Individual Conferences & Student Writing

Creating a dialog of growth.

Recently I had a conversation with Dr. Jim Kinney of VCU, a rhetorician who has taught writing for several decades. As he reflected on his teaching during this time, Kinney noticed the greatest improvement in student writing when he used “the Garrison method” of teaching composition. Using a list of specific areas for focus such as pre-writing or invention or organization, Kinney explained that after an initial introductory period, most of the semester involved short individual conferences with students, specifically focused on addressing these aspects of writing.

Intrigued, I googled the name of the method and found that JSTOR had a review of the Garrison method by Jo An McGuire Simmons published in the May 1984 issue of College Composition and Communication. In “The One-to-One Method of Teaching Composition” Simmons offers us a gestalt of the process: “Picture a classroom of students writing. The teacher and a student, sitting side by side, are conferring intensely on a draft of the student’s paper. Two or three tutors may be in the room holding similar conferences. While the other sutdents are waiting for their conferences, they are writing, re-writing and, revising works in progress. What you are seeing is the Garrison or One-to-One Method at work.”

According to Simmons the Los Angeles Community College Distriect tested and recommended the approach in 1974 leading Roger Garrison to publish  How a Writer Works in 1981 . Simmons notes that “the primary assumption behind the method is that the best way to write is by writing and rewriting. Roger Garrison thinks that the best use of class time, then, is not class discussions, nor lectures on writing, nor analysis of someone else’s writing, but writing.” Each conference is limited to one objective and situates the teacher in a less threatening coaching role, helping the student to recognize his own errors and find his own solutions in a series of personalized “mini-lessons.” Such individualized attention is a potent force in a student’s education and a strong draw for the schools or teachers that can provide it with some regularity.

While the method increases individual student attention and decreases time required for final grading, Simmons notes several challenges to this approach. To be practiced as Garrison recommends, each teacher would need two writing consultants assigned to assist with student conferences. This approach also slows production, potentially limiting the number of assignments possible in a semester. In spite of these potential drawbacks, the Garrison method is meant to be flexibly applied according to the requirements of the context. Teachers could apply the method for a specific assignment only or throughout the semester, or the series of objectives guiding each meeting could be abbreviated.

 Certainly there is no panacea for producing better writers, not classical rhetoric, not grammar, not reading the great books, not even individual conferences. Ultimately, the quality of a student’s writing depends on that student applying the writing strategies he has been taught.  Nevertheless, few pedagogical approaches are as effective, organic or cost-effective as increased interaction between teacher and student.

New technologies teach us about their elders

Alphabet - Godfrey Sykes

In the link above we see an image of an alphabet design by Godfrey Sykes. The depiction of workers crafting each letter carefully highlights the craftsmanship possible in font design as well as the constructed nature of these abstract symbols designed as tools to represent sounds and guide their articulation in speech. In their arbitrary Latinate shapes there is no other significance, a trait that limits what they can represent and express. Recent developments in digital technology remind us of this semantic limitation.

One of the most recent evolutions of Web 2.o is the development of “micro-blogging” sites, the most well-known of which is Twitter, where users can send a regular stream of brief personal updates in text and other media. Unlike a regular blog, micro-blogging messages, sometimes called “tweets” are often limited to 140 characters potentially posing a compositional challenge for more complex expressions. In a recent NPR story “Twitter Seen As Tool For Social Change in China” Li Zhuohuan, CEO of a Chinese micro-blogging company called Jawai, is counting on the Chinese enthusiasm for text-messaging to translate into a passion for micro-blogging.

 Though the Latin alphabet is that subtle and ancient elder from which many technologies evolved, this collection of arbitrary symbols of articulation is limited in its potential meaning by the abstract nature of the marks, known as phonemes, symbols representing speech sound. Chinese characters for example are not abstract phonemes but logograms, visual representations of whole words, concrete objects or concepts. Because of this, Zhuohuan notes that “posts to Jiwai are limited to 140 characters. But Li points out that 140 Chinese characters contain double or even triple the expressive power of the same thing in English”. 

