Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Key Influence: Peter Elbow

Peter Elbow has influenced my writing and teaching as well as work with other writers for decades. Freewriting and other techniques, such as writing workshop, designed to unlock the writer within have helped me grow as a writer and a writing teacher.

I continually return to Elbow’s work to help sustain writing workshop in my classroom and helping to help my students develop agency as well as become better writers. In fact, I believe re-reading some Elbow over winter break may just help me restructure my writing workshop and get back to the place I want to be with it and help me get out of my students’ way. I think I’ll need to revisit the criterion-based questions in particular to help my students give each other better feedback. Thinking it through from Elbow’s perspective I think I see where I strayed from the path and mucked things up a bit.

I cannot stress enough how much “Writing Without Teachers” has influenced the way that I teach writing and shape my own writing classroom. Elbow has also helped me gain a better understanding of good and bad writing which fits in well with my focus on writing self-efficacy. I rely on Elbow’s methods of freewriting as well as editing but I also love the emphasis that he places on confidence and dealing with anxiety as well as writing to learn.

Elbow’s work has made a tremendous contribution to the writer and writing teacher that I am and continues to shape my growth and development as a writer and teacher.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Important Influence: Anne Beaufort

From the moment that I first encountered Anne Beaufort’s work during my doctoral work at Texas Tech I wanted to learn more. Her ethnographic studies of writers moving from academic to workplace writing and theories of writing expertise have strongly influenced my teaching as well as my own research.

Learning more about Beaufort’s professional history only furthered my infatuation and interest. Like me, she began as a classroom teacher and discovered that writing was her first love. She has also written for weekly newspapers and worked in corporate communications as well as been involved with the National Writing Project.

It was her work drawing from cognitive psychology that led me to pursue my own interest and research in writing self-efficacy. In addition, her work on context and discourse communities as well as the development of writers continues to feed my teaching and research. She continues to be a source of inspiration and knowledge for how writers are made.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

How well did my semester plan work?

As Robert Burns noted: “The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, Gang aft agley” or the more popularly known “The best laid schemes of Mice and Men oft go awry.” While my class plans rarely (I hope) lead to grief and pain or even joy, this quote is apt for my teaching experience. Every teacher knows that the “best laid” lesson plans rarely work out exactly as planned but as WC Fields wisely noted: “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Perhaps it is the second part of that quote that most applies to my blog post: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”

If I want to learn and grow as a teacher then I must evaluate and reflect on the successes and failures of my past classes – and perhaps most important I must learn from them so I can avoid making the same “damn fool” mistakes. I try to keep this in mind every semester as I embark on the 3x3semester evaluation suggested by Profhacker.

First, three things that went well: focus on community, reading groups, and emphasizing reflection. This semester I focused on developing class community and teaching my students about why community is important (as students and as writers). I deliberately used Twitter as a tool to build community in my class as well as to teach students about community. I think this worked well and I’m finally realizing the potential of using Twitter as a teaching tool. I also created reading discussion groups to further support community and to solve some of the problems I’ve been having with my reading assignment. These were a definite improvement over letting students go solo and forming them around student interests solved some of the problems I experienced with past reading groups. Finally, I placed even more emphasis on reflection than before. I continued with literacy narratives as before but I added journals, reflection discussions, and Twitter notes to provide further opportunity for reflection throughout the semester. I had used all these in the past but was much more deliberate about connecting them this semester and I was pleased with how that worked out.

Now, three things that didn’t work so well: reading groups, writing workshop, and rubrics. Organizing the reading groups by interest worked really well and I think helped students connect with each other and the material in more meaningful ways. However, I am still doing too much of the heavy lifting here to organize them. I need to get out of their way and let them do the work. I definitely need to micromanage less next semester. Same is true for writing workshop. I need to orchestrate the process but be careful about stepping in too soon or they will never learn to do it without the training wheels. Finally, I need to redo/rework/reconsider my use of rubrics. I don’t feel they are adequately representing evaluation.

