The Brick Moves To The Library

My poor English 103 students! Every time I taught the course, I had a mark of shame that one of us had to bear at some point: The Brick.

One one side, I painted “Unsupported Claim” and on the other, the slogan shown above. I last used The Brick in Fall, 2009 but in the Spring of 2013, it returns for my First-Year Seminar “Cyberspace: History, Future, and Culture.”

No errors can eclipse these two flaws. Even a missing thesis, what I prefer to call a “governing claim,” can take second place in a reader’s mind to an argument so flawed that one cannot read on. While I try to be moderately tough on grammar and usage, if the paper makes a logical flaw meriting The Brick, little else matters to me. This is also why our Writing Consultants begin their work with these top-down concerns.

You can read more about how I used of The Brick, but it worked. When a writer, including the teacher, violated one of my cardinal rules about academic writing, s/he got to keep The Brick in each class until the fatal flaw had been corrected, often in a follow-up post to the class blog. I was given The Brick once by my class, I’m proud to say, but only once that last semester. We can all make fatal errors in argument, but I made a generalization in a post online, and a student was quick to spot it. He e-mailed me, then announced my crime in the next class.

In an age of pixelated writing and 140-character “thoughts” at Twitter, the materiality of The Brick reminds us that some words are not easily retracted. That’s a comforting thought in an election year, when billions of words are spewed, and many of them deserve a brickbat or two.

Now that the Writing Center’s daily consultations are moving to our campus Library, I will move The Brick along, too. Enjoy it and never hurl it!

Google Sites: Page-Level Permissions

Google What?

I do not often read Google’s blog about their documents features, but recently I was looking for an answer to a few questions about Google Sites, the tool that I now use for all of my course syllabi. Unlike traditional web-site builders, Google Sites is collaborative; this is common for wikis, web-site software long popular in K-12 education but rarer in higher education.

In doing my reading at Google’s blog, I found a game-changer for writing teachers. Sites has quickly become my favorite tool for a few reasons:

  • It’s free
  • It offers a navigational sidebar that I like from PBworks‘ wiki
  • It lacks obtrusive advertisements
  • It has the ease of use that Wikispaces offers, but appears even more familiar to MS-Office users.

To my knowledge, however, none of Google’s smaller competitors, and certainly nothing from the desktop-centric Microsoft empire, offer a creator the ability to grant permissions, by page, to those sharing a site. Google explains the reasons for this feature here.

Course-Management Software vs. Sites

For years, I’ve refused to use BlackBoard because it has made guest access so hard. In my field, writing & composition, faculty routinely share lesson plans and syllabi, so Blackboard never met my needs. Our Eng. 383 syllabus has become a model for many other schools’ training programs precisely because colleagues outside the class can find it with a Web search and view the content.

That said, I’m pleased that Blackboard, seeing what the competition offers for free, has given faculty a “public” option for Bb sites. But I’ve argued elsewhere that Blackboard is an overpriced “transition” technology in the age of social media and Web 2.0 shared applications.  Blackboard only recently added such technology to its product.

For now, Sites lacks the sort of testing features that Blackboard has, but I don’t use quizzes that way. It would be possible, however, to link to an online gradebook created with Google Docs. You can see the results (but not students’ grades!) in the latest iteration of my Eng. 383 syllabus, used for training Writing Consultants at the University of Richmond.

How the Collaboration Works

The process of granting permissions for a Google Site is a little tedious at first. I had to invite users to the site with “view” permissions…and they must have a Gmail account. But to my knowledge it cannot be one the University grants, either, as my site resides on the public servers at Google. Had I known this, I might have set up the site under UR’s rubric, but that change of service-providers had not occurred when I first set up my Google Site.

The nature of collaboration and the presence of multimedia in modern writing classrooms make something like Google Sites, with page permissions enabled, essential to how I teach. That said, Google still needs to add a few features:

  • The ability to archive the site locally
  • A somewhat more streamlined process for adding users.

Overall, however, this free tool is phenomenal, and I plan to recommend it to colleagues.

Image source: pre-Sites days in Eng. 103 classroom, late 1990s.

Back to…Paper in the Classroom?

