Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Friday, December 3, 2010

The 3 Lessons I Hope You Take Away

As we near the end of our semester together, I wanted to share with you three lessons that I hope you take away from this class. Clearly my goal for this writing class was to help you become better writers, but if my own work as a writer and as a scholar of writing studies has taught me anything it is that you – and you alone – can make this happen. I cannot make you a better writer and I cannot teach you how to be a better writer, but I can give you experiences that will shape you into a writer. Hopefully I did so this semester.

First, and foremost, I hope that you have become a more reflective writer over the course of this semester. Research, my own and that of other experts, shows that reflecting at a meta level about your writing is the key to your growth and development as a writer. This is why I asked you to reflect after each writing assignment as well as at the end of the semester. Hopefully this reflection will help solidify the lessons you learned this semester and hopefully what I am telling you now will help you realize that continuing this reflection after you leave this class will be useful to you as a developing writer.

An important part of our work this semester has been your immersion into a new discourse community – that of the profession you intend to join after earning your degree. You read professional literature produced in and for this field as well as interviewed professionals in preparation for your own writing. I hope this has not only taught you about the ways your professional peers communicate, but also how they value that communication. In addition, I hope that this process has also taught you how you can develop an understanding of other discourse communities that you encounter throughout your life as a writer.

Finally, although we have not spent a great deal of time specifically talking about genre – the form and structure writing takes – our study of the various discourse communities that you are striving to join has exposed you to the way that the discourse community shapes the genre. While in the future you cannot count on someone giving you an assignment sheet and scoring guide, you should now understand how studying the work of others in this same discourse community attempting similar tasks can inform your writing and teach you the specifics of the genre. Hopefully this study will allow you to generate your own internal checklist for future projects.

While you may have had different goals for your success this semester, ultimately that is what I hope you gained from this class: an understanding of the importance of reflection, an understanding of how to learn about and join a discourse community, and an understanding of how discourse community shapes the genres of writing it produces.

Good luck with your continuing journey to become a better writer and I am so glad we had a chance to work together this semester.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Calling For A Revolution or It’s About The Writer, Stupid

American education is in crisis and nowhere is this more evident than when we look at the teaching of writing. Despite decades of research in support of the teaching of writing and the fact that we know more than ever before about how people learn to write as well as how to effectively teach writing – we do not see this knowledge used to improve the teaching of writing in any consistent fashion. We need a revolution in the teaching of writing but there is not even a whisper of a battle cry in the trenches. As a writing teacher I ask myself every day what we should be doing to improve the teaching of writing and I have come to the conclusion that we are simply focusing on the wrong things.

Far too much focus in the teaching of writing is on the end product. This appears to be all that administrators and non-writing teachers (don’t get me started on how every teacher is a writing teacher as this isn’t the time or place for that rant) care about. It is also what the public appears to care about. These attitudes then drive what our students think is important and, more often than I care to think about, drive what my fellow teachers of writing think is important. This, of course, runs counter to everything we know about how people learn to write and how good writers become good writers, but in our numbers-focused world it is much easier to focus on a test score (as if any standardized test can give us any information of value when it comes to writing) or final grade or number of errors. That is the easy way out. That is the easy to way evaluate writing. Never mind that all these methods are completely useless when it comes to evaluating writing.

Of course, in the past, the focus on writing process has been equally problematic. While an important part of the process of becoming a writer, focusing on process alone is not the answer to making someone a good writer. In addition, process has been rather haphazardly taught in many writing classrooms and in many writing textbooks. Quite simply, a focus on process is not a solution to the problem of teaching writing.

So what is the solution? I believe the solution to the problem of teaching writing is not focusing on the writing but instead focusing on the writer. If we do not focus on the root of the problem then we are only treating the symptoms – we are not curing the patient. While asking for a definition of good writing is problematic – you will often get four definitions when you ask any two people because the value of writing can only be judged in context and context is variable – we do know, thanks to research, what makes a good writer. Good writers can consistently deliver suitable writing. Suitable writing is not of course judged solely on correctness, although it does play a role, but is determined by the effectiveness of the writing for its purpose. Does it do the job? Of course, not every writer creates terrific writing every day and not every writer can write effectively in every situation, but a good writer can study the particular context, and through practice and study, deliver the goods. Every good writer that I know did not become a good writer by fortuitous accident. They may have been blessed with a good ear, quick mind, or strong support system, but it takes diligent practice and study to capitalize on those blessings and become a good writer. It takes even more perseverance to overcome the lack of these blessings to become a good writer. We do not do enough in our education system to help would-be writers capitalize on their blessings, or overcome their lack, and we do very little to help would-be writers actually become writers. For centuries (forever?) we have depended on the individuals’ drive to become a writer to struggle and persevere to learn, grow, and develop as a writer, but our education system does not offer a consistent, effective plan to help people become writers.

Perhaps the battle cry for our revolution could be adapted from Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign – It’s about the writer, stupid. If we ask this basic question whenever we make a decision (big or small) that concerns the teaching of writing – will this help our students become writers – and judge the answer using real research – then and only then we will see an improvement in their writing in the long-term but even more important we will make them writers – and that after all is the goal.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Don't hate me because I love my job

Today is the National Day on Writing and I believe this blog post honors that celebration.

I love my job because I spend my days writing and hanging out with other writers (in person or virtually or both). What could be cooler than that? When I was a working writer I loved that too although in a different way. Writing is fun, challenging, and tormenting -- sometimes all at the same time. Words have the power to make people think, feel, and do things -- sometimes against their will. Being able to wield words with that power is exhilarating. However, since I have become a teacher of writing I have found a different sort of exhilaration -- helping someone else recognize and learn to wield that power. I happen to think I have the most important job there is because without literacy then all the rest of education is meaningless. There are many reasons I love my job but I think a quick look at a selection of the past week's events can illustrate that point for me.

My midterm grading backlog was formidable but I managed to get through it thanks to the inspiration I found in my students' reflections on the class to this point. Despite taking a general education required class (note: I think this is an important class but we all know many students don't agree), they are aware that they have learned some important lessons about communication, literacy, and writing and that awareness gave me a buzz every time I encountered it. One student writes: "I will be using what I have learned in my daily life". I should have kept track of all the great comments but didn't think of it until later and this reflection just happened to be the last one that I read.

I took a break from midterm grading to attend the 2010 Watson Conference at the University of Louisville and had a marvelous experience. I enjoyed the fortuitous serendipity of the session where I presented with Heather Blain and Timothy Johnson and we had the opportunity to talk about writing workshop, genre, and agency with our audience after presenting our papers. I loved that opportunity to have a conversation about the convergences of our topics and enjoyed doing so in the other sessions I attended as well. I also loved listening in to the conversation about larger issues during the keynote sessions. Not only to hear the key points brought up by the speaker by the chair and presenter but also the questions, comments, and thoughts of so many notables that have only been names on books and articles but now have faces and personalities too. Taking the step back from my daily teaching routine in order to gain the perspective necessary to see the larger issues of the field is necessary but I was so pleased to be able to do so at the Watson this year as it was an entirely different experience than attending the CCCC's and I really enjoyed it.

Once I had a chance to recover I was able to dive back into my current project -- my dissertation. I am in the throes of wrapping up my analysis and working through my conclusions and that is heady stuff indeed. I am learning a great deal about how a person becomes a writer. Learning how we can foster rhetorical agency and increase writing self-efficacy is important to me personally but also very important to the field. Not only is this important work, but I find it incredibly interesting.