We might regret micro-blogging’s reminder of the semantic deficits of the Latin alphabet, but we can rejoice in the simple design and convenience of its twenty-six characters in gratitude that we don’t have to navigate the thousands of characters used by the Chinese. And we thought the QWERTY keyboard was hard!

Chinese characters hanzi

“hanzi” the ideogram for “Chinese character”
in traditional and simplified Chinese

Taylorized by Tyrannical Time

Time Flies

How are we ‘written upon’ by our technologies and how can we avoid becoming Taylorized cogs in the rushing machine that is our culture?

You may not have time to read this, but if you seize it, you may find yourself in a new relationship with this valuable tool – a relationship that can decrease stress and increase creativity and even “productivity.” Now that we’re several centuries past the era when we began measuring ourselves and our accomplishments  according to mechanized time, it may seem too late or perhaps even quaint to reconsider our relationship to this man-made technology, but such reflection may be just what we need to step off the Jetson’s treadmill and into a more humane and appropriately paced future.

“Help! Jane! Stop this crazy thing!!” – who is in control here?

 Jetson's Treadmill

In his 1936 essay “The Olive Tree” Aldous Huxley notes that time as we experience it is a “byproduct of industrialism” and he asserts that “time is our tyrant.”  We might well consider how much we are tyrannized today with our  gaggle of gadgets that help us to schedule and connect with one another with increasing precision, packing ever more activity into the same solar cycle. While we generally grasp the positive utility of our time management tools, we rarely if ever consider how an increasing attention to time can become an obsession that undercuts our performance and our enjoyment of daily experience through embodied stress and blockage of creative thinking.

When it comes to education, sufficient time is essential. Unlike job training centers that claim to be “educators” and who proudly proclaim they can bring a student from “zero to Bachelor’s in 2.5 years,” a genuine liberal arts education requires a bit more time and a whole lot more thought and effort. Even if or when it becomes possible to buy a university education that can be simply “downloaded” into a student, the time compression would equal an elimination of a variety of valuable experiences and the resulting intellect would necessarily be shallower.

Sufficient time for reading, conversation and sustained reflection are as necessary to an effective education as they are to good writing. Our thoughts and writing do not fully mature when we do not allow them enough time to grow. Here is where we can use the tool of time to our greatest benefit. Instead of jamming our schedules with activity, we can discipline ourselves to reserve plenty of “growth time” that allows sufficient leisure for ideas and creative expression to flourish.

When rush important experiences and we allow ourselves to be herded into a chronological panic, we overlook things like the strings that are attached, or we forget the subtle, steady and ancient clock of the Sun that reminds us of a more universal perspective and puts our lives and “accomplishments” in a more realistic context. May we learn from Macbeth’s unsatisfied ambition and not be that “poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage” but rather let us stretch out our hours together on this Earth to maximize the joy and brilliance of human intellectual exploration and creativity while we have the chance….mind your business, be here now.

 For further inspiration to step off the Taylorized treadmill, check out Carl Honore’s 2004 book In Praise of Slowness.

Time Coin

Saving Isis: Critical Thinking with Rezzable’s Open Sim Tut

The South Wall
Location: Rezzable’s Valley of the Kings in Open Sim

On my first tour of Rezzable’s Heritage Key site dedicated to King Tut, and when the entire project was quite new, I was taken by the South Wall of the young king’s tomb.

It was an immersive moment; I felt that I was as close to the actual site in Egypt as I’d ever get.

Anubis and Hathor greet Tut as he enters the other world, but Howard Carter had to destroy a figure of the goddess Isis (to the left of Anubis, in the image above) as he and this team made their way into the tomb. This struck me as a tragedy that might have been avoided.

With modern technology, we might have been able to plunder (there’s no kind word for it) the tomb without destroying Isis’ image. So I’ve decided to let my writing students have a crack at this. They’ll work in teams to solve the problem, if they can. And to make their writing “count for something” beyond a grade, I’ll have readers I invite vote for the strongest solution to this archeological dilemma.

