Tag Archives: Pedagogy

Literacy in a Material World – in the Writing Center

As I mentioned in my previous post, working in a writing centerreveals the fluid nature of materiality/immateriality when we think about literacy. The material context of literacy can be immediate in a writing center. Students sit down with a draft, an assignment they’ve been handed in class, maybe their notes or a book they’re writing about. Their material text is the focus of their concern and it quickly becomes the focus of our concern as well. The classic image of writing center work is the consultant and student sitting at a table, leaning toward each other, talking intently about the draft in front of them. It provides the focus of the conversation and work on the draft is the central motivation for the student.

What’s more, how the consultant responds to the material text has been a oft-discussed part of writing center scholarship over the years. Should it sit in front of the student or between the student and consultant? Should the student read aloud from the draft? The consultant? If the consultant writes on the draft, does that appropriate agency from the student as a writer? These are all questions that have been on the minds of new consultants to our Writing Center that I’ve been working with the past couple of weeks. If we focus on the images in the writing center, the questions about the text, and the concerns of the student about the draft, if would be easy to imagine that the material artifact is central to our concerns.

Yet, even as the consultant works on the text in front of her, there is a powerful tradition among writing center scholars and consultants that maintains that the material text is not the most important element of the consultation. As I mentioned before, writing centers often drag out the oft-used Stephen North quote that their job should be to produce “to produce better writers, not better writing.” It’s a compelling quotation and I don’t disagree with it – and I’ve pulled it out myself more than once in teaching new consultants or talking about our Writing Center with faculty. Yet, as the students in my Writing Center Theory and Practice course proved the other day, pull out the term “better writers” and begin to unpack it and you quickly find yourself in the realm of the immaterial considerations of literacy. We try to tell ourselves that we know what a “better writer” is, and how to help a student become one. Still, every attempt at the definition leads us to the kind of abstraction that we recognize as elusive and endlessly contextual.

In much of Writing Center scholarship, this conflict between the material text – and the student’s focus on improving that text – and the immaterial goals of creating better writers – often ends with either a lament about students’ inability to get beyond their focus on the material text understand or a somewhat condescending satisfaction that we know what is best for students (even if they don’t recognize it) and should continue to work toward our immaterial goals.

What if we took a different approach? What if we made the tensions between the material artifact on the table and the immaterial concerns of the consultant part of the explicit conversation during the tutoring session? What if the first set of questions consultants’ asked not only addressed the students’ concerns about the draft that motivated them to come to the Writing Center, but also at the less tangible questions about writing that concern us? What if we did a more explicit job of grappling with the abstractions with students first – and not just at the conclusion of the session – and used that as the framework for considering the material text?

If we think that students are intelligent and deserve our respect, let’s not play games about the agenda taking place during a consultation.

More soon.


What Can You Accomplish in a Week?

Tomorrow is the start of the first Dissertation Writing Retreat at the University of Louisville Writing Center. This is the first retreat like this we’ve held (and, yes, I absolutely refuse to call it a bootcamp). We’re excited about it and I think we’ve got an intriguing combination of time for writing, mini workshops, eating and relaxing, and individual consultations organized for the ten participants. I’m delighted that it’s going to happen (thanks Barrie, Adam, and Laura) and that we have a range of participants from disciplines as diverse as Engineering,Humanities, Social Work, and the Medical School.

But there is one question that continues dig at me a bit – as it may for the participants who will be coming to the Writing Center tomorrow: What can we really accomplish in a week?

If I think about a good week of writing – make that a great week of writing – I might hammer out a dozen pages or so, and that’s only if I’m really organized and know what I want to do with whatever the project might be. More likely, even on a good week, I get a couple of good days of producing a lot of words, and then I have days in between of making notes, staring at the screen, going back and moving things around, looking again at my notes and the books I’m using, and so on. I certainly don’t think I’m atypical when it comes to academic writers. So, again, given the scope of a dissertation of a few hundred pages, what can we really accomplish in a week?