Finally, I plan to restructure both my reading group and writing workshop assignments as well as redo my rubrics. This last will be the most challenging because I’m thinking about making it a collaborative exercise with input from my students. I’m not prepared to totally relinquish my control over this but I think making it a collaborative exercise could be a good learning/teaching tool which will fit in well with my intended focus for the spring semester. I’m teaching Writing I for the first time in a while and I intend to focus on not only how we become (more) literate but why it is important. Our reading and writing will focus on that topic which still falls within my writing-about-writing interest of the past but will allow me to work with my increasing interest in reflection and community as well as the citizenship aspect my program assessment requires.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Postpartum Depression and suffering from the End-of-Semester Blues

Grades were due this morning at my institution and that may be a contributing factor in my end-of-semester blues. I hate assigning grades to papers and to students, but unfortunately it is a necessary evil. I would rather focus on helping my students learn and grow as writers, but too many other forces (including my students) demand that I assign a grade. Perhaps if we could find a way to measure and quantify that learning and growth I would feel better about the grades that I assign, however as scholars of writing studies know, that learning and growth is not confined to the 16 weeks they were assigned to my class and does not show up in easily quantifiable ways.

I can use my own hard-won expertise to study a variety of data sources and evaluate the successes and failures of the semester which can help me (if not my students) move past those grades. I hope this process will help move me out of my current funk which I describe as postpartum depression or the end-of-semester blues, but I just can’t summon the energy to do so. I should also be cleaning my house and wrapping presents, but I don’t see either of those tasks getting done today.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine defines postpartum depression as the depression that occurs in women after giving birth. While it may be caused by changes in hormonal levels, it can also be caused by nonhormonal factors such as lack of sleep and worries about her ability as a mother. I can certainly sympathize with both of those factors at this point in the academic calendar and so feel justified in using the term to describe my current state. I am lacking sleep and worried about my ability as a teacher.

I’ve also read that postpartum depression is also caused by a period of grief and mourning. While the birth of a child is certainly cause for celebration, it is also the death of the dreams and possibilities that the expectant mother held. It is also the loss of a closeness that can never be recaptured. In time, those losses will fade in importance as new dreams and possibilities center around the child and a new relationship is forged. I think teachers experience similar losses whenever a class ends. Certainly this is the point when we must accept that all the dreams and possibilities that existed at the beginning of the semester have now either been fulfilled (or dare we hope exceeded) or fizzled into something we neither expected nor wanted. Fortunately, we can start anew in the next semester, but that doesn’t seem like much of a consolation prize when we are tired from the end-of-semester grading onslaught and worn out from dealing with the angst of our students. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be better equipped to look back objectively at the Fall 2011 Semester and begin looking ahead to Spring 2012. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Studying how writers become writers

My research studied how one group of Appalachian women became writers. I followed this group during their year-long experience with a National Writing Project Summer Institute in order to better understand this process of becoming a writer and the role of writing self-efficacy and writing apprehension in this development.

I pursued this project because I think we can do a better job of fostering writing development. I define myself as a rhetorician and like Wayne Booth, in The Rhetoric of Rhetoric, I consider myself a student of rhetoric. My favorite definition of rhetoric is borrowed from Andrea Lunsford who defines rhetoric as "the art, practice, and study of [all] human communication." I agree with Booth that the quality of our lives – indeed our survival – depends on the quality of our rhetoric. Rhetoric can, and does, change the world. However, decades of working with writers, both as a professional writer and as a teacher of writers, has taught me that many lack confidence in their ability to communicate effectively. This is what drives me to study the process of becoming a writer and the role that writing self-efficacy and writing apprehension play in this process. 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.

An important step toward this goal of a better society is fostering the growth and development of future rhetoricians. Many people do not consider themselves writers and do not believe they can become writers. Often writing instruction does little or nothing to change these beliefs as it focuses on the development of specific skills and writing in specific contexts – rather than attending to the growth and development of the writer.

We can, and should, do both. The process of learning and developing new skills can actually support the growth and development of a writer if we are mindful. My dissertation study is a good example. A National Writing Project Summer Institute is primarily a learning community. While participants are heavily engaged in the practice of writing they are also demonstrating and researching professional practices. While writing activities take place every day of the Summer Institute, they do not play a dominant role every day. Some days are focused on practical demonstrations and discussions while other days are focused on research and study of professional issues. However, at the end of three weeks of this activity, most of the 17 women involved in my study experienced a decrease in writing apprehension while underdoing the transformation to writer. Even more important was that they maintained that confidence level during the following year. This matters to me, and I hope to others as well, because my study confirms the research of others that as apprehension decreases evidence of self-regulating activity, such as goal setting and metawriting, increases as does agency and self-efficacy. Writing self-efficacy not only plays an important role in the development of a writer but self-efficacious writers continue to grow and develop because they are self-regulating.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Researching Community

The focus of my current work is community. In particular, I am interested in the role that technology and social media play in our understanding of and participation in communities. It is important that we increase our understanding of the concept of community and how people live, work, and communicate within and among today’s networked and global communities.