Pile of Papers

I have a penchant for mixing things up in class, if only to keep writers on their toes. For many semesters, I got away from any writing on paper in favor of blogs, digital stories, and wikis.  Now, in a literature course I last taught as paperless, some old friends (and nemeses) have returned: staples, margins, page numbers.

Why have I returned to the 20th Century?

When conducting a “paper chase” with 16 Writing Consultants and 18 literature students, I found that paper enables my Consultants to write the sort of commentary they will most likely write for our professors or in our Writing Center. In time, our faculty will embrace multimedia for many projects, but even then, Writing Consultants will need to understand the rhetoric of linear as well as associative, collaborative projects.

One could do what I’m doing with file exchanges, of course, and some faculty do just that. I’m no stranger to MS Word’s track changes and embedded comments, but even as I write this post, a student has contacted me with a question: the introduction I returned to her, with my comments linked to text, does not seem to be “working.”

I’m not fond of MS Word’s dependence upon co-writers having similar versions. I’ll probably have to switch to Google Docs to finish helping her. It’s simply a simpler, and more ubiquitous, technology. Yet even that lacks the ubiquity of paper.

Paper cannot show multimedia (yet). Paper cannot have live feedback forms or allow online tagging and collaboration (yet). Despite these limitations, I’m most curious to see how a paper-based class goes for me this term. Stay tuned.

Some tasks are, however, inefficient on paper. I’d include sign-up sheets for Writing Consultants, whether done collaboratively or with a single editor, as in this example from my current lit. class. Everyone with the link can view the document from wherever they may be. I now consider Google Docs to be “paper plus,” since they preserve what is best about linear discourse but add collaborative features that are clumsy in Microsoft Office, a technology designed for print.

The Curse of the B Minus: Writers, Teachers, Failure

Creative-Commons image courtesy of targuman’s Flickr photostream

When faculty believe that they have failed as writing instructors, why do they fear that outcome? We might dread poor evaluations, angry or quiet classrooms, or–the worst fear of all–that we have let down students on their journeys to attain something like wisdom.

I say “something like” because no university education or series of excellent assignments can impart wisdom. At best, I might lead writers to see how poorly they are served by unsupported generalizations. In fact, I often try to do no more than that, plus get writers to pay attention to their own words, in the course of a semester.

Assignments might fail, even the pilot-year of  new class. But faculty members, like their students in a writing-intensive course, can learn from failure. Perhaps not enough time in graduate school goes into examining the psychology of designing assignments and conducting class, but the hard lessons of failure should be added to the curriculum. I never once did the sort of role-playing exercises that Ryan and Zimmerelli propose in their training manual for peer tutors (106-110).  Had I done so, in the presence of a faculty mentor, I might have avoided what occurred my first semester teaching writing.

It might be a counterpart to a book that is making the rounds, The Blessing of the B Minus.

At Indiana I was so terrified teaching my first class that I broke into “flop sweats” in the classroom that night in Ballantine Hall.  That got better fast, but one event sticks with me to this day. I had a student named Ellen who was a talented writer, a product of one of the best high schools in the state. But Ellen never pushed herself as hard as she might. She got an easy A on my first essay, a short diagnostic piece that counted little toward her final grade. The exercise intended to point out to me which writers had trouble with remedial issues; Ellen had none.

We Associate Instructors had been schooled in Elbow’s ideas and had read Nancy Sommers’ “Responding to Student Writing,” a 1982 masterpiece that changed my philosophy of writing commentary.  We had not, however, discussed what to do with a writer who had never before received a B- on anything. Anything.

Ellen appealed that grade, her second of the term, to me, and I patiently sat down to show her why the project did not match expectations for academic writing. She was crushed, despite my assurance that the second paper would count no more than 10 or 15 percent (I forget) of the final grade. Never before, she noted, had she gotten anything lower than an A.

She thanked me, gathered her books and papers, then left the ready-to-be-condemned building that housed the AIs. I was a terrible undergraduate until my last year, so I watched her with real puzzlement as she strode off into the Hoosier twilight.  The next class, she was absent. And the next. Indiana was not Richmond, and I had no way of letting an advisor know. There were no e-lists or other means of communications, beyond a land-line phone.

