Why are they so quiet? 

 by Liz Kotseas

“Why are they so quiet?” is a common question from teachers who want to encourage English Language Learners (ELLs) to collaborate with peers or participate during class discussions.  I, too, wondered why some of my students in ESL writing classes were quiet and why they waited until after class had ended to ask questions.  It wasn’t until they began to share details of their educational experiences that I fully understood the impact of how the elements of communicative competency were factoring into their verbal and written participation.  Known as sociolinguistic competence (Canale), this ability to understand social protocols in various settings is one element necessary for ELLs to achieve academic fluency.

When teaching my classes, I like to begin the writing process with a topic students can easily connect with and hope to eventually spark discussion and/or debate.  At the start of this semester, students in my ESL Advanced Composition course were asked to respond to “China: The Educated Giant” written by journalist Nicholas D. Kristof.  Students analyzed and evaluated the pedagogical differences between their home country and the US.  Please note, while both educational models have their flaws and benefits, I share the following student’s observation because it adds credence to the weight and need for understanding of sociolinguistic competence:

China’s education does not train students in critical thinking.  However, students of US often share their opinions about articles with no fear of right or wrong.  Therefore, there are no right or wrong answers. In the US, good answers are always correct.  In China, students are given answers and their opinions don’t matter.  When I was in China, my teacher explained a poem in her words.  When I shared my opinion by telling her this poem can be understood in another way, she was mad.  She said her answer is the only correct answer to the test.  After that, I never shared my opinion anymore.

As international freshmen are just beginning to adjust to their new academic environment here at Stony Brook University, they fear they may upset their peers and professor by saying “the wrong thing.”  Thus, they hesitate to respond to questions or speak up in class.  In contrast to the teacher centered instruction most ELLs have received, they quickly notice their professors at SBU respect and welcome their ideas, and they eventually do feel comfortable asking questions or voicing opinions.

Another element of communicative competency is strategic competence which reflects the ability to make meaning clear, for instance, using appropriate voice tone or volume when speaking or paraphrasing when writing (Canale).   When we ask ELLs to summarize a text in their own words, this is at first a foreign concept for them.  They are astonished by our intolerance for plagiarism, but they have been taught the opposite; in fact, copying is encouraged- as long as they turn in the right answer.  Another student from one of my ESL classes notes:

In America, if students copy others’ thinking, the students will be given serious punishment.  This forces every student on working independently; as a result, students will have more ways in making solutions.  On the contrary, it is an astonishingly widespread phenomenon that students copy others’ homework in China.  Therefore, a lot of Chinese students are lazy to think about questions…

This comment reflects this student’s awareness of his new sociolinguistic environment; however, it also illustrates the cognitive challenges ELLs face in starting to evaluate texts and producing questions.

A third element, discourse competence, requires students exchange information and ideas with their peers and professors by forming coherent phrases and sentences to engage in meaningful discussion on both paper and in speech (Canale); however, if students have only been here for one or two years, they are at an early stage of their Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) which involves five to seven years to attain (Cummins).  Thus, ELLs do not feel as equipped as their American peers to contribute ideas.

I am a fan of including listenings to supplement reading and writing assignments.  An interesting National Public Radio excerpt to connect with an assigned reading is always available, and the variety of audio texts are extensive.  Last semester, in my WRT 101 class, one of the best classroom moments with my students was when we had listened to an excerpt of “This American Life.”  Native speakers of English chuckled at some of the humorous audio moments, and ELLs were able to listen and follow the dialog by reading the transcript at the same time.  At the end of the semester, one international student reflected on how he enjoyed the audio stories and especially liked being able to relisten to the text at his convenience to clarify meaning.

By modeling the expected discourse in our classrooms and consistently requiring aural/oral, reading/oral or writing/oral exchanges, I believe students begin to feel more comfortable in their new environment.  Sometimes, there is even one outgoing ELL who can be a positive catalyst for the rest.  Jia Guo, an international student studying journalism at NYU suggests ELLs not be so shy and rather learn phrases such as “I think that…” or “It seems to me that…” to guide them in expressing their thoughts (see full story here).  Albeit simple, if need be, we can write these phrases (and others) on the board, so ELLs feel comfortable in learning the appropriate discourse to engage in classroom discussions.

We know English Language Learners want to engage in conversation, especially with their American peers.  Matthew Miranda’s students who initiated Foreign and Native Speakers (FANS) reflects their eagerness to do so.  Engaging in non-academic conversation is equally empowering for international students as with confidence, practice and time, they can also become vocal critical thinkers in the classroom.  I believe our intimate writing class of 15-20 students is the best place for such dialog to thrive.

Using Digital Stories in the Writing Classroom


Cathleen Rowley

Sometimes I obsess over writing assignments I create for my classes. Should I use a novel or story or essay for a text analysis assignment? What is the best way to explain the researched argument and how many parts should I break the assignment into? But for my WRT 303, the personal essay class, I know my final assignment is going to be a digital story. The digital story is a short film that can combine videos, photographs, music, sound effects, and narration. It’s an assignment that I think has a lot of value for the student in that it is a new and compelling approach to the personal essay.

In WRT 303, the subject of the course is  the personal essay. The assignments I use in my course include short informal writings, two longer personal essays, a personal statement and a digital story. A digital story can be used for other purposes–such as arguments or informational pieces, but I will be discussing using it for personal essays. In an earlier post on this blog, Rita Nezami provided compelling  reasons to teach the personal essay.  The personal essay itself is a somewhat ambiguous form and can take many shapes. In the introduction for The Art of the Personal Essay, it takes Phillip Lopate thirty-two pages  to try and define exactly what constitutes a personal essay.  One of the points  Lopate makes is that, “the essayist attempts to surround a something–a subject, a mood, a problematic irritation–by coming at it from all angles, wheeling and diving like a hawk, each seemingly digressive spiral actually taking us closer to the heart of the matter” (xxxviii). His idea of getting at the subject from different angles ties in neatly to the digital story. The story can include images, text, narration, and music–all of which can help lead to the center or the heart of a story.

When originally planning my 303 course, I was influenced by Cynthia Davidson and Kristina Lucenko who were using digital stories in their classes. They were generous in sharing ideas and examples. There are also links at Writing@Stonybrook  for digital storytelling. which includes a digital storytelling subject guide from the library. To create the stories, students use iMovie or Windows Moviemaker  which are free programs. I schedule library  workshops for sessions on an introduction to digital stories and an introduction to Audacity (a free program for sound).

It is not difficult to make a digital story that looks professional. iMovie and Moviemaker keep becoming more user friendly and make  it easy to make something that looks like a legitimate movie–fade-ins and Ken Burns effects (panning  across images) and titles and transitions. But the films are  completely empty without some kind of intent behind them.

And this is where the writing class comes in. Teaching how to create digital stories  doesn’t turn our class into a filmmaking class. Instead, it gives us an opportunity to talk about issues we have already been considering in class, such as the effects of organization or tone or word choice. Or,  we might consider how to move a story beyond being a journal entry and towards something that readers (and now viewers) will find meaningful. Sometimes we talk about universal human experiences and how a writer is reflecting on those experiences. And  we talk about  using a distinctive voice that sets you apart from other writers. These goals are present in all of the essays assigned, but they take on different meanings in the digital stories.