I don't love everything about my job but I do love the major aspects of my life as an academic. I love helping my students become writers. I love talking with peers who love teaching too. I love investigating ways to help us do both those things even better.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Writing Self-Efficacy is not the same thing as confidence

Self-efficacy is not the same thing as confidence. Confidence is often equated with arrogance or hubris and may have little relation to actual ability. Self-efficacy on the other hand is based on real factors. The primary sources of self-efficacy are actual performance experience, comparisons with and observations of the performances of others, what others say about your performance, and your general physical well-being at the moment. So, for example, say that you are a runner. Your running self-efficacy will be determined by how well you have run in similar situations in the past, how your running compares with other runners, the feedback you have received about your running, and your general sense of well-being and preparedness for the challenge at the time. Self-efficacy is a much more informed self-evaluation than confidence and that is why self-efficacy is important to performance.

This sense of informed self-evaluation is also why I believe writing self-efficacy plays an important role in transfer. It is a key part of self-knowledge that will help continue growth and development long after students have left the classroom. Writing self-efficacy is not the same thing as the first-semester student who tells me she got all A's in high school English or that his mom thinks he is a good writer. I can't tell my students they are great and see their writing self-efficacy increase. In order for my students to gain writing self-efficacy they need the opportunity to perform -- they need to write -- hopefully giving both deep and broad experiences, but they also need the opportunity to compare their performance, their writing, to that of others which then helps them judge the quality of the feedback they receive from others about their writing.

I don't want to simply go through the motion of preparing my students for their future writing challenges -- I want to increase their own sense of preparedness and their sense of writing self-efficacy.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Why am I studying writing self-efficacy?

I don't believe the ability to write is a gift from the Muse. I believe becoming a competent writer can be learned, but I do not believe it can be taught. This is especially true of the way that we so often teach writing -- with a sort of inoculation instruction focused on "mutt genres" intended to prevent future bad writing that may help student writers in the short term, but not in the long term. I am not all that confident of the "may help" either, because all too often, I believe it does more harm than good by reinforcing students' belief that they will never, can never, be writers. This is very harmful indeed because writing is such an essential part of communicating today. I think we can better serve our students by shifting our focus away from teaching context-less writing lessons and focus more on helping them become writers.

Writing is a complex skill that requires that the writer be able to evaluate the context, understand the needs of the discourse community, and work within the appropriate genre as defined by that community to appropriately meet the requirements of the situation. Preparing students to handle the infinite variety of situations such complexity creates seems a hopeless task to me. Worse, teaching students that writing is simpler and easier to master than it actually is undermines their confidence and competence. So how do we prepare them? How do we help them become writers?

My goal is for my students to become self-directed and self-regulated writers. I use a two-pronged approach to achieve this goal. First, my writing classes are focused on "writing about writing" to help my students understand how to study a context and discourse community so they can choose the appropriate genre and work with it as determined by that context. I tailor this approach to the level of students and expectations for the class so it is different for my first-year students than it is for my graduate students and so on. Equally important to this effort is my focus on agency and self-efficacy. In order for my students to be ready, willing, and able to take this much control upon themselves they need to have confidence in their ability to address the task at hand and belief in their ability to to control their own destiny. In order to become writers, they need both self-efficacy and agency.

Albert Bandura defines self-efficacy beliefs as a person’s belief in their capability to produce the desired effect through deliberate action. This is similar to a self-fulfilling prophecy in that positive self-efficacy beliefs lead to positive outcomes and negative self-efficacy beliefs lead to negative outcomes. Decades of research in diverse fields has shown that self-efficacy is a more consistent predictor of behavioral outcomes than other self beliefs. In particular, research suggests that beliefs about writing processes and competence are instrumental to the writer’s ultimate success as a writer. This is because self-efficacy beliefs influence an individual’s chosen course of action, perseverance, resiliency, sense of optimism or pessimism, and reaction to stress and depression. Sources of self-efficacy are performance or mastery experience; vicarious experience, such as observations and social comparisons; social persuasions; and physiological state. However, Bandura emphasizes the fact that agency and self-efficacy are interdependent. In order to make the decision to act, people must believe they have the power as well as the capability to act.

That is why I am studying writing self-efficacy. I want to better understand how people become writers so I can help my students become the self-directed and self-regulated confident writers they need to become to succeed.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tweet, Tweet: This is My Class on Twitter

I admit it. I'm an avid reader of ProfHacker and often find myself inspired by ideas I find there -- ideas such as teaching with Twitter (Framework and Practical Advice). I also have several colleagues who tried Tweeting with their students and so it has been something I've thought about for a while. This semester I was inspired to use Twitter with my students for these reasons as well as the fact that my basic focus for the class was to explore the idea of writing for different audiences and for different purposes. Also, as I frequently teach online (as I am this semester) I was looking for a way to improve communication and increase the connections we make in class.

In the past I have worked to channel class communication to take place within BlackBoard and restrict the use of other channels of communication, such as email, to specific discussion of private issues, such as grades. I did use online chat programs, such as Instant Messenger, to confer with students about papers but this was hardly a daily occurrence. While the restriction of class interaction to BlackBoard did make teaching dozens of students more manageable and make all information available to everyone -- and not just the student who asked the right question -- it doesn't really promote a lot of give-and-take (in general). I have had (and am participating in some right now) great discussions in BlackBoard but there is also a lot of one-way communication rather than an actual conversation. Plus, the simple truth is that you have to log into BlackBoard to join the conversation. For busy students (and teachers) this doesn't happen as frequently as is possible using a communication channel such as Twitter. I have Twitter on the home page of my computer and mobile devices. I never just glance at BlackBoard like I do Twitter.

One of the reasons that I like Twitter for myself (the person, not the teacher) is that it allows me to communicate with friends and colleagues immediately. I can glance at my Twitter feed (as I do several times a day) to see what they are doing and/or thinking. Sometimes it is something interesting to me professionally and sometimes it is funny and sometimes it is poignant. I love these glimpses into the lives of my friends but I also love the ability to stay in touch with what is going on in the world as well as my profession.

I have found that pushing my students on to Twitter offers me similar glimpses into their lives. Whenever I check my class Twitter feed I gain new insight into who my students are and what interests them. Granted sometimes there is Too-Much-Information because some students don't filter but in general I know when someone is feeling under the weather or overwhelmed by life. I would not have known either of those things in a traditional online class although probably would have in a face-to-face one. While I might not really care what my students ate for dinner last night, I do like knowing more about their lives outside of class as it makes them more real and more accessible. I think for that reason Twitter has made me a better teacher.

However, more than simple personal benefits, Twitter has had a direct impact on my teaching and the class in other ways that are beneficial. I can push out messages via Twitter that I would have previously had to send via announcements or email. Those methods work but also require more effort on the part of the students to access (they have to log into BlackBoard or their email server to see if there is anything new). They also seem so formal and heavy handed that I try to use them sparingly. I do post a new "Announcement" in BlackBoard every week (more if something comes up) but hate to overuse it. I can Tweet once or twice a day and it feels much more informal and more accessible. Of course that is my perception. We'll see how the students feel about it.

I have not required a certain number of Tweets from my students but instead required that they Tweet about certain things at certain times -- for example, Tweet about the reading selection you just posted to the class annotated bibliography on the class blog. This seems to have worked fairly well. Students are posting regularly about class business as well as personal lives. What I have found is that these posts help me keep track of the various subjects that students are working on (they were tasked to choose a theme for the class that included their intended profession) because I am getting regular reminders of these subjects. I hope the students are also seeing these trends and intersections among their work.

A month into the semester and I feel that Twitter has helped me get to know my online students better and to stay connected with them, so I feel my experiment has been worthwhile. In the end, the proof will be in the pudding -- did it improve my students' experience in the class? Some students have already commented that they feel more connected and like knowing there are real people "out there" reading their messages and classwork, but other students have complained that there are too many places where information must be posted and tracked. This is a valid complaint as I am using a class blog in addition to BlackBoard and Twitter. I wanted to open multiple channels of communication this semester and we'll just have to wait until the end of the semester to determine if that was a good choice, but, right now, from where I'm sitting, I'm pretty happy with my choice.