I thought the student was gone from campus, perhaps ill, until I crossed paths, literally, with her a month later. She crossed the street to avoid me, and did so again once or twice. Bloomington is a small town, so when I never saw her again, I wondered if Ellen had left the university. And was it my fault?

She got an F in Eng. 131 since she never withdrew.

Steve Sherwood’s article for writing tutors, “Apprenticed to Failure: Learning From the Students We Can’t Help” provides signal advice for teachers as well as for peer tutors. Sherwood advocates Peter Elbow’s advice that we should create “Evaluation-free zones” on our campuses (qtd. in Sherwood 53). We faculty might enable writers to practice for very low stakes, at first, in order to learn the idiosyncrasies of our academic fields or our personal preferences.

I should have done that. I should have done many things. Now I do them.

It is easy to say, and be smug while saying it, that a B- is not a life-changing experience, but I do wonder what became of Ellen.

Works Cited:

Ryan, Leigh and Lisa Zimmerelli. The Bedford Guide For Writing Tutors. New York: Bedford, 2010.

Sherwood, Steve. “Apprenticed to Failure: Learning From the Students We Can’t Help.” The Writing Center Journal 17.1 (Fall 1996): 49-57.

Wonderful Wordle

Wordle is one of several tag cloud  sites that can be fun to play with and may have useful potentials for writing and reading.  A tag cloud or word cloud image functions like a visual concordance that reveals word frequency through font size. Most of these sites have various tools for adjusting the image, font, orientation and number of words processed so that a variety of “readings” are possible. Here’s a word cloud made from our WAC Program page that portrays writing as the foundation of a program involving curriculum, consultants and faculty. Other permutations of this image left the word “writing” looming ominously above the other words, perhaps suggesting a potentially crushing descent.

Wordle WAC

And here’s a word cloud I made with Maria Rajtik’s newsletter submission “Feedback: A Grade is more than a letter”

 Rajtik essay

Word clouds can also enhance literary discussion. One word cloud I made for Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper” surprised me by demonstrating that the name of John was the most prominent word in the story even though the tale is about a woman being subjected to the “rest cure” of the celebrity Dr. Weir Mitchell.

Yellow Wallpaper

Others have been Presidential Inauguration speech word clouds to provide interesting insights into their rhetorical patterns and even the economic prognostications of Fed Chair Ben Bernanke have been fed into word cloud generators to see what comes out. This new digital tool could be usefully applied to famous speeches, editorial essays, mission statements and even personal writing. To create effective word clouds Smashing design magazine suggests a few “good practices” .

Here is a word cloud of the first 100 words of “The Richmond Promise”


A Word cloud of Sarah Palin’s Tea Party speech is revealing…

Palin Tea Party

What texts come to your mind for word cloud analysis?

Check out these other word cloud sites and start your own experiments:

Free online word cloud generator



Many Eyes

Emerson’s Pedagogy – radically relevant

            rows of desks     rows of desks   rows of desks

As some American scholars continue to drag their feet, preferring to hunker in their bunker of familiar disciplinary and practical entrenchments, the exciting rush of the Digital Revolution reminds us that the wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson continues to shine through the smoke of battle with practical pedagogical insights that demonstrate an increasing relevance in the digital age. Though bold thinkers and creative educators like Sir Ken Robinson are beginning to re-assess traditional pedagogical perspectives & practices, the rusty residues of the Industrial Revolution continue to stain and restrain the eager minds of our students who often arrive full of enthusiastic hopes for a humane educational experience only to be disappointed by increasingly mechanistic and inflexible institutions that are unconsciously shaped by a kind of educational Taylorism.

factory school

 In his “American Scholar” address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Cambridge in 1837, Emerson writes “Perhaps the time is already come…when the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids, and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill.” Here Emerson seems to be suggesting that America has much more to offer than physical manufacturing and industrial development. But in the digital age, a re-ordering of his last four words here might suggest a more relevant contemporary hope for something greater than mechanical production. Emerson had not seen Ford’s mass production assembly line, but his emphasis in this essay and in “Self-Reliance” indicate his awareness of the dangers of homogenizing conformity and robotic (re)production when it comes to learning.