Read the assignment here. Projects are due Oct. 29 and I’ll provide updates and may open up judging the projects to readers here. Meanwhile, my Heritage Key avatar will be bumbling around virtual Egypt, trying to look like the poor man’s Indiana Jones…

Room of Swag

The Silence of the Floppy Disks

Location: Rummaging Through Desk Drawer

The annual office-cleaning before the semester turns up some interesting artifacts. This year, it was a 3.5″ floppy disk of an external reviewer’s 1998 report on our writing program.

I mused on this homely item and the fate of our media-storage technologies.

The report is on one of four or five disks I have left, after a massive dumpster-dump of the rest (I broke cartridges, one by one, to make data-retreival harder). They now reside in a strata above the cassette tapes, and those lie above the Eight-Tracks in our landfill, one day to be an archeological dig when Richmond lies in quaint ruins.

The report in question had become important again. We are in the midst of curricular change again, so instead of slapping more prims (and removing some redundant ones) in our Second Life simulation of Poe’s House of Usher, I decided to make sure I had a backup copy of the report.

I have it on paper, but puh-leeze.

For a technology only a few years out of date, the floppy sounded positively Victorian once I hooked up the small USB drive I keep around just for such antiquities (I’ve a USB Zip Drive here too–for 100MB or 250MB cartridges).

I soon found that I did not have an electronic copy of the report on my laptop or backup hard disk. The floppy, creaks, clunks, and groans, saved the day.

Now to make MORE backups. I wonder, as I go back to adding features to the House of Usher, how transferable the skills from SL will prove, when I move on to other virtual worlds. Let’s hope those skills have more longevity than, say, an Eight Track of Barry Manilow.

blather and beyond

Whether we’re talking about the intimate triviality of personal “twitters,” the foamy rants of a racist blog, or insightful analysis by an average citizen, we are hearing more and more about social networking tools and the ways they are deployed – whether we use them or not. Far from being effaced by web-based networking, face-to-face often conversation seems to be inspired by these new tools as we explore them. Yes, we are spending more time communicating online, but we are also seem to be discussing these tools in more regular face-to-face conversations: why we avoid them or how we use them,  and what we learn from them in terms of information as well as technical skill.

Though the blowhards and the blather often fill the sensational spotlight, a close reader can find many thoughtful and worthwhile blogs, videos and other work but the going is thick and critical judgment must be sharp. In spite of the blowhard blather, there can be no doubt about the importance of these new media of writing. Politically, the “blogosphere” is a significant source of public discourse, opinion and information sharing – sometimes with serious consequences. A recent example of this occurred with a Richmond graduate named Adnan Hajizada who has been beaten and jailed for making a humorous political commentary video. His incarceration demonstrates the threat these new tools represent to repressive power – especially when deployed with humor, the terror of tyrants.

Donkey news conference

Type Adnan’s name into the Technorati Search for blogs and it comes up with 18 hits in at least a dozen languages. These blogs and the other new social networking tools we are using will play a central role in his release, and will begin to redefine power relationships around the world as users continue to connect, share, coordinate, plan and act with far greater rapidity and accuracy than ever before.

It might even be argued that to have a significant voice in this rapidly expanding, more democratic realm of exchange, a growing mastery of traditional alphabetic literacy will remain a necessity but it will need to be enhanced with courage, an openness to media experimentation, fresh thinking and close attention to what is unfolding around and within us. They won’t take us to utopia, but the nexus of these networks can be a powerful tool to bring us to a more humane and sustainable future.

The social networking tools of Web 2.0 are bedeviled with blather and other nonsense,  but not all blather is predictable.

Students Online: Their Engaged is Not our Engaged

SLER6_1_09_008

Location: Montclair State University Virtual Campus

Photo Courtesy of Olivia Hotshot

We faculty who teach with technology claim we can multitask. Yet there is a bigger question: can anyone really do that? And what does “engaged in learning” mean to the Millennials we now teach?

I went to the June 2 Second Life Education Roundtable with those questions in my head, after hearing our topic from organizer AJ Brooks. AJ pulled off a coup by bringing Harry Pence, (SL: John2 Kepler) to a voice-chat meeting where Harry discussed his ideas and took questions from the audience.