Technology and social media have had a tremendous impact on the shape and definition of community. Social networks have made the boundaries separating communities porous and easily crossed as well as made it easier to create our own communities. It is crucial to my roles as a technical communicator, teacher, and researcher that I understand how to work in these spaces. I believe that further study of the “social literacy skills” that Cargile Cook advocates for technical communicators as well as the “civic mechanisms” promoted by Spinuzzi can increase our understanding of working, teaching, and researching in networked environments.

Digital Community and Social Media

Toward this end I am currently engaged in a study of my writing students’ dual struggle with digital community and social media. As a teacher, I believe it is important to develop a strong classroom community although doing so in an online class can be challenge. Therefore, I am studying the pedagogical implications of this work and our use of both social media and course management software to create a learning community. I also seek to help my students develop an understanding of the discourse communities they will join. However, as a researcher I am also interested in their struggle to identify and join professional communities using digital and social media tools as I believe their experience can expand our understanding of this issue. This work has led to conference proposals for Computers and Writing, Computer Connection (part of the Conference on College Composition and Communication), and the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing as well as a proposal for the special issue on social media for Technical Communication Quarterly.

I see technical communication as a natural bridge between rhetorical tradition and cutting-edge technology. As a result, I am working as a technical communicator to create a digital network to support the work of my National Writing Project site. This work will also inform the article proposed for TCQ. This includes a study of the community and the ways that social media has helped and hindered communication and social capital as well as a self-study of my own growth and development as a technical communicator.

Agency and Writing Self-Efficacy

While I am still interested in agency and writing self-efficacy, the topic of my dissertation, this focus on community is what excites me the most at this time.  I have continued to collect data from each group of writers that I teach with the intent of conducting a longitudinal study. This work is the foundation for an upcoming presentation the Conference on College Composition and Communication as well as the research project I am directing for my undergraduate research assistant. We are currently considering publication venues for her work. In addition, I recently responded to a call from Business Communication Quarterly for strategies to teaching writing and used this work to support my recommendations. Finally, I am interested in exploring the intersections and connections among community, social capital, agency, and efficacy and suspect that I may find I have not moved as far from my original research as it appears at this time.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Do I really want a Tablet for Christmas?

Just for the record. I’m not a bling kind of girl. I am a technogeek. However, I am also of Dutch-descent which means I don’t spend money lightly. Unfortunately, this does diminish my technogeek chops to some extent.

I admit that I was plagued much of this Fall semester by iPad envy. Even as friends and colleagues demonstrated the many wonderous apps featured by the device I contemplated my chances of getting away clean if I knocked them over the head with my knapsack and snatched their iPad away from them. I dreamed and discarded any number of dastardly plans to acquire one for myself as the weeks passed. I informed my husband that all I wanted for Christmas was an iPad and then, even as the words fell from my lips, I really considered whether I wanted an iPad enough to justify that blow to our family budget. Hmmm.

It was only a few years ago that I suffered from iPhone envy. As the owner of a $25 Go phone not only the device but the plan necessary to support it was a daunting expense. I was able to defeat that green-eyed monster with the purchase of an iPod Touch and never really looked back. Last Christmas I did upgrade to a $50 Go phone to make it easier to text but there are only a few occasions when I wish for an iPhone. Clearly I dodged a bullet there. Remembering the iPhone virus was enough to send me out to do my homework and to really ponder why I want a tablet and what I hope to do with it.

While I admit there are many nifty educational and teaching apps, the simple truth is that I teach predominantly online and so I won’t be toting my Tablet into class. I also agree that Tablets are much handier than many other forms of technology for meetings. While I do go to a number of meetings I tend to tote a little notebook that fits handily into my coat pocket rather than any form of technology. If I feel the urge for technology my iPod Touch nestles quite nicely beside the notebook with no extra bags necessary.

So if I’m not going to use it extensively for my on-campus work then what do I plan to use it for? I do plan to use it for an e-reader. I have resisted earlier e-readers because I just couldn’t see laying down that amount of money for a device that has only one function – and a function that other devices I already own can serve. However, as a mother I am frequently in a car or on a bench (if I’m lucky) or on the floor somewhere waiting for some practice or event to conclude. It would be handy to have an easy way to carry my reading with me for those regular occasions as well as more infrequent travel for professional and personal reasons.

I would also like to use a Tablet for casual web browsing and email checking. I can do this from my iPod Touch but there are some things it would just be easier to do with a larger screen. And, quite honestly, despite the fact that we have three computers in our home I am still sometimes left without a device. How this is possible I’m not sure (there are only 3 people living in our home) but there you go. I hope adding another device will break that deadlock.

