Promoting Students’ Ownership

Part III
Part IV (coming)

. . . of Their Ideas and Their Writing . . .

Shyam Sharma, Christopher Petty

The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do. –B.F. Skinner

Writing teachers generally tend to be skeptical about technological determinism that rules the academic airwaves these days. And yet, to the extent that they assume that more and newer technologies will automatically improve teaching and learning, emerging technologies can potentially erode, instead of enhance, students’ epistemological agency and ownership of their writing and thinking. In particular, a lack of caution while making the switch from paper to pixel to having students share their writing more and more publicly (both as product and as process) can undermine the very educational, professional, and social benefits for which the technologies are celebrated. It will also undermine our ability to meaningfully adapt new technologies to our specific pedagogical contexts and needs.

In this post, we discuss how and why writing teachers need to take deliberate approaches to promoting students’ sense of ownership of their writing which the shift from paper to interactive/collaborative spaces can potentially undermine. We discuss and demonstrate how writing teachers can promote students’ comfort, confidence, and confidentiality in their expression, and hence their sense of ownership of their work. We continue to build on the central message of the current series of blog posts, which is that it is becoming more and more important to teach the “literacy of sharing” alongside the literacy of reading, writing, and effective communication. We define “ownership” broadly in terms of how students engage with the process and product of their writing and how the tension between support and critique from instructor and involvement of peers enhances or undermines the motivation and epistemological agency of the writers. Of course, these are not only relevant when using technology; but in this series, we are focusing on the use and impact of technology (both its affordances/benefits and its drawbacks). That sense of ownership can be enhanced or undermined in many ways, depending on whether any technology is used pedagogically and ethically responsibly or not.

Let us start by looking at some of the counterproductive effects that collaborative/interactive applications can have on students’ comfort and confidence in their ideas and writing. First, as writing scholars such as Nancy Sommers have long emphasized, when instructors provide feedback carelessly, their critique of students’ writing can undermine their ownership and pride in their work–regardless of the medium. Drawing on his prior experience of working at the Writing Center, our colleague Michael Reich has written about an instructor’s authority potentially undermining student engagement during class discussion; we are all aware of the same dynamics when providing feedback on students’ writing. Interactive and collaborative technologies can exacerbate that potentially negative effect unless we take necessary precautions. For example, the use of wiki or Google Doc that make students’ work available for comment 24/7 could create what some scholars have called the “panopticon effect” whereby students feel that they’re constantly being watched. Changes and comments are easier to “track”; drafts can be compared and shown to students; peer feedback can be shared; and instructor’s own comments can shift from private (student’s paper) to public spaces (class wiki, or even beyond). The very first step is to recognize the potentials for harm.

Second, when students are asked to comment on each other’s work, easy access may similarly undermine students’ confidence if it is not facilitated by the instructor. As online applications make it easier for instructors to assign peer feedback beyond class, instructors are tempted to require peer feedback without facilitation. It is the extreme form of this temptation that seems to make MOOC providers desperately try to find ways to make students “validly” grade each other’s work; worse, “grading” doesn’t even mean providing feedback even it comes to writing-intensive subjects. But we know from teaching small classes, even classes with highly homogeneous student groups in a particular institution, how shallow, potentially confusing, and often counterproductive peer feedback can be without expert support from the teacher. Simply adding access, speed, convenience, and so on to the process will not automatically improve peer feedback; it may only exacerbate the problems.

Third, students may also be confused about how to give and/or take feedback. Since we started using wiki for instructor and peer feedback, we have been puzzled by how often students simply delete the comments that we or their peers have inserted; especially if the feedback is not a direct instruction, the chances of student writers not knowing what to do tends to be surprising to writing teachers. As with paper-based writing, there are a lot of reasons why students don’t respond to comments (this is something the field’s research still hasn’t sufficiently figured out); but with the increase of exposure, hesitation and anxiety seem to only grow.

Finally, communicative/interactive applications also allow instructors to overwhelm students with content–more instructions, more guidelines, more resources (which may make students shut down at some point). When hi-tech supersedes hi-teAch, motivation could also take a back seat, contrary to how it is touted as the ultimate motivator.