Points worth noting:

  • Harry defines engagement as involving “being focused on the matter at hand”
  • We tended, as a group, to dismiss the idea that our minds can really multitask. Harry noted reading in Howard Rheingold’s blog about two types of attention, “multitasking” and “continuous partial attention” (Visit Rheingold’s entry on attention, as well as higher-level links to his Video Blog and his Web site).
  • Harry has never had a college student say “that’s too much” when he presents using voice and screen, but older audiences often get lost.
  • His college students agree with him when he says that their younger siblings are truly fluent with networked technologies and will replace them in the workforce.
  • AJ Brooks made a salient point I have often found true with my students: they are adept at using but not understanding the technologies. Iggy’s examples from his students: how few reallly can solve problems that require alpahnumeric fixes (such as tweaking source-code) or making proper back-ups or hardware hacks that come naturally to old geezers like me who can work on their own cars and build stuff with tools.
  • KZero’s diagram of Virtual Worlds by age of users, Q4 2008: http://www.kzero.co.uk/blog/?page_id=2563 shows SL with a smaller, and older, demographic than many of the virtual worlds younger Millennials are using now. The open question remains whether or not they’ll take to SL or something like it, with user-generated content, when they get older.
  • We noted how many of the worlds younger users encounter do not permit creation of new content. CathyWyo1 Haystack then asked, “do we want a generation of kids who are passively engaged or actively involved in the creation of their space?”
  • We all grew concerned about a generation “taught to the tests” and not encouraged to do as much collaborative learning. Harry noted a class in high school he encountered, where “Principal put them at the end of the hall b/c they were making too much noise and having fun” and making noise.

I’m fond of Rheingold’s maxim that “Mindfulness and norms, my students helped me see, are essential tools for those who would master the arts of attention.”

Can one be mindful of two things at once? Yes. Do them equally well? That I don’t know, but that too is where the norms for my class come in. In fall, if a student is online during class and it’s not course related, the norms are this: first time = warning, second time = “skipped class” in gradebook.

You can read the entire transcript of Harry’s talk here.

techno-mania

A recent NYT article “Texting May Be Taking A Toll” is relevant for any teacher today, but it is particularly relevant for teachers of writing who wish their students demonstrated the same mania for their textual assignments as they have for texting. With 2,272 text messages per month, it works out to about 6.3 text message per hour in a 12-hour day. That’s no small amount of writing – even in text-speak.

But for all its popularity, text-speak is not sufficient to develop articulated ideas or express complex emotions, so our avid communicators need to channel some of this enthusiasm into more focused practice at expressing their ideas more fully, coherently and powerfully.  Rather than simply reject or resist the trend in texting, let us harness it for more productive purposes.

And for when the cell phone is a constant class interruption there is the  cell phone jammer !

Recontextualize & Redefine

As digital and wireless technologies proliferate, writing teachers can understandably feel overwhelmed by the steep learning curves they pose as well as the sometimes negative impact they seem to have on our students. We worry about their distraction and decreasing attention span, and rightfully so, but these are not the only, nor are they the inevitable effects of using these new tools. If we dive in and experiment with pedagogical applications, modeling an eager curiosity and ongoing critical discussion about language and other technologies, we can maximize their value in teaching and move students towards a more thoughtful and engaged use of communication in all forms.

 Do your students sometimes arrive to class like this?

metropolis drones Whether distracted by digital devices, discouraged by poor teaching, few job prospects or simply misled by a culture that often undermines significant promotion of reading and writing, our students can arrive in our class alienated from language, incurious and expecting little to engage them. It is clear that reading of traditional typographic texts significantly enhances our ability for sustained, focused attention but it is equally clear that, in spite of the dominant authority of (not so) New Criticism , the “lineal uniformity and fragmented repeatability” of typographic text is not the only representation of consciousness.