Monday, August 30, 2010

My Credo as a Writing Teacher

I seemed to have reached the point in that early semester chaos when it is helpful to ground myself once more and review what I believe is important to remember as a writing teacher. Sometimes my goals get lost in the administrivia.

Most important, as countless research studies have established, writing is not one skill, and certainly not a basic skill, but rather a complex set of skills that vary according to task. As a complex set of skills, rather than one simple skill, writing cannot be taught. That's right, I don't believe in transfer -- at least not when writing instruction is based on skill acquisition. I do believe transfer can, and does, happen when writing instruction moves beyond basic skill acquisition. If I'm not teaching basic writing skills then what am I teaching?

I strive to teach my students that writing is context-specific. The specific audience and the specific task create the boundaries and goals for each piece of writing. This is why writing cannot be taught and why transfer fails. I cannot simply work my way down a checklist every semester and churn out competent writers. As soon as they leave my classroom they will write in such a wide variety of contexts that I cannot hope to prepare them for all possibilities. What I can do is help them develop an understanding of how genre and audience drive writers in their work so they can adapt and learn to work within those new contexts as they are encountered. Learning how to sift out the needs and conventions of each new discourse community they join will help my students become successful writers.

However, there is one more essential task that faces me as a writing instructor -- I have to make my students agents of their own change. I have to help my students not only believe that they can write but that they can guide their own destiny as writers. I can create and deliver the most amazing writing class ever, but if my students are not ready to accept the challenge and do not believe they can meet it then no change -- or very little change -- will take place. My experience working with writers outside and inside academia as well as my own research has reinforced this belief time and time again. This is the driving force behind my focus on writing self-efficacy in my research.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Fall 2010 3X3

As a reflective practitioner (clear demonstration of my NWP affiliation) Natalie Houston's suggestion on ProfHacker to reflect on the past semester as I prepare for the new one fell on fertile ground. I agree it is important to look at what worked and didn't in the past to make sure that my experience informs my future practice.

What Worked Well

Focusing on Writing About Writing with my first-year writing students. My concept for the class is not yet fully refined but students still learned important lessons. Not all of them were big fans but their arguments against were more eloquent and informed as a result of their reading (a fact none of them noted of course). I think I can work on this concept more to bring more students on board.

Switching from a multitude of summary assignments to building annotated bibliography as a class. This not only provides a saner (for me and my students) way to build the same skill set but it provides more support and scaffolding for the process. Also, when we are done we have a pretty helpful document to guide future research and writing which the summary assignments didn't really do for us.

Creating video tutorials were also a good choice. Admittedly they were initially created because I was dying to use my new Flip and as a new user they were not very polished, but students did find them helpful. I have a tendency to be too text reliant for the information I share with my online students so this was a nice break.

What Didn't

I assigned too much reading right up front. I was excited about making the switch to writing about writing and also knew students needed to front-load their reading to inform the writing they would do the rest of the semester. All true but still too much too soon for first-year students.

Starting out with a group project was a mistake. Enrollment has too many fluctuations at the beginning of a semester (especially in an online class) and it is really hard to make students work together when they haven't formed a community yet.

In part because I needed to allow more time for the group project than originally planned and in part because of my own misinterpretation of departmental guidelines I assigned too many pages of writing for my students. These factors meant I didn't allow as much time as I should have for drafting and revision.

What I'm Changing

One of the complaints about the writing about writing focus was simply that students didn't know what they were getting into. So this semester I created a video challenge to let students know what our focus would be for the semester. I sent it out weeks before classes started and also put it in my introductory materials (for those late additions as well as folks who might have missed those early emails). They still might hate the emphasis but at least now they've been warned!

I am making more video tutorials although perhaps for some at least mini-lesson might be more descriptive. Short explanations for major assignments etc. Hopefully students will find these useful and also help them understand my goals for the class and assignments.

I'm using social media to build a sense of community and audience and then took the elements I really wanted to keep from the class annotated bibliography assignment and melded it with the social media. This semester we are building a class annotated bibliography together but it is not a group project.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Am I Media Mad or Simply Mad?

That's mad as in crazy as I am committed. The syllabus is made. I notified my students. We are using Blogger and Twitter this semester in addition to BlackBoard -- and I'm making YouTube videos like crazy to support my instruction. What is up with that?

That is exactly what one of my students just asked me. She had me for Writing I in the spring and signed up for my Writing II class this fall -- assuming she knew what she was getting into. And then came my Challenge video and she is pretty confused.

I can't blame her.

Of course, change has become my habit ever since I started this whole Ph.D. thing. The more I study, contemplate, and conduct my own research about the teaching of writing (or the learning of writing, after all which came first, the chicken or the egg) then the more I want to do for my students.

So why Twitter? A couple reasons.

First, I believe it can be an easily monitored channel of communication that will allow any of us (teacher and students) to send a message to the group. If information is being generated in two different areas (Blogger and BlackBoard) then announcing changes and additions via Twitter means we can all still check just one place. This is actually an improvement on BlackBoard as there is not just one place information is posted in BB.

So simple communication is one reason, but perhaps more important, I think using Twitter with its limited character count combined with its open access will help my students get away from the traditional English essay mindset and perhaps (hopefully?) think a bit differently about audience and genre -- focusing on the message and not the medium or perhaps more accurately how the medium impacts the message. We'll find out!

So why Blogger?

This is perhaps the least radical change. For several semesters now I have required students to present some final web presentation of some sort and for many students that meant a blog. So requiring all students to blog (instead of create web pages, slide presentations, or Squidoo lenses for example) might actually be a step back. I am experimenting with the use of a class blog as a way to help two sections of the same class interact with our subject matter. That is a radical change. We'll see how that works. I'm requiring all students to make their web presentations of their project via blog in hopes that if we all use the same program we will be able to explore in greater depth the many ways this simple format can be adapted and changed. My reasons for sharing their presentations on the web as opposed to a final paper turned in via BlackBoard's gradebook are the same. I want my students to develop an understanding and appreciation for writing for a real audience -- not me -- and how the needs and knowledge of the real audience drive real communication. I've been striving for that goal for some time and still haven't reached it. I'm not sure you truly can in any writing class (after all, students know they are writing for the teacher) but every semester I hope I can do better.

And so, dear students, never fear. There is a method to my madness. Of course, that is exactly what I would say if I was indeed mad...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Technology: How much is too much?

I was suddenly sucked into a vortex of class concocting, pedagogical pondering, and technology taste-testing last night. I don't know what hit me. There I was living my life as usual (cooking, cleaning, caring for child and dog, performing administrative duties) when suddenly I was struck with the urge to build my fall course. This compulsion was so fierce that I never did go to sleep last night. Wow. I've suffered such creative compulsions before but never for writing a syllabus or assignment sheet.

I have a lot of ideas for making this class exciting, challenging, fulfilling, and fun (too tall an order for a general education class? well we'll see).

One of the primary things I want to focus is on genre awareness and all that entails (that is a whole 'nother blog post though so I won't get into it now) and part of my brainstorm is to utilize various web publication tools to emphasize that. But that does lead me to the all important question of how much technology is too much? I am not much of a subscriber to the belief that digital natives are super techno-savvy. Perhaps that is simply because I've had to explain to too many people how to use BlackBoard and even email. I think just like anything else -- they know what they use but there is a whole world of technology out there they don't use -- so they don't know it. But again that is another blog post.

I'm teaching a general education (as in required for everyone and taught in many different incarnations although with the same basic goals by many different instructors) writing class. The class is online and our university utilizes BlackBoard to support all classes. So that is one form of technology we will need to use -- albeit sparingly.