Digital stories add new layers to personal essays and raise additional questions. What happens when you spend more time lingering on certain images? What is the role of silence and what effect does it have? How do different types of music change the mood or tone of the story? How do you use text in an interesting way and not just to repeat what is shown in an image?  How do you read the narration and which words might you emphasize? How do you bring the story to a satisfying conclusion?

Using digital stories for personal essays encourage students to think of concepts used in writing essays in new ways–concepts like audience or voice can be seen in a new light. There are some technical issues unique to digital stories that may come up: narration too loud or soft, or pacing too fast or slow. The assignment requires scaffolding with different due dates for various parts: script, simple storyboard and so on so that students don’t wait  until the last minute to create their work. With the assignment sheet handout I give a list of components that factor into assessment:  a simple rubric that covers aspects unique to the digital story such as pacing and narrative. In a recent article in Computers and Composition Online, Shyam Sharma proposes his own method of assessment for digital stories with a rubric.  Still, there can be other difficulties that come with any form of writing such as generating an idea or deciding what kind of examples to use or how to conclude. It is challenging but satisfying for the students  to figure out solutions, and peer reviews and multiple drafts play a big part.

At the end of this post, I have linked to two examples of digital stories, In the first example, Sabrina started from a story. In a lead-up exercise to the personal statement, I have students do a freewrite that is a sort of reverse-psychology exercise: write about how boring and ordinary  you are. Sabrina liked what she came up with and adapted it to a digital story. She wrote her story  and looked for photographs to illustrate her points after the script was completed.

In the second example,  Elizabeth started from pictures. Her story  came from a question: why did she keep returning to waterfall pictures when going through her family photos? Why does she enjoy visiting them so much? She also composed music that is heard in the film (a piece she had been working on prior to the class that seemed to fit with her story).

So why assign digital stories?They bring personal essays into the 21st century. In an article on multimodal composition, Cynthia Selfe and Pamela Takayoshi give compelling reasons to have students create multimodal texts when they say, “In an increasingly technological world, students need to be experienced and skilled not only in reading (consuming) texts employing multiple modalities, but also in composing in multiple modalities, if they hope to communicate successfully within the digital communication networks that characterize workplaces, schools, civic life, and span traditional cultural, national, and geopolitical borders ”(3).

Digital stories are a way of expanding the essay form in  the writing classroom and I plan on finding ways to keep using them. For the future, I am also considering ways to incorporate them into WRT 102, possibly in the form of visual arguments or a PSA.  There’s value for my students and value for me as well since it encourages me to rethink and reconsider my ideas about composing and the forms essays can take.

First student example: Sabrina’s story on cultural identity.

Second student example: Elizabeth’s story on  waterfalls .

The Meta-Game: Focusing on Skills in the Writing Classroom

Katherine Miscavige

There was a discussion earlier this semester on the Composition and Rhetoric listserv about the transferability of the skills we teach in the writing classroom.  To a certain extent, we are valued for and tasked with teaching students a broad skill set that is supposed to support them in the rest of their college careers – and hopefully, as educated citizens, the rest of their lives (a tall order, to be sure!). This is why every student is required to take writing and pass an independently evaluated portfolio. Being a good writer is deemed essential for success in the university and beyond.  I want to suggest that if we teachers of writing keep students focused on the skills themselves—if we get them to play the meta-game—we can maximize the effectiveness of our assignments, highlight the transferability of our teaching, and make the most out of our very precious and limited time with students.

Transferability is one of the things that makes teaching writing unique. Another, closely tied to this idea, is that writing is perhaps the least content-driven class taught at the university.  In biology and chemistry and history and psychology there are facts and theories to memorize and be tested on.  There is, I suspect, a reasonably consistent content taught in microbiology classes the world over.  Not so in writing. We don’t even give exams.

To teach the things that lead to “good writing” there are as many strategies and curricula as there are writing teachers.  There is no set of essays that every budding writer must read – there are multitudes of wonderful and engaging possibilities. There are endless potential topics for assignments and there are even many potential types of assignments.  When I first started teaching writing, the sheer breadth of possibility sort of freaked me out. Where does one begin?! Now when I’m grading portfolios it is a source of wonder and pleasure to see all the different ways in which good writing teachers inspire their students.

So if we have no set curriculum in the writing classroom beyond certain outcomes we want our students to achieve and demonstrate, how do we make sure that the skills remain the focus and our particular assignments the vehicle for achieving those aims?  In my classroom, I always have two parallel classes going on: the content I am teaching at the moment and the meta-content; the particular assignment I am asking the students to work on and the awareness of the skills and goals that assignment is meant to help the student learn or achieve; the class and the meta-class.

It starts at the very beginning of the semester with a discussion of what we value in good writing.  I dig deep here, trying to get students to go beyond what they think I want to hear. I ask questions like: what was the last thing you read that wasn’t assigned, whether it be book, blog, magazine, comic book, whatever? What kept you reading? If you stopped reading, why did you stop? What grabbed your attention in the first place? How did the writer hold or lose your attention? And so forth.  This discussion develops into a semester goal setting session. I ask each student to keep in a safe place (I usually suggest the last page of their notebook so that it is separate from their class notes) several specific goals for the semester based on what they know about themselves as writers and students. They can draw from our discussion of what makes good writing or they can develop new goals.

But the goal setting is not put away and forgotten. It becomes part of the meta-class.  When I read the students’ writing diagnostic in the first week of the semester, instead of grading it the only end-comment I write consists of one or two goals I have for them for the semester.  Maybe it is, “John, you should work on providing concrete examples for your assertions” or “June, add ‘improve transitions’ to your list of goals.” I then ask students to add my suggestions to their list of semester goals, in addition to noting for myself what I need to be sure to give extra attention in class.

It doesn’t stop there either: we continue to return to the goals throughout the semester.  For each paper we add the particular skills we are trying to demonstrate to our list of goals. Perhaps for a personal essay we might add “use telling details effectively,” or for a research paper “contextualize research.”  In peer revision sessions and as students gear up to perform their own revisions, they return to their goals. They share them with their peer review partner, so the partner has a sense of what skills in particular the writer is working on.  Before students hand in their papers, I always have them be the first ones to make marks on them. I want them to get the sense that I am not the last word in whether their writing is “good” or “poor,” but that we are collaborators.  Usually I ask them to write two things on the draft they are handing in for a grade. First they revise a sentence or two based on whatever grammatical concept we have been studying in class. I mostly teach sentence combining and using phrases to increase sophistication and variety and to teach punctuation.  I might ask them to combine two sentences that repeat information using whatever type of phrase we’ve been working on (or they can add a phrase to include a new detail if they can’t find a good place to combine sentences – the trick here is to improve a sentence not make it worse!).  Students are a little uncomfortable at first with the idea of writing on their nice clean draft. They are incredulous that I want them to mess it up.  But it allows me to stress that this is not a “final” draft, that it is something we are still working on, practicing, and learning from.

The second thing I ask them to write plays even more directly into the meta-class. This time on the back of the paper I ask them to reflect on the process of completing the assignment and reflect on how it has helped them achieve their semester goals: how did they demonstrate the skills the assignment is asking them to demonstrate? What was difficult? What was easy? What goals were they focusing on? Where can I see that they have made progress on achieving their goals? And so forth.