I do expect that I will use the Tablet for entertainment purposes as well. I love my Touch for music and also frequently use Netflix to download movies and shows. I would expect a larger screen would enhance that experience.

So, if I largely will use my tablet as an e-reader, web browser, and video player, then is it really worth $500 to me? I decided not. But I knew that I wanted something and so began my search for a viable alternative. In the end I was left with two much less expensive options – costing only about as much as my Touch – the Amazon Fire and Barnes and Noble Nook. However, this meant another difficult decision. Both devices are so new that I don’t have any friends who possess either. So how do I choose?

The Nook has a lot more storage with capacity to expand but the Fire has a USB port and the Cloud so not sure how much of that is a real issue. It is unlikely I will want to tote my whole library to a location without Wifi after all. Gizmodo reports that when they compared the two devices that Fire ran faster and smoother but Nook has a better battery life. But as I don’t imagine marathon reading or viewing sessions so that will likely not be an issue.

The entertainment options of the two devices are different. Not sure how to even compare. Yes, we are currently Netflix subscribers which would suggest we go with a Nook but I’m not sure if we will maintain that relationship – or that Netflix will survive its recent poor service decisions. We’ve already cut back and are contemplating another.

The only other big difference is that Barnes and Noble will offer in-store support for their Nook while Amazon support will need to be done at a distance. How much of this is a factor for me? I think it is a bigger issue for my parents (who are also in the market for a Tablet this holiday season). My friends with Kindles haven’t reported problems so I’m not sure it is an issue.

What do you think? Have I adequately considered all my options? Tell me what I should ask for this Christmas!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Releasing students into the wild with digital presentations

I just posted the final assignment for my online writing class and I deliberately left things a bit loose and vague because I want my students to explore and experiment. I’m already anticipating this will freak out some of my students, but I hope that most will enjoy the challenge. Right now, as I contemplate my newborn assignment and dream about what the future could bring I am excited about the possibilities. Of course, the challenge will be working through that post-partum period after my students deliver their projects.

I have always had some sort of culminating project and/or presentation for my writing classes. In my early years as a teacher that was a portfolio but for the past few years that has meant a project, such as a blog. However, I wanted to allow more room for creativity and individuality, so while blogs are still on the table I’m hoping to get a wide variety of projects. I suggested they consider genres such as cartoons and brickfilms as well as more traditional types of presentations.

I have only two requirements for their projects. First, as they have been researching and writing about the communication requirements of their profession they must stay with that topic, and second, their presentation must be publicly available on the web and include interactive elements.

Some suggestions I have made to create and/or share their projects include:
·         Squidoo
·         Popplet
·         Pearltrees
·         Omeka
·         Storify
·         Posterous
·         Prezi
·         YouTube
·         Flipsnack
·         Slideshare
·         280slides
·         Google docs Presentations
·         Sliderocket

They have already done extensive research and writing about their topic over the course of the semester, so while they certainly can bring in additional information that is not necessary. I am also jumpstarting the project through some journal prompts. Am I wrong or right to let my students go wild with digital presentations? Should I give more structure and guidance? Have I overlooked or included tools I shouldn’t? What do you think? Share your thoughts about your own digital project assignments.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Abandoning audience awareness

I spent the weekend crafting proposals for the ATTW Conference and TCQ’s special issue on Social Media – and this after spending the previous weekend crafting a proposal for Computers and Writing. While this might sound like an overly ambitious program for the spring (two conferences in addition to my already accepted panel for Cs plus a journal article) let me hasten to assure you that everything but the Cs presentation is connected to the same topic and the Cs presentation is based on my dissertation work. So yes, this is ambitious, but not entirely crazy. Of course you can talk to me after C and W to see if I still think so. That is assuming I can still speak coherently.

What also makes this less crazy is that I have spent a lot of time in recent months reading and thinking about these ideas and then discussing them with my friends Lora Arduser and Kim Elmore (who also happen to be collaborators on ATTW and (just Kim) TCQ). Kim and I have talked about this issue with Lora’s students and I have also discussed this topic with my own students. In fact, this work has inspired changes in the way I teach audience.

What I have been focused upon is the issue of community and I have approached it from a number of different angles. Back in July I wrote about “What Is Community” and then in August I wrote about “Community and Social Capital” as I tried to understand what constitutes a community and why some communities thrive and succeed and others fizzle and fail. However, that led to still more questions, such as how one joins a community which led to my September post “Community: Jumping to become a full-patch member.”