With the potential and real challenges above in mind, we now turn to a set of do’s and don’t’s (or cautions and “teaching moments”) that we have learned from experience of switching from paper to pixel to sharing more publicly.

  • Don’t share grades or evaluative comments.
  • Be cautious about possibly harsh comments.
  • Beware of chances of discrimination, bias, harassment.
  • Teach students about diversity, global citizenship.
  • Spot sensitive topics, tensions, other difficulties.
  • Consider group dynamics, help resolve tension.
  • Be careful you’re not throwing more content at students (instructions, guidelines, rubrics, etc) because the technology makes it easier to do so.

Beyond issues of pedagogical effectiveness, the above list also implies also ethical responsibility on the part of the instructor, as well as teaching moments. With that in mind, and in favor of conciseness, here are a few more points about how to address the potential problems above:

  • Make objectives/rationales explicit (why we’re asking them to do more than submit their work to us).
  • Make full and advance disclosure of what students will be asked to share.
  • Allow students to opt out or use a different level of privacy/access.
  • Make the value of critique clear, explaining the benefits and allowing students to approach feedback in ways that suits their individual styles and interpersonal relationships.
  • When students write about difficult topics or sensitive issues, help them to make informed choices.
  • Make sure that students understand what will be shared and how and with whom.
  • Spend time teaching students how to use the applications, explaining the instructions, discussing the resources, practicing what students are expected to do online (collaboratively or individually).
  • Set up and facilitate the process/standards of feedback; use rubrics and guidelines that are carefully adapted to the particular assignment and if possible students.

We’d now like to share a particular technique, derived from Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process, as a method of deliberately enhancing students’ sense of ownership of their ideas and the writing process. Chris described this technique in more detail in a blog post earlier in the semester, but just to highlight the point briefly, using techniques like this can serve as a baseline when asking students to comment on each other’s work. Basically, the guidelines for this process ask participants to provide feedback in a specific fashion: statements of meaning (how you understood the work), questions from the writers, neutral [non-evaluative] questions for the artist, then approved opinions. In this way, we are able to channel responses from even the most inexperienced critics into a meaningful flow in information that filters potentially negative or unhelpful feedback into responses that are useful, insightful, and focused. Replicating this type of feedback is essential to collaborative work in shared spaces, as unskilled or misguided comments and ideas can easily undermine a writer, especially one who is still  developing confidence in their own skills and voice.

The more we share our experiences about this subject, the more we become alert about how increasing technological convenience can magnify discomfort among our students when their writing is shared, critiqued, or published and they may not be ready to do so. Here is one of the incidents related to students’ ownership and conference that took place in one of our classes. In Theatre 101, where Chris uses peer feedback techniques most often, the main class objective is to give students an introductory understanding of theatre history, play structure, and the production process/the individual roles involved. One activity that he does is to make them each write a short, 10-page play (most of them are not experienced in playwriting, so the focus is more on understanding the work of a playwright rather than writing a polished play). Later in the semester, he takes the 5 or 6 most “producible” of these plays, divide the class into small groups, and have each group work on a mini performance of a different play (students take on a variety of roles such as actor, director, and designers). He always checks with the playwrights before using their play for the class, and there has almost never been any issue. However, one semester a student whose play he intended to use was absent on the day that he checked. He decided to use it anyway, because 1) it was not really a sensitive topic, 2) he thought that it was fiction, and 3) nobody had ever said “no” before. On the next day of class, when he assigned the project, the student in point became flustered and upset because the play was actually based on something that had happened to her family. She ended up being okay with sharing it after Chris let her direct it, but he realized that he had never considered the possibility that what seemed like an innocuous fictional play could actually be a more sensitive, personal piece when autobiographical. This incident has caused him to change the way that he approaches the assignments, giving full disclosure when the playwriting assignment is first assigned, and being sure to get written permission to use the play later in class.

Similarly, Shyam realized the varying level of confidence that students express when he gave his students in the Writing For Your Profession class several different privacy options for their edublog based sites: private, password protected, SBU-only, custom-protected, and public. Many students made their blogs increasingly public, but at the end of the semester, they decided to delete their sites when they were graded as assignments. One student said during the final presentation that he had thought the “blogfolio” was an “assignment from hell” until late in the semester; another student had subtitled their site “I hate to share anything about myself.” Being given options and encouraged to think critically about the medium helped students craft the message more carefully, and they left the class with a much better grasp of both the positive potentials of technology and its potential drawbacks.

