Marking the Semester’s Enough

I’ve asked students to write a semester-capping reflection in-class, today marking the end of the Winter 2018 semester at EMU and, with it, the final session of WRTG121: Composition II: Researching the Public Experience. The prompt occasions a letter noting takeaways in terms of attitudes and habits relating to writing, command of language, and grasp of research processes, although it’s a stacked ask insofar as its privileging ground and anchorage qua affirmations of footing, solidity, presumptions of growth that value lodging over dislodging, mooring over unmooring. Another way: might just as well be asking about attitude-habit upheavals, a churn of language, ungrasp of research processes. Whatever of the teaching-learning paradoxes, here are a few of the takeaways for me:

  • Our curriculum moves swiftly from establishing researchable questions and attempting, with the aid of systematic note-keeping, a brief proposal and cursory lit review, next to carrying out a microstudy documented with research memos that adheres to an appropriate research method, and finally to a pair of presentational moves, one in-class (elevator pitch to peers with careful consideration of slidecraft), one at the Celebration of Student Writing. Much of the semester felt to me to be balanced and right-paced, although at the end, two presentational gestures left one (the CSW) lagging secondarily a bit, without enough time to develop it fully.
  • That said, the curriculum remains promising in that there surfaced (for most?) a more obvious and followable connection among an evolving researchable question (or series of questions), sources gathered and annotated in association with the question, the enactment of methods chosen as ways of following rigorously the question out into the world, and the variations on presenterly circulation that care for translation of a nuanced research process into something shareable. Obvious and followable: this, according to students who informally related not having especially much experience with being guided to undertake research writing this way.
  • Our program’s bundle, Understanding Rhetoric and EasyWriter, primes this approach, introducing key ideas and standing readily by as consultatory resources for reminders and support, though at moments this reminding and support isn’t quite enough due to my assumptions about everyone’s remembering these materials as backdrop. I forget to say, use these books in this way (even after reading selections or pitching and modeling usefulnesses at the semester’s outset). Thus, the consultatory function of these books, this semester, seemed to fade, seemed to follow a declining use-trend, when I’d imagined an increase, expansion, uptick.
  • In future semesters, when teaching a class like this one, I may try to do more to poll students before the semester begins, to think together and ahead about thematic orientations. We ventured into environmental justice this semester, but I’m not convinced that the explicit and direct attention we devoted to EJ at the outset sustained as the semester wore on. It felt to me like the most prominent concerns of EJ quieted as our efforts shifted to more tightly tailored research projects; with this is that inevitable tension between the general and the acute, between the frame and the pixel.
  • Early-semester one on one conferences continue to be tone-setting for interpersonal rapport that builds as a semester goes. This practice is reasonably enculturated in the FYWP at EMU, carried out section for section for section, but it’s a practice I’d like to extend with focal intention to other classes I teach, doing more with these scheduled conversations while also thinking about how to keep them student-led and only in minor ways repetitive.

That is it. Enough for forty minutes of in-class writing. Enough to say the semester that was, was. Enough to mark even lightly a few of the details I’ll carry for a while hereforward.

Join Us in Ypsilanti on March 23

EMU’s First-year Writing Program invites you to join us in Ypsilanti on Friday, March 23, for the 2018 Winter Colloquium. Dr. Melanie Yergeau  will present  at 10:30 a.m., “Black Mirror Meets the Classroom: Neurodiversity and Social Robots.” After lunch, at 1 p.m., she will lead a writing pedagogy workshop, “Disability, Access, and Multimodal Pedagogies.” For more information, contact Derek Mueller, Dir. of the First-year Writing Program,  at dmuelle4@emich.edu, or Rachel Gramer, Associate Dir. of the First-year Writing Program, at rgramer@emich.edu.

Promotional flier for Dr. Melanie Yergeau's presentation and workshop at EMU on March 23, 2018.
Promotional flier for Dr. Melanie Yergeau’s presentation and workshop at Eastern Michigan University’s Pray-Harrold Hall, Room 219, on Friday, March 23, 2018. Free and open to the public. The presentation, titled “Black Mirror Meets the Classroom” is at 10:30 a.m.; the teaching workshop, titled “Disability, Access, and Multimodal Pedagogies,” is set for 1 p.m.

