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.

Goals for a Writing Class?

Our Task Force on the First-Year Experience has begun meeting. We are a ways from sharing anything with the public, but that will come. Right now we are “blue sky” thinking. I’ve no idea what would come to replace Eng. 103 or Core (if that happens) or who would teach any new courses.

I’m also reflecting upon what I learned during my and Lee’s Stanford Trip. Stanford requires 6 quarters of courses that include writing, and two of them are in a writing program. PWR 1 and 2.  To encourage you to use this blog, I’m also attaching Julia Bleakney’s PWR 1 syllabus that she kindly provided us.  It’s a PDF file attached to this post. Syllabus from Julia Bleakney's Class

Here are some of their goals for the one-quarter (10 week) class:

  • make writing assignments in which students carry out increasingly sophisticated forms of rhetorical and contextual analysis, taking into account differences in audience, purpose, and genre.
  • engage students in conducting research drawing on the University's rich resources and in identifying, evaluating, and using a range of primary and secondary sources in support of their own research-based arguments.
  • offer students an opportunity to write for a range of audiences and in several genres.
  • offer students opportunities for substantive revision of their own work focusing on content, organization, and style as well as for frequent peer review of the work of their colleagues.
  • provide ample opportunity for individual conferences on writing and for reflection on writing and writing development.

Given that Richmond’s focus is on analytical, persuasive writing in academic contexts (rather than exploration of the self or engagement in contemporary issues), what should we do in something like Eng. 103?  Here are our current goals from the common syllabus for Eng. 103:

Goals for Students:

  • Understand principles common to analytical writing, with and without sources, at the university level, especially focusing writing on a purpose and supporting assertions with evidence
  • Discern the differences between personal writing and writing for academic and other audiences, and show awareness of and aptitude with voice and style appropriate for these audiences
  • Demonstrate a command of language, at the paragraph and sentence level, appropriate to survival in UR classrooms after Eng. 103
  • Develop good research skills that include the ability to evaluate the reliability and quality of source material, printed and electronic, especially the importance to all academic disciplines of refereed/peer reviewed journals.

Further Worthwhile and Optional Goals:

  • Understand the relationship of the visual to the textual; learn to “read” images
  • Prepare multi-genre projects that embrace academic thinking and prose, sources, personal writing, photography, and multimedia
  • Integrate technology in a rich and meaningful way into the research and writing process
  • Encourage students to write for a “real world” audience beyond the classroom, if possible for campus or local publication.

The Skin They're In: Writing About Second Life and Race, 2008

Location: Student WikiIn 2006, when I began reading about Second Life, a random Google search turned up "The Skin You're In," the tale of Erika Thereian's time as a black woman instead of a blond.  She received lots of harsh treatment, including racial slurs, and was even snubbed by friends.To see if things have changed in nearly three years, my writing students recently spent a week as another race or gender (in some cases, both).  Here are a few standout posts, with links to the students' project pages in the class wiki.  One tentative claim stands out from several students' projects: newness to SL and the degree of customization, more than any racial or ethnic characteristic, get an avatar accepted or snubbed.For Rae Belgar, switching race to a tall, dark-skinned woman led to little attention of any sort, Once she clad the same avatar in a sari, however, compliments and attention came her way. Rae feels that her newness of and lack of customization, rather than any racial trait, led others to ignore or notice her. Other students' experience supported Rae's hypothesis.When Deklin Windlow became a black man, he did not receive negative attention, though in many cases he got no attention at all in places where his white male avatar had been noticed.  At the Public Orientation Island a group of older avatars, including some hero in a Batman costume, simply walked away when Deklin asked for assistance.What VinceGold Rexen found as a black man resembled Deklin's experience, yet VinceGold finally was able to crack the wall of silence at both the Ahern Welcome Area and a store that sells avatar shapes and skins.  A group of experienced residents provided this advice, after learning about the race-switch project:"They told me many stories of how at first they were ignored by other residents or had even outright insulting things said to them, but that I should not take these isolated incidents to be representative of everyone in SL. They actually encouraged me to meet as many other avatars as I could and to not be judgmental of anyone I meet."I caution writers from jumping to conclusions, preferring that they crawl to them after many observations.  We need to continue this experiment, especially since Kiaarra Karillion, whose avatar is normally a black female, found that "with my African-American avatar, I rarely was offered packages (or much advice) from people on Second Life.  During my completion of this project, I was offered packages [of freebies] from every direction!"So while no one had racial slurs hurled at their avatars, Kiaarra and more than a few of her classmates felt like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.Several students noted the dearth of ethnic skins, especially for men.  I'm pleased that Linden Lab included a black man as their default "Professional Male" avatar.  Perhaps Barack Obama's charisma may change real-world standards of what's considered attractive. My students will be back in SL in coming semesters, to see if Obama's victory changes hearts and minds online.

“Rhetoric” becomes “rhetoric” in politics

This is a completely bipartisan lament.  When did the word “rhetoric” become synonymous with “empty speech”?

Demosthenes PracticingPerhaps it’s as old a smear as the attacks by Athenian philosophers on the Rhetoricians of their day.  I’d contend that Rhetoric (with an R) is a noble art, but the term can hardly be used anymore.