I'm also fairly definite about the use of student blogs to display finished products and allow peer comments -- perhaps more but still deciding the parameters there.

I've got a couple of short introductory assignments (very short!) which made me start to think about using a twitter feed as well. Is that too much? Still thinking about what I would do with that...but I do like the idea of using these different technological tools as well as other assignments to make my students think about the importance of communication and words in general as well as the role genre and audience etc. play in communication. But oh much technology to require and how much to simply encourage. How much is too much?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Community and muscle building

It's not that I haven't thought about these things before and it certainly isn't that I thought they were unimportant, but, recently, as I analyze my dissertation data (a study of the writing self-efficacy of adult writers) I have come to appreciate anew how important creating a sense of community is for a newly-formed group of writers and how essential it is to help those writers (who typically don't think of themselves as writers) develop their writing muscles.

I am not claiming either of these issues is new information to experienced writing teachers -- they certainly aren't for me (and I have the t-shirt to prove it) but reading through the comments of the writers I'm studying has made me more aware of their importance and will force me to emphasize them more in future incarnations of my writing classes.

Too often I have succumbed to pressure (from students as well as administration) to emphasize the business of a course up front (or at least place too much emphasis) but instead I vow to focus those initial days to activities that will build community and trust (among the group in general as well as between coach and writer) but even more importantly begin exercising those (often) flabby and underdeveloped writing muscles. The writing growth and development that I am studying has taken place as a result of these two elements and as the growth and development of writers is my primary goal as an instructor it seems a no-brainer to me that I need to focus even more on those elements in future classes.

A supportive community is an essential part of a successful writing workshop. This means a leader who provides lots of writing opportunities that not only give writers the chance to develop their writing muscles but also a safe place to push and challenge the writers to stretch beyond their safety zone. Of course the leader is also responsible for mentoring, teaching, and otherwise supporting the writer's progress through the development of individual pieces and growth as a writer. It also means a true community of writers that shares common goals to support each individual member's growth and success. In this community every writer contributes toward these goals by participating in workshops and offering feedback -- providing a real audience with a real response to the work. The support of both instructor and community are of equal importance to the growth process. I've always believed this but my recent research has given me even more reason to do so.

I've also long believed that writing practice and experience are essential. Just as you need to build your tolerance for physical activities so must you build your tolerance for mental activities. But I think we need to build (force or enforce?) more writing time on our developing writers. Time and practice are essential to writing improvement and I've always thought if there was no instruction but lots of time and practice we would see more improvement than if the reverse was true. While I don't believe no instruction is the answer -- I think we have a tendency to do too much pushing (direct instruction) and not enough pulling (giving the writer opportunity and getting out of their way until they need us). It is probably a response to our need to feel like we are doing our job but I can tell you that running a workshop is work.

I am pretty excited about the implications of my research for my teaching but now I better get back to it!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

June news

Why no blog posts in June? Well mostly the Summer Institute is to blame as that took the most of my time and energy but I did manage some progress on data analysis for dissertation -- and an article revision for Academic Exchange Quarterly. The good news is that my article "A Study of Writing Self-Efficacy in Adults" will be published in Fall 2010.

Monday, May 31, 2010

May news

Why no blog posts in May? Perhaps it was the usual end of the semester chaos combined with Summer Institute orientation chaos immediately followed by a trip to Lubbock for hopefully the very last May Seminar! Good news is that my dissertation proposal was accepted and have a good start on first three chapters -- recognizing there is more work to come there as I begin working on data analysis. Also received word that my proposal "What is the Impact of (re)Working & (re)Negotiating Language on Writing Self-Efficacy?” was accepted for the 2010 Thomas R. Watson Conference.

Friday, April 30, 2010

April news

Why no blog posts in April? Perhaps it was those pesky qualifying exams (which I passed, yeah!) immediately followed by plunging into a dissertation proposal.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Finding Rhetorical Agency

A funny thing happened while I was struggling to define and understand rhetorical agency and how my work connects with it...I not only learned about rhetorical agency but found it as well.

I have been struggling for months with situating my research within the bounds of technical communication and rhetoric (see The Forgotten "R") while simultaneously reading the research I needed to inform that work. What truly complicated the boundaries for me (I only just realized) is that so much of that research fell within the disciplines of psychology and education with just a smattering of composition work. I needed this work to define and ground my research -- to feed it -- but I also needed to locate my work (which is not in psychology, education, or composition) within the discipline of rhetoric.

In "How Ought We to Understand the Concept of Rhetorical Agency?", Cheryl Geisler defines rhetoric as a productive art and says that rhetorical inquiry should "make a difference in the world". She asks how we can create a better society through the pursuit of rhetoric.

This makes me happy as I feel that I have at last found a home for my work that satisfies my needs and interests. I see composition and writing studies to be focused more on academic writing or "schooled literacy" (to borrow from Rick Evans). This is an interest of mine but not the focus of my dissertation work. I also do not want to be pigeonholed as a compositionist as my research and teaching interests are much broader. I am also interested in the work of technical communication (which Grabill defines as communicative labor situated in the social institutions of public life (I really like that definition). Reading Geisler helped me understand (better) that rhetoric encompasses both this societal and educational mission governing communication as Andrea Lunsford defines rhetoric as "the art, practice, and study of [all] human communication." I believe my research has implications for composition but is more situated in the communicative labor of a social institution. Either way I'm covered if I focus on rhetorical inquiry.

Now that I have announced my intent to create a rhetorical inquiry that makes a difference in the world I must describe it more fully. I return again to the work of Albert Bandura in social cognitive theory to set the stage. I feel more comfortable with this revisit as I now understand (better) the path I must travel to return to rhetoric. Bandura posits that people can effect change in themselves and their situations. This is clearly something rhetoricians need to believe (accept, embrace) or our work would be an exercise in futility. But where does that belief take us?

One of the ways people effect change, according to Bandura, is through self-efficacy. He defines self-efficacy as a person's confidence in their ability to utilize specific skills. Bandura maintains that self-efficacy and agency are interdependent. People do not pursue activities if they doubt they can do what it takes [self-efficacy] to succeed. Why bother, right? Similarly, people do not pursue activities if they doubt they have the power [agency] to act/enact change.

Bandura says the exercise of personal agency is achieved through reflective and regulative thought, the skills at one's command, and self influence (that combination of self efficacy and agency). He points out that skill is not a fixed property (a battle we continually fight as teachers of writing) but has generative capability that must be organized and effectively orchestrated. He says there is a marked difference between possession of knowledge and skills -- and being able to use them under difficult (and different) circumstances. In essence this is the problem of transfer that has dominated so much rhetorical conversation in recent years.

I am interested in the ways that social cognitive theory (self-efficacy and personal agency) interacts (or is it intersects?) with rhetorical agency to effect transfer. I am looking at the short- and long-term impact of negotiated writing (such as that found in collaborative and libratory writing pedagogies) on rhetorical agency and writing self-efficacy.

Carmen Werder makes a call for rhetoric in general to move from individual efficacy to collective agency in "Rhetorical Agency: Seeing the Ethics of it All". For Werder rhetorical agency is about persuasion rather than exerting control over others through the use of power; negotiating with others through dialectic interplay rather than simply communicating to others.

In "Tradition and Agency in Humanistic Rhetoric", Michael Leff points out that individual agency in traditional humanistic rhetoric was held entirely by the rhetor. The humanistic rhetor was active and in control, although admittedly constrained by the demands of the audience, while the audience was passive. Like Werder, Geisler describes agency in postmodern rhetoric as socially constructed.

While Geisler defines rhetorical agency as the capacity of the rhetor to act, she also points out that only a select few have enjoyed traditional rhetorical agency while linking rhetorical action and social change. She says it is important to consider in what sense can the actions of the rhetor be linked to consequences in the world. She argues that it is rhetoric's mission to educate rhetors to have agency and to intervene (as in support and encourage) in the skills of the rhetorical agents with whom we come in contact.