As Marshall McLuhan notes in Understanding Media: the extensions of man, though we favor the linear and are comforted by sequence,    “there is nothing lineal or sequential about the total field of awareness that exists at any moment of consciousness" and he reminds us (from a pre-Web perspective) of the tremendous increase in the flood of information due to advances in electronic communication. What was a flood in the 1960’s is now a digital multimedia typhoon for which a traditional, step-by-step, linear approach to reading is no longer sufficient. The linearity of alphabetic literacy will always be a necessary foundation, but it cannot be our our only tool. When we are trapped between the lines, we can be blinded to the richness of human consciousness.

Instead, we can re-contextualize language for our students with some brief reflection on the history of our species and the huge impact that language, writing and subsequent technologies have had on human evolution. With a fresh perspective we might have a chance at reviving some genuine interest and increased appreciation for the practical value and relevance of writing courses. More than this, by acknowledging the technological nature of writing, we can more naturally move to discuss new tools of reading and writing in their most recent forms.

To do this, we also need to redefine “reading” and “writing” in a way that is not only relevant to our students but that also stimulates them intellectually and encourages prolonged, focused attention.  Reflecting upon Jacques Derrida‘s controversial and multivalent claim “there is nothing outside the text”, we might expand our definition of what constitutes a text and what reading means in order to promote close attention to detail and curiosity about signification in a variety of contexts – a critical consciousness. Students often show increased engagement when they realize that “text” does not only refer to alphabetic communications but also to movies, TV, music, faces, crowds, weather, architecture and a galaxy of other organic, material and cultural forms. These redefinitions are not meant to dismiss or substitute these forms for the alphabetic text, but to demonstrate the necessity of close and prolonged attention to detail and the value of curiosity about meaning. Careful analysis of media images can inspire a closer, more nuanced reading of a complex text as well as equip students with a critical attention that does not switch off when the book is closed.

As with alphabetic or typographic texts, the introduction to a movie is as carefully constructed as are the first few paragraphs of an excellent essay. The first 10-15 minutes of a celebrated film offers a bounty of visual cues and details (text included) as well as sonic content and compositional moves that students can be taught to read and consider. Fricke’s Baraka is excellent for this purpose and a comparison of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 with Lucas’ THX-1138 including intro credits and audio yields a rich field of clues in a variety of forms. There are also excellent clips available on YouTube, a site that is not only handy for quick reference, but that also presents us with a completely new and evolving mode of communication in conversations that are a hybrid of text, audio and image.

Just as in the paper text world, there is plenty of useless crap and incivility on YouTube, but there are also fascinating and thoughtful conversations about crucial issues that elicit various responses in text and video offering us another complex text for analysis. One favorite is a masterful re-mix of Fritz Lang’s silent classic Metropolis  composed by contemporary British artist Wax Tailor.  In its brief two-minute span the video “Que Sera” provides a good opportunity for close reading and listening that engages students and gets them thinking about reading and writing in new, more complex ways that can awaken a curiosity that leads to a useful and satisfying attitude of lifelong learning – the ultimate career preparation.

Correspondence The Old-Timey Way

Time to write
Location: Writing Desk

A funny characteristic of the Millennial students who attend Richmond is their preference for old-school communication, at least after graduation. I guess I’d expected them to invite me to some social networking site (a few have) but I get more letters than anything else.

A printed card or letter comes as a shock to faculty who still remember when this medium was the default choice for communicating between two people at great distances. For a student writer, the letter or card shows real seriousness, and a faculty member is more likely to remember the writer. This is no small thing when a graduate comes asking for a reference or letter of recommendation (usually done online, these days).

Today, as a break from grading final projects, I’m answering printed mail. That used to be a large part of the day for many people who kept up correspondence with others.

Since my stamps are SO old, I’m running out to get some one-cent ones to avoid the recipient finding a “postage due” announcement (if the post office still does that).

At times I miss letters. My handwriting is actually decent when I slow down and use my favorite pens. In the crush of answering e-mail, replying to blog-posts, and preparing for class, I do wonder what we’ve given up in the service of greater productivity.

But usually I’m too busy to think about that. If you’d like to send me a letter, just drop me an e-mail first. I’ll clear the desk and pen a reply.