In his address, Emerson mentions “laborious reading” and seems to anticipate the objections of traditionalist complaints about the risks of reduced rigor whenever anyone strays from strict disciplinary boundaries and practices. Radically, Emerson argues that a college education should involve something more important and inspiring than mere content delivery, mechanical productions or laborious achievements:

“Of course, there is a portion of reading quite indispensable to a wise man. History and exact science he must learn by laborious reading. Colleges, in like manner, have their indispensable office,–to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.”

Yet if we polled students across the country, I would bet that the group of students with a glowing passion for learning would be relatively small. Perhaps we could call this the “enthusiasm gap” – that gulf between the lofty educational hopes of our students and their dull and sometimes humiliating encounters with the dry, distant, “rigor” of an outmoded or unplanned pedagogy that often crushes those hopes. Sometimes the authoritative deployment of the word “rigor” can be an excuse for petty meanness or simply a distraction from a more serious intellectual and creative rigor mortis that can develop in a protected and powerful elite. This is a “rigor” that will never enkindle the flames of enthusiastic learning or evoke a desire for education.

The etymology of “educate” includes the idea of drawing forth or drawing out of a student his particular genius, it is not simply the disciplinary stamping and rigid reproduction of pre-approved perspectives and forms of expression.  It’s not hard for students to recognize the disconnect between institutional lip-service to values like “free expression” and “passion for learning” and the stifling realities of their everyday experience.

Many students desperately want to learn, but they rightfully resist a high-pressure non-stop assembly line approach to teaching that cranks out slick but somewhat identical mechanical productions devoid of genuine student input and engagement. Some of these students accept their disillusionment and re-group to successfully “play the game,” but other students drop out – or worse.

It seems that good old Emerson was way ahead of the curve when it comes to pedagogical insight and in our digital age, his ideas are more relevant than ever.


Academic Blogging: Impressing a Professor in 350 Words


image source: Creative-Commons licensed image from xkcd

My colleagues are, increasingly, reading blogs and assigning them in classes. “Weblogs,” the full name for this medium, appear in every class I teach. I use them for weekly reading responses, warm-ups for formal writing, and even for graded multimedia projects impossible on paper.

A blog like this, rather than a closed discussion list at a course-management system like Blackboard, provides students with several real-life advantages. First, the secondary audience for a blog, one far greater than professor and classmates, enables writing for publication in the real-world Internet, rather than what we techies often call a “walled garden.” Second, blogs resemble the sorts of collaborative tools coming into use in the workplace. Finally, blogs are not bound by the conventions of print, and that enables them to do things impossible on paper.

How to Get Started

In planning the workshop on academic blogging, I decided to first write what journalists call a “nutgraf,” or a few sentences that sum up the focus and claims the writer will make. Here’s mine:

 Academic blogging opens a new and easily used venue for student and faculty writers. A blog provides a number of advantages when compared to traditional papers, such as the ability to embed photos and videos, the use of easy-to-manage feedback from other writers in a class, and an informal style that tends to help writers still learning to write for the academy. Blogs also pose certain problems, and in my blog post I will outline them as well.

Now that you have my nutgraf, how about  those problems? From my experience with many student bloggers, here are some issues that hurt their assessment when I ask them to blog.

Paper-based thinking: Blogs and other Web-based media do not need double-spacing and they do not tend to support paragraph indents. Instead, single-spacing, left-justification, and one blank line between paragraphs suffice.

Unclear focus: preparing a nutgraf avoids the sort of rambling monologue that can afflict a new blogger. Keep in mind, readers, that your readers choose to visit your site. Keep them informed and stay focused. For this reason, blogs rarely cover more than a single topic.

Broken links: Non-working links hurt all sorts of Web texts, but a blogger should take extra care; one’s reputation depends on providing accurate references to other materials. In print, an analogous mistake might be a severe error in a citation, such as providing the wrong title for a printed work.

To avoid such errors, be certain that every link works when you preview or publish the post. Note that links to on-campus resources requiring a university log-in will not work off campus. Check all links from a computer at home or find a public version of the material.