No doubt, collaborative/interactive applications can greatly enhance the process of instructor and peer feedback. As we have written in our previous posts, those applications can add access, flexibility, affordances for synchronous and asynchronous collaboration and interaction, and integration of resources with teaching/learning. However, it is only when we are aware of and try to avoid potential pitfalls of collaborative/interactive applications that we are truly able to take advantage of their affordances.

Generally speaking, it is important that writing teachers ask whether the fundamentals of learning/teaching, rights/respect, and privacy are being undermined because of the direction in which technology is moving. What if technology is designed and sold by those who have no knowledge/interest about the objectives that we as educators want to achieve? Students need to know from us, as grown ups and educated mentors, that access and opportunity to share and share everything all the time are actually reasons to rethink when, where, how, and with whom we should share our thoughts, opinions, and ideas.

Indeed, it is important for us to be cautious about potentially doing more harm than good when we create constant access to students’ work in progress, when we require them to expose their thought process to us and to their peers (if not make it more public), and when we require/encourage them to publish their thoughts and ideas, some of which they may never be able to delete.

Training Wheels . . .

. . . What a Writing Tutor Can Bring into the Classroom as a Writing Instructor

Michael Reich

There are many different approaches to both Teaching Writing and Tutoring Writing, but how do they intersect, where do they intersect, and finally, does a Writing Teacher have anything to gain from these intersections? In this post, I hope to lay out, through some examples in my classroom this semester, how and where they intersected for me, having the experience of being both a Writing Tutor and a Writing Teacher. I also hope, in this post, to describe some situations I’ve encountered where it seems intersections should happen between the tutoring and teaching environments, as well as the places where they can be deliberately brought together.

My example stems from an in-class experience. We were looking at “Telling Facts,” and trying to find out what the meaning of a telling fact was using Gene Hammond’s Book, Thoughtful Writing. Let me first lay out some of the theory in my mind before I explore the example.

In a Writing Center environment, I was advised that wherever possible, I should be hands off, and mind off when it comes to the student’s ownership over his or her writing. The mantra was, “let the student come to their own conclusions.” I should ask them questions to draw out their feelings and ideas. This method was not like the Socratic method where Socrates would ask questions leading the crowds to “his” answer, ora “directed” answer (Socrates believed he was leading the crowd to the “truth.” Everyone found out that they knew nothing from his style. That won’t help us in writing). Using leading questions was not my job as a Writing Tutor because I had to try to let the students do as much of their own thinking as possible. I started to wonder as I stood in front of my class, “Could I and should I follow the same methods I followed as a WC tutor here in the Writing Classroom?” The students knew things, or were constantly on the brink of knowing things on their own. Was it my job to lead them to something I thought of, which seemed easier than allowing their own thought processes to develop?

As the students in my Writing 102 class this particular day continued to look at “Telling Facts,” trying to find the writer’s implications behind the words that were written down, I found myself still in my mind. I continued to wonder if leading them, more like Socrates than I ever would as a Writing Tutor, to specific answers was good pedagogy. At the time, I had been discussing this topic “off the record” with my colleague Shyam Sharma, who also has the experience of tutoring in the Writing Center. I was glad to not blindly be following the Socratic “leading” method, and be aware of how I was free to let the students do more thinking, because I might fall into the trap of doing the thinking for them. That awareness would become one of the most important traits I would carry for the rest of the semester,  for it acted as a barometer to tell me who was doing the work in the classroom, the teacher or the student.

That day I learned how the decision to lead or not lead is far from a formal decision. I could not say to the students, “Ok – you are going to do more of the thinking now;” it would take the magic out of the process! It “flowed better” when this change happened quietly, using my awareness to guide my responses to the students. Also, there is usually no time to reflect on the usefulness of leading vs. not leading. From moment to moment, one method could trump the other. Finally, if I formally left the students I was working with to think on their own too fast, I may leave them feeling like they were sinking, which could leave a negative “air” in the classroom.

