Google Documents (as of early 2015) for Teaching Writing, Part 2

by Shyam Sharma

In part one of this piece, Shyam Sharma talked about the set-up and function of Google Docs, and how it impacts teaching writing, professor feedback, and student agency. Here in part two, he looks at its workshop application, reader response, opportunities for collaboration, and reasons for caution. 



Google Docs helps to make writing a more social activity. Students can more easily access, comment on, and discuss one another’s writing. On the single, virtual copy of their work that they can now have, both they and their peers (as well as the instructor) can insert comments or directly suggest changes to the text. By the way, I don’t allow students (or anyone outside class) to use “edit” mode on peers’ writing; I too turn on the suggest/tracking feature when reading at all times.

Workshop: The most striking instance of collaboration and engagement using GD when I engage students in writing workshops. Continue reading Google Documents (as of early 2015) for Teaching Writing, Part 2

Google Documents (as of early 2015) for Teaching Writing – Part 1

by Shyam Sharmagdocs

I was more impressed when Steve Jobs said that he didn’t let his kids use the iPad than when he called it “magical” while launching it. So, as I share these teaching tips about effectively using Google Docs in this post, I hope that I don’t sound like I have my own type of “technomagicology.” In fact, this post is a follow up to a series of posts that Chris Petty and I wrote on this blog last year, cautioning writing teachers against the pitfalls of requiring students to share (increasingly publicly) the product and process of writing. I’ve split the post into two parts and used sections and subsections for easier reading/skimming. Continue reading Google Documents (as of early 2015) for Teaching Writing – Part 1

Understanding Grammar as Fractal: Rhetorical effects and cultural implications, by MaryAnn Duffy


In science, the fractal is a relatively new discovery. The term comes from its Latin root, fractus, which means “to break” and alludes to the jagged, irregular-shaped edge. It is the term Benoit Mandelbrot, a linguist and mathematician, used in his 1982 book The Fractal Geometry of Nature to define the seemingly random shapes in nature that Euclidean-based geometry could not explain.

Euclidian geometry deals with more smoothly-shaped lines that produce circles, squares, triangles and rectangles. However, the edges produced by nature are not quite so tidy. Edges in nature —coastlines, shapes of leaves, a cauliflower—have extremely complex shapes and are difficult to measure. Measuring and mapping them for any patterns or consistency seemed to be a futile attempt at measuring nature’s randomness. Until Mandelbrot revealed the opposite. Many shapes in nature are actually recursive patterns. They start on the micro level and grow so as to render a self-same macro shape.


The edge of a coastline, as seen from an aerial view, is the same shape as any smaller part of that coastline’s whole. The cauliflower’s bloom is iterative self-same shapes. The silhouette of a tree, it turns out, mirrors its forest’s canopy. Given these fractal systems found all around us, it seems nature is not so random after all.



Continue reading Understanding Grammar as Fractal: Rhetorical effects and cultural implications, by MaryAnn Duffy

My “GWID” conundrums

by Shyam SharmaNew Student Convocation Saturday, August 31, 2013.

When I taught the graduate-level writing in the disciplines (or “GWID,” as I call it) course last spring, which had a lot of nonnative English speaking (NNES) students, I faced a lot of conundrums. How much time should I allocate to help students with basic writing skills in an advanced writing course like that? Especially when NNES students seek help with their “language,” should I insist that they instead learn how to situate their writing at the advanced level and in their specialized research/scholarship? Should I challenge them to focus on higher-order issues in their writing even when they tell me that their advisors recommended/required the class to help them “fix” what are essentially lower-order concerns? Am I missing something because I am looking at things from my own discipline’s/profession’s perspective and failing to appreciate other points of view as much as mine? Continue reading My “GWID” conundrums

A Reflection on Student Conferences and Teaching, by Marilyn Zucker


For the past week, I’ve had students come in for conferences, talking one-on-one with them about their research essays. As they arrive at my office, I hand them the draft I’ve commented on. I ask them to sit in the chair outside the door, read over the paper and comments—it’s been a week since they’ve seen their own papers; often they’ve forgotten what they’ve written—then come into the office for a chat. As we talk, I get a sense of their intelligences at work, as they try to make sense of the points I’m making regarding their essays. This usually happens twice a semester, and generally gives students guidance to revising what will become a successful analysis or research essay.