Finally, when drafts are returned, we return yet again to the semester goals and to reflecting on how well they were achieved.  Perhaps we add new goals or recommit ourselves to old goals. It sometimes happens that a student thinks s/he has done a really good job of achieving a certain goal, but I find that it is still not up to snuff.  This is a crucial teaching moment! I need to convey to the student why it falls short and what s/he needs to do to continue to improve.  And I need to do that without discouraging the student.  Having the student’s reflection helps me better tailor my responses to individual needs. I know when a concept is not getting through and it’s time to try something new.  Without the reflection, I might just think a student was being lazy and not revising.  With the reflection I have a better idea of the students’ understanding of the skills I’m trying to teach.  In these ways the meta-game helps my teaching as much as it helps the students’ writing.

The meta-class is also a part of my everyday instruction.  I always try – how successfully, you’ll have to ask my students – to convey to the class how everything we do fits into our bigger picture.  I’m as direct as, “We are doing X today because it will help us practice skills A, B, and C that we identified on day one as being integral to being a good writer.”  I usually write the skills we’re addressing on the board.

There are many ways to practice the skills of writing and thinking.  And we could no doubt have an engaging discussion about which skills in particular are the most central.  The important thing to me as a writing teacher is that the skills themselves always remain my focus, and I try to keep in mind that everything else, the assignments I choose, the classroom activities I develop, the readings I assign, are always in service of those skills. Finally, I make sure the students are aware of the connections between the work and the skills.  Because if we can engage the students in the meta-class, then the day-to-day class is that much more effective.

Faith as a Foundation of Professoring

Matthew Miranda

 As a second-year professor, I’ve found some of my first-year anxieties were year-one specific.

I’ve come to realize no matter how eager and willing I am to make myself available for each and every one of the living breathing miracles in my classes, no matter how sincerely I stress there’s no reason they can’t all get an A, and that the surest way to an A is to focus on the process of writing rather than the product, they enjoy a significantly greater agency in our mutualistic relationship than I do.

I’ve come to realize that my students enjoy the right to self-determination, just as I did when I was in their shoes (even if some of them can’t imagine that I did not in fact spontaneously generate in the classroom the day the semester started, and that my life actually exists beyond class lessons and office hours). So some of them will care too much about their grades, and some too little; some will worry so much their worry will worry me, and some will only ask for help two hours before their essay is due; some will view college as a springboard to a career, and some will see it as mere counterpoint to the “school of life,” and skip my class because it’s sunny that day, or rainy, or because they get 4 absences, or because…just because.

I’ve also come to realize how faith in my vulnerability as a teacher, faith in my students’ abilities as a collective, and faith in the moment-to-moment process of learning allow for greater cogency and connections than anything I could intelligently design.

One challenge that’s persisted from year one to year two has been recognizing what parts of my learning process as student are worth passing down (i.e. not only does taking notes not harm you, it actually pays off!), and what parts are best not passed down (i.e. skipping exams as a romanticized protest of grade-based assessments).

One way this challenge manifests is that I’m teaching writing, a subject I care deeply about, personally and professionally, yet never studied as an undergrad. My classes are 95% students taking writing as a prereq they see as irrelevant to their current major/imagined career. How to bridge this perceived gap?

There may be no more powerful fuel than fear of failure. When I started teaching, my assumption about professoring was that all professors pre-figured every possible angle and outcome that can emerge in a lesson, and that this is what needed to do too, then. So I proceeded to try and cover every imaginable base.

My first job at age 14 was teaching piano. One of the most valuable lessons I learned playing piano was that at a certain point in one’s development, the only way to progress farther was by letting go of control. To a certain point, you can plan ahead and mark all the fingering for a song, but when you reach a certain difficulty level, you can’t consciously solve the challenges that arise. You have to stop thinking, stop monitoring, stop thinking of yourself as separate from the piece and the instrument you’re playing. At a certain point, progress only occurs when you see yourself as an inseparable part of the whole.

As a professor, this lesson has shone through more and more in year two. In one class this semester, we were working with making inferences. There’s a page in Thoughtful Writing with 9 photographs. The students are supposed to write as many details as possible about the images. I hadn’t planned to do the exercise in class; I intended to use a short film to make the point instead. But there was a problem with the classroom projector, and I had to wait for someone from AV to come fix it. So I had my class do the photograph exercise, an exercise I hadn’t looked over myself; since one student didn’t have the book with them, I lent them my copy. Now I was flying blind: I was going to go over an activity I had not done beforehand. Cue the fluttering in the stomach, the fear that, at last, the day of reckoning was upon me—the day I’d be exposed as not prepared for every possible contingency.

Yet when it came time to discuss the exercise, I found myself in the same position I’d put my students in—one of ignorance. I hadn’t seen any of the pictures. Until a few minutes earlier, neither had they. But as we went through the activity together, and I let them lead with details, and eventually inferences and then larger connections between photos and inferences, I felt my brain invigorated, started seeing connections I’d have never seen if in a relaxed mindset. We were working together as comrades, rather than from a top-down vantage. The activity went over as well as I could have hoped for, because I could never have planned for it to work that way. It succeeded because I had no conscious control over it. The AV guy fixed the projector right as the activity ended, so the short film cemented the lesson, rather than singularly bearing all the weight of the objective.

As I’ve gained more experience and confidence, I see the benefits more and more in engineering variables and randomness into my lesson plans. I don’t think the students detect this; I don’t know what they’d think if they did. One benefit of teaching from your toes is the egalitarianism of process it fosters with one’s students. So much of their in-class experience involves starting from ground zero and working their way up to a desired realization. We’ve all worked with bosses/superiors: the best ones are part of the process; the worst hold themselves aloft from the workers and the work. When professors posit themselves as closely as possible to their students’ launch point, that equality allows for greater camaraderie, and therefore, for greater accomplishment.

Another professor, Becky Goldberg, wrote a blog earlier this spring about the way she used The Hunger Games as a breeding ground for topics and ideas for her classes’ textual analysis essays. I’d struggled with finalizing how I wanted to approach textual analysis with my classes; after reading Becky’s idea, an answer I’d never considered presented itself. If Becky had never written her blog, I would have come up with something. But I know that I would not have planned something better than what I discovered.

I tell my students the same principles that apply to living a good life will lead to better writing. If one trusts the universe to unfold as it must, then one’s pedagogy, as part of that universe, will also. If a teacher lives and teaches with faith that one cannot bend a spoon with one’s mind, but can only bend oneself instead, that teacher connects with their students in a more powerful and progressive manner.

Understanding Veteran Students – Part I

Roger Thompson

As writing instructors, we see a much wider swath of the student population than other faculty.  And, as writing instructors, we are likely confronted with personal histories in ways that faculty in other disciplines encounter.  Those ideas were at the heart of much of the research Alexis Hart (faculty at Allegheny College and a Navy veteran) and I have conducted in recent years.  I wanted to share some of our findings as a way to encourage our intellectual engagement with the diverse student population here.  That type of engagement often leads to concrete changes in how we do our work and, often, compelling dialogue in the classroom.  If you are interested in more detailed analysis and description of our work, please visit our CCCC White Paper site.

