Sunday, April 30, 2006

Cool wiki

For the many billions who are undoubtedly reading (!!), check out the *very* cool work that students in my graduate basic writing class ("Teaching Basic Writing at the College Level") did on their CompFAQ basic writing wiki:

First, let me say thanks to three people: Glenn Blalock and Rich Haswell, who were *fabulous* partners on this (they did everything from reviewing the assignment to providing feedback to students), and Tim Gustafson, who hosted a module on the "Teaching Composition" listserv on using wikis that gave me the idea to start with. This project was far cooler than I imagined it would be. Students took it HUGELY seriously, working on many, many, many drafts of the wiki entries. It was also a great way to do "research work" in the course - everyone worked very hard on focusing their questions as they went, deciding what they really were doing, and writing tightly and smartly. I also loved the collaborative nature of the project. They wrote/posted, we all read... it was great. And it will continue to *be* great because of the nature of the wiki, which is terrific. A great way to end the term!

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

My swimming head

An interesting subject line. My head isn't really swimming per se... just full of ideas.

I spent this morning (re-, in one case) reading a couple of books for my oft-mentioned book (hereafter OMB) - Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts and Kitchen Cooks, Plate Twirlers, and Troubadours. The first chapter of my OMB has to do with working from a point of principle, as I may have mentioned. The principle, in this case, is that of tikkun olam, which is translated as repairing/restoring/healing (etc.) the world.

Now, before I proceed I will say that Dwight D. Eisenhower's admonition to Richard Nixon regarding the vice presidency (which I will not repeat - this is a PG blog) will eventually apply here, but I'm not a procrastinator in any sense of the word... yet, I've been carrying this book in my head, with not enough time to write it, for longer than I've ever carried any project. So - it feels like an eternity to me, and eventually it will be time to do the Eisenhower/Nixon thing. But not yet. Continuing...

Today, I'm thinking about writing this tikkun olam chapter. I find that I'm wrestling with several things - and I haven't yet started to write yet, so they will doubtless resolve themselves through writing (that always happens to me). They are these:

  • Academic convention would have me cite nearly everything I write. Yet, I don't know everything about tikkun olam, Judaism, etc. that there is to know ... and I never will. If I try to read everything that there is, I'll never do it, because...

  • Judaism is a culture (and a religion) based on intellectual dialogue and analysis. There is a loooong history in Judaism of discussion and debate with very little resolution - this is just the way it is. An example: one chapter in Back to the Sources focuses on Talmud, rabbinical commentaries on the Torah [the first five books of the Bible]. The chapter's author, Robert Goldenberg, is focusing on a portion of the Babylonian Talmud that asks, "From what time may people reciete the evening Shema From the hour that the priests come in to eat of their Heave-offering" (143). Referring to the Talmudic commentary - which is by several people and covers a large page (he writes that the effort to combine all of these ideas into a single whole "was undeniably a worth aim, but it has sometimes turned the Talmudic conversation into a gathering where everyone is talking at once [142]), Goldenberg says, "It may seem that this is all a practical discussion an effort to decide when in fact the time for Shema arrives and then to produce convenient test for determining whether that moment has come.

    It is important to keep in mind that this is not at all the true purpose of the passage... the practical question at hand is never explicity resolved, while the answer accepted by later tradition ... actually is provided in this passage but receives no particular attention" (143-4).

    So - Judaic thought, like academe, tends toward the citational practice, the rootedness in text and authority... this is, as Keith Gilyard has written, no new news. But there is a history, a convention, a culture, a tradition of no resolution - just continuing debate - so if I wanted to ground myself in sources, I could be there forever. (And I'm not trying to cop out of research, either...). Then there's the fact that

  • My tendency is to write "academically," from sources, and not from/about my own experience. I am no 'creative writer,' meaning I don't generally write about myself in any kind of personal way save as a WPA, a teacher, etc. This chapter, focusing as it does on a point of personal principle, is going to take more than that if it's to be at all good, which of course I want it to be. But personal stuff generally isn't academic-y and cited (which I'm obviously using as a shorthand for a whole set of postures and practices). That's where some of the essays in Kitchen Twirlers are good models... also some other stuff that I haven't yet gotten to.

  • So - a dilemma that I am thinking through. I will of course resolve by writing and writing and writing... because that's how I work through these things.