It is easy to see from these posts (and the litter of references in them) that I have been thinking about these issues a great deal in recent months. I have been thinking about them as a technical communicator and researcher, but also as a teacher and I have reached some conclusions that have dramatically changed the way that I teach and think about written communication and how it should be taught.

Scholars in composition and technical communication have long agreed that audience is a central rhetorical concern. Ede and Lunsford argued that audience plays an important role in the writing process and the creation of meaning and contended that understanding audience can “help us better understand the complex act we call composing.” Of course the problem is that understanding audience is extremely challenging for both novice and experienced writers. Ong asked: “How does the writer give body to the audience for whom he writes?” This continues to be an important question today. While Ong’s “fictional” audience and Ede and Lunsford’s “invoked” audience have informed my work, I was not satisfied. Johnson’s “involved” audience provided further inspiration and some intense conversations with my collaborators have resulted in a new assignment for my students.

I have decided not to focus on audience per se because I worry that is too limiting and one-dimensional to be useful and is, in fact, a one-way channel of communication that is, I believe, part of the problem. Porter argues against determining a “fixed meaning” of audience and I want to give my students (and myself) a much more flexible and responsive notion of audience with which to work. I don’t believe that imagining, invoking, or (even) involving the audience is enough. The writer must do more than address their audience – the writer must engage with their audience. The only way for this to truly happen is by joining the community. This does not require “full patch membership” but it does require shedding their status as an outsider.

We have laid the foundation for such work in my class this semester by studying their chosen communities as outsiders and developing the “social literacy” that Cargile Cook argues is important, but we are now embarking on a project that I hope will begin bringing them across the boundaries and into the community. This involves learning more about the “civic mechanisms” Spinuzzi claims are essential for communities. My hope is that combining this knowledge of social literacy and civic mechanisms will help my students transcend the need for audience. Stay tuned as this could all crash and burn.

In the meantime, I will continue to read and reflect. Spinuzzi’s recent blog post about “network rhetoric” and Ronfeldt’s “In Search of How Societies Work” will certainly provide fodder for my next round of reflection.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Community and Genre: Teaching Writers About Context

Two of my three primary goals as a writing teacher are to help my students develop an understanding of genre and discourse community. I continually struggle to delve deeper than simply addressing audience awareness so they can learn about discourse communities and the process of becoming a full member as well as how communities shape the genres they uses.

This semester that process, or learning experience, began with building our class community. This was important to me for reasons I outlined in a previous blog post, Creating A Classroom Community, but essentially because I believe it will improve their experience with this class and help them become better writers. The first half of the semester was focused more on working with sources and building our class community, but in the second half I am more than a bit nervous about moving the issue of discourse community front and center to our discussion and work. This nervousness is in part because I haven’t fully worked out all the details yet but it is also the result of my fear that I cannot break this complex topic down effectively for my students which might simply be my fear that I am taking on too much for a general education writing class. Stay tuned!

I began the discussion of discourse community with a journal prompt for my students. It was a rather complex prompt in that I asked them to watch a brief video about Community and Genre and then read my reflections about the process of joining a community in my blog post, Jumping to become a full-patch member. It has only been a few days and so only a handful of students have posted yet but so far those responses have been good. They seem to understand the points I’m making about community and are able to pull examples from their own experiences. The next stage will be to discuss these issues as a class. It will be interesting to see where the discussion leads.

In the meantime, they are also engaged in two writing assignments that will feed our discussion and (hopefully) their understanding of discourse community and genre. They are currently working on literature reviews of peer-reviewed journals about professional training and communication needs of their intended professions. The intent is to develop a base of knowledge about the expectations and requirements of their field. Their next assignment will be to interview two professionals in their field to help them develop a fuller picture of those expectations and requirements. Toward the end of the interview assignment we will engage in another journal post and class discussion to further deepen their understanding of discourse community as well as to engage in some more specific discussion of genre.