Geisler says rhetorical agency manifests itself in the ability to identify and manage, orchestrate, resources for communication. I believe this brings us back, full circle, to writing self efficacy as a tool to achieve that educational mission as Geisler outlines it. It is my job as a rhetorician and educator to facilitate the acquisition of these skills, and their orchestration, in other rhetorical agents. I can do this both in the classroom and through my research.

Geisler's goal for rhetoric is for rhetoric to contribute to the development of a society that grants agency more broadly which ties in well with the goals of my research -- just as Grabill argues research should encourage emancipation, empowerment, and social change.

Monday, March 22, 2010

My 2010 CCCC Experience -- Remixing and Rethinking in Progress (Part Two)

I started the day with G.14 "Theorizing Agency in Writing Studies" and was interested by Clayton Walker's "The Embodied Act of Writing: Toward a Theory of Affects and Agency" and its connection of agency and classroom discourse.

Then on to H.21 "Research on Learning Transfer, and How We Use That Research to Improve Classroom and Institutional Success". Was particularly interested in Anne Balay's study of transfer at her institution and her call for more longitudinal research on transfer.

That brought me to preparing for my own presentation as part of J.26 "Daring to Remix, Renegotiate, and Reassess Writing Assessment" with Rebecca Rickly, Fred Kemp, and Ronda Wery. I talked about "Negotiated Assignments and Rubrics" and am more than happy to provide notes etc. for any interested in my experience with collaboration and negotiation.

After rehashing our talk and chatting with others following our talk it was too late to attend the last session of the day. Had intended to see K.08 "Revising Genre Theory: Reporting on the Emergence of Online Health Communication Genres" to be a supportive friend.

Enjoyed a leisurely dinner with Ronda Wery and Liz Pohland and then on to celebrate Rebecca Rickly's 50th birthday party at a party hosted by Joyce Locke Carter. Very exciting combination of folks and lots of fun.

Saturday morning meant dealing with business of checking out and finding car in huge underground garage beneath Galt House then having a very productive meeting regarding Morehead Writing Project with Tom Fox.

Managed to squeeze in one last session -- O.12 "Web 2.0: Problems and Possibilities". Was interested in John Alberti's discussion of power and pedagogy as well as Annie Mendenhall and Elizabeth Brewer's discussion of interactivity and power.

Then was called away by family emergency so I couldn't attend P.10 "Creating Narratives for Technical to Professional Communication" which promised to include very interesting work by Christina Low,, and Alissa Barber Torres.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

My 2010 CCCC Experience -- Remixing and Rethinking in Progress (Part One)

I returned home from "CCCC 2010: The Remix" last night. An easy trip home with the conference so close but the recovery time will last much longer. I am still exhausted: physically, emotionally, and most definitely cognitively.

I've been following the discussion of the conference on the WPA-L and thought I'd share my reasoning for session choice. I was not a good friend. I didn't go to any sessions to support my friends and colleagues. I was strictly selfish about my session choice -- I selected sessions to attend based solely on my interests as a researcher, scholar, and teacher. I didn't really pay attention to the level of the scholar (master or initiate or somewhere in between) and simply chose sessions based on my hope that I would learn something from the presenter. Sometimes I reaped more than I expected and other times I was disappointed (although never by a whole panel). I would love a more centralized way to access papers and handouts etc. It would be even more awesome if such a mechanism included a way to share our own notes and reactions to continue the conversation long after the conference. I could see a tremendous benefit to such an experience. I definitely plan to follow up with many of these folks as the hectic (frantic?) pace of the conference just didn't leave me time for such contact.

I have pages of notes and handouts that I'm afraid will get lost in the shuffle so I want to post a quick review of what I did with notes about things that particularly interested me.

I was disappointed right out of the gate that I could not get in the door to attend session A.09 "Rethinking Transfer, Renewing Pedagogy" but I will follow up with those folks.

In my need to quickly choose a new session I simply picked the one that interested me the most that also happened to be nearby and selected A.06 "Protocol, Power, and Possibility: What the Literacies and Rhetorics of Organization Can Teach Us About Teaching Writing".

I was interested in Annette Vee's discusion of "Counter-Coding: Procedural Writing as Resistance among 'Hacker' Communities" in particular some of the things she had to say about writing resistance and power.

Richard Parent's "Hacking the Classroom: Teaching and Learning (as) Playfulness" was also really interesting to me in regard to pedagogy and teaching.

I next planned to attend B.33 "The Remix in the Classroom: Innovations and Implications of Multimodal Composing" but instead got side-tracked by meeting up with some of my fellow TTU TCR Ph.D. students (Sue Henson and Janie Santoy) and then my fellow panelists (Fred Kemp and Ronda Wery).

Then I was off to C.33 "Rethinking and Renewing Academic Literacy: Issues of Transfer" which was a great session just full of information that I can use for my scholarly work and teaching. Just love when that happens. Kathleen Rowlands presented some interesting work to aid in transfer from high school to college that should be interesting in my writing project work. Irene Clark's talk about genre awareness was very noteworthy. Chris Thaiss discussed transfer and presented many intriguing ideas.

With my mind whirling from all the information I'd received so far and knowing I had two more events to go I decided to take a break with friend, colleague and fellow TTU TCR Ph.D. student Lora Arduser.

Refreshed and renewed I was off to E.25 "Using Quantitative Analysis to Extend the Gains from Authentic Assessment of Writing" and was very impressed with the presenters and the audience (got some great tips for stats support). Keith Rhodes told us we must learn to do our own numbers because numbers have power and Carol Rutz gave great insight into the impact of faculty development on student writing that I found particularly interesting for my writing project work.

Then my final event of the day was the Special Interest Group TSIG.10 "The Subject is Writing: First-Year Composition as an Introduction to Writing Studies" which was chaired by David Slomp and Kathleen Blake Yancey and of course brought us Elizabeth Wardle. Great contacts and ideas. Still fascinated by this project.

There were more events that night but by this point my brain was past capacity and my body was exhausted so I enjoyed a quiet dinner with Lora Arduser and Lisa Meloncon before collapsing.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Personal Agency

I have spent much time of late thinking about personal agency. It appears to be one of the common threads intersecting different projects for different areas of my professional life.

According to social cognitive theory, we are driven not just by inner forces nor controlled by the environment and social forces but also have the power, the personal agency, to choose our actions. This power to originate actions for specific purposes is the key feature of personal agency, according to Albert Bandura. Bandura is one of the most eminent psychologists of our time and the most cited one living -- and he is the father of social cognitive theory.

Bandura tells us personal agency is when we deliberately choose an action, monitor the results and adjust accordingly. This agentic capability means we influence events around us and contribute to the shape of our lives. There is variation in our individual levels of personal agency and this has a direct impact on our ability to exert influence on our lives. Low level agents think about their actions in terms of details and the methods necessary -- essentially focusing at a low level on the actions to be performed. In contrast, high level agents are able to look at the big picture and determine what the actions mean beyond the immediate result and what effect it will have. No surprise then that high level agency is more impactful.

We develop personal agency across many action domains by experimentation, observation, and adaption of these experiences. This development process begins in infancy and continues throughout our lives but clearly for some people it does not progress beyond low level agency. Personal agency can be promoted if others provide scaffolding for the agent, essentially offering a series of experiences that gradually increase in challenge, and/or provide support. These types of experiences are natural progressions for many life experiences in school, sports, and life skills, for example.

So what differentiates those high level agents from the low level agents? Was there a failure in their early support system? Did they need more or different support than they received? Either or both may be a cause, but Bandura tells us that there is a great deal of research that supports the fact that experiences where we have a lack of control can undermine our level of personal agency.