    Thursday, April 13, 2006

    Day after the CSW/First full day of Passover

    The CSW was a HUGE success, as always. I saw some fantastic student work! A couple of groups in Emil Brehm's class made terrific DVDs that included material from their community research *and* some really smart work with different genres (like commercials); one of Amy McBain's students made a fantastic PowerPoint with material from her observations in two different dance classes at EMU; Rin Flannery's students did fantastic genres based on their I-Search papers; one of Erin VanderWall's students made a *quilt* - a real quilt! - with various genres from her observation at a senior center ... it was amazing, as always! (I'm not even mentioning the incredible PVC pipe constructions that Michele Salmon's class made... or their matching t-shirts [Salmon's Fishies].) Incredible! Pictures coming soon. And video, too. I asked lots of the multi-media folks to get me copies of their stuff so we could load that on our coming soon, *new* FYWP web page. Steve Krause has just let me know that the PB wiki site for the FYWP is ready to roll... so now I just need to make stuff in it. Sure! Seriously, I'm thinking that maybe at least with the multimedia we can get some of what students do. We take photos, but they don't come even remotely close to capturing the energy in the event... it's just way too cool, too loud, too crowded, to show in a photograph.

    So after I left the CSW - and after I found my accursed keys, which I had apparently left on a table and then spent forty minutes zooming around campus to try to find (only to locate them in the lost and found in the union), I went to our traditional first night of Passover seder with our friends Kathleen and Judith. It was terrific fun, as always (though I am currently suffering the after effects of eating too much charoset/matzoh/horseradish; too much matzoh ball soup; waaaaayyy too many macaroons). I love Passover - it's my absolute favorite holiday. There's the food, of course, which is quite important. But more than that, it really is a terrific springtime ritual. It feels like a time of new beginnings (which it's supposed to, of course). I also really, really like that it's something that's happening in roughly the same way in houses, apartments, tents, everything around the world, where there's no official leader, where people are building on a cultural tradition that is thousands of years old. It brings together everything I like about being Jewish.

    Speaking of which (being Jewish, that is), I'm currently reading Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, which is terrific. I haven't gotten through a Roth book since I read Goodbye, Columbus when I was in high school, but this is a great book for a lot of reasons. It has a great description of the hard-to-grasp-if-you're-not-Jewish distinction between Jewish culture and Jewish religion, for one thing. Here it is!

    Their (the Roth family, the main characters in the novel) being Jews didn't issue from the rabbinate or the synagogue or from their few formal religious practices.... Their being Jews didn't even issue from on high. To be sure, each Friday at sundown, when my mother (and touchingly, with the devotional delicacy she'd absorbed as a child from watching her own mother) lit the Sabbath candles, she invoked the Almighty by his Hebrew title but otherwise no one ever made mention of "Adonoy." These were Jews who needed no large terms of reference, no profession of faith or doctrinal creed, in order to be Jews, and they certainly needed no other language - they had one, their native tongue, whose vernacular expressiveness they wielded effortlessly and, whether at the card table or while making a sales pitch, with the easygoing command of the indigenous population. Neither was their being jews a mishap or an achievement to be "proud" of. What they were was what they couldn't get rid of -- what they couldn't even begin to want to get rid of. Their being Jews issued from their being themselves, as did their being American. It was as it was, in the nature of things, as fundamental as having arteries and veins, and they never manifested the slightest desire to change it or deny it, regardless of the consequences. (220)

    What's very, very smart about this passage - and also very, very great for the book I'm working on (and will soon begin working a lot more on, after the school year ends) is that it speaks to the idea of "assimilation" (which is a concern that some more observant Jews have about less observant Jews), and to the idea that Judaism just _is_. It's in the DNA. The aforementioned new book of mine (which, as I think I mentioned in a previous post, is about affecting public policy discussions about writing and writer) begins with a chapter on working from principle, and there - very, very oddly for me, because I really don't write about "personal" stuff - I write about the principle of tikkun olam, or repairing/restoring/rebuilding the world, which is a principle that evolves from Talmudic readings of parts of the Torah (but actually first appeared in the Kabbalah. Long story here that I won't go into.) So this is going to mean writing about how I work this into my life, and into my work as a WPA and a teacher - which it does, but it's not something I'm used to talking about or explaining, really, to anyone but myself. So - it will be challenging in lots of ways, but it will be good challenging. The Plot Against America is also very smart (to me, anyway - I'm not sure Roth meant this to be there, but I see it) about this idea of assimilation... I won't go into the plot details here (read the book!), but the main character (Philip Roth)'s brother Sandy rejects the family's life as assimilated/American Jews for some of the novel (I'm not done with it, so I can't say if it's for all of the book) and wants to give up all of his cultural experience to become "American." Anyway ... still chewing over this one, but it's a DARNED good book, and very useful for my own thinking.

    Wednesday, April 12, 2006

    Celebration of Student Writing day

    I'm sitting in the ballroom waiting for the beginning of our Celebration of Student Writing , the "big event" in our First-Year Writing Program at EMU. It's the calm before the storm time - people have been setting up since 8am, and at 4pm we'll open the door to the 1100 students (and that doesn't even count the visitors!) who are participating in the CSW. (I'll update the pics on our web site after this year's CSW - maybe next week.)