That is where my comfort level ends. I have three more assignments planned to wrap up the semester – an analysis, a final (which is usually some sort of reflective and/or analytical essay), and a culminating project that ties the lessons of the semester into a neat package. In the past I’ve had them analyze degree programs or a professional organization’s code of ethics or best practices but at the suggestion of a colleague I’m leaning more toward some sort of community analysis. Of course how we’ll do that I’m not yet sure. I’m also struggling with whether or not to make these projects/assignments collaborative or solo (or give students the choice). I’ve got a lot of thinking to do about this. Would love to hear about how others teach their students about discourse community and genre.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Community: Jumping to become a full patch member

As I prepare to talk about discourse community with a colleague’s class, I was struck by the many qualities that very different communities share whether they are professional communities, communities of faith, or social communities. This thought struck me as my husband and I watched the documentary series on Gangland on The History Channel. My colleague has invited myself and another rhetorician to explain our own recent wrestling with the definition of community. What makes a community and why do people want to join? Humans are social animals (which also makes us rhetorical animals but that is another post) and we seek out connections with others. These connections result from a variety of different common bonds that may shift, break, or strengthen over time depending on how we (or circumstances) change. Some of the essential elements that determine the strength (and longevity) of the bond include interactivity, shared interests, meaningful relationships, and a sense of history.

However, just because we want that connection does not mean that others want to connect with us. We can sit at the same lunch table with a tight clique but that does not mean we can join their conversation in any meaningful way. Every group has rules concerning membership. Gangs make their membership rules quite explicit. Recently, while watching Gangland I was struck, in light of my own recent study of communities, by the way that gang members describe the different levels of association. The Wolf Pack Motorcycle Club describes the levels of club affiliation on their web site. These are very similar to the levels described by gangs. Of course, moving from one level of gang affiliate to another usually involves much more violence and frequently physical and emotional trauma (not to mention lawbreaking).Frequently that ritual involves jumping.

I can compare these levels of membership to a personal aspect of my own life. I am a “Full Patch” member of a church. My grandparents (both sets) and parents were born, raised, and married in this denomination and I formally joined as a teen (with a ceremony following an initiation process). My husband and I were married in this denomination and up to now have raised our son in it. At different times we have been a “Friend of the Club” to other churches – either through collaboration between the churches or to attend a special service or event. This made it easier when we began considering another church home to become a “Hangaround” as we explored our options. We do not know whether or not we will progress to “Prospects” let alone “Full Patch” but I am sure that those moves will involve a formal process or ceremony of some sort. I’m fairly certain it won’t involve a jumping. Although my previous experience with this did include a verbal jumping of a sort. It wasn’t verbal abuse but a close questioning of my beliefs. While not painful, it was a similar demonstration of my ability to join that community.

Similarly, a professional organization I study has levels of membership. This organization has public events, just like the Wolf Pack has rides, and there are a number of people who attend these functions from time to time which would make them “Friends of the Club.” Then there are people who attend events and state an interest in joining some day which would make them “hangarounds.” This organization has a formal application process for “prospects” and a year-long initiation before they can become “full patch” members. Again, no jumping but certainly a trial of sorts.

I think the primary reason people join a community is to give shape and meaning to their lives and to belong to something bigger than themselves and of course going through this membership process also helps build those common bonds among community members. Those bonds and those “stories of solidarity” (as mentioned by Miller) that emphasize their shared history and interests are what shapes a community.

Friday, September 23, 2011

You can lead a student to her journal but you can’t make her reflect – or can you

I believe strongly in the power of reflection to help writers learn and grow, but there is one problem with reflection as a tool for change – humans are lazy and thinking is hard. We don’t always choose the path of least resistance, but most of the time we want to see clear rewards linked to that greater challenge. That means it is up to me – the writing teacher – to make my students understand that the time and energy they spend seriously reflecting on their writing will be rewarded. Reflection in my writing classroom incorporates four tools or sets of tasks: journals, tweets, class discussion, and literacy narratives.

At various points over the past decade I have used journals in my writing classes, but it was not until I threw myself into the “Writing About Writing” movement that I found journals really worked for me in terms of seeing students learn and grow from their use. In the past, journals tended to be cluttered with minutia about students and frequently referred to writing in only the most superficial ways. However, more recently I have taken to requiring fewer journal entries (perhaps 10 for an entire semester) but giving fairly specific prompts that ask students to think about their past, present and future writing habits and experiences.

Journals are only the first step of the process. I then ask them to distill this longer journal entry into a Tweet which is sent to our class Twitter feed. I have two reasons for this. First, I want them to delve deep beneath the surface for the journal entry, but I also want them to pull out the one important message that can be found in that reflection. Perhaps more important, I want them to see how that important message fits into the larger world and the experiences of other writers. Using the class Twitter feed connects their thoughts with their classmates but using Twitter hashtags connect their thoughts with writers from around the globe. I am so proud of some of their observations that I retweet them in my personal stream.

