Quick entry—it’s late and kale sweet potato soup is bubbling. And I’m still in the late stages of moving, turning in keys and parking passes at the old place this afternoon, scooping expired field mice from the attic of the new place, fetching groceries, hooking up laundry machines, chopping onions, and so on. But a project several years in the works dropped yesterday at https://wac.colostate.edu/books/practice/try/: Try This: Research Methods for Writers, a textbook we hope sees uptake in rhetoric and writing classes. I could say A LOT about this book’s development. Once it was in the hands of Mike Palmquist and the editorial team at WAC Clearinghouse, its shape and timing were never clearer or crisper. I didn’t realize it, but I read today that this book is the 150th free, open access publication of the nearly 25 years WAC Clearinghouse has been operating. So it’s an honor and a wonder and a credit to so many that this book is circulating now, as it is. [N.b., not a ninety, but hope to get back to a few more of those soon, like tomorrowsoon, or the nextdaysoon.]
Synaptic, the Berlant-Stewart exchanges, base 100 writing, volleys dealt in increments (or multiples thereof). For the spring grad class, maybe 90s or within five words. An 84 word blurb is not a ninety. At 96, it must reach elastic band to 180. Or 175. A ninety can be one sentence. Or up to 90 sentences. It is meant to conduct a tiered practice. At once, measured habit, self-aware; at once, expressing questions as questions or connections as connections. Woe omicron variant whispers, though, What even is teaching now?
The global pandemic (COVID-19) has universities deciding to shift classes from in-person to online quickly—quickly ranging from overnight to something like three weeks. Shorter than a couch-to-5k, in other words. As rapid changes like these spread through higher education, people speculate, wondering what it means, how long such changes will last, whether anyone (students and faculty alike) is really prepared, and so on. Everyone’s doing their part to make sense of an unfamiliar phenomenon, and that sense-making takes a variety of shapes–blobby, tentative, many temporary. A medical doctor in this coffee shop just walked in and said to me oh, hey, VT (coffee mug gifted from a former grad student gives it away); “this is gonna be okay; there’s a 97% survival rate.”
Insofar as the generally altruistic goal of social distancing as a measure to reduce human to human contact and thereby to slow rates of transmission, campuses are un-bunching themselves, emptying the dorms as much as possible, interrupting residential and study abroad programs, adjusting. Just yesterday afternoon I was emailed a fair forewarning heads-up–come up with a plan for supporting teachers in the Composition Program if and when this shift happens. I had a call with the program’s associate director, opened a Google Doc, and we generated with help from others on the leadership team a six page document: 1) key principles guiding modified teaching in Spring 2020, 2) reasonable and appropriate curricular adjustments, 3) allowances for the labor involved with adjusting a class initially designed to happen in-person, 4) a caveat about how this is not an effort to forge at overdrive clip through elaborate training in Online Writing Instruction, and 5) a modest collection of resources for re-orienting instructional staff to the university’s LMS. I don’t know if this is the right approach. It is a lean approach–minimalist, humane, focused as narrowly as possible on the problem before us as an eight-week problem, a getting-to-May-6 problem. COVID-19 and social distancing efforts may continuing into summer and fall, but we will think together about appropriate pedagogical responses to those terms later. If and when we get the email to go ahead, we will circulate the Spring 2020 plan with what we believe will suffice for now in its honoring student and instructor well-being; urging flexibility and direct, timely communication; and extending again the forms of support we can make available (responsiveness to questions, openness to working through specific problems, general and continuing availability, administrative reassurance, etc.). No magic beans; no more warrants for drama or anxiety than the pandemic has already touched off.
In talking through the shift to online and upon witnessing quite a bit of buzz about what such a shift presumes about the work of teaching and learning, the planning involved, or the nimbleness of faculty–conceptual, communicative, and technological nimblenesses varied and intersecting as they are–there’s been a (at risk of sounding mildly judgmental, I’ll say it) clumsy differentiation between face-to-face and online teaching. True, at its crudest, some teaching happens with human bodies in the same room at the same time and some other teaching happens with human bodies not in the same room at the same time. We’re at the cusp of a pivot from one model to the other. But that other model–the one where human bodies are not in the same room at the same time–need not measure itself against the intricate and expert apparatuses now long established informing online pedagogies. That is, for now, in this switch-over, we don’t have to lug out the longest-scrolling web pages or the heaviest volumes on online instruction. We don’t have to school everyone new to teaching in online environments about the intricacies and affordances; getting to May 6 is a make-do goal. With this in mind, I’ve been partial to framing this not as a full, frenzied move to online writing instruction (OWI in a hurry), but instead as an ad hoc Spring 2020 modification in which we do our best to solve a short-term problem, respecting novice-ness as genuine (and vulnerable) and exercising scope restraint. Rather than touting this as a full and comprehensive shift online, I’m advocating for something more like online-lite, a minimalist approach cast perhaps a bit more in the shadow of correspondence courses than media-rich and daresay over-produced LMS-sparkled palaces. We can in time make sure everyone knows about the scholarly traditions informing such well-designed, well-made online courses, and, to the extent that pandemic-motivated social distancing becomes more world feature than world bug, we can get better at tying in our programs with that important body of work. But for now, for this moment, a spare approach will suffice:
- communicate with students (promptly and supportively)
- express clear and as-stable-as-possible dates and times for drafts and intervals of drafts
- let existing course materials (curriculum maps and textbooks) do the work they were set in place to do
- build in constructive interactions, focused as much as possible on uncertainties, opportunities for developing the draft (feedback-oriented stuff whether with peers or instructor led). Also, check out Bill Hart-Davidson’s “Feedback Cultures – A Guide For Teachers Thinking about Moving Student-Centered Learning Online” at https://youtu.be/B4Fe_rS8208
- err on the side of being positive, constructive, encouraging, and reassuring with students, with colleagues, with administrators working fitfully to unpick snarled problems, but especially with students.
For right now, for this moment, that’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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or Rachel Gramer, Associate Dir. of the First-year Writing Program, at email@example.com.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?