As this moment in front of my students continued to stretch out forever, I realized how my Writing Center experience was guiding me. I wanted to incorporate one-on-one tutoring style sessions into the classroom where some suggestions needed to be offered to get the student thinking; this was like how an older model of a car needed a crank before it got started. In those moments as a Writing Tutor I could “feel” if I became overbearing, I wanted to feel it now as a Writing Teacher.. With those older cars, you don’t keep cranking once you get a start: you sit back, and let the car’s inner workings do the rest. Those experiences taught me to not be afraid of switching roles in the Writing Center, to be careful of continuing to crank the car after it got started, and to avoid switching to a new role, something too overbearing. Now I wanted to apply that method to the Writing Classroom.

In general, as long as I tried to be only the crank, the student writer would be better off. But could I only be the crank? Was being the crank a slippery slope for me as a Writing Teacher to becoming another person’s thoughts, their engine? Was this the case in the Writing Classroom when there is so much more impact of a teacher’s authority and often expertise than in the Writing Center session? These factors all made leading decisions harder to make.

As a Writing Teacher, there are specific objectives to be met, and a timeline with multiple assignments to be written by the students. This is much different than a Writing Center session in which a student can leave with tips or new thoughts that don’t necessarily play into the whole framework of his/her course. These specific objectives then, I realized as I was still standing in front of my class, told me that that WRT 101 and 102 objectives make it desirable for me to lead students. When the portfolio timeline/process is looming, I feel I can’t let the students divert too far from their assessments, and I find myself taking the reigns back from their minds, which could stifle their writing process. Was I doing the right thing? Yes and No. I serve a different role as a Writing Teacher than a Writing Tutor. But it wasn’t like I was acting as an answer sheet in the back of their book. I was just a more “visible” set of training wheels at certain times, less so at other times.  I suddenly snapped out of my trance, and was back in class to some 15 odd faces, staring at me, waiting for me to either guide them or wait for them to speak..

Here’s a concrete example of leading and not leading.

“I share a dorm room 9 by 18 feet with a 6-foot, 4-inch roommate from Buffalo, two desks, a sink, and a set of bunk beds. It’s the most space and the most privacy I’ve ever had.” (TW pg. 10)

- What is the telling fact?

When I asked students to offer their inferences about the above excerpt, at first, the answers weren’t forthcoming. I had to use questions and ideas to help lead the discussion: questions less Socratic in nature and ideas such as, “What can we find out about this student beyond what is written? Did the student have a big family? Not enough space in their house?” The questions were intended to form the first part of the creative answering process, giving them the crank I was speaking of earlier.

I was happy to see one female student break the silence and come out and speak from the corner of the classroom to say, “I think this writer is being sarcastic.” “Why?” I asked. “Because I know for me that I have more room in my own home,” she said. “Oh, so you’re relating your own personal experiences to the experiences of the student portrayed?” “Yea, something like that,” she replied. In this case, the student did answer my question of, “was there enough room in the house?” (showing the telling fact) What is amazing here is that the student jumped to sarcasm, something that wasn’t brought up at all, by me or anyone else in the classroom.

This is important because I had been prompting the students to try to get to a certain “set” of inferences of their own using my questions. It is not that I wanted them to have a particular answer, but I wanted to lead them to an “open pasture” where they could graze a bit with their thoughts. I didn’t expect one of them to start guiding the class a different way with a new topic, I was thinking the students would get to several types of conclusions from the telling fact implications I was leading them to and then move on quickly from the exercise. When I read this example, I never think that the writer is sarcastic when he/she said “It’s the most privacy I’ve ever had.” In a way, I was grateful for the student who brought up sarcasm, and instantly, I let the student lead with her explanation, and then allowed the other students to follow up with their own ideas from her topic. A fruitful discussion came from it. Normally, my boring idea  would have been to assume that the writer was honest, and I would have lead the class to find implications from the assumption of honesty if they lacked questions/ideas at that point. I was accustomed to this. But this student opened up new ideas to explore.