We then take those ideas and conversational threads to our class discussion board where we can expand and comment more cohesively on what we started in Twitter. I have found staging the discussion after the journal entries and Tweets are posted provides more fodder for a good discussion. However, what I find most rewarding is that this conversation becomes about the students and their questions and observations. I am very excited that there are days when I can simply be a participant and not a leader because the students play an active role and have something to say so they do not need prodding and steering.

Finally, I use literacy narrative to channel this conversation back to the individual writer. I assign a literacy narrative in two parts – one part at the beginning of the semester and one at the end. Part one is focused more on the writer’s past and what has formed them as the literate person they are today as well as exploring their views on the definition of writer and whether or not they consider themselves one as well as the issue of the overall importance of communication skills in the modern world. Part two draws together the lessons learned and challenges faced over the course of the semester. Each major assignment includes a cycle of journal, Tweet, and discussion which in turn feeds the literacy narrative. I also ask students to look back at their early thoughts and opinions about writing to see what has changed for them.

I have found this recursive reflection has inspired my students to think more deeply about their writing and reach more thoughtful conclusions than before. Or perhaps I should say – more of my students are doing so. There have always been a number of students every semester who have responded to my call for reflection, but there are usually a large number of students who resist thinking deeply (at least on record). However, adding in the public reflection on Twitter has meant that students realize they are not alone with their struggles and challenges which frequently tends to open discussion about these challenges and thinking about these struggles in ways students refused to do before. Also, the class discussions mix in enough thoughtful discussion to inspire some students to delve deeper than they originally intended. Like Yancey, O’Neill, Leaker and Ostman, and others I believe that these types of metacognitive activities make students better writers and are part of the writing process of successful writers. My dissertation results further confirmed this belief for me. In my study of adult writers I found that the writers who set goals and were involved in purposeful introspection about their writing became more confident writers.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I define myself...

I define myself as a rhetorician. Much like Wayne Booth in The Rhetoric of Rhetoric, I consider myself a student of rhetoric. I agree with Booth that the quality of our lives – indeed our survival – depends on the quality of our rhetoric. Rhetoric has the power to change the world. However, decades of working with writers has also taught me that the lack of agency and efficacy too often impedes the power of their rhetoric. The lack of confidence in their ability to communicate effectively and the lack of power to enact rhetorical agency results in an inequitable distribution of power in communities both large and small. This is what drives me to study the interplay of agency and efficacy with community and collaboration on communication in general and digital rhetoric in specific. Today, many communities and much collaboration involves digital communication and social media. As a rhetorician, technical communicator, and teacher, I am interested in the ways that communication is helped and hindered by digital rhetoric in the classroom, in the workplace, and in the world.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Ch-Ch-Change Goals for #change11

As the orientation for Change 2011 wraps up and we prepare to embark on our epic journey, it is probably a good time to reflect on my goals for this experience. I really only have two. First and foremost, I hope to build up a network of likeminded folks to tap for future collaboration and possibly projects. Even if we don’t ever do work together I expect I will find a number of people whose work will inspire and feed mine. I hope that friendships and professional relationships will blossom as a result.

Of slightly less importance is my need to continue to learn and grow. I defended my dissertation this summer and I do not want to stagnate. I don’t think I’m in any danger of that this year with all the collaborations I currently have on the table, but I also do not want to pass up opportunities to learn and explore.

And that’s it, short and sweet. I can’t wait to see where this journey takes me.


My number one goal for the students in my writing classes is to help them grow into more reflective writers. While I recognize that I cannot teach them every lesson they will need in the coming years of writing in college and beyond, I hope that helping them become more reflective about their writing will in turn result in more self-regulation and greater self-confidence.

Achieving self-regulation and self-efficacy are my ultimate goals, but I have come to believe over 10-plus years of studying, theorizing and practicing the teaching of writing that reflection is the key to achieving the goals of self-regulation and self-efficacy in writers.

Albert Bandura defines self-efficacy beliefs as a person’s belief in their capability to produce the desired effect through deliberate action. 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 (Note: the work of Frank Pajares and his associates has greatly influenced mine). Self-efficacy beliefs are a self-fulfilling prophecy with positive self-efficacy beliefs leading to positive outcomes and negative self-efficacy beliefs leading to negative outcomes. This is not because of the power of positive (or negative) thinking, but simply that our thoughts and beliefs influence our behavior. Our self-efficacy beliefs influence our chosen course of action, perseverance and resiliency when experiencing difficulty, and reaction to stress and depression. If we possess low self-efficacy then we avoid the challenges that could help us develop new skills or hone existing skills and we give up much easier when facing difficulties. If we possess high self-efficacy then we accept (even seek out) new challenges and persevere through difficulty by seeking new skills and tools to solve problems.