Strong Advice

Car radio piped this one, 107.1 airwaves, return route Ford Road to Prospect from Sunday big box outing,  groceries flying into the cart (fermenteds, quick oats, coffee) and then a four-carts-piled backup at checkout lines, but back to the song: some covers are the friendliest ghosts. A little bit of warming nostalgia, so sick!, Billie Jean, estranged memoriachords, soft glow in the January’s-fine-with-me-since-none-of-it-lasts-long grayscape. Right-timed to go with an equanimity wish, one I almost but then didn’t ask for social media send-up but then nah. Just nah. But back to the grocery shopping: bumped a buggy excuse me and a stranger standing nearby said “That’s how I drive my mini-van.”

Back into the quietude at that hue between the sky’s #EAEAEA and the earth’s #F2F2F2, chicory-peppermint tea with cinnamon stick, teaching preparation and upcoming talk tuning, difficult yoga on the floor in the round.

Standing

Standing on the Shoulders of Networks Poster
Standing on the Shoulders of Networks Poster

Immersed in prepping this talk for much of the morning, noticing as closing in the constraints of time and purpose and what I’d supposed possible before really squaring with the script. Deck is drafted, talk is drafted, and still there isn’t quite enough explicit about this business of standing on shoulders–so much more I’d like to do with footing for newcomers, hospitality for initiates.

The Most Fundamental Purpose

Decluttering email and here’s a missive I received as a reminder: purpose, audience, context, then analysis and practice, genres and texts, circulation. But the second paragraph (ensuring background) complicates the first, or at the very least positions the first set of fundamentals in relief–sharp contrast!–with professional development and meaningful experiences sustaining instructors of all rank. Even when the purpose (para. 1) is lucid and visible and constantly tended, the eidos in the second paragraph requires resources that too easily ebb and flow with the changing tide of administrator mindset and fiscal-budgetary conditions. Not at all meaning to be vague or inconclusive with this, nor suggestive hint-hint wink-wink with this, nor anything much other than reminded that re-reading principles’ statements is measures affirming and measures yes, difficulties and challenges remain.

10. Sound writing instruction extends from a knowledge of theories of writing (including, but not limited to, those theories developed in the field of composition and rhetoric).

The most fundamental purpose of classes devoted specifically to writing instruction (such as first-year or advanced composition courses) is to engage students in study of and practice with purposes, audiences, and contexts for writing. In practice, this means that writers engage in supported analysis of these purposes, audiences, and contexts and through supported practice with genres and texts that circulate within and among them.

Institutions and programs emphasize this purpose by ensuring that instructors have background in and experience with theories of writing. Ideally, instructors have ongoing access to and support for professional development, including (but not limited to) attendance at local, regional, or national Composition and Rhetoric conferences. Institutions employing graduate students from outside of the discipline of Composition and Rhetoric to teach writing courses support development of this background knowledge by ensuring students receive sufficient grounding in and practice/mentoring with regard to key concepts associated with theories of writing.

Source: Principles for the Postsecondary Teaching of Writing

Precarity

At this time of year–because it is semester’s end, the last Friday of Fall 2010 (before final exam week)–I am thinking again about patterned precarity. “Patterned” because the academy’s clock punctuates our lives with fairly arbitrary (if systemic) endpoints. That semesters end means for many students an intensified two-week window near the end of time when a flurry of deadlines, for admittedly complicated reasons, amount to a heap of dustbin deliverables and an even taller heap of stress. I know I am generalizing: it doesn’t always go this way, nor does it have to go this way. But often it does. End of semester grunt/strain/anguish is palpable, thick in the air.

Especially so this semester, it seems.