Some Assumptions that Underpin Our Research

1. Writing classes are different than many classes and because of standard practices like small classes, peer review, conferencing, and personal writing, likely have higher probability of disclosure of veteran status.
2. The veteran demographic continues to grow.  The trajectory has been increasing for a variety of reasons.  As of the beginning of 2013, more than a million student veterans were taking benefits.  Cumulative numbers are much higher.  Despite widespread reporting on predatory recruiting practices by the military, most service members continue to come from middle-class, white family backgrounds.
3. The effects of our culture at war will continue to linger in the popular consciousness, and the surge in enrollments of student veterans will give way to a surge in enrollments in family members of student veterans.  Indeed, the head of SBU’s student veteran association is a family member of a vet.  This demographic is largely ignored, but equally important.
4. Combat veterans make up less than 3% of the student population of veterans.
Key Findings
  • Two-year and online colleges and universities appear to be providing most of the first-year writing courses for veterans.  This fact likely is a result of several factors, including the desire of student veterans to more inexpensively and quickly fulfill general education requirements at two-year institutions, the ease with which general education requirements transfer to four-year degree-granting institutions, the ability to take certain courses while still in the military, and the flexibility of scheduling that two-year and online colleges provide to veterans, who often return to school while also having families or work obligations that limit their capacity to enroll full-time in classes at traditional four-year institutions.
  • Despite the fact that most veterans seem to be taking first year writing courses at two-year and online colleges, those institutions have fewer resources to provide training to faculty or to offer resources such as disability services, psychological counseling, or informal lounges/gathering spaces for their student veteran populations.
  • A limited number of veteran students seem to be enrolled in upper-level writing courses within departments of English or departments of Writing or Rhetoric at four-year institutions.  This may be due to the anecdotally more popular majors pursued by veterans (including social work, law enforcement, politics, international relations, business, and engineering).
  • Writing centers do not track veteran students who use their services, though several writing centers staff we interviewed indicated they were aware of veterans using their services.  We recommend that Writing Center Directors consider hiring veteran students as peer consultants to work in the Veterans Centers on their campuses (if available) or sending other peer consultants to the space(s) in which veterans already gather and are comfortable.
  • In general, while many writing faculty have some awareness of the presence of veteran students in their classes or on their campuses, they have not received any formal training on veteran students, military culture, or military writing conventions (less than 5% had received training).  On many campuses we visited, WPAs and other writing faculty were either unaware of the presence of Veterans Centers on their campuses and/or had not made any contact with the directors of those offices.   At those schools where veterans and military families are being actively recruited, and at those institutions who are in particularly close proximity to high populations of veterans and military service members, we recommend that WPAs make a conscientious effort to contact the directors of these centers (if available) in order to coordinate training and to sponsor events that signal awareness of the military population on a campus, such as film screenings, readings, and celebrations of writing.
  • Most writing faculty who have taught veteran students tend characterize them as mature, serious students who seek frank, direct guidance as they develop as writers.  They report that the veterans often serve as role models or develop leadership roles in class and that they tend to be “mission-oriented” and timely in their approach to completion of assignments.  Many professors also remarked on the value of the varied cultural experiences and broader worldviews that veterans tend to bring to class discussions and writing assignments.  Veteran students often welcome the opportunity to write about topics related to the military and veterans such as VA benefits, job placement, homelessness, etc.  We recommend that faculty facilitate the opportunity for veteran students to research and write about such topics, even while faculty conduct classes and craft assignments that allow veterans to maintain their privacy about their history of military service.
  • Because not all student veterans self-identify to faculty, faculty may be unaware of the veteran students in their classes and therefore may unwittingly be inattentive to those students’ needs, as these “invisible” veterans may be reluctant to seek additional help and/or may have some difficulty relating to classmates.  This is especially true of military servicemembers’ families, many of whom may choose not to disclose their status as a child or spouse of a veteran.  In those institutions with high veteran and military presence, we recommend that faculty consider including statements directed toward veteran students and their families on their syllabi as a way to communicate the classroom as a safe place.  Here is a sample statement from a colleague at Georgia Southern University: “I recognize the complexities of being a student veteran or being a dependent of a student veteran. If you are a student veteran, please inform me if you are in need of special accommodations. Drill schedules, calls to active duty, complications with GI Bill disbursement, and other unforeseen military and veteran-related developments can complicate your academic life. If you make me aware of a complication, I will do everything I can to assist you or put you in contact with university staff who are trained to assist you.”
  • Consideration of gender, race, or sexuality remain on the periphery of discussion of veterans on campuses.  While there were some notable exceptions, these topics were largely invisible.  We note that our interviews were not targeted toward discerning information about these topics, and we note that if any particular difficulties around them were present on a campus that they would likely not have been disclosed to outside interviewers.   Nonetheless, our site visits suggest that discussion of these topics were not vital to any training or any orientation for student veterans, and they were largely nonexistent in any training for faculty or staff.

A note on TBI and PTSD: Many of the symptoms of these injuries manifest ways that are hard to distinguish from other issues.  Symptoms such  as slow cognitive processing, difficulty organizing time, difficulty accessing resources, difficulty controlling emotions, and difficulty enacting solutions can be hard to identify, even for the sufferer.   Many times, these are virtually invisible disabilities, but they are in fact disabilities.  Our job is to recognize that they are, in fact, real injuries—as real as a missing limb—and to afford accommodations as needed.

Twitch Plays ePortfolio?