When I asked how many students thought that the writer was sarcastic, I was surprised to see that there were many more than I expected. I was surprised by how my own perception and lack of willingness to student ideas could stifle so many of their valid points of view. How many amazing things had been missed in our class discussions? If I hadn’t been willing to take this one student suggestion into account, or only stick with my “blinders on” view of interpretation, class would never have opened up. But because I had my Writing Center lenses on, I believe I was more able to see the pitfalls that can be created by the teacher’s authority before I get too close to them.

Situations like these remind me to be as open-minded as possible to student suggestions, unless the learning/teaching objective is such that I need to show them a particular point. I saw how the above example related back to my “keeping my pen off the table” mantra that I was guided by when I was a Writing Tutor. The Writing Classroom was clearly a setting much different than the Writing Center discussion,but on that day I realized the two could be brought together, because of the simple mantra of “keeping my mind off the table,” for lack of a better term, which could be applied to each setting equally.

Overall, the two sets of tools can cross pollinate. In each setting they guide me to see what could benefit the student: sometimes leading can help because I am a teacher, but sometimes pulling back can help because I’m still, and always will be a Writing Tutor.

Commenting Conundrums . . .

Part II
Part IV…

. . .  Teaching Students the Levels of Sharing

Christopher Petty and Shyam Sharma*

“I wonder how many miles I’ve fallen by this time?” she said aloud. “I must be getting somewhere near the center of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think –” (for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the school-room, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over) “– yes, that’s about the right distance – but then I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I’ve got to?” – Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

One of the great desires of writing teachers is to help their students write for “real” audiences, to connect students to “real-life” communities that might respond to their ideas. On top of engaging students in peer feedback/interaction about their writing, we also want to bolster their confidence in their own voice by finding ways to share ideas “about” the real world and “with” the real world.

The good news in this situation is that we now have access to more and more venues; there are now applications that allow students to do peer review/interaction and sharing/publication of their ideas in more and more convenient ways. However, in order for us to make educationally, pedagogically, and ethically good sense of that good news, we must start by recognizing that the paradigm shift from paper to screen and from personal screens to public display of one’s writing on the web is not an all or nothing deal.

As we ask our students to share their writing–their unformed thoughts, the process of their writing, and any of the products of their writing that they may not be comfortable sharing with anyone beyond the teacher because they wrote it to “learn” not “publish”–with broader and broader audiences, we are responsible to let them decide how far they want to go beyond the attention and support of us as teachers and the additional support of their peers in class toward the center of attention and access on the world wide web. As writing teachers, we are best equipped and most responsible to teach our students the “levels” and tradeoffs of risk and reward by teaching/promoting the “literacy of sharing.”

Our students aren’t simply like the curious girl in the novel we cited above, eager to leave a confined space and explore a wonderful world of open nature that lies beyond. They are also young intellectuals and writers who are exploring new ideas, starting to develop their own voices on subjects of their interest (often writing about issues that don’t interest them at first), and learning to decide what ideas (and how developed versions of them) they want to share with broader audiences.

Not all of our students want to “show off” the process of their writing as well as the product (even as this distinction long established by our field is being drastically blurred); not all of them understand without our guiding them what their “latitudes and longitudes” are in terms of how broadly and why and how we are asking them to share and publish the process and products of their learning.

It is with this understanding that we intend to describe the levels of sharing in which we ask our students to engage in our classrooms. We hope that you will find some of these ideas relevant to your approach to collaborative and interactive writing practices in your classroom. We will be grateful if you could also share your ideas in the comments section.

Let us consider the “levels of sharing” in terms of settings available in particular applications such as Blackboard LMS and the applications available in it. In many of Blackboard-based applications–such as the Campus Pack Wiki, Blog, and other collaboration tools–levels of sharing are explicitly presented at the level of deployment of the application’s modules: privately, in groups, or amongst an entire class. In the case of Google Docs, share levels are less visible at first because they require students to share their documents with individual partners, campus-wide community, or “anyone with the link”; at all these levels, students can share permission to view only, view and comment, or view/comment and also edit the document. Digication, our portfolio application, provides site-wide share setting options, but the share levels are comparable to those of Google Docs. The new edublog (you domain) application is a versatile web development platform that also demands a whole new set of skills for students to share what they want with appropriate audiences. Wikis and blogs on the open web involve even better skills level and decision-making capabilities on the part of students because they may need to configure share settings on their own. And the list of applications and both options and complexities that they introduce are ever expanding.