    This event is pretty cool, I have to say. I've been here for every one for the last six years (and we do it twice a year), and it never gets boring to me. For the most part, students really, really, really like it -- they're terrified before it happens because it's SO public, but once they do it they say things like, "I actually learned that people are interested in what I have to say." How cool is that?

    This will be our last CSW in the current location, the ballroom of McKenny Union. This is a *very* cool ballroom, just the kind that you might imagine if I say "student union constructed in the 20s kind of ballroom." Big, wood floors, arched ceiling... totally cool. Unfortunately, EMU is building a new student center (it's fortunate in some ways, I guess), and we'll be there next time. There are up sides - this semester's CSW, our big one (as opposed to the "small" fall CSW, with only 750 or so students), is spread across four interconnected rooms (ballroom and three others); in the new union we'll at least be in one room. But we'll lose the cool character of this room... ah, well. Progress. Sure.

    I had an interesting conversation in the hallway with a colleague from the English Department who was on her way to a meeting during the set-up time for this event, too. She was talking about the need to involve students in assessment, essentially thinking about having assessment not be scary, but part of a project involving teaching and learning and conversations about same. This is all good - and an interesting counter to the NASCLGU stuff that I posted about earlier in the week.

    Sunday, April 09, 2006

    PS - I change my settings. Thanks, everyone!

    Thanks to Jeff Rice and Joanna Howard for nicely telling me to change the settings so that non members can post comments - and for welcoming me to the blogosphere! Settings are changed. Cool that people are reading! (I feel like my students!)

    more on the NALUSCG survey

    The NALUSCG survey is, as feared, pretty terrible. It's terrible on several levels, actually. In terms of methodology, it's quite poorly constructed. In terms of what it's designed to elicit, it's also pretty terrible. It leads with this:

    Good writing can have a number of different characteristics. In your personal view, how important are the characteristics listed below?
    Only characteristics listed:
    Accuracy, clarity, conciseness, scientific precision, visual appeal, logic, well documented and supported, solid spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

    Not there: complexity of analysis, reflection, relevance to the writer and audience... I could go on.

    The next question asks, "In your experience, approximately what proportion of current students possess the skills checked as "important" or "extremely important" above?"

    Another question: "Compared to students ten years ago, how would you characterize the difference in writing skills of undergraduate students?" (Possible responses, from left[dominant] to right: Much poorer, Poorer, Better, Much Better.

    Those of us in composition know what's likely to come out of a survey like this - we hear the "aren't you aghast that your students don't know anything?" (or some variation) non-question pretty frequently. I could go on, too, about what's not included in the survey... a whole host of things. The real problem, though, is that the questions that are listed here are just flat-out wrong. We don't talk about the "characteristics that good writing has"; we talk about the strategies that good writers bring to writing (or rhetorical situations) that help them to produce good writing. But I'm guessing that the NALUSCG didn't consult a lot of compositionists/rhetoricians when they built their survey. And that's leaving the methodological issues here aside.

    Fortunately, CCCC has come up with a strategy to work with this ... more on that as it unfolds!

    On a related note, I've just come from the Jewish Cultural Society, where I am a member, and where today there was a talk (or a schmooze, as we call them) on dealing with stress. I wasn't in the schmooze because I was working on an assessment tool for our big First-Year Writing Program assessment that's coming up, but I heard about it when I was going to my 11:00 administrative meeting. Apparently the speaker's key suggestion to decreasing stress was to stop worrying about things over which you/one/I has/have no control. Sage wisdom. :-)

    Tuesday, April 04, 2006

    Act now!

    (I'm writing this post as if someone is reading it, though I may just be writing to myself... who knows?)

    As some of you know - those of you who know me, anyway -- and who else would be reading this blog? -- I'm quite involved with the effort to affect public policy regarding writing and writers. Of course, this extends to education more generally. I do some of this through the WPA (that's Council of Writing Program Administrators) Network for Media Action, which provides WPA-authorized position statements, tips on writing for mainstream media, and more. (If you want to see that stuff you have to be a WPA member - if you're not, you can join right on the site.)

    But yesterday I got the first ever (!) e-mail from NCTE (that's National Council of Teachers of English, the mother ship of professional organizations for those of us in English/Comp) SLATE, which is NCTE's public action arm, on the
    Spellings Commission on Higher Ed. This is a nasty piece of work; one of the things - and a big, big thing - that constitutes the steam roller I mentioned in yesterday's post. The e-mail prompted three actions: writing to the commission, contacting senators to meet with them (as experts in higher ed), and/or attending the hearing (which is in Indianapolis, so I can't do that).

    I'll paste the letter I wrote to the commission below. If anyone else is interested in writing, NCTE has some valuable resources:Action Alerts, tips on meeting with Senators/Congressfolk, and more. This is great material. Right now it's pretty deeply buried in NCTE's web site, but I hear they're working to change that.

