Out, Damned (Gravy) Spot!

gravy spot

Image courtesy of “Make your Own Bar-B-Q Sign

Imagine an orator making a speech after a formal dinner, and imagine the speaker doing so very well. In the end, however, a large segment of the audience never recalls the content because of the large gravy spot on the speaker’s tie or blouse.

The speaker lost the audience. So what are the sorts of small errors that make otherwise sympathetic readers stop reading? A general list may be nigh impossible, but I will take a stab at what most perturbs academic readers of student prose. In doing so, I won’t focus on the fatal flaws of novice writing: sweeping generalizations, sentence fragments, lack of support for claims.

  • Confused words. One does not hear the difference, in speech, between the homonyms “here” and “hear,” but in writing, such gaffs make the writer look unprofessional, if not ignorant. See our Center’s list of “Commonly Confused Words.”
  • Overstatement. One study or source does not conclusive proof make, even if it is a valid source or study. Academics expect an abundance of supporting evidence, including admissions as to where more study may be needed or the limitations of a source. One might write “the 2011 study only considered effects on male college students at private universities” as a way to present such data.
  • Names. Student writers often use both first and last names for sources. It may be appropriate to cite a full name on first reference or for clarity when, say, two Smiths have been cited. But in most cases, in-text sources need only a last-name reference. A graver (gravier?) spot is to misspell the name of a source. I once had a reader of an article stop on page one when I did this, back in grad school. He said “after that I did not trust your prose any longer.” Ouch.
  • Format errors. APA, MLA, Chicago, and similar are not systems of fiendish torture. Writers use them to get work into a format needed for a particular journal or conference proceeding. I frequently see errors with a misplaced parenthesis, italics and double quotations both used for titles of sources, and the like. A first cousin of this problem can be adding blank lines between paragraphs, odd indents, and other mechanical gaffs. When in doubt…ask the prof!

These “spots” come to mind right away. Got more? Let me know in the comments section.

New International Blog About Writing Centers

I’m really pleased to announce “Connecting Writing Centers Across Borders,” a new publication by Writing Lab Newsletter. It gives me great pleasure personally and professionally to collaborate with editors Muriel Harris and Alan Benson in working on the first postings for the blog. Some veteran colleagues such as Carl Glover have already posted their ideas.

Our focus, at the blog and a new column in WLN, will be international collaboration. The need is there, as writing-center initiatives are cropping up globally, often taking shape in culturally appropriate ways for their home nations. My own first post focuses on how technology from a center builds ethos and influence on campus.

One shoe cannot fit every foot, and as I learned in 2013 at the Conference for The European Association for the Teaching of Academic Writing, best practices vary widely and the US model of peer-tutor work is far from universal.

Using the new blog and column, we directors, tutors, writing consultants, peer mentors, and those doing similar work plan to share resources, stories from our centers, and advice to help our writers and each other.

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.

A Competitive Edge: Writing Consultants in the Job Search

This column was submitted by Steven Inglis, Writing Center Alumnus, Class of 2011.

This past summer I had the privilege of working as an intern at Nationwide’s Government Relations office in Washington, DC. As part of a team that functions as a liaison between the company, its clients, and the Federal Government, I quickly found that the skills I used and taught as a Writing Consultant were invaluable to my job. The more I thought about it, the experience gained writing, editing, mentoring, organizing endless drafts of papers, and working with clients (both teachers and students) provided skills that are applicable and transferable to any job.

Current Writing Consultants: many of you already have (or will soon be searching for) internships and job opportunities for this coming summer. Although this may seem like a long time from now, I encourage each of you to realize the value of the experience you are gaining and how it can be cited on your resume, in interviews, and finally used in the workplace. From my own experience, I can say without reservation that working as a Writing Consultant helped me most with the following:

First and most obviously, writing and editing. From simple e-mails to high-level industry documents and letters to Congressmen, my supervisors were impressed that I could not only draft an error-free document the first time around, but also demonstrate an uncanny attention to detail when peer reviewing. I could provide substantive recommendations on organization and presentation of an argument or message. This is something we work with daily as Writing Consultants, and a skill that is vital to a majority of jobs. Consider this: a 2004 College Board survey found that 86% of responding companies would frown upon poorly written job applications, and 80% of jobs in the most rapidly expanding service sectors required writing skills. This certainly lends credence to their claim that writing is increasingly a “gatekeeper” or “threshold skill” in the job market. For more, see Writing: A Ticket or a Ticket Out (CollegeBoard 2004).