Regardless of which method any given application uses, an informed understanding of these levels and their implications is imperative to making the most effective and ethical use of shared spaces in the classroom. We can break down the levels of sharing into five basic options:

  1. Individual
  2. Partners
  3. Groups
  4. Class
  5. Public

Individually shared content refers to settings that only share material between one student and the teacher. While the individual level may seem like the opposite of sharing, it is in fact quite useful in many situations. Rather than using paper documents or a series of emails, privately shared assignments offer a few unique affordances, the most immediate of which is the drastic increase of accessibility and efficiency in regards to working with students on drafts and revisions.

In addition to creating one central document that may be accessed from any place with an internet connection, we also create a space where work is documented and preserved, and old revisions and drafts are easily accessed. This level of sharing is secure and low-risk, which makes it ideal for work that is in early stages and may not yet be ready to be seen by others. This is also a preferable mode for any work that requires intensely critical instructor feedback that may be sensitive if shared beyond the individual student. However, this level also omits many of the other affordances provided by collaborative spaces.

The next level of sharing adds one more set of eyes to the mix. Sharing between partners asks two students in the class to share their work with each other (this space is also still accessible to the instructor), which opens up possibilities for peer work. This level is particularly good for extensive peer feedback, as students can become heavily invested in one other piece of writing, devoting time and energy to substantive work on it. This level is also very good at building trust in the sharing process because it is still low-risk (they are only asked to share their work with one other student), but exposes them to the benefits of peer review and eases them into a comfortable sharing environment. However, individual outcomes may vary, as a negligent student can disrupt the entire process for their partner.

The idea of a “group” setting is a bit amorphous, as the number of members in a group can vary greatly based on class size and the teacher’s intent, but the fundamental factors still apply. Creating groups of three or more students has the benefit of providing students with a wider range of feedback. This has a number of positive effects, including the reinforcement of key feedback coming from a range of readers, the potential to build significantly off of the initial work as a group, and the prevention of the repercussions of negligent or absentee partners.

However, this is also a higher-risk situation; asking students to expose themselves to several classmates may seem intimidating and uncomfortable to some at first. The more immediate risk, however, is that students may take the feedback they receive and the other work they see shared as a cue to change the entire nature of their writing from a perceived integrity issue that may not truly exist. This can be avoided by informing students about the literacy of sharing in order to foster trust in the process, but to not feel beholden to it in their writing. Additionally, the more members there are in a group, the less individual attention the student writing will generally receive.

Sharing among the entire class is high-risk, meaning that we as teachers need to be particularly aware of considerations of student comfort and confidence in their work. Simply throwing students into this level of sharing can prove problematic; however, there are a couple of particular circumstances in which this mode has unique benefits. For one, sharing among an entire class is ideal for early stage writing or pre-writing where the focus is on brainstorming and refining ideas rather than presenting polished writing. It creates a shared space of ideas where students can discuss, comment, and learn from each other. This space becomes an extension of the classroom and the ideas presented in it, but also develops into its own space of trust and collaboration.

Alternatively, using this space to present more developed writing forces students to have greater awareness of both their audience and of themselves as a writer. This works best for more developed drafts where concerns of moving from something “writer-based” to something “reader-based” can be informed by having an actual audience. As teachers, we must be particularly mindful of potential issues of plagiarism, discrimination, and harsh comments when employing this level of sharing.

Teaching students about the literacy of sharing becomes especially important before asking them to share their work publicly. There are a number of venues in which students may be asked to do this, for example in ePortfolios or on blogs. One major benefit of this is that it encourages student ownership of and pride in their writing. It also makes the idea of audience immediate and real, necessitating that they consider the rhetorical implications of their writing and their own ethos as a writer. However, it is also the highest-risk level, as students must be very comfortable with the integrity of their work. They also need to be well-informed of what exactly will be shared, how publically (within SBU? the entire internet?), and how and if it can be modified or deleted.