E., my friend in Kansas City, shared an anecdote with me once about the learner’s mindset and the thrill of close calls. The story I (mis)remember goes something like this: in Kaffa, the region of Ethiopia known as the original growthplace of coffee, there emerged an astonishingly widespread practice among teenagers of something like “fender glancing.” Fender glancing is a game of chicken with moving cars. Basically, participants in this activity enjoy a rush by close brushes with automobiles. A near miss is invigorating–literally life-giving. I made it! As you might imagine, this does not always turn out well. Almost being hit by a car–when the choreography goes badly–can be lethal or at the very least bone-breaking. E. explained how he saw many correspondences to this in those he was teaching (to play soccer), particularly when they were bored.

Thrill seeking isn’t a new discovery or even a new cultural phenomenon elucidated by the derivative (i.e., friend of a friend said; an admittedly lazy, heard-about method) anthropology above. But it nevertheless reminds me about revaluing the relationship between what happens all along, in a given semester, and what happens at the end, as well as rethinking how practices in a given course must spill beyond the time-bounded container of fifteen weeks. In other words, for teaching, how can we redistribute intensive encounters so that a class doesn’t reduce to an ultimate showdown at semester’s end?

Public Displays of Attendance

For the past year or so I have taken attendance in the face-to-face classes I teach by LED-projecting a Google Docs Spreadsheet into which I enter ‘x’ for present and ‘1’ for absent. The absences tabulate (i.e., it is a spreadsheet with wizardly formulas coursing through it: equations, maths of consequence, etc.), and everybody in the room can observe this act of record-keeping. Within the class, it is public: the record of who is present and who is absent is transparently kept, obvious. It’s rather like attendance crowd-sourcing in that the crowd is the source of the record; being in the room creates the account.

When we (me+ENGL328ers) were observed a week or so ago, the question came up again: What if somebody doesn’t want the record put on display? And the only answer I know relates to the option I offer on the first day of class. You can opt out. A student must let me know their wishes, and I will keep their attendance stealthily and in a secret ledger.

Among the positives, this practice helps me learn everyone’s names by the end of the third week of classes. It also reduces the number of conversations that start “but I was present that day”–conversations that leverage a teacher’s likely forgetting and that all the more likely when record keeping is hazy or erratic. With the projection method, students know attendance is logged during the first minute of class, so they show up on time, or, when they are late, they know they must check in with me at the end of the class session to make sure I have an ‘x’ rather than a ‘1’ next to their name.

The observation I took two weeks ago was exceedingly positive, so I don’t want to make this too much of a direct response to the question that arose in its follow-up conversation. It has come up in other moments: To what extent does this practice tread on student privacy? And are absences even private, really? Anyone in the class, after all, could keep track of who is there, who isn’t, and who arrives late, provided they knew names.

I suppose it is clear by my continuation of this practice that I understand attendance to be class-public. I wouldn’t put the record on display outside of the classroom (e.g., posting it as a web site or a public Google Doc), but I find the opt-out option to be a reasonable solution and a passable justification for continuing the practice. Without sounding too much like ProfHacker, I suppose I’m blogging all of this toward the invitation for input: What am I forgetting? Overlooking? And, How do you keep everyone up on a running attendance record?

Scoping Out Classrooms

After this noon’s union meeting, I walked with a colleague to check out classroom space in McKenny Hall, formerly EMU’s student union and a building that has undergone major renovations in recent months. I’ll be teaching ENGL326: Research Writing, in McKenny 100 (shown below). Just nine students were enrolled in the course until, oh, a week ago, and the current roster is up to 18. It caps at 25. McKenny 100 is at first glance a terrific space: great furniture, lighting, and projection equipment; however, if the class fills, some will be sitting snugly: I counted just 18 table spaces (extra chairs are stacked in a corner).

McKenny 100

After I picked up Is. from the Children’s Institute, we went upstairs to check out the classroom in Rackham where I will be teaching back-to-back sections of ENGL328: Writing, Style, and Technology. But the door was locked: no photo. I hear there’s a laptop cart inside. Between now and next Wednesday, the first day of classes, I also need to figure out who keeps the key.