My thinking at this point – and my hope – is that we might give the participants a jump-start to their writing, some energy to go forward, make even some extra confidence. (That’s why it’s not a bootcamp; we’re about support, not trauma.) More than that, I’m hoping that the combination of writing time and daily consultations might help the writers reframe their writing habits and approaches so that they can work more effectively to finish their dissertations. So it’s not about the pages; it’s about the processes. And I hope they’ll keep coming to the Writing Center (and will tell their friends). To see what happens you can also visit the Writing Center blog during the week.

I’m thinking it will be a great week of writing and talking about writing. Tune in later and I’ll let you know.

Ideology, surveillance, and the software in our classrooms

I’ve agreed to write a chapter for a very exciting new collection being edited by Robin Goodfellow and Mary Lea, titled Literacy in the Digital University (Robin’s blog on the same subject is here). I’m grateful for the opportunity to be part of this project. My chapter is going to explore how “course management software” is shaping our pedagogy – in and out of the classroom – in ways we both understand and ways that may be more subtle. More to the point, though, is that I think the construction and use of this software (Blackboard and the like) is often antithetical to what we regard as good writing pedagogy and the effective uses of digital media.

So here’s where I’m going with this right now. Course management software, such as Blackboard, is purchased by universities and often required of faculty and students for everything from distribution of course materials to posting of grades. This software is promoted by university administrations as a set of effective pedagogical tools for use both in and out of the classroom. Yet such software is often hierarchical, rigid, and prescriptive – the antithesis of the kinds of participatory environment most conducive to creative thinking by students and faculty. It is imposed on teachers and students from the top down, difficult to modify or customize, and makes assumptions about teaching and learning that, again, tend to be rigid and hierarchical.

I see the adoption and promotion of such software  as driven by material and ideological imperatives of efficiency, control, and surveillance that are increasingly central to way the institution of the university works in contemporary culture. Course management software is promoted by university administrations as an efficient and centralized method of “managing” university courses. Faculty response to the use of such software is often to complain or shrug, and acquiesce to the demands of the institution. Yet in doing so we are complicit in reproducing institutional and cultural ideologies that are as hierarchical, rigid, and prescriptive as the software. In this way dominant ideological conceptions of knowledge and literacy – tied to notions of efficiency – find their way into writing classrooms even as we may imagine a pedagogy that will encourage students to resist such conceptions.

So in the chapter I hope, at least in part, to argue that university-imposed course management software works to reinscribe particular conceptions of epistemology and pedagogy that, as a field, we have criticized in other settings. I think it is important that we think critically and act more explicitly to resist the implementation and uses of these forms of digital media. We much also teach students to approach the use of these technologies from a more critical perspective.

But all is not grim. I refuse to give up without a fight, an alternative. So I also want to talk about how alternatives to designing digital environments for writing pedagogy that allow students a range of ways to participate in literacy practices in ways that are flexible, critical, and creative. But I’ll save more of that for the next post (which won’t be so long in happening, I promise. January was just crazy on many levels.) More soon.

Genre, Interfaces, and Ways We Teach Digital Writing

I was having coffee the other day with my friend and colleague Ryan Trauman and we got to talking about how we approach teaching people to compose texts using digital media. Trauman is both brilliant theoretically and proficient with technology in ways that I can’t touch. So, when he talks, I listen.

What was interesting – to me anyway – about our conversation was how it revealed our two very different ways of coming at this question. Trauman starts with a conceptual discussion of how software is constructed. He talks with people, on a conceptual level, about ideas such as “layers” and how they show up in different software. His belief is that, if people understand the underlying conceptual frameworks of the software, they can move from one program to another and, eventually, find a way to use any software to create the texts they want to create. This is particularly important for people who are inexperienced with and/or intimidated by digital media technologies. So he begins with the theory and logic underlying the media and helps people understand the tools they have at hand. (And I hope I’m portraying his approach accurately.)

I would approach the same group of people in a different way. I begin by talking about multimodal genres with which people are already familiar – television, film, newspapers, webpages, and so on. We talk about the characteristics of those genres and how they work to communicate ideas and engage audiences. So, for example, we might begin by talking about the nature of the “shot” in film and how shots are edited together to create scenes or narratives, or how images can lead a person through a web page. My goal is to help them to articulate the kinds of texts they want to create, and the genre characteristics they will use when composing. My thinking is that, if they have a general idea of what they want we can then work through – and play with – the software as a way to make it happen.