But yesterday, the last day of conferences for this term, I suddenly became more aware of the students as people. An odd thing to say? Maybe. And yes, they’re always “people,” but this time I could feel the “who-ness” of each of them: boys with scruffy new beards signifying their youthful masculinity; girls with interesting eye makeup, shoulder-sweeping earrings, and most with very long hair; some students with disheveled clothes that look like they’ve not been washed in a week, and others with a tidy sense of fashion; some easy with chatting and others reticent, unsmiling and slightly remote; and many with Stony Brook regalia – the red sweatshirt, the black sweatpants, the backpack. I see each of them walk into my office, drop their things, take a seat in the nearby chair, and settle their presence into engagement with me. And we talk.
Several are grateful for the guidance I offer, like suggesting ways to contextualize their topics, as they argue for better education for the poor, for media to cease displaying objectified women, for autistic children to experience theatre programs, for preferring arranged marriage to “love marriage.” I hear them explain what they mean in a particular sentence, what they think an unexplained quote says, or how they might better structure their conclusion by converting it from a summary of what they’ve already written to a real conclusion, i.e. “This is what I conclude from what I’ve just said.” We talk about the sources they’ve used to learn about their topics, and several students realize that the general audience websites they’ve used for information haven’t really supplied them with thoughtful commentary or credible conclusions to add sufficient complexity and depth to their own thinking.
And here is Beverly, a Long Islander in her 20s who works full-time and attends school part-time. When she tells me she is only person in her whole family ever to attend college, I ask if her family is supportive of her efforts to get an education.
“Oh yes,” she says. “They are so proud of me. But they really don’t understand what college means to me.” Continue reading A Reflection on Student Conferences and Teaching, by Marilyn Zucker

I Could Never Teach Writing, by Susan Scarf Merrell

"...I don’t teach writing, even though that’s what my course is called. I teach reading. I teach writers how to read so that they can write better.”
“…I don’t teach writing, even though that’s what my course is called. I teach reading. I teach writers how to read so that they can write better.”

“I could never teach writing,” a literary novelist of my acquaintance said emphatically over dinner the other night.

His reading to our MFA students had run long, and each of the book buyers waiting to meet him had asked additional questions, worshipfully eager to extend their time in his presence. It was very late, and the restaurant was deserted, and I thought, He’s my guest and I’m tired. Do I want to get into this fight? We had just received our salads. I was already tucking in, but he lingered before picking up his fork, fingers stroking the tines, as if what he had to communicate was far more important than food. “It takes too much from you. It destroys your ability to do your own work.” He glared at the busboy, who was already hovering, ready to move our meal along. “None of my friends who teach in MFA programs ever produce.”

I hear this a lot. Continue reading I Could Never Teach Writing, by Susan Scarf Merrell

Round One, by Joseph Labriola

" the madness of jazz there is beauty, and an order of sorts, and within this newly birthed form you follow its dancing, jiggling beat to the most effective outcomes for the greatest number of participants."
“…in the madness of jazz there is beauty, and an order of sorts, and within this newly birthed form you follow its dancing, jiggling beat to the most effective outcomes for the greatest number of participants.”

Syllabus drafting, lesson planning, in-class activity organizing, homework plotting— you can spend every heavy blink of your groggy mornings and stretching yawn of your delirious late nights scratching your brain to try and perfect the perfect college class. No matter how much of your already limited time’s spent fine-tuning vital course components, no amount of preparation will ever truly prepare you for that moment you step up in front of a class of ten or twenty or a hundred students, for that moment when all the lights are shining on you, and you’re the star of the show.

Lights, students, and…teach!

This might seem like no problem to anyone with dreams of becoming a movie-star-turned-professor. I have no desire to teach for the egotistic sake of casting myself as the lead role in Writing 102: The First Lecture. What I do desire, however, is the admittedly selfish benefit of feeling good through what I teach—feeling good knowing that the lessons and methods that I’m relating to my students are improving their academic lives, and by extension, their professional and personal lives. Continue reading Round One, by Joseph Labriola

The Effect of Foreign And Native Speakers In The Classroom


One day after class last year two of my students, Sangmin Jeong and Eunjoo Lee, told me they wanted access to opportunities to improve their fluency as English speakers. The classroom was a space they developed their academic voice; they wanted to learn American slang, vernacular, and culture, to enrich their college experience. A few weeks later we’d created a group that met weekly to address these desires: Foreign And Native Speakers (FANS).
We hoped the group would be split evenly among native English speakers and non-native speakers (NNS), since a group of all NNS wouldn’t have the collective fluency in the English language or American culture that had birthed FANS in the first place. Fortunately, the group has maintained a good balance as its grown. Continue reading The Effect of Foreign And Native Speakers In The Classroom

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. Continue reading Promoting Students’ Ownership

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? Continue reading Training Wheels . . .