Quickly, Quickly

Spring Break begins tomorrow. No beach-side cabana and umbrella-garnished cocktails in my foreseeable future. Just life at a slightly altered (i.e., re-charging) pace until classes resume on March 8. I believe this is the earliest Spring Break I’ve ever had.

In classes, we wrapped up a three-week unit on wiki writing today. The assignment went something like this: for twenty-one days, assume various roles in the production of a wiki–facilitation, discussion, research, entry writing, editing, and coding. Last semester I set up groups. This semester I didn’t. My aim with the wiki assignment has always been to immerse in the mess, to dive in, or, for the more cautious, to wade through some quick compositional emergence, or distributed, self-paced, collaborative writing. All the while, we should keep in mind the question of what is stylistically available in wiki writing. There is no single answer to this, of course, but it seems like wiki writing often (I am tempted to say “always”) returns to an “average effect,” more studium than punctum.

I’m not sure we fully achieved the mess I had in mind. A snow day on February 10 threw off the early development of the project. Facilitation and early discussion was cut short. Twelve days into the project I brought graphs to class–a simple activity distribution curved, as you might have guessed, like a long tail. A few had done much work; many had done much less, just like on Wikipedia. Also, the graph reflected two data-sets, one for number of edits and one for frequency of logins. So that everyone processes the assignment by a distributed pace rather than a climactic pace, the prompt encouraged logging in and making identifiable contributions every other day or so. Halfway in, this wasn’t quite working. But the graph confronted us with the problem, and, consequently, it moved us collectively nearer to the quick-writing messiness I had in mind. For the remaining nine days, the wiki came alive–to the tune of 38 contributors, an impressive blur of edits, revisions, and rearrangement.

Certainly we gained some experience with wiki writing–wiki writing connected with our continuing inquiry into style and technology. And, for the most part, I stand by this approach (i.e., will try it again), even if it still has a few wrinkles to smooth out. I prefer it to a common alternative, which is something like wiki-as-showcase, where the wiki functions as a platform for sharing individually authored pieces, where collaboration is predefined, where discrete contributions carry over into some kind of portfolio or autonomous collection of best works (many variations on this, to be fair). The showcase approach to wiki writing is fine, but I want to continue to think through the near-aleatory, massively collaborative chaos available in wikis and to think through the this chaotic approach for a school assignment and for the question of what is stylistically available. How? I’ll begin by reading and commenting 36 or so reflective essays over the next couple of days.

Manic Monfri

Most notable about EWM’s sixth year (2009, plus a few days) is that never in a month did I write more than ten entries. I don’t know whether this is more a comment on the blog or a comment on the year or a comment on their irreconcilability, their mismatch. Whatever the causes, there was less, less than any year before considering every other annual cycle consisted of 10+ monthly entries. 2009: Tweets a-bunch, blogs abyss.

Indeed, today marks another blogday, and since I haven’t missed announcing any previous blogday, I feel an obligation to mention the historic occasion (everything, after all, is more impactful if “historic”). Cake? No. We will celebrate at home later with leftover cod chowder (simple, delicious, i.e., better than expected), cheddar biscuits, and if somebody else feels like baking them, brownies. Today also happens to be a Monfri to top all Monfries: the first day of the first week of the new semester at EMU and, for me, the last day of the first week of the new semester at EMU. Frenzied, manic. Monfri, the average of Monday and Friday, their median, or Wednesday, depending on how you mark it in your day planner. Monfri, the grue moon of academe. No telling whether today is also EWM’s Monfri, the critical moment mid-distant between its initiation and its termination. No telling.

I’m teaching ENGL328 this semester, again unpicking the triple squareknot at the intersection of writing, style, and technology. Introducing myself in the first class this morning, I mentioned that I’m looking forward to re-establishing a regular reading and writing schedule this winter (perhaps it sounded like “irregular” as I said it). It’s not that I neglected to read and write in the fall, exactly. But I wouldn’t describe those four months as acceptably disciplined or scheduled. Not up to my standards, anyway. And I gather, hints and clues, that it’s typical in first years of new appointments to experience an irregular stride, an arrhythmia attributable to figuring things out, getting bearings, settling.