Neither of our approaches is necessarily better than the other. (And they’re not mutually exclusive or the only ways to approach the teaching of digital writing, of course.) The conversation has had me thinking about the effect of our approaches on our students. Trauman helps people feel comfortable through the machine, and by having a good sense of the tools at hand allows them to work in ways that no doubt help them use the interfaces in more embodied and internalized ways. I can imagine that, as a student of Trauman’s, I’d be able to start using the software in less self-conscious way that would help me focus on the ideas I would trying to communicate – much as I do when I type. That’s a great result to have from teaching.

My approach, by starting with familiar texts and moving from those to rooting around in the software for ways to make genre-connected moves, I hope gives students a particular awareness of the rhetorical characteristics of genre they’re working with as well as an awareness of the deep knowledge of previous texts and genres they can bring to their composing. In this way it’s similar to the ways in which, as we read, and then write with print we begin to draw on the craft and rhetoric of what we’ve read to create our own texts. As the novelist Caryl Phillips has said, “All writers read for plunder.” In my approach, I don’t think I address a familiarity with the tools, and the anxiety about the uses of the software as well as Trauman does, and in his he may not help students connect to the genres they know well as explicitly as I do.

The point here for me, though, is not a critique or endorsement of either or our approaches, for I can see merit in both. What interests me is how we came to those approaches and the effect this will have on our students. My guess is that, like me, Trauman’s approach reflects his own patterns of work and comfort. I know that, even as I read a lot about pedagogy and teaching writing, I tend to gravitate toward the concepts and approaches that fit my ways of working and learning. It’s not that I may not see value in other ways of teaching and try to bring those to the students I work with that I think might benefit from those methods. But, truth is, I what and how I teach is inevitably flavored by my experiences, values, ideologies, and so that students who have me in the classroom are presented with ways of approaching writing – whether in digital or print – that is similar in flavor. Because I find genres and genre theory fascinating, and tend to think through writing and rhetoric often through the genres I know or the texts I’m trying to draw from, I bring that to my teaching. This is inevitably effective for some students and less so for others.

We all tend to fall back on our knowledge and our comfortable way of working and then reach out to others through the epistemologies and pedagogies that make us comfortable. In Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow he details the many and continuing instances when we allow ourselves to act in ways we perceive as “right” or “better” but in which we may be ignoring alternatives or the problems with our own approaches. So the conversation with Trauman has given me both another way to teach digital writing, as well as a reminder to be more rigorous in thinking about what is implied in my teaching and how I might find other ways to think about the classroom, even if they are harder and less comfortable for me at the beginning. No Earth-shaking conclusion here, I realize, but sometimes being reminded of what I need to know is enough.

University of Louisville Writing Center Blog

The consultants here at the University of Louisville Writing Center (where I am the director) have started a blog. They’ll be writing about their work with writers, their thoughts about writing and writing pedagogy, and just life around the Writing Center. It’s definitely worth a visit! Thanks to Barrie Meadows for making this happen. Come see what’s up with the Writing Center. (You can also visit our website – soon to undergo major renovations – or visit us on Facebook).

The University of Louisville Writing Center

The Two-Way Bridge (Part 1)

If I have problems with the metaphor of popular culture being conceived of as a “bridge” from less worthy literacy practices to more valuable and acceptable academic literacies (see below), how do I imagine we can think about creating our pedagogical bridges to carry rhetorical and semiotic traffic in both directions? Or, to avoid driving the metaphor too far, how do approach teaching reading and writing in ways that actually help young people be more creative and effective interpreters and composers of texts in and out of school?

We have to begin with a sincere appreciation of and interest in what students are doing outside of school. Sounds simple enough, right? But so many times I see teachers from middle school through college unable to bring themselves to the point of genuine interest and appreciation for what their students are engaged in outside of school. The reasons I’ve heard given for this reluctance are many, from questions about the legitimacy of popular culture as a subject to be addressed in school to concerns about whether explicitly opening the door to popular culture might bring offensive material into the classroom to fear that the teacher’s lack of knowledge of what is popular with students will undermine authority in the classroom. And the reasons – and there are many more – sometimes make sense to me, but more often do not.