Fascinating stuff, eh? But it is more than theory. This theory is well supported by decades of research and personal agency impacts real-life issues such as our academic success, professional achievement, and social engagement. As a writing teacher I am especially interested in social cognitive theory and the issue of personal agency. Certainly both have implications for the teaching of writing. I think increasing our (my?) understanding of how personal agency is developed and fostered could be key to helping my students move from struggling to skilled writers. Certainly the implications go beyond first-year writing classes when we study the differences between low and high level agents.

Extensive research has been done on the writing processes of struggling writers and I can quickly see the parallels between those processes and Bandura's description of low level agents. Understanding why those struggling writers have remained low level agents is just as important as understanding the actions we can initiate to help them make the move to high level agency.

The pedagogical choices we make have strong implications for effective changes in our students from low to high level agency. We know the lack of control undermines personal agency. We know giving the opportunity to choose actions, monitor results, and make adjustments accordingly contributes to personal agency. Furthermore, we know the progression from low to high level agent requires scaffolding and support as well as guidance and feedback.

I'm already thinking about how this will change my own practice as a teacher. It certainly makes clearer to me some of the problems with transfer. Once you have reached high level agency then it is easy to transfer skills from one writing context to another. You are skilled at reaching into your bag of tricks, selecting the most appropriate tools for the task at hand, monitoring the success of those tools, and then making adjustments as necessary. The problem, I think, is that low level agents (the majority of my students I suspect) not only have a more limited set of tricks and tools but are much less successful at monitoring and adjusting as necessary and do not put all the available tricks and tools to appropriate use.

I definitely see a connection here between helping increase personal agency and effecting transfer -- and Bandura has helped me understand more clearly how agency can be fostered. The question is to what extent.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Forgotten "R"

Preparing for your doctoral qualifying exam is more than a bit like scrapbooking. I think this might be true anyway since my scrapbooks are all hideously in need of updating. Doctoral studies have a way of doing that to you. I have spent a great deal of time lately sifting and sorting through books, articles, and notes -- and taken many walks down memory lane in the process. This "scrapbooking" process has also allowed me to take a step back and look at all this academic clutter to see it as a whole and to see patterns I had either missed the first time around or forgotten about while in the midst of gathering new information. Some of those discoveries will provide fodder (hopefully) for my qualifying exam and my dissertation, but one discovery is much more foundational -- my identity as a rhetorician.

I once embraced and celebrated this identity but somewhere during the process of my coursework I was seduced by the idea of technical communication. Further complicating matters was my marriage to composition as a general education writing teacher. My professional identity has always been connected to writing (as a professional writer and editor as well as published novelist before becoming a teacher of writing). This identity became even more intertwined when I took on the role of a National Writing Project site director. The National Writing Project focuses on improving the teaching of writing and one of the main methods for achieving this goal is to help teachers become writers themselves. I love this work but do not want to be defined by it either.

All these titles and roles became perplexing to me. Just what was my primary identity? What was my primary role? While the siren song of technical communication was alluring and interesting and full of wonderful challenges I knew that was not the right fit for me -- too much of my work was tied up in the teaching of writing. Maybe someday I would be able to devote myself entirely to that work, and I certainly had many projects I wanted to explore, but not in my current professional position. Certainly composition fit much of work but that description was too confining, too restricting, it chaffed and had to be discarded. I contemplated the term writing studies long and hard as that seemed to encompass all that I was while also offering the ability to embrace all I wanted to be as well. And yet...some nagging notion remained that something still was not right.

Fortunately for me, my weekend reading included Wayne C. Booth's The Rhetoric of Rhetoric: The Quest for Effective Communication. This was fortunate because it reminded me that I was a rhetorician -- and that the study of rhetoric covers quite comfortably all the areas of communication that interest me so much as a professional, as a teacher, and as a researcher. Rhetoric includes technical communication, composition, and writing. I didn't need to shop for a new identity -- I just needed to be reminded of one I had tucked into the back of my closet and forgotten. Amazingly, while I have grown and changed since I packed that identity away it still fits well and looks marvelous on me, if I do say so myself.

Booth defines rhetoric as all forms of communication. He shares a number of other popular definitions of rhetoric. A few of my favorites include:

Lloyd Bitzer, 1968 -- "Rhetoric is a mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action."

Jacques Derrida, 1990 -- "We should not neglect rhetoric's importance, as if it were simply a formal superstructure or technique exterior to the essential activity. Rhetoric is something decisive in society...[T]here are no politics, there is no society, without rhetoric, without the force of rhetoric."

Andrea Lunsford, 1995 -- "Rhetoric is the art, practice, and study of [all] human communication."

Marc Fumaroli, 1999 -- "Rhetoric appears as the connective tissue peculiar to civil society and to its proper finalities, happiness and politic peace hic et nunc."

If a rhetorician is a student of communication, as Booth tells us, then I am indeed a rhetorician. I am not just a communicator or teacher of communication -- but a student of communication. I believe those studies will help me become a better communicator and teacher of communication, but those are not the only reasons I study. I study because I find communication fascinating in all its awe-inspiring power.

Booth reminds us that for millenia the study of rhetoric was considered essential. He is concerned, frightened even, by the way we have bastardized rhetorical education today. I agree that the neglect of rhetorical education "threatens our lives" and in fact our whole world. Yes, rhetrickery has given rhetoric a bad name to most of the world -- and perhaps that may have been one of the reasons I avoided defining myself as a rhetorician -- but I believe that rhetoric has the power to change the world.

Certainly as a teacher I believe rhetoric has the power to change lives. Reading and writing well are key to our personal success in both education and professional life. No one disputes that fact but what has gone so horribly wrong with our education system today -- and hence society -- is that we divorce those "skills" from what makes them so meaningful. In order to read and write well we must learn to read and listen critically so we can then communicate effectively in response.

Booth says that the quality of our lives -- our very survival -- depends on the quality of rhetoric and I think that is certainly a field worthy of dedicating my life to studying and teaching. Now if you will excuse me...I need to go update my web site to make it clear that: Deanna Mascle is a rhetorician.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Coming Full Circle

As a writing teacher I have continually struggled with the content of my writing classes. I am a skilled and experienced writer, but what do I need to teach my students so they can become skilled writers? What experiences do I need to give my students so they can learn the skills necessary to skilled writers? I read and re-read the theory and research of my field and no where could I find a clear answer to this key question: Just what should I (we?) teach in first-year composition classes?

This issue became even more complicated when I began to think beyond the boundaries of my classroom. I could definitely create a class where students could master the assignments I set for them and experience success, but could I create a class where students could take those skills into new writing situations and experience success. Could I really fulfill the essential mission of FYC to prepare students to enter academic writing? Could I foster transfer?

I created carefully scaffolded assignment sequences based on the research and theory of my field and built in more reflection and more collaboration. I introduced my students to the concepts of discourse community and genre. I strove to make them aware of the writing that would be expected of them in other classes as well as the professional world and how they would need these ideas (discourse community, genre, collaboration, reflection) to find their way.

All these changes also marked important changes in my teaching style. I became more of a hands-off teacher and more coach or facilitator. The more I read of social cognitive theory and understood of human adaptation and change the more I realized that I could not teach transfer. I could not teach specific skills that students could immediately apply to the work in other classes. Sure sometimes we both might get lucky and it might happen but those occurrences seemed to be more by serendipity than design.

But all was not lost and there was no need to choose between the two evils of quitting my job or living a lie. I found my answer in personal agency and self efficacy.

People are agentic operators who regulate their own motivation and the activities they pursue. We make causal contributions to our own success through mechanisms of personal agency – acts we intentionally perform to achieve a desired outcome or prevent an undesired one. One of the most influential mechanisms is that of personal efficacy. If we do not believe we can produce the desired result then there is no incentive to act.