Clumsy links: Also beware of pulling in URLs (Web addresses) like this:

Instead of testing readers’ patience, if the post needs a URL rather than a link from text (as I have just done) consider a Web site that can make long URLs short. These “crunched” URLs persist, and I have had good luck with and I used the latter to shorten that monster address above:

In some classes, and for formal projects published online, you may not be permitted to do this. Check with your professor and a handbook for documentation. Both MLA and APA formats now give advice on how to shorten a URL for publication.

Microsoft Word & Blogging: Word is designed for printed documents, no matter what appears under its “save as” menu. Word works wonders on paper, partly because the software enables dozens or even hundreds of fonts, sizes, and margin-changes. But Word does this through hidden formatting codes.  We never see them when cutting and pasting to a blog, but in some blogging software, these typographic phantoms cause nightmares.

I just typed this line into Word: “Now is the time for all talented geeks to come to the aid of Cyberspace.”

Here is what I got when I copied the text from Word and pasted it to the editor of Google’s Blogspot:

@font-face {
font-family: “Cambria”;
}p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }
<div class=”MsoNormal”>
Now is the time for all talented geeks to come to the aid of Cyberspace.</div>

Oh oh. Normally, this is not a problem, if a blogger does not put any bolds, underlines, or other formatting into Word. If those features appear, however, it may take hours to untangle the mess. I have encountered lines that do not want to single-space, strange changes of fonts, and more.


Random eye-candy: Why use a photo, video, or other illustration in a blog? They can emphasize an argument and save you words. In every case, they should be placed close to the material referenced.

When choosing images, search for those licensed for non-commercial reuse. You can do this with the advanced options for Google image search as well as Flickr. I’m sure that most other image-sharing sites have ways to find content with Creative-Commons licensing. The candy-apple image appeared licensed for reuse in a Google search.

Bad Tags: Tagging blogs permits readers to aggregate topics by clicking a tag. Huge sites need this. I’ve found that even my blog on virtual worlds and gaming, “In a Strange Land,” needs tags so I can, say, separate how-to advice for folks from general news about the industry.  At the same time, tagging can be tedious when misused. Why on earth, at this blog, would I need to tag this post or any other with “writing”? That is, after all, the focus on the entire blog and its sponsor.

My post has gone on far more than 350 words (it’s at 991 now!), but I think it presents the basics.

The hardest part remains the writing itself. No medium changes that.

Refer to links at this Writer’s Web page for more advice on academic blogging. Good luck with your posts!

a flickering flame?

kindle illuminated manuscript

My Kindle arrived the day after I called and I had to re-register it to my Amazon account and then re-load the texts I bought which I had assumed would have been pre-loaded  since I already made the registration switch to my account. One of the interesting features of the Kindle is a variety of images it displays when it is shut down. In my first entry we see the image of Ralph Ellison  and above an illustrated manuscript that I can’t quite identify except to find that Johannes Aquila was an Austrian painter in the 14th Century – not sure about his illuminations. I really like this image because it highlights the history of text and how much it has changed in 700 years – but the beautiful hand painted image is not so brilliant in black and white.

Once I got my Kindle charged up, I took it with me to our new Passport Cafe and began reading Poe’s “The Angel of the Odd” when I was interrupted by some kind of a download that was never identified. It didn’t take long but I didn’t appreciate it – especially without an explanation.  Downloads can be updated spontaneously, and  books can be added or deleted remotely which seems creepy but something we’re all getting used to with our computer updates. I can even see the notes other people have made on the texts I’m reading and I can offer mine to the public as well.

I plan to use it for teaching as much as reading and I can have multiple texts with highlighting (really just underlining) and annotation all bookmarked to the passages I have lined up for discussion. It’s nice to be able to enlarge the fonts for easier reading and having the ability to search any of the books is a great tool for study and teaching. A Kindle or any e-reader is much cheaper and smaller than an i-Pad and much easier to read outside. It doesn’t offer color, or movies or lots of other features available on other digital devices but it does hold a ton of searchable text that can be conveniently accessed and somewhat less conveniently annotated. The keyboard is small and, like the screen, is not backlit so it’s difficult to see and the keys are smaller around than new peas so my huge hands must be very agile to type in my notes or a search term.