Writing ePortfolio Corner

Cynthia Davidson


Today’s Writing ePortfolio Corner isn’t so much about eportfolios as about the possible future of interactive spaces for reflection (which eportfolios are).
I’m talking about the “Twitch Plays Pokemon” phenomenon that is taking the web by storm this week.  Full disclosure:  I know nothing about Pokemon.  I never played it.  This is a pleasure that passed my generation by–well, some of my generation will yell that’s untrue, but we had to go back and reclaim that pleasure, with our children probably.  I’ve reclaimed some gaming pleasure, but not this one.  But everyone knows that Pokemon is a major shaper of childhood experience.  (Or it was–our current students refer to it as “old school.”)
“Twitch Plays Pokemon” is a channel on Twitch.TV, which is a live streaming channel for video gamers. It is best known as a channel where people can watch other people playing games 24/7.  This is done for both education (people watch to learn how to play the games) and entertainment. TPP is very popular–the site has recorded over 300,000 unique visitors in the week since its launch– but few gaming streams have caught the imagination of academics so quickly.  Perhaps it was only a matter of time, in this year of discussions of MOOCing and the ascendancy of online education, that a crowdsourced embeddable gaming platform would be an object of intense fascination to the public and to academia.
The game channel describes it as “a stream that lets you play Pokemon with a lot of other people by typing commands into chat. It was created as an experiment to test the viability of this format, the way people interact with the input system and the way they interact socially with each other.” On the side frame of the channel itself, there is a scrolling chat log of participants’ comments.  The comments generally are of the nature of “ANARCHY!” or “bird Jesus lives,” both references to the gameplay (which is a sprawling narrative of a political and religious nature, so the comments aren’t just random silliness).   The creator of “Twitch Plays Pokemon” has been feverishly sought out by gaming newsblogs such as Joystic, but he (only gender confirmed)  is protective of identity, preferring to be referred to as “The Trainer.”
There have been quite a few blog posts reporting on (Kotaku” in particular has been buzzing), analyzing, or reflecting on this event and almost all of them actually embed the game itself, which can be shared like a YouTube video, in the blog post.  That means that anyone reading one of these blog posts has nearly instant access to jumping into the game and playing.  “The Trainer” has provided an FAQ on the channel page explaining how to do just that.
I’m fascinated by the idea of bringing actual shared interactive experiences into a personal website, like an ePortfolio or a blog.  It’s something that we can do more and more, and it changes the nature of writing in a direction that began with hyperlinking.  The nature of summary and analysis of texts, whether strictly verbal or multimodal, changes when readers can click on a link and check the text themselves.  This can be compared to the Protestant Reformation when, after printing made the Bible available and literacy expanded to a great portion of the population, members of a religious community could offer their own interpretations of the preacher’s text references without having to go through channels.  Access is easier and, if not instant, nearly so.
Some may question if this is the proper use of an ePortfolio, which should be the showcase of an individual.  However, many of our students are producing interactive media, if not in their Writing courses, in other courses (such as the Game Design course taught by Lori Scarlatos in Tech and Society at Stony Brook University).  I would love to see my students create an interactive live stream such as this and embed it into their ePortfolio along with analysis, research, and reflection–and if they don’t create it themselves, follow in the footsteps of bloggers like Xav de Matos on Joystic who embed the work of others and provide the metacommentary.  That metacommentary then becomes another potentially ground for interactivity, for conversation, in the blog comments.  Those commenters can then check out the game and play it.
The beauty of this is that there are so many way to approach metacommentary.  Some bloggers comment on the programming and the access, some on the mythology of the game, some on the sociology involved in choosing a democratic or anarchic style of play or the building of community.  All are rich conversations to have, and can lead to deeper consideration and research.
Experiments like this stretch our concept of audience as well.  Audience has a dual role, possibly:  one as participant in the original event embedded in the site and one more traditional role as audience of the metacommentary.  Prepare for this audience to be less under your spell as a writer, more easily distracted by his or her own experiences, more challenging of one’s comments.  The attraction of participation is also competition for one’s words.
There are additional logistical things to watch out for, of course, such as increased flow of traffic to the server.  Also, the platform has to allow for embedding of the live feed (in this case, a Flash object that would have required an account upgrade prevented a direct embedding. You can visit an example in my WordPress blog.  Digication currently does not support the embedding of Flash objects, but other kinds of live streams are supported, such as Ustream.) However, if a student’s ePortfolio is set to semi-public access, only those with a local account will be able to access that page.  There’s a good chance that the student’s ePortfolio may become very popular–especially if it’s set to Public access.

Teaching Global Issues: Bringing the World into the Writing Class

Rita Nezami

As Mohamed Bouazizi’s charred body lay in a hospital bed in Tunisia, I walked into the writing classroom in January 2011 and asked my students what they thought about the young Tunisian’s self-immolation. They looked at me with blank, bewildered eyes. I could see they had no idea what I was talking about. A month later, as thousands of Egyptians gathered on the Tahrir Square in Cairo, I asked those same students what they thought about the Egyptian protests and the Arab Spring. Again, those blank eyes stared at me. This time, I was bewildered.

It was then that I decided to encourage my students to learn about issues that are not strictly related to the United States. I decided to have students do research on current global events and write papers to critically analyze concerns that affect different countries, regions, and peoples. As a result, students in my class this time around know that Jordan has the world’s second-largest refugee camp in the world after Kenya, that Belgium just legalized euthanasia for certain children in extraordinary pain associated with terminal illnesses, what effect global warming has on different countries and species, how outsourcing exploits millions in India and Bangladesh, how Bouazizi’s self-immolation helped spark the Arab Spring. 

I’m perhaps not alone in finding an alarming number of students unaware of and unengaged by significant international developments, i.e., those that are likely to be widely covered in the worldwide, mainstream press. This witting or unwitting inattention or lack of interest among students is especially ironic given the cultural diversity in our classrooms. It seems counterintuitive that we should have to urge students who are as likely from the Ukraine and China as they are from Turkey, Iran, or Uruguay, to become more deeply informed about transnational and transcontinental news and trends. In fact, it seems that there’s little correlation between students’ demographics and the attention they give to some of the planet’s highest-profile debates and shared challenges.

For reasons we don’t fully understand, students severely limit their attention to matters that lie outside their immediate sphere of concern. This isn’t new. The same was said of students in 1958. However, there’s something different now: Access is easier and pervasive. Digital, networked access puts the world and its complexities and the most recent developments – or even real-time access through news blogs and other social media – in their pockets. The problem is choice: Why do students use the tools of unprecedented connection with the last hour’s developments anywhere in the world, yet most use these technologies to build personally customized cocoons that keep the world out. Are kids (and adults) naturally egocentric and parochial? Ask an adult in Georgia about the economic crisis in Detroit and listen to the answer. Perhaps they don’t care or know about anything that’s not in front of them. Yet, it’s important to compare how closely a Ukrainian student keeps tabs on news about her country now than, say, a month ago. 

It’s a transcultural isolation that – again, ironically – is strengthened by the personal networked digital technologies – the availability of which is often a function of class – that could so easily, in fact, make our students the most deeply informed population of students in history. Instead, those technologies often help, not just students but the larger culture, build their cloistered corner of the world. The urgent question becomes how our undergraduate writing classrooms can help students recognize the costs of their isolation from issues and debates that will shape their lives and how we can help them acquire the tools to question whether they live in self-imposed attention bubbles. How can we make it “cool” to be a global citizen whose scope of awareness, knowledge, and interest is the world?

When students do consider contemporary news and events as subjects for argumentative research papers, they tend to focus on U.S. issues. Such an exclusive American orientation, even among non-American students, narrows the scope of their intellectual worlds. Why should they care about the geography of their “intellectual worlds”? Because we live in a world that is more and more globalized. We have to remain connected with the rest of the world to obtain access to international information, conduct business deals, or simply Skype family and friends who live on another continent. Many of our students are satisfied with a horizon that they define by the very limited content that they choose and filter by using their mobile devices and social-media accounts.. As teachers, it is perhaps our task to convey the advantages and promote open-mindedness and curiosity about the rest of the world.

We teach composition and rhetoric, not social science or contemporary international politics, but writing and thinking don’t occur in a vacuum: Our students must know something about their world to competently write about it. If they don’t understand how the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon inspired protests elsewhere, if they don’t understand what caused the Arab world to rise against the dictators, if they don’t know how global warming affects other nations, and if they don’t realize that outsourcing has throttled American and European unemployment and endangered the lives of low-wage workers in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, then they are likely to have difficulties operating as global citizens in an interconnected, interdependent world where causes and effects are harder than ever to discern.

Ignorance is not bliss; it is dangerous. I suggest that part of the ethical aspects of our work is to give students reason to pause and ask whether some things have intrinsic, if not immediate, value. That they may find a moral obligation to know what other people are going through so that their compassion, and maybe their political action, can extend beyond themselves but to families driven into cardboard wind breaks on the wintry plains of Jordan trying to escape the sausage grinder of the Syrian civil war. Or to the little Bangladeshi boy who delights in swimming in a pond rendered a toxic cocktail by factories making clothes for Target.