    Because I've spent far more of my morning on this than I intended, I'll say no more now. However, DO write to the Commission, to your Senator, to others about this - it's important that we make our voices heard on this!!

    To the Commission:

    As a college composition professor and director of a large first-year writing program, I am pleased to see that articulation between high schools and colleges is of interest to the Commission.

    Through research and assessment, we know that good writers are able to adapt to a variety of audiences and purposes for writing. College writing classes help students to become good writers. In these classes, students learn to assess the expectations of the various audiences they encounter in school and in the workplace and to meet those expectations in their writing.

    To ensure that students are prepared for such courses, high school classes also should involve students in studying purposes and audiences for writing.
    Preparing for high stakes assessments that emphasize single purposes and audiences for writing do not achieve this kind of preparation.

    Articulation can best be achieved, instead, through active, voluntary collaborations among teachers and administrators in high schools and colleges.
    The federal government has a role to play in supporting partnership grants that fund the development of replicable model programs drawing on the skills and insights of educators, administrators, and those outside the education sector to design enriched curriculum, more meaningful assessments, and expanded out-of-school learning experiences that will fully prepare students for success in college and beyond.

    Sincerely, (etc.)

    Monday, April 03, 2006

    Sea Change

    News today in Inside Higher Ed that the N'tnl Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges is considering developing their own accreditation system, one that would compare places to other places of a similar type. Of course, I've just read the quick IHE story on this, but it seems to me that it's an effort (and I'll hold off on levying any assessment of the effort - I certainly don't have enough information on that...) to deal with the ever looming question of how to assess. The Department of Ed has provoked lots of thinking about this, certainly, though from what I hear (from being at conferences and listening around my own campus) that thinking was going on... it's just not clear how productively, across the board. NCLB is clear evidence of what doesn't work; there are bunches of smart people trying to think about what does. I find the whole question both engaging (on one level) and terrifying (on another). It's clear that a sea change is in the works - anyone in higher ed who argues that things should stay the same, or be like they were 20 years ago, or any kind of argument about preserving, I think will be squashed as flat as the leader's nose in "Sleeper." But who/what are the engines driving the steam roller that's doing the squashing, and what can we do about it? (And who is we?) These are all questions, in fact, that I'm trying to tackle in this book of mine... and right now, I'm swimming in them.

    I just finished reading Good to Great and Good to Great for the Social Sector, and before anyone starts laughing (if anyone is reading, in fact!), I thought they were quite interesting... GtG more for the methodology and the analysis - since I am sort of repulsed by, say, the success of Phillip Morris in a declining economy - but the method was quite interesting, and, again, so was the analysis. A couple of the points that Collins and his team make keep circling around - one is that good to great companies (/social sector agencies, which is closer to where we are in ed., certainly!) identify the things they do well and just keep at them (this is the "hedgehog concept,") and the other is that gtg companies (and I'm not sure if this came up in the discussion of agencies) focus on being successful despite systemic problems. Now, I'm not sure that one makes a lot of sense for my own purposes, but it's a thought. (And I will come back to the Inside Higher Ed story in a minute.) If one of our goals is to change conversations about writing/writers to affect public policy, how can we do that without changing the systemic problems? Or should we (and who is we?) focus on the hedgehog thing, instead? What are the things we do well? It's a strange way to think about a field (and not just a specific class). I am betting that NCTE is thinking about this - or a similar question - and will endeavor to learn more about this. To return to the IHE story, it seems like the Land Grant Universities and Colleges folks are *also* thinking about this, as well.

    One more thing about that IHE story that is under my skin, and then diyenu for the day... they talk about developing metrics to measure outcomes. What kinds of metrics? Based in what kinds of paradigms of assessment? As a person whose work is based in a field where "growth" does not look linear, this concerns me.

    Sunday, April 02, 2006

    Having created BrownDogsBlog (named after our brown dogs, Maggie and Saffie), I am committing to actually write in it - regularly, not just a few times here and there. My intent is to use this to help process my very, very many ideas about all things, but primarily ideas connected with the book project that I'll start working on in earnest once the school year ends, and I actually can start working on said book project.

    Frankly, I feel odd about this whole process. Why would anyone want to read my ideas about this process? What's the difference between keeping a blog and just writing a private journal-ish kind of thing? I've never been good at keeping journals - I think about a line in Keith Gilyard's book, _Voices of the Self_, that went something like: "Writing is like an old friend. I don't visit it often, but when I do I don't hesitate to put on it my heaviest burdens." (Keith's line is more eloquent, but that gets at the spirit of the thing). So - not only is this a sort of journal, but it's also quite public (or at least has the potential to be public, should anyone choose to read it.) Of course, all writing takes place within a context - even a journal - it's just that this one is more public. Still, it's good for me to practice the regular writing that I preach. We'll see.