Second, organization. Writing consulting will teach you how to stay organized during even the most hectic situations, which I came across frequently during my internship. I am sure many of you have experienced how stressful it can be to have sixteen drafts to read and track, sixteen appointments to set up, and professors to keep regularly updated, all on or near the week(s) you have your own midterms and essays to tackle. Stressful as it may be, this offers considerable perspective and helps build habits that can be carried forth throughout your career.

Third, communication. Writing consulting is a client-based process. It helps you learn how to communicate with professors on a professional level, as well as with other students at a peer and mentor level. Likewise, mature and respectful interaction with clients as well as coworkers is inherent to any and every workplace.

Although this list goes on, I feel the message is very clear. Rare is the occasion that you will encounter a job posting that leaves out key qualifications like ‘detail-oriented,’ ‘effective written and verbal communicator,’ ‘strong writing skills,’ and ‘highly organized.’ Indeed, as a Writing Consultant, you will continue to develop all of the above, which you can draw upon in interviews (to help you land the job) and in the workplace (to allow you to excel at the job).

As for me, I was happy to be offered a highly regarded full-time position with that same Nationwide office in August. Speaking from experience, I am confident that your work as a Writing Consultant will give you a significant edge in the job hunt and allow you to stand out as the “real world” approaches.

And The Students Stop Blogging?

At the very time that I feel most comfortable teaching with blogs, I read that blogging is on the decline among the very demographic I teach.

I like Twitter and other sites for short notices, but few ideas can be expressed in 140 characters. Perhaps “the unexamined life is not worth living” by Socrates would fit in a Tweet. The Apology would not.

As usual, I’ll blame what I call a life of constant interruption. My Neo-Luddite side, and it is a prominent side, finds some cold comfort in the warnings of writers and thinkers such as Nicholas Carr, Mark Edmundson, and Sven Birkerts. Even tech-savvy Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together, warns of the shallowness of our “social” networking habits.

I look out for such writing, so I quickly ran across Gregory Palmerino’s article, “Teaching Bartleby to Write,” in the January 2011 issue of College English. Palmerino writes of his “students who would prefer not to remember to hand in writing because of their complex and distractable lives.”  Such students rarely linger in my classes after the add/drop period; the writing is plain on the syllabus about the consequences of Bartleby’s passive-aggressive preference of preferring not to do.

While I do find a kindred spirit in Palmerino, I part ways with his resistance to new technologies in the writing classroom. Blogging provides one excellent example of a type of writing that demands focus. Distraction here, in a post, can be as fatal as it would be in a short story or analytical essay.  So far, however, none of my students Tweet or use Facebook status-updates for any sort of serious discourse.  I doubt they ever will.

In print and online, we who cherish nuance and complexity in language need do something. Rejecting the new is not the answer.  So for now, my students, at least, will keep posting to blogs and replying to each other.

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.

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.

 

On Egypt and other Toppling Towers

The Tower Tarot Card

 Fast on the heels of the Wikileaks scandal, Web 2.0 media have also been central to the massive protests by the Egyptian people against their President of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian leader came to power after the 1981 assassination of Anwar al-Sadat a co-winner of the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize along with Israeli Menachem Begin for their collaboration on President Carter’s  Camp David Peace Accords.  In response to the assassination, President Mubarak enacted Egyptian Emergency Law No. 162 of 1958 through which he has justified and maintained his decades of power and position in the name of fighting terrorism and drug trafficking.  While it is not clear what touched off the protests at this particular time, it is clear that new social media tools on the Web have played a central part in challenging controlling regimes of all types, political, economic or academic that resist the obvious flow of history towards greater openness, connection and democratic participation.