By framing writing and research as intellectually seductive and ethical processes, those faces peering back at us, their heads gone blank from overwhelming family and academic disasters, worries about grades, tests and paying tuition, may opt to find room in their days, maybe even in their consciences, to plug into the world occasionally and try to answer what the French writer Simone Weil said is the most important question of all: “What have you suffered?”

Here are some global issues that may especially engage students:

  • Arab Spring and its evolution into Arab Winter (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya et al. Causes and consequences, from hope to despair)
  • Syrian civil war (Geneva negotiations, plurality of opposition groups, Russia’s support for Assad, humanitarian crisis, civilian deaths, refugee camps)
  • Israeli-Palestinian conflict (stagnation of peace process, settlements, status of Jerusalem, Israeli violence in Gaza)
  • Contemporary genocide (Bangladesh, Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, Darfur, Northern Iraq; definition of genocide, responses of international community)
  • Climate change/global warming (support and resistance to claim of climate change, causes, most-affected countries/regions, endangered species, agricultural implications, changing weather patterns, disruption of traditional trade patterns, differential political affects, poverty, disease)
  • Outsourcing (corporate exploitation of low-wage labor; shift of low-order tasks; poor and dangerous working conditions, pollutions, health hazards, invisibility to end consumers who demand low prices, quality control, rural to urban migration)
  • Child labor (enforcement of existing international treaties, economic incentives of, relationship to globalization and Western hypercapitalism)
  • Fuel supply and price volatility (prices and supply as political leverage; correlation with political stability; significance for financial markets’ stability; relationship to geopolitical alliances with fuel exporters and toleration of human-rights abuses)
  • Crisis fatigue (paralysis in face of surfeit of emergencies and outrages, knowledge of which is made possible by digitally delivered 24/7 news cycle; irony of co-existing crisis fatigue and crisis apathy in different populations)
  • European economic crisis (definition of; causes of; attempted and proposed solutions; implications for the welfare-state’s viability; implications for trade and investment with nations in crisis; crisis and political stability; instability as weapon; relationship to shifts in global economic superpower realignment)
  • Ukraine (causes of instability; implications for the EU; similarities/differences with Chechnya? First post-Cold War Russian-American confrontation; what’s at stake for Russia (e.g., Black Sea fleet); implications for formal/informal relationships between Russia and former constituent states, i.e., precedent for resistance in Chechnya, et al.?)
  • Child labor (cause for international posturing? Enforcement of international treaties? Economic advantages of; relationship to globalization)
  • Cross-cultural attitudes toward the hijab, burka, and other group-identifying clothing cues
  • Deforestation (as a kind of environmental, rather than outright political, colonialism?)
  • Corruption (government, corporate and civil corruption)
  • Trans-cultural proliferation and consequences of American fast food
  • Illegal immigration (racism, danger of border crossing, vulnerability, low social status, unemployment, exploitation, lack of access to health care and other social services, fear of deportation)
  • Police violence (cultural differences in identity and function of “police”; boundary between appropriate use of force and “violence”; enforcement of laws against)
  • Pan-global organizations’ effectiveness (UN, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, et al.)
  • Capital punishment (ethical objections, racial bias, errors, inconsistent sentencing, cultural differences in crimes considered punishable by death, debate about deterrence)
  • Discrimination (racial, gender, abled/differently abled, class, geographic, ideological, religious, ethnic; individual, group, state responses to; use as an internal/external weapon)
  • Terrorism (“one man’s terrorist is another man’s martyr”; definition of; responses to; purposes of; effectiveness of, backlashes from; effects on political stability; philosophical/theological; political/justification/condemnation; objective distinctions between “terrorist,” “freedom fighter,” “murderer,” “patriot”? Implications for victim’s states’ foreign policy?)
  • Hunger (its causes, attempts to alleviate, political effect of, as weapon)
  • Digital-and-networked technology dependence (implications of infrastructure vulnerability; as a weapon and field of battle; interpersonal relationships, e.g., text or hug? Implications of rhetoric of texting and tweeting for conventional conversation; implications for attention spans and community involvement; privacy and surveillance; redefinition of “community”? Devices as modes of connection or places to hide?)
  • Natural disasters (economic effects of, responses as political theatre, attention fatigue)
  • Legacies of colonialism/new forms of colonialism aided by economic and digital globalization
  • E-waste (Who does the dumping and who gets dumped on? What are the environmental and health costs? What is the relationship to political and economic power, i.e., where the dumping occurs; efforts to curtail e-waste; effectiveness? Compliance?)
  • Dictatorship and state-sponsored brutality (responsibility of international community, trade sanctions, UN resolutions, boycotts)
  • Illiteracy (conventional, digital, cultural, political, economic)
  • LGBT issues (discrimination/cultural acceptance and resistance, political power of the LGBT community)
  • Reproductive rights (debate over pro-choice/pro-life; role of government in regulating women’s bodies; religious opposition; rape victims; teen pregnancy; debate about when life begins)
  • Violence (as represented in digital and conventional media; definition of/cultural understanding and acceptance of, economic leverage of, cultural valorization of violence in construction of masculinity; domestic violence).

The sources that researchers have at their fingertips are vast. Please note that “globalization” is just one of the many global issues. We may need to make students aware of this distinction.

Here is a preliminary list of resources, any of which may be good starting places for students curious about choosing a global issue to research and actually accessing substantive background:

The New York Times: Abundant coverage of breaking news and amazingly in-depth reports about the entire range of international subjects.

The BBC World Service: Like the New York Times‘ international coverage, the BBC offers both news of the moment, but, more importantly for our students, online multimedia packages of research and the views of experts from all sides of international controversies.

The Council on Foreign Relations: Publishers of the august journal, Foreign Affairs, the CFR’s in-depth research resources.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization: NATO’s e-library is remarkable for its breadth and depth of resources.

The Congressional Research Service: If you’ve never taken a peek at the output of Congress’ own, huge research resources, this may take your breath.

The Economist is also a valuable research source.

I would like to acknowledge Jeffrey Green’s contributions in writing this piece.

Student Post – 2

Celebrating Student Writing

Terri Squires

There is an old saying to write what you know, and that is what my stories will do. While my books are primarily fiction with a bit of fantasy, they are going to cover some real world tough subjects, such as bullying, abuse, and drug addiction. A little over a year ago in one of my writing classes, I recall a classmate complaining that her mother thought she wouldn’t be a great writer. Why, because apparently she hadn’t suffered in her youth. When she said that out loud, something clicked inside of me. While I had spoken of my past many times, I had never written it down. I wrote of my experience of being bullied, and the abuse I suffered at the hands of a close family member. I have to admit that I was horrified when my professor suggested peer review of this essay in class. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t let anyone read my paper last year. Why was I still hiding from my past after all of these years? A past where I was the innocent victim? Perhaps, I didn’t want to be pitied. Looking back, it was wrong of me not to share my story with the class. I have since posted the entire essay in my Stony Brook digication.com e-portfolio for anyone to see.

Context of the excerpt above provided by the writer: 
"This is small part of the my script for my digital story that I did this semester. It is posted in my SBU Digication e-portolio." 