Rather than kvetch about the problems, though, I’d rather think about how we can engage students in  work with digital media and popular culture in ways that enriches their literacy practices in every aspect of their lives. So I’ll be working, over the coming months, on playing with some of those ideas toward a project Dan Keller and I are thinking about, tentatively titled Teaching Convergence Culture.

One place to start is to think about what actually characterizes more participatory learning? Vanessa Vartabedian and the people at Project NML (New Media Literacies) are is doing very exciting work with this. What I want to highlight today, though, is their list of five characteristics of participatory learning:

  • Heightened motivation and new forms of engagement through meaningful play and experimentation;
  • Learning that feels relevant to students’ identities and interests;
  • Opportunities for creating using a variety media, tools and practices;
  • Co-configured expertise where educators and students pool their skills and knowledge and share in the tasks of teaching and learning;
  • An integrated system of learning where connections between home, school, community and world are enabled and encouraged.

I like the succinct and yet expansive nature of these characteristics and the way that they focus on different aspects crucial to learning, such as motivation, location, and role of the teacher.  I’ll have more to say about this soon.

The One-Way Bridge, Part 2

At a conference last week I heard several people defend the approaches to popular culture and literacy pedagogy that I define as the “One-Way Bridge.” They talked of the ways they would ask students to talk or write about popular culture texts so that material could become the content for class discussions or assignments that would help the students become more successful at school-sanctioned reading and writing. Yet at the end of their comments was often a question about why students still seemed to resist such efforts. Why, they would ask in mild frustration, shouldn’t the students be more excited about having popular culture “brought” into the classroom?

When they describe their attempt to connect to students’ interests, however, I hear descriptions similar to what I have observed in classes from middle-school to universities. There is an attempt, an exercise or discussion in which the teacher solicits material or ideas about what the students read and write outside of school. Yet what often happens is, after a few minutes, the teacher begins to drive the students over the one-way bridge to show how their work outside of school can be transformed into more valuable school work. It’s not that this is necessarily a wasted effort, but many students I talk with describe these moments as ones in which they feel as if they’ve been had. And the result of this pedagogical bait-and-switch, before too long, is that students begin develop a wariness of being asked about their out-of-school literacy practices. As one university student put it to me, in a disdainful tone of voice, “You know that if a teacher asks about movies or music you like, their just going to turn it into the lesson for the day. I’ve figured that much out.” Many students learn to regard these moments in the same way they do as a teacher-designed digital project that feels to them like a “creepy treehouse” — they learn to stay away, or perhaps play along, but keep their most interesting ideas to themselves.

Part of the allure of popular culture, including digital texts students manipulate themselves these days, is that they feel a sense of control over the interpretations, the uses, the emotions of the film, TV, games, and websites they encounter. The only assessment involved in popular culture — for them and for the rest of us — comes from our own tastes and our discussions with our friends. School work, on the other hand, is all about assessment. Now, more than ever, students have learned that the “lesson of the day” will always be graded — and that it only counts and is worth learning if the teacher grades it. It is easy to see, then, that if the students see school work as always involving the assessment of an adult, it is the antithesis of what the sense of control, pleasure, and mastery they feel when they read and compose with and about popular culture.

There are a lot of reasons this happens in the classroom and very few of them are because the teachers have nefarious motives. Instead I think that, for some teachers, there is a genuine belief that the bridge should only allow travel in one direction and that their responsibility is to bring students over that bridge to the literature and literacy practices valued in school. That’s an ethically defensible position – one that I happen to disagree with – but understandable. For other teachers, the pressure of standardized assessment and the standardized lesson plans that go with such assessment leaves them feeling they have little room for straying from traditional school-based literacy practices. For still others, there may be a sense that popular culture content may get out of control, bringing controversial work and disturbing representations into the classroom.  I believe there are answers to all of these concerns, and others, that I will continue to write about soon. But we first have to realize that a fake two-way bridge isn’t fooling anybody.