In response to the democratic use of technology by protesters, Egypt attempted to shut off all web access in the country via a “Web blackout,” a feat possible only with the cooperation of private corporations.  True to the nature of the Web, protesters were able to do a work around by using their cell phones to access the web by the elder technology of a dial up connection. This is not only a prime example of the ultimate uncontrollability of the Web but also a reminder of the wisdom of keeping in touch with elder technologies  that may continue to be useful when newer, more complex systems fail or are shut down by those who wish to control the flow of information because they cannot stand up to public scrutiny. For Mubarak the excuse to stifle web access was to “combat terror” but we needn’t be too smug at this familiar ploy – such stifling happens in America as well. Recent US attempts to limit access are claimed to be instituted to “fight piracy” or to increase the corporate profits of companies like Verizon with a hierarchical plan to enclose parts of the Web from those unable or unwilling to pay higher service fees for the fast and capacious connection speeds that are currently our common level playing field.

One of the most insightful observations William Burroughs ever made certainly applies here:

“Control is controlled by the need to control.”

 

Maybe the OCD control freaks of the world should re-read the recent news from Egypt and reconsider their ill-advised and ultimately futile fight against the unstoppable evolution of freedom…

NPR “Anti-Government Protests Roil Egypt”

Aljazeera reports in “Talks fail to end Egypt protests”

 

wiki wabbit

logobugs bunnyfoia redacted

If you ever watched Bugs Bunny…

You might read the title of this posting with an echo of Elmer Fudd expressing his chagrin at one of our beloved tricksters. The relevance of this, if not immediately apparent, will be suggested in a bit.

 Wiki what?

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that “wiki” is a Hawaiian word meaning fast, the emphatic form of which is “wikiwiki.” This phrase was first used to apply to a user-edited website called WikiWikiWeb composed by Ward Cunningham in 1995 – this was the first wiki. With 9,889,432 views per hour in English alone, most folks know about Wikipedia, but fewer understand what a wiki is or how to use one. Unlike traditional semi-static/gatekeeper websites that require complex software to create and are often controlled by a single person, a wiki can be built online, often for free, and designed so a limited or unlimited number of people can edit it easily.

I have been using Wikispaces for my writing workshops as well as for process drafting of research essays in my first-year writing courses. All changes are recorded in the “history” tab, so there is a complete record of who wrote what and when and this makes for a more thorough collection of drafts and revisions. Often the pages will have a “discussion” tab that is useful for writing workshop feedback, posting questions to readers etc. But wikis can be used for more than writing courses, they can be convenient and flexible group collaboration tools for any project, academic or otherwise. Browse the sites for Wetpaint or PB Works and note the varying complexity and features offered, or check WikiMatrix to find a handy tool for comparing a number of wikis of your own choosing.

Oh, and about those leaks….

In terms of “wiki-ness,” the Wikileaks website is not really a wiki since it is not editable by its users but its revelations certainly introduce an element of speed into the slower pace of partial diplomatic disclosure. Aside from speed, another aspect of wiki-ness manifest by Wikileaks is that of transparency and accountability – or at least the transparency and accountability of the powerful, since Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is less than transparent himself.

On a wiki, every user and every change are recorded, there is no way to hide and all information is immediately available to users. By contrast, FOIA information is laborious to obtain and is often heavily redacted, which is partly why these leaks evoke mixed feelings for me. Why do we subscribe to transparency so selectively? Isn’t one of our chief criticisms of North Korea its absolute lack of transparency? No doubt these leaks will increase tension, make negotiation more difficult and possibly risk some lives but it might also be argued that, in a WMD world, everyone’s life is at risk every day when governments are not transparent.

However, there is a surprising amount of government and institutional cooperation worldwide and a massive assault by individual hackers to shut down or shut out Wikileaks, a fact suggesting that the threat we feel from transparency trumps the value we claim to put on it. Or perhaps it is a measure of our faith in the goodness of what our leaders and institutions do in secret, but this doesn’t seem in keeping with our recent waves of anti-government sentiment, so the motivation of leak opponents is unclear to me. And now, these anti-leak actions have led to “Operation Payback” a barrage of counter-hacking by supporters of Wikileaks in what may be our first public cyberwar.

One thing is for sure: without that cloak of secrecy, with the knowledge that we were watching, powerful persons and groups at all levels would act quite differently, perhaps with more humility, responsibility and vision. As the ambiguous Wikileaks logo suggests, time is running out for our planet and it may just take some kind of digital trickster to stir things up. Ultimately such transparency may be what assures our survival.

thats all folks

PlayPlay

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.