We guide our lives by our belief of personal efficacy. We analyze a situation, consider alternative courses of action, judge our ability to carry those actions out successfully and estimate the results of our actions.

I have now come to believe that the only way to effect transfer is through personal agency, personal efficacy, which makes fostering writing self-efficacy the central mission of my writing classes.

How do we foster writing self-efficacy? Well there is a lot we don’t know yet about the sources of writing self-efficacy (and that is the focus of my dissertation) but we do know that human adaptation and change are rooted in social systems. As a result it is not surprising that social forces play an important part in writing self-efficacy and are a key source of writing self-efficacy. This has meant I spend even more time in class on collaboration and building a writing community as well as making writing workshop an integral part of coursework.

Successful outcomes also play an important part in fostering writing self-efficacy. Again collaboration and writing workshop support this, but it is also important to not just build writing self-efficacy for the short-term (this class) but also the long-term, to which end I’ve focused on developing my students knowledge of writing studies (read my post about FYC as Writing Studies) so they do not simply acquire a set of tools they do not know how to adapt – transfer – to a new writing situation but hopefully learn how a discourse community works and the key role it plays in genre so they can better make the necessary moves to enter a new discourse community and understand its genres.

So now my graduate work as well as my teaching has come full circle – a fact I hadn’t realized until just this week. I’m still struggling to answer that question – what should we teach in FYC – and while I think I may have found an answer I’m not confident it is the answer. Stay tuned!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What Is Best Practice (and how do I know when I have it)?

As a National Writing Project site director best practice is key to what I do (what we do as a site). We base our professional development on best practice. We direct our Fellows to prepare their demonstration lessons the best practice way. Recently I embarked on a research project with Dr. Brian Still (my dissertation adviser) focusing on measuring the impact of teaching and he asked me if I was using best practices. I said yes but the question certainly prompted me to think -- what is best practice and how do I know when I have it?

Best practice is one of those terms that is often thrown around in education circles and as a result it has lost its focus and for some its meaning. Yet the term best practice is used in many professions and often it is specifically defined or outlined by professional organizations. Harvey Daniels and Marilyn Bizar in Teaching the Best Practice Way compared the standards documents published by the national professional associations of educators including those for science, reading, English, math, geography, and history as well as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and found they all endorsed a very similar model of teaching and learning -- a student-centered or progressive paradigm of teaching that Daniels and Bizar call best practice. In other words, best practice is another word for good teaching.

While some may think of best practice as nothing more than an educational buzz word, I agree with Daniels and Bizar that best practice is not something nebulous and fuzzy but something very specific when it comes to the activities and ideas that take place in the classroom. Best practice teaching is based on research, the study of development and learning, and the history and philosophy of American education.

Steven Zemelman, Harvey Daniels, and Arthur Hyde give us the main ideas that represent best practice in Best Practice, Today's Standards for Teaching and Learning in America's Schools:

Student-centered: Active and hands-on, holistic, and challenging.

Cognitive: Higher-order thinking, constructivist, expressive, and reflective.

Social: Collaborative, cooperative learning in a Democratic community.

Best practice is research-based. Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde say: "We have decades of research and thousands of studies showing that progressive teaching practices do 'work'." They further point out that the standards of educational associations are backed up with still more research to support the effectiveness of best practice in specific content areas.

Best practice not a new invention and it is not a fad. It is built on a firm foundation of what we know about development and learning and you can find these ideas embedded in important philosophers and educators including: Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Wilhelm Froebel, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, John Dewey, Eric Ericson, Carl Rogers, and Elizabeth Harrison, as well as more recent figures such as Jonathan Kozolo, James Beane, Paolo Friere, Deborah Meier, Maxine Greene, and Howard Gardner.

But how does a teacher know best practice when she uses it?

Daniels and Bizar say best practice offers less whole-class-directed instruction and less student passivity.

Check: I rarely lecture and prize engaged student activity.

Daniels and Bizar say best practice offers less stress on competition and grades.

Check: I try to shift the focus away from grades and focus on drafts and workshop to help students grow and improve.

Daniels and Bizar say best practice emphasizes higher-order thinking and learning a field's key concepts and principles.

Check: My writing classes are about writing studies with students (yes, even freshmen) reading research and theory about the current thinking in the field of writing studies.

Daniels and Bizar say best practice encourages cooperation and collaboration in a classroom community.

Check: I strive to create a sense of community and through workshop and group projects stress both cooperation and collaboration.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

My 3 X 3

This post was supposed to be written weeks ago but oh well...better late than never.

It is inspired by a friend's blog post which was in turn inspired by ProfHacker.

I thought this was a good idea for the reasons that ProfHacker writes about but also the fact that I really should reflect in a purposeful way about the various experiments I conduct in my classroom.

Three things that worked well last semester

Combining two sections in one BlackBoard course shell -- I was worried it would get too chaotic but once we got past those first few weeks of acclimation it worked well for me and I think for the students.

Giving my students' IM access -- I was worried that it would be disruptive to me and there was one incident with a student who couldn't understand I was already doing something else and couldn't talk at that moment but for the most part it inspired some truly great teaching moments because I was available when the student needed help. IM also meant we had a record of our conversation so if we were brainstorming the student could just go with the flow of the conversation and not worry about taking notes or remembering. IM also allowed us to clear up confusion that email (or discussion board) can't always provide clarity for -- or at least the process of clearing up confusion in email is more time-consuming and cumbersome.

Shifting focus to writing about writing -- as the main focus of a writing class should be writing I decided to eschew writing about other topics. My choice of focusing on writing for school and professions had mixed results but still a better choice than giving students free rein or focusing on some other unrelated topic.

Three things that didn't work well

Focusing on writing for school was not a good choice -- or at least the way I framed it for students and most of the readings that I provided. It just didn't lead students in the direction I wanted them to go.

Excessive summary writing. I don't know what I was thinking. I was sick of grading them. Students were sick of writing them. Blick. Way too much work for everyone and why?

Excessive assignments. Again. Don't know what I was thinking. I do believe you need to write to improve as a writer but there is also a balance in a workshop situation and this semester didn't find that balance. Shudder just remembering...

Three things I changed for this semester

First-year writing as introduction to writing studies -- I already blogged about this idea

Eliminate summary -- I lied above when I said I didn't know what I was thinking assigning so much summary. I know what I was thinking. I was thinking about how many students the previous semester struggled to learn how to write a summary. But I've sense decided that while this is an important skill perhaps that was not the right approach. I once focused more on the annotated bibliography assignment and I moved back to that approach this semester.

Cut down the number of writing assignments -- bring back sanity for myself and my students and focus on quality rather than quantity. My new approach will focus on smaller, more reflective assignments that then build to a longer, focused research paper inspired by that earlier work. We'll see how it turns out.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

My Teaching Philosophy

My teaching philosophy and my course plan seem to be in a constant state of flux. I used to worry about all this change but recently Prof Hacker wrote that constant innovation is actually a sign of great teaching so I will stop worrying about that anyway.

I see myself primarily as a teacher of writing and so focus is on composition pedagogy. Of course there are many composition pedagogies and I find mine influenced by five schools of thought (at least) in my current incarnation. Is that something new to worry about?