The One-Way Bridge

For a long time there has been a lot of discussion in literacy and writing education,  at both the K-12 and college levels, about “using” popular culture as a “bridge” to the print literacy genres and forms more valued – and more certain to be assessed – in the classroom. Yet it’s clear, in this metaphor, that this is a one-way bridge. The novel, the poem, the essay, the argument-based article, the research paper, all continue to be the desired destination for students in this model. Sure, we can start with the mindless and fun pop culture stuff, but then we cross that glorious bridge to the golden fields of print texts and critical thinking.

Obviously, I’ve got some problems with this model. To begin with, I’m less-than-convinced that no critical thinking goes on in the composing and interpretation of popular culture texts (and let’s remember that, today, students may very well be composing or commenting on pop culture online as well as reading it). And I’m also not the first to point out that the medium does not determine the quality of a text. There are plenty of bad novels, great films, excellent television series, and so on. Yet, while those points are worth making again (since they still seem to have not reached a lot of people), my problem with the model today is its single direction. Why must we assume that the only learning worth happening in school takes place when the base influences encountered outside the classroom are turned into the gold of academic literacy and texts? Why not, instead, approach all of the literacy practices, in the classroom and out, as connected? Why not engage students in ways of thinking about audience, detail, style, emotion, analysis, or anything else we want to teach them about reading and writing, as important ideas to consider regardless of the text and the context? Rather than approach popular culture as something to be left on one side of the bridge as students move on to more “important” work, why not help them see how the literacy and rhetorical practices we are teaching them will bring them knowledge and pleasure in all the part of their lives?

I know this is a difficult case to make, as the Core Common standards are not only generally hostile to this concept, but even more try to separate reading and writing into distinct, rather than connected, activities (more on that soon). I do take some heart in what Leslie Burns pointed out at IRA in terms of the language in the Common Core Standards that leaves some room for teaching about multimodal and digital and popular culture literacy practices. But even with that, it’s going to be an argument.

What would it take to convince literacy and writing educators and scholars to imagine a two-way bridge?

New Media and Composition Pedagogy – a course

This week is the first meeting of my graduate seminar on New Media and Composition Pedagogy.  First of all, I’m not thrilled about the title, but it wasn’t chosen by me, so I’ll just leave it at that.  Like all new preps, however, it has been an interesting process over the last few months of thinking through what this course could, should, and would be. This is a course that was high on the list of seminars graduate students wanted to see offered, and that hadn’t been offered here before, so  was happy to take it on. But that, in some ways, raised the stakes in my head as I began to think about how I should craft the course. My initial move, as it is with almost any new prep, was to think too big. I found myself thinking I would have to cover the history of computers and composition, current theories of multiliteracies, a good chunk of practical classroom material, new media theory, film theory, and so on and on and on. In short, I had the material for five or six courses, easy.

This realization brought with it the inevitable winnowing and reducing and, with luck, some sense of coherence. I realized that I had a problem with the kind of scholarship in computers and composition that focused on one kind of technology as the hottest new thing and the balm to all pedagogical ills. Having watched trendy new technologies or software packages rise and fall over the years (a topic for another post, perhaps), was wary of investing too much of the time and energy of the class on specific technologies and their applications. Instead, I decided that I needed to ground the course in some of the more abstract and theoretical things that digital technologies have changed in how we approach literacy and writing. What does digital technology actually allow or ask us to do differently than we might have done before, regardless of the platform or software? Again, there was more even in the answer to this question than I could cover in one semester, but I decided to focus on several key concepts, such as collaboration, multimodality, databases as texts, and the instability of texts.  We will read theoretical pieces that help us understand the implications of these shifting concepts, and then look at some current practical applications (and play with some of the toys ourselves). Yet, with luck, the theoretical work will allow us all to respond to the next new application or software that might come along (the next YouTube or Twitter or Wiki) and understand how it grows, and perhaps diverges, from current technologies. And, of course, it’s a course of mine, so we will also spend some time prowling around issues of identity and politics.

As with any class, I am dissatisfied with the syllabus as soon as I distribute it. But, I will be intrigued to see how this one shakes out and will be discussing it in this space.

The class starts tomorrow. Stay tuned…..