In this column, we will include brief excerpts of student writing (submitted by students, with permission). If you’d like your writing to be featured on this writing teachers’ blog, you can submit it via this convenient form.

Putting Everything On the Line?

… Optimizing the Affordances, Minding the Pitfalls

Shyam Sharma and Christopher Petty

Especially after the advent of web 2.0 applications, the landscape of teaching writing is drastically changing. In many ways, writing teachers greatly benefit by moving into web-based, increasingly shared, and peer-involved practices especially at the post-secondary levels. New developments in technological applications are allowing highly effective pedagogical practices to develop. However, technocratic arguments founded on the positive affordances of new technologies can also be taken too far. 

In this context, we wanted to write a brief series of blog posts that will describe and discuss some of the educational/pedagogical benefits and also pitfalls of using web applications and shared spaces for providing instructor feedback to students’ writing, for engaging them in peer review, and for promoting collaboration in college writing courses. These discussions will go along with somewhat corresponding videos (which will be included in a separate section in the Writing@StonyBrook portfolio) that demonstrate how to effectively use collaborative and interactive spaces and tools such as wikis, cloud-based documents, blogs, and portfolios.

Described and implemented differently as peer review, critique, feedback, etc, the practice of letting students read and comment on each other’s drafts has a long tradition in writing pedagogy. Writing for the spring 1984 issue of The Writing Instructor, Elizabeth Flynn highlighted how important this practice had been in the teaching of writing even until back then when she said, “The approach [of peer critique] has been explained and defended by composition specialists such as Kenneth Bruffee, Thom Hawkins, Peter Elbow, and James Moffett. Their defenses generally center on the opportunities provided by the technique for confrontation with real audiences” (120). With the advancements in technologies of writing, the practices of using peer review/feedback seem to be gaining more popularity in the teaching of writing than ever before.

Reviewing the scholarship on the topic twenty-seven years later (in 2011), Flynn found that the scholarship on peer review in the writing classroom “tapered off in the early 1990s” in the mainstream. Research on the practice has been somewhat pushed to the margins of writing studies (such as in inquiries about ESL students’ performance especially in peer review online, studies in technical and professional communication, and research on peer review based on computer-aided calibration). As new technologies advanced, more rigorous research of pedagogical practices was gradually replaced by “research focusing on peer review using technology.” Now often described as “collaborative” writing, peer-supported writing has a broad range of scholarship that is represented in this extensive bibliography within the Writing Matters webliography maintained by Rebecca Moore Howard. Lists like this are quite extensive but there is decreasing focus on the  curricular and pedagogical aspects of using peer review, with increasing attention to technology per se. 

In the past few years, we’ve been witnessing “advancements” in technology that are introducing more harm than help into the profession and higher education at large. Some of the questionable new trends include machine-grading (whose objective is more to eliminate the teacher than to aid her, whatever the ostensible argument among its proponents), calibrated peer review mechanisms based on semantic algorithms (which can also undermine the role of teacher guidance in the name of efficiency), and peer-grading by learners who often reside across vast cultural/contextual differences (which is supported by absurd arguments that ignore fundamental issues of learning across borders). Thus, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that peer-involved teaching of writing could be increasingly moving away from the firm grounds of pedagogical “effectiveness” to mechanical “efficiency.” 

It must be noted that vast majorities of writing teachers—not at all surprisingly—reject the new logic of efficiency decoupled from effectiveness; however, among the expanding minority who embrace the efficiencies afforded by new technologies at the cost of pedagogical effectiveness, there is a disturbing tendency to disregard the decades-long and extremely rich scholarship on the subject of peer-involved teaching/learning of writing. If we observe current conversations about student peer review in venues like the WPA listserv, while the voices of members of the discipline whose scholarship and practice are deeply grounded are heard much less frequently, there is an increasing number of writing teachers who seem to buy into the logic of efficiency by decoupling it from effectiveness.

The result is an unfortunate (often seemingly willful) forgetting or ignoring of the established fact that the effectiveness (and often validity) of student peer review comes almost exclusively from teachers’ careful planning and thoughtful implementation of their own guidance for the students. In fact, as far as we could tell from our study and observation of current conversation in the field, there is little to no attention given a whole range of somewhat to severe side effects that emerging technologies can introduce when writing teachers partly or paradigmatically shift the basis of peer review from the paper/printer to the Internet. Those effects range from the discomfort that some students may feel when their teacher’s feedback is visible to their peers to the violation of students’ privacy and confidentiality even when teachers may not be aware of such situations.

In the rest of this introductory post, we’d like to describe some of the major tensions between the powerful affordances provided by collaborative/interactive tools and spaces for instructor and peer feedback on the one hand, and on the other, the potential pitfalls and concerns that those tools and spaces also introduce into the teaching/learning of writing. Using our own experiences and reflections, we will discuss why it becomes necessary to take pedagogically thoughtful and ethically responsible approaches when requiring or encouraging students to share the process and products of their writing (as well as our own feedback on their writing) with their peers, class, or audiences beyond the classroom.

Let us first look at some of the major benefits of using collaborative applications. Stated generally, these applications have tremendous potentials to make peer review process more effective and time-efficient, collaborative projects more productive, conferences more student-driven, and the entire writing process better controlled/owned by student writers even as they receive feedback from the instructor and their peers. In order to illustrate some of these benefits, let us compare two situations. In the first one, students bring their draft to class for peer review, and they spend all or much of class time reading each other’s work and sharing comments. They may be provided a rubric, they may workshop a sample before doing peer review, and they may discuss the best feedback they received from their peers. Peer review done in face-to-face situations has many benefits (so simply going online and posting comments on each other’s drafts cannot be a replacement). However, if guidelines/modeling, support, and resources are provided, shared spaces such as wiki and Google Docs can save a tremendous amount of time for peer review.

Let us now imagine a second situation. Suppose that instead of spending class time for doing peer review, they do practice runs in class and do the reading and commenting on each other’s drafts after class. They can use a carefully tailored rubric provided inside the same wiki as a separate post by the instructor; they can view and emulate the teacher’s comments on other students (as well as their) work; and they can complete the peer review by a certain day (say Friday evening) so that the instructor can follow up with more comments (when that order is more desirable).

Especially compared to students taking each other’s draft home and returning it at the next class meeting, collaborative tools can allow not only peer review and instructor feedback to be completed but also allow the writers to address the feedback by the time they return to the next class. There are many more benefits of using shared spaces like wiki. For instance, because student’s drafts are accessible, instructors can provide necessary support by regularly checking to see how each student is doing. Because versions can be compared, the exact amount and nature of revisions and editing done by students can by comparing drafts with the click of a button. And especially because students always have their writing with them, they can continue to work on it; their sense of ownership is better maintained because they never actually “submit” a copy of their work to the teacher as a final/finished product. Using web applications like wiki also allows students to integrate multimedia, hyperlink sources, and have an ongoing conversation through the comment function.