I was first introduced to process pedagogy when I was a student in Lee Brooks' sophomore high school English class. The idea literally changed my life. I believe I would never have gone on to become a professional writer and writing teacher without that experience. As a result, process pedagogy continues to play an important role in the way I teach writing and my teaching is strongly influenced by the work of Peter Elbow and Donald Murray. As Elbow teaches, I encourage true invention such as freewriting, playing with words, etc. As Murray teaches, I encourage writing for discovery and exploration and a willingness to take risks. I teach writing to writers and believe everyone is a writer. While I believe strongly in the power of process, I loath the forced structure taught in so many textbooks and classrooms. I believe every writer should develop an individual writing process that is flexible enough to adapt to many writing tasks. I long resisted the idea of post-process but admit that while I continue to think process is key to developing as a writer my classroom is more post-process. While it includes some element of choice and follows a workshop model that includes iterations of drafting, feedback, and revision, I do limit the range of topics and utilize mini lessons.

I firmly believe in placing the writer and writing at the center of the classroom and every activity and assignment is focused on one simple goal – writing development – which is definitely influenced by expressive pedagogy. My classes have long included freewriting, journals, reflective writing, and small group work. I am strongly influenced by bell hooks' “engaged pedagogy” and Paulo Freire's “liberatory pedagogy” as well as the work of James Britton and the National Writing Project. I understand I am teaching the whole student and I strive to build a critical consciousness about thinking and writing (and thinking about writing).

Collaboration has long been an important part of my life as a writer. As a published novelist I worked with writing groups and as a newspaper reporter and editor writing groups were also key. I learned the power of peer response for myself and as a result have always made it a part of my writing classroom and then as I learned more about the work of Kenneth Bruffee, Anne Ruggles Gere, and Richard Rorty collaborative pedagogy became a central part of my teaching. I believe, as Charlotte Thralls and Patricia A. Sullivan write, that collaborative pedagogy mirrors the true nature of writing and this is another reason it strongly influences my teaching.

Like Ira Shor I often ask myself, and my writing students, what is good writing and how do you become a good writer. My recent move to a writing studies pedagogy for my composition classes is a good demonstration of my own commitment to critical pedagogy. As Freire, Henry Giroux, and Shor have taught, my classes are student-centered and focused more on questions that students ask and answer than questions and answers provided by the instructor alone. I believe greatly in the power of thinking and communication and hope to improve the skills of my students in these essential areas but realize they must be able to take the lead to do so.

Of course these concerns also lend themselves to feminist pedagogy. I strive to decenter authority in my classes as much as possible and place more emphasis on process than product. I hope my students will gain a better understanding of social justice and issues of power as we read, write, and think together to explore these important issues.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Writing About Writing

I'm not talking about Metawriting now but rather the strategy Doug Downs and Elizabeth Wardle propose for first-year composition (FYC) which focuses on improving students' understanding of writing, rhetoric, language, and literacy (see Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning "First-Year Composition" as "Introduction to Writing Studies"). The focus of this post is to explain what led me to experiment with this approach for my own FYC classes in the Spring 2010 semester.

The issue of transfer has increasingly bothered me as I planned my writing classes in recent years. This nagging concern has caused me to rebuild my classes based on the inquiry and genre work of David Jolliffe as well as the research of Anne Beaufort and work of David Smit. There are many others who influenced my recent efforts to refocus and restructure my FYC classes.

As a result of these influences I have been heading in the direction of writing studies pedagogy with each new semester's evolution of FYC and the Downs-Wardle model seemed to be the next logical step. This was confirmed as I began to study the syllabi, reading lists, and assignment sheets of others working on this approach.

The longer I teach writing and the more I study the research of this field, then the more I think that traditional goals and methods are not working. Downs and Wardle make this very point as they argue that more than 20 years of "research and theory" have "repeatedly demonstrated" that not only does "a unified academic discourse" not exist but that research and theory have also "seriously questioned what students can and do transfer from one context to another" (p. 552). In essence, FYC is making a promise it cannot deliver.

However, I remain committed to teaching writing and communication skills because I believe they are so important, essential in fact, to success in life. So how do we help our students improve if we cannot teach them how to write? Perhaps the answer, as Downs and Wardle posit, is to teach them about writing.

The Council of Writing Program Administrators (WPA) has adopted an Outcomes Statement for FYC that focuses on four major goals for writing instruction: rhetorical knowledge; critical thinking, reading, and writing; processes; and knowledge of conventions. Downs and Wardle argue that students write for so many different communities in college and beyond it is an impossible task to prepare students, in one or two classes, for all the specialized rhetorical and convention knowledge necessary for each community -- especially when the student and instructor cannot know which communities the student will join in the future. The main crux of the Downs and Wardle argument is that "far transfer" is difficult and most FYC courses are not up to the task. My own teaching experience certainly seems to bear this out.

They instead argue we can make students "better writers by teaching about writing. "Instead of teaching situational skills often incorrectly imagined to be generalizable, FYC could teach about the ways writing works in the world and how the 'tool' of writing is used to mediate various activities" (p. 558). Downs and Wardle reimagine FYC as "Introduction to Writing Studies--a course about how to understand and think about writing in school and society".

While consisting of the same activities as the more traditional FYC classes -- reading, writing, research, and argument -- the focus is on understanding writing rather than other topics which typically vary widely and offer students no context. "In this course, students are taught that writing is conventional and context-specific rather than governed by universal rules--thus they learn that within each new disciplinary course they will need to pay close attention to what counts as appropriate for that discourse community" (p. 559). Through the reading, writing, and research students conduct in this course, both Downs and Wardle discovered in their pilot offerings of the class that students developed increased self-awareness about writing. I agree with Downs and Wardle that increased self-awareness about writing may be the best path to improving student writing.

Clearly there are challenges for this new pedagogy including the facts that it is intellectually demanding of students; as a new pedagogy there is not a solid infrastructure in place, such as a corpus of textbooks and assignments; students are more likely to generate imperfect work; and instructors must be knowledgeable about writing studies.

Critics have also argued that teaching about writing may not improve writing. Downs and Wardle respond that "writing studies pedagogy is also consonant with current understanding of transfer. Proven means of facilitating transfer include self-reflection, explicit abstraction of principles, and alertness to one's context" (p. 576).

I have used self-reflection et al in my FYC courses in the past and feel that strategy has been somewhat effective, but I have still felt something was lacking and that my students did not fully grasp how the abstract principles we discussed could be applied to future writing contexts. That is why I found the writing studies pedagogy to be such an interesting and challenging idea and why I was so eager to implement it this semester -- even if redesigning a course over Christmas break is not an ideal situation.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Why Metawriting?

Quite simply that is what I plan to do in the blog -- write about writing.

Really, writing is probably only going to be a part of it as I will certainly be reflecting a great deal of the time about communication in general (as a technical communicator) as well as particular aspects of communication such as writing. In the interests of true accuracy I should have named the blog Metacommunication but I'm not sure I like that as much as I like Metawriting. Have to ponder I suppose...maybe see how things shake out? But enough blather about that.

The question is why metawriting -- why writing about writing? I used to think the main method to become a better writer was simply to write more. As I saw my students write more but not really progress and repeat mistakes, I began to question the old adage that practice makes perfect. This is because writing is more than a skill set or muscle memory -- writing is thinking. Yes, you need to write to become a better writer but that writing must be accompanied by thinking or you will not see the improvement you want. This is quite simply why metawriting is now a requirement in all my writing classes. I think the key to reflectively writing about your writing -- challenges, problems, successes, processes, etc. -- can help any writer at any level.

This blog is intended to focus on writing about writing (or communicating about communicating) in order to better understand writing as a writer, teacher, and researcher. I have worked as a professional writer for decades but I still sometimes struggle with certain writing tasks. I do not think you are ever DONE learning about writing or growing as a writer. Certainly I continued to need metawriting to help me learn and grow as a writer. Now my primary job is teaching writing to other writers as well as working with other teachers of writing to improve the teaching of writing. As a teacher of writing it is even more important that I understand how people learn to write and the problems and challenges involved in that process. Of course, while there is a growing body of research about how people learn to write, there are many questions remaining and that is why I am interested in conducting my own research on the subject as well.