By making informed choices about the levels of sharing that we employ in our classes, we can avoid many of the pitfalls that threaten student comfort, confidence and confidentiality. One common issue is that less experienced students, especially those in FYC courses, may feel that their work is not worth sharing with their peers. This often comes along with a feeling that they do not have the authority or skill to give feedback on the work of others. Beyond this, some students may simply not want to share some of their work with anybody besides the teacher. Both of these issues can be remedied by fostering trust in the collaborative system, but unclear guidelines and objectives can take students by surprise and do significant harm to the trust and comfort that we are trying to establish.

There is also a possible issue of students dealing with sensitive, personal, or controversial topics that may place them in an uncomfortable situation. Finally, although we’ve discussed how instructor feedback should be navigated in an ethically considerate manner when using shared spaces, there is also the possibility that negative or unproductive feedback from peers may have an even worse impact when presented in a shared space. The best way to counter these potential pitfalls and promote ownership of student work is through the use of clear, understandable objectives, a transparent feedback process with definitive standards, and by fostering professionalism through what we teach, how we provide feedback ourselves, and a moderation of the collaborative space. We will go into further detail about how to accomplish these things in our next blog post.

As we also highlighted in our previous blog entry, our experience of exploring, adapting, and sharing our ideas about using these applications in the writing classroom (here on campus and beyond) could be described as “cautious excitement.” We continue to be enthused by the affordances of the tools in helping us achieve more and more fine-grained benefits to our students’ learning and our teaching. But we also continue to realize how things can go the other direction, and we share such experiences with each other. For instance, upon adapting these applications in the classroom, Chris observed a number of almost immediate benefits, one of which was a significant increase in student engagement and productivity during their one-on-one conferences. Previously, students would often come to their conferences without having looked at much feedback besides their grade. This resulted to a lack of questions and minimal input overall, citing a desire to “just be told what to do” and revisions that were “started on my laptop, but I don’t have it with me.” However, by using virtual shared spaces that make feedback highly accessible and available instantly, students were arriving not only with questions and ideas, but many would even upload new revisions or drafts before the conference that they wish to receive feedback on. Another significant effect of this technology that Chris noticed was that students began to adopt a more professional, critical, and in-depth approach to peer revision as the semester progressed. While students can receive much direction from rubrics and guidelines, it was through an unsolicited emulation of instructor feedback that student peer feedback grew to be extensive, developed, and effective.

On the non-exciting side of our exploration, as we use interactive/collaborative applications increasingly extensively, we keep coming across unexpected challenges. Over the past two years, we have shared numerous classroom occurrences with each other, many of which we wouldn’t share here because they are specific to individual students. Among the ones that seem okay to share on the web here, Shyam remembers a case when a student emailed him to express their frustration about a paper being “criticized” in front the whole class, meaning commented on in a class-wise wiki. When he looked up to see what was so offensive to the student, he found that the comments were just regular feedback on issues of paragraphing, clarity, and grammar–and he had not used any harsh words. But the fact that the student panicked means that it is not enough to “assume” that our good intentions are sufficient in themselves, that students will perceive our comments in the same way, and most importantly, that students should be forced to receive feedback at a level that is more public than they are comfortable with.

In essence, it is wrong to assume that new technologies are helping us and our students to move teleologically forward into better and better places of teaching and learning. The idea that more “advanced” technology–except when it is specifically created and continually adapted by or at least for members of  a profession or community–automatically improves our work, relationship, or place in the world is wrong-headed and needs to be called out as such. Technologists who are (often meaningfully) excited by their new tools and techniques certainly have much give to the rest of us for improving our work, life, and often relationships. But when it comes to our work, life, and relationships, we are more likely the dog and technology its tail–rather than the other way around.

Teaching the “levels of sharing”–which is a critical component of the “literacy of sharing”–has to do with preparing our students for a changing world, with diversity and global citizenship, with professional skills, and with navigating the often-risky world of media and changing understanding about professionalism. It is no longer enough to teach the literacy of writing: the literacy of sharing is becoming equally important.

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*This is the second in our series of blog posts that came out of a TALENT Grant project. You can access the full series, along with accompanying videos, from the Writing@StonyBrook portfolio for writing instructors.

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

twitchpokemonimage

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.