To further elaborate one of the most significant benefits of using shared spaces for the writing and instructor and/or peer review process is that of student conferences. In a 6-week course (Tuesday to Friday) that one of us (Shyam) taught last summer, he set two deadlines during the weekend and allowed students to do peer feedback as well as revise their writing by using his feedback. Through his course schedule, he let students know that they could complete peer feedback by the end of Saturday, that he would provide his round of feedback as instructor by the end of Monday, and students were supposed have read (and respond to, if they wanted) their peers’ and instructor’s feedback before class on Tuesday. This made the three-hour class meetings and, more significantly, the individual conferences much more effective than if students only came to class with new drafts of their work after four days since the last class. He found this a much more flexible way to provide feedback to students than collecting papers and returning them with comments or even using more conventional alternatives like assignment tools on Blackboard LMS or email (which is even less effective); his students were also excited by the opportunity to work on their papers while receiving their peers’ and instructor’s feedback in a systematic manner. Students who had to be absent in class were also able to catch up much more easily than when the assignments are paper-based. Similarly, Chris has found his one-on-one conferences with students far more effective and productive when his students have already read and often addressed the comments by the time they come to see him.

Now let us consider how the classroom is also a place where blind faith in technology can quickly start undermining ethical responsibilities, professional integrity, and the disciplinary value systems of writing teachers in particular and educators in general. There are risks and challenges involved with almost every opportunity for students and teachers to share ideas and resources, to engage in instructor and peer review, and to publish ideas to reach broader audiences of various scopes. To start with a quick overview, here are some pitfalls: while tools and spaces for sharing writing can help promote feedback, support, and collaboration, they can also undermine student’s confidence, confidentiality, privacy, and their sense of ownership of their work.

Some students may see the 24/7 access to their work by the instructor and their peers as constant surveillance (See Xin Liu Gale. Teachers, Discourses, and Authority in the Postmodern Composition Classroom). At more practical levels, students may not want to “edit” each other’s work; they may not necessarily make their feedback more substantive than they do in class; and writing comments is often a very weak approximation of providing feedback in an interactive form in the classroom.

Similarly, face-to-face collaboration is more familiar to many students; if not properly guided, students can feel anxious about having to use new technology. For some students, technical issues may get in the way, because of expertise levels, bugs, etc. Also, tools for sharing don’t always allow effective communication among collaborators. And, finally, as we will further discuss in the following entries, asking students to publish their ideas for larger audiences may potentially violate their confidentiality; using shared spaces may somewhat to severely undermine rather than promote students’ confidence about expressing their ideas even with the classroom; and sharing ideas through the web, even with the teacher, may make students less comfortable to write about personal, difficult, or other topics.

Efficiency for teaching and convenience for both teaching and learning may not be sufficient tradeoff for the compromises we may be making (more or less consciously) with our own ethical and professional standards when embracing emerging technologies.

Many teachers and academic programs/institutions who adopt emerging technologies tend to ignore the tradeoffs between convenience/affordance and potential drawbacks, as much as those who reject emerging technologies by ignoring or rejecting to practically assess the benefits against any drawbacks.

Our message here is that whichever technology we use—including the technology of the printed paper, the projector screen, etc—the fundamental issues of pedagogical effectiveness may not change but may instead need to be adapted to the particular tool and particular context vis-à-vis the pedagogical objectives. As Elizabeth Flynn said in her 1984 essay, teachers should always remember that ultimately, it is their voices and their experience that matters in both the design and execution of technology-aided teaching learning processes: it is we who have had “years of exposure to the genre of student essays and have developed strategies for reading them” (127).

In subsequent posts (as well as in the accompanying video clips), we will elaborate and demonstrate how, on the one hand, pedagogically-driven uses of collaborative applications can be tremendously beneficial for both writing teachers and students, but, on the other hand, the increasing pressure on students to publish/share their writing for increasingly broad audiences can create pedagogical and ethical blind spots in terms of students’ confidentiality, confidence, and comfort about expressing and sharing their thoughts and ideas.

Mentoring Veteran Students

Roger Thompson

Today I had a meeting with a graduate student in higher ed administration, and she is working with our Veterans Affairs office.  Herself a veteran, she is seeking ways to encourage mentorship of student veterans, and she was investigating the possibility of faculty working with the veteran population at Stony Brook.  Of course, I think this is a valuable idea, and I think it may be especially valuable for those of us who are not ourselves connected with the military.  It provides opportunity for meaningful dialogue, and I suspect that in many cases, we have as much to learn from our students who are current or former service members as they do from us.   So, opportunities for mentorship are available, and please don’t hesitate to contact me if you are interested in being part of a mentorship program.
I wanted, in the spirit of this, to share some of the materials I discussed last fall in our meeting about student veterans.  My central message in that meeting was that an asset-based approach to understanding the student veteran experience in our classrooms will help us reorient ourselves away from any lingering conceptions of student veterans as broken, disconnected, or even threatening.   While research suggests that the student veteran experience is, in fact, often very different than the proverbial “typical college student,” and while the research points to some common and consistent patterns of behaviors and experiences that might be labeled problematic, if we can reconceive of such things as reasonable and even valuable as part of our classroom experience, we might, in fact, build healthier communities and more sophisticated learning experiences.  Even in those unusual cases, such as when students with significant PTSD (whether from a war experience or from an experience that has nothing to do with the wars) populate our classes, we only benefit if we understand PTSD as a reasonable response to an unreasonable situation—if we see the symptoms of PTSD as a kind of adaptive response that was and is necessary until other responses can be developed.  We see, then, the symptoms as a kind of asset—a tool for survival—and avoid categorizing the experience in unproductive ways.  This is not to say that some symptoms do not need to be addressed.  Some absolutely must, but other symptoms will be virtually invisible to us, and those will be no less powerful in affecting our students.  The best we can do is to notice the work of our students, be aware of resources, be ready to lend a non-judgmental ear, and be a compassionate educator interested in the progress of our students as learners and as citizens.
Below are some resources available on campus.  In a follow-up post, I will summarize some of the key findings of the research on veterans in writing classes that my colleague, Alexis Hart, and I conducted.  I will also include a few notes on commonly reported symptoms of student veterans with PTSD, TBI, or lingering stress.  Keep in mind that the vast majority of veterans do not suffer from PTSD and that our job is not to diagnose students, but simply notice behaviors that may be inhibiting student learning.
Veterans Affairs | 632-6700 | Administration Room 348

Director:  Ismael (Izzy) Rodriguez
Veterans Affairs provides services, such as VA benefits guidance and mentorship, to veterans, veterans’ dependents and active duty service members.  Located on the third floor of the Administration Building near the Main Entrance of the campus in room 348.  Izzy also oversees the veterans student group on campus.

Scholarships, Fellowships, and Awards | 632-7114 | Melville Library N-3005
This office provides current and prospective students with scholarship and fellowship opportunities, program information, and intellectual support.

 Ombuds Office | 632-9200 | Melville Library W-0505
The Ombuds Office is available to assist students in resolving difficult problems or disputes related to their lives at the University. All matters handled by the Ombuds Office remain confidential. 

Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) | 632-6720 | Student Health Center
Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) offers free and confidential services to currently enrolled students taking at least six credit hours. Included are crisis intervention, brief counseling for individuals, couples, groups, consultation to students, faculty, staff, friends, and parents, and assistance with referrals to community resources.

Disability Support | 632-6748 | Education Communications Services (DSS) Center Room 128
Disability Support Services coordinates advocacy and support services for students with disabilities. These services assist in integrating students’ needs with the resources available at the University to eliminate physical or programmatic barriers and to ensure an accessible academic environment.