I’m still grateful that my wife gave me this. Knowing that I’m a bibliophile she thought I might hate it, but at least it would be an informed hatred. The fire of my enthusiasm for this Kindle may have dwindled but there is still a flickering flame for future experiments and opportunities to use it in different situations. I like having my Kindle so far, but I’m sure not getting rid of my books!

Enkindling Experience

My Kindle

I got a Kindle for my 49th birthday and I can’t help but wonder what it will enkindle in me. When I checked the OED for “kindle” I found, as I expected, that the word means to set aflame or to arouse or inspire. The more surprising meaning was to bring forth or give birth. At the very least, the Kindle and other e-readers will bring about passionate discussions of text, meaning, materiality and technology.

Though I am a firm multisensory lover of printed materials that I relish marking up with abandon, I found myself immediately loading my Kindle up with the Complete Works of Shakespeare, the Complete Works of Dickens, the King James Bible, the short stories of Poe & Bierce as well as Brave New World, Brave New World Revisited, Chrome Yellow , Wieland and 1984 – a load of books that would fill two steamer trunks and weigh several hundred pounds.  This 7.5″ x 4.8″ e-reader is only 8.7 ounces and could fit in a generous jacket pocket – no steamer trunks or roller-luggage required. Lest the reader think this a shameless promo disguised as a blog posting, let me add another fact: it already broke.

I don’t know what happened, but when I went to dinner at my in-laws and went to show off the Kindle, it wouldn’t even power on though I had half a battery charge when we left the house. When I tried to charge it with the handy wall & computer compatible plug, the charge light wouldn’t even come on. So I’m returning it for a replacement.
When I called Amazon, initially they tried to re-boot my Kindle by remote but when that didn’t work the service agent told me I’d receive a replacement within a day. I was pleased with his service but the remote re-boot reminded me of the ironically Orwellian way Amazon remotely deleted 1984 and Animal Farm from customer Kindles without their permission.

Even with this initial glitch in my e-reader experience, I find myself looking forward to getting a functioning Kindle pre-loaded with the books I already downloaded and paid for. It’s not that I planned to sit down and read them all through, but I thought such a collection in an electronic format might be very useful to reference during teaching. Of course, I could access the same texts online as in the links above, but if I wanted to hold class outdoors or not be posted at the podium, the portable e-reader might be very handy.

Kindle is the trademark name for Amazon’s e-reader but there are several non-compatible competitors like Barnes & Nobel’s Nook, the Literati Digital Reader by Sharper Image or Sony’s Digital Reader. Naturally, due to the ‘wisdom’ of market competition, none of them are compatible. While the “electronic paper” and “digital ink” used in e-readers is the result of R&D attempts to give the most print-like reading experience, I found myself wanting a backlit screen when I began to read it in a dimly lit room.

When I get my new Kindle, I’ll post a follow up assessment of its usefulness for quick reference, powerful searching and annotation of my steamer trunkloads of texts.

Fighting “Link Rot” in Webtexts

It just happened this week. I got an e-mail from a student doing research on the Beat Generation. She’d discovered a site I did a decade ago (or more) using a campus MOO, a text-only virtual world.  My “build” in the world was a writer’s space that resembled my vision of a 50s coffee shop in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood.

“RichMOOnd” is long gone but the site about it remains on our server and I guess Google picked it up. The links to Beat-Generation sites have long vanished or moved.

It’s a common problem, but as I read in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a group of scholarly publishers called CrossRef have been working for a decade to solve this problem.  Their plan will provide a sort of digital ISBN for publications.

While I love the idea, it won’t help self-published work (such as this blog). What can writers outside the CrossRef imprimatur do?  I claimed in a publication a few years ago that the hyperlink is the first new form of punctuation to come along in a while. It contains the sense of multiple conjunctions, depending on context. For the link above, it’s an “and” but in some cases it can be “and/but” or “and/or,” depending upon the context and the writer’s intention.

I teach students who are Google-happy to find an academic source for information, preferably one that is archived.  Even when a casual source offers well written content, will it still be there in a year? Students often don’t care, since they they their work to be ephemeral, but if a class project endures, employers and prospective employers might want to see the brilliance on display.

Thus I point students to libraries, government sites, and university pages for “hard links” to at least keep the “rot” minimal.