Issue
dot mil: Rhetoric, Technology, and the Military
Guest Editors: Mike Edwards and Alexis Hart

This special issue of Kairos seeks to investigate the intersections between technology, rhetoric, and the military, as well as the connections between the military and literacy instruction. During World War II, College English published four articles (February 1944, May 1944, March 1945, May 1945) explicitly concerned with connections between literacy instruction in higher education and the contemporary military. Today, in a time of ongoing conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan and anxieties about military action in Iran, such connections merit renewed attention. Furthermore, advances in communications technologies have complicated those connections. ARPANET, the first packet-switching network and direct predecessor to the global internet, went live as a Department of Defense project in 1969, and the intersection of networked rhetorics and military affairs has evolved in intriguing ways since. For example, email, web video, cell phones, video games, weblogs, and other digital technologies have become increasingly available as well as increasingly controversial within military contexts. For this special issue on rhetoric, technology, and the military, examples of possible topics of investigation might include, but are not limited to:

How soldiers’, sailors’, airmen’s, and Marines’ access to 24/7 networked communications technologies has changed the rhetoric of conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
Online alternative news sources and their influence on public perceptions of conflicts.
How digital technologies complicate concerns of operations security (OPSEC).
The Army’s ban on weblogging by soldiers without command approval.
The rhetorics and aesthetics of military-themed video games.
Distance learning for deployed soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.
The use of just war theory, torture, protest, and other military-related subjects as topics for argument essays in first-year writing courses.
Corporal Pat Tillman and the public uses of the rhetorical canon of memory.
The rhetoric of PowerPoint in command briefings.
The use of netwar strategies by insurgency groups and conventional military organizations.
Media representations of the ethics and rhetoric of the “revolt of the generals.”
The rhetoric of recruiting.
Online “swiftboating” and the place of military service in political rhetoric.
The rhetorical framing of conflict in documentaries and news reports, as well as in first-hand accounts from on-the-ground warfighters.

Submission Guidelines:

For this special issue, we seek submissions for all sections of the journal (Topoi, Praxis, Reviews, Interviews, and Disputatio). We ask that contributors visit current and previous issues to determine which section best matches your work.

Topoi: Extended scholarly analyses related to the special issue theme.
Praxis: Longer classroom spotlights and brief digital tool-use narratives related to the special issue theme.
Reviews: Individual or collaborative reviews of books, media, and other texts of interest related to the special issue theme.
Interviews: Interviews with scholars doing work related to the special issue theme.
Disputatio: Short digital texts that invite or incite further commentary. This section operates like letters to the editor in more traditional journal venues; however, these texts take native digital forms, even if rudimentary in nature.

Additional Guidelines:

Please consult general submission guidelines at http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/cfht.html.
Kairos can accept most web-ready file formats (check with the guest editors if you are unsure). Please keep in mind that this excludes word-processing documents.
We prefer URLs for review purposes. If you do not have access to open (or password-protected) webspace, please contact the guest editors in advance of the submission deadline to arrange alternate means of delivery.
We cannot accept email attachments larger than 2 megabytes (MB).
Queries to the guest editors are welcome in advance of the deadline. (Responses may take up to a week.)

Submission Deadline (Proposals): November 1, 2008

Contact both guest editors with a proposal via email. (Subject line: “dotmil submission: YOURNAME”.) The proposal should include a 1-2 paragraph explanation of the webtext’s topic and argument; a 1-2 paragraph description of the webtext’s structure, design, and associated technologies (including a URL and/or images, if authors wish); and a brief annotated bibliography. Authors will receive confirmation of submission, via email, within 2-3 days.

Publication Timeline:

Proposals due: November 1, 2008
Acceptance notification: December 1, 2008
Full webtexts due: March 1, 2009
Revised webtexts due: October 1, 2009
Publication date: May 15, 2010