Teaching

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).

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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