By the way,  both President-Elect Obama and Senator McCain made very powerful speeches on election night. McCain was noble and magnanimous, and he used a rhetoric of inclusion that nicely matched Obama’s approach a little while later.

Core Writing Workshop Report

I was pleased to join several Core 101-102 faculty members for a recent workshop.  We shared excellent WAC-style pedagogy and I can take no credit for this; the Core faculty developed and led this event.

The most important lesson for this observer is that faculty are concerned about commentary.  I’ve long known that faculty work hard when designing assignments, but I’ve had an impression–probably mistaken–that most faculty are writing the sort of vague and counterproductive commentary I once saw as a Writing Center tutor.

Ray Hilliard moderated our meeting; Ray returned to his former position of coordinator while David Leary is on leave. Ray has always had a strong investment in improving students’ academic-writing skills, and we covered a lot of ground with our colleagues.  We discussed the follow topics, and participants used actual student papers to consider appropriate pedagogy:

  • Eric Yellin (History) had a very useful yardstick for measuring student understanding of an assignment.  He said that one mark of  a strong writer would be someone who was “thinking beyond the question” and doing original work as compared to a writer who might be “struggling with what the question was.”
  • Ray finds himself spending less time writing commentary now that he employs MS Word’s embedded commentary feature.  Several participants either use that tool or plan to do so.
  • We all noted that in our sample papers, the instructors began with positive reinforcement for something a writer had done well, then maintained a friendly tone all along. This is a pedagogical approach all Writing Fellows learn in Eng. 383.
  • We all agreed to “put grammar in its place” as an important, but not primary, concern when writing commentary. In Core, crafting one’s focus, analysis, and support are first-order concerns.  Grammar must be addressed, but faculty, again in the same way Fellows learn, agreed that finding patterns of error rather than isolated incidents would best serve writers.
  • Several faculty did lament that students were not being careful enough with word-choice. This lack of care and nuance can lead to prose that does the job but not in an eloquent manner.

Tracking the Candidates' Words in the 2008 Election

Particularly during a heated campaign season, I’ve often wondered how to broach the subject of political speech/political rhetoric (verbal/visual) in the classroom without creating a partisan-feeling discussion.  (This seems especially hard with the wide contrasts in rhetorical strategies employed by the 2008 Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates.)

I’ve just been reading through the posts (articles, really) on a site called Wordwatchers, which, “explores how we can learn about the candidates’ personalities, motives, emotions, and inner selves through their everyday words.”  This website seems like a nearly perfect backdrop of academic objectivity to frame discussions of current (almost daily updates) political rhetorical strategies.   This might be of particular interest to 103 faculty or Political Science.

“Immersive” assignments: students correct US

I am using a wiki this semester without a spell-checker and I’m not the best proofreader on earth.

In addition to that issue, I often forget to READ MY WORK ALOUD before I submit it.  Thus I find small errors cropping up. How do I keep myself honest and students engaged?  I give them extra credit on work if they spot an error in my own online posts and assignments. If I violate one of my own Pet Peeves, they get more credit still.

One of my class mentors said the wiki (and the work in Second Life) provide a great example of “immersive learning” for students.  I suppose they have at least learned that all writers must take care and be mindful of an audience’s watchful eyes.

 Score so far: 3 errors by me, no Pet-Peeve violations. Stay tuned.

A welcome from “Plain Old Joe Writing”

Changed my handle here.

Now, as program director, allow me to welcome all of you to this blog. I also want to post something cheerful and not as gloomy as the response to Carr’s article.

We will work with writing in some form, no matter the trajectory of human evolution. I have long advocated a richer use of those online spaces and new forms of media. We can, I feel, tame the machine and put it to its best uses.

But then I’m a digital immigrant. It’s the “natives” who will decide this issue.

Implications for Reading and Writing: Heavy Online Use

This is Joe Essid, for now using the user name “writing” (uggh), as if I were some Socratic essence.

In a recent issue of Atlantic Monthly, Nicolas Carr published “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

He posits that our minds are changing neurologically from using technology so much.  Sounds far-fetched, but neuroscientists have observed changes in our brains for some time, especially among children. Note this response to Carr from the letters to the editor in the current issue  of Atlantic:

Nicholas Carr correctly notes that technology is changing our lives and our brains. The average young person spends more than eight hours each day using technology (computers, PDAs, TV, videos), and much less time engaging in direct social contact. Our UCLA brain-scanning studies are showing that such repeated exposure to technology alters brain circuitry, and young developing brains (which usually have the greatest exposure) are the most vulnerable. Instead of the traditional generation gap, we are witnessing the beginning of a brain gap that separates digital natives, born into 24/7 technology, and digital immigrants, who came to computers and other digital technology as adults.

This perpetual exposure to technology is leading to the next major milestone in brain evolution. More than 300,000 years ago, our Neanderthal ancestors discovered handheld tools, which led to the co-evolution of language, goal-directed behavior, social networking, and accelerated development of the frontal lobe, which controls these functions. Today, video-game brain, Internet addiction, and other technology side effects appear to be suppressing frontal-lobe executive skills and our ability to communicate face-to-face. Instead, our brains are developing circuitry for online social networking and are adapting to a new multitasking technology culture.

Gary Small, M.D.
Director, UCLA Memory & Aging Research Center
Los Angeles, Calif.