Clearly (in my opinion) there is a link between self-efficacy and self-regulation, but how does reflection link to self-efficacy and self-regulation? First, regular written reflection provides two important sources of self-efficacy – mastery experience and vicarious experience. Experience writing is a key part of developing writing self-efficacy. Obviously reflection cannot be the only writing a student conducts but it is certainly valuable writing experience. However, the real value of reflection in terms of writing self-efficacy is reflection that involves vicarious experiences such as making observations about the practices and habits as well as successes and failures of other writers then learning to make similar observations about their own writing. If done well then reflection can serve not only as an important source of writing self-efficacy but also lead to greater self-regulation and better writing.

Another important way that reflection impacts self-efficacy and self-regulation is helping students begin to engage with their own writing on a deeper level and to take responsibility for their own growth and development as writers. Once you begin thinking about your writing not as a one-size-fits-all proposition but as influenced by the rhetorical context then you are truly on the path to become a writer. Reflective writers think about their own writing and the choices they have made and can make as well as the consequences of those choices. Once engaged in reflection then writers can continue their growth and development long after they leave my classroom.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Revising the Reading Assignment

As my students complete the first half of our class reading assignment I am feeling a bit battered and bruised and I detect a note of frenzy from my students. I suspect that my carefully crafted assignment – the result of much deliberation – is too blame.
I am on the third or fourth iteration (I’m afraid to check my records, sometimes it is just better not to know) of this assignment and I think each iteration has improved. I’ve worked out many of the problems and I suspect it will always be a bit messy and challenging, but I also know it could be better. Sigh. As a teacher I am a work in progress and it appears that as generally happy I am with the current version of my writing class it is also a work in progress – especially when it comes to the reading assignment.

Due to course requirements (and I admit my own philosophy), reading is an important part of my writing class. I have thought for some time that beginning the semester with the collaborative construction of an annotated bibliography is a useful way to introduce working with sources. I believe the process and the product of this work creates a solid foundation to build our class discussions of this reading and the writing that results. But…it is so time consuming and messy and I find myself spending so much time overseeing the process that I lose sight of the forest for the trees. I need to find a better way.

One major change that I made this semester was helping students sort themselves into groups. I think this worked rather well and I think creating smaller communities within the larger classroom community can be helpful to foster the sense of classroom community I want. I also hope these reading groups will provide another level of support as my students begin writing. Right now I expect I will follow that same policy next semester, but I have to change how the reading is assigned, and even more important for my sanity, how the work is done. I will definitely have to think about how to accomplish my goals more effectively. Meanwhile, I try to take comfort in the fact that I’ve planned and executed much more disastrous assignments and probably will again.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Am I collaboration crazy?

If you know/follow me then you also know that I am interested in collaboration, negotiation, and community. I just had an epiphany, as my collaborations appear to reach a sort of critical mass, that I might have gone a bit collaboration crazy. Of course, only time will tell if I am crazy like a fox or just plain crazy.

My work as a National Writing Project site director naturally includes collaboration within my site and my state network as well as the national network – and it is one of my favorite things about my job -- but I also need collaboration to feed my research and scholarly needs so I have entered into research collaborations studying community (is that meta-collaboration?) in the writing classroom as well as from the broader issue of a rhetoric/technical communication perspective. As a teacher in Appalachia, I’m also involved in two different groups studying education in Appalachia. I’m also embarking on a MOOC focused on education, learning and technology and am quite excited about the opportunity. In my role as a site director, I am also working on establishing some campus collaborations that I hope will serve the Morehead Writing Project as well as Morehead State University. Finally, I am involved in a professional learning community to help me put my best foot forward as I embark on the job market. Yes, that is a whole bunch of collaboration.

I worry that it might be too much, but I also know that I need to feed myself. I am at my best, my happiest and most productive self when I am collaborating with people I like on topics of mutual interest. That is the reason I have collected four college degrees (well in part anyway) and why I’m attracted to the work that I do. I like to learn and I like being around others who do as well. I know that I am happy to be engaged in all this collaboration this year, but of course have yet to determine how productive I am – with all this collaboration.

Friday, September 2, 2011

My State of the Semester Address

That sounds much more grand as it is more of rumination or reflection than formal pronouncement but oh well it is Friday. I’m tired and I’m not operating at full brain capacity. It has been a busy busy week with lots of projects bubbling and percolating. But I vowed that I would blog today and this seemed like a topic I could handle at my current level of functioning.

Actually, I am very excited about the state of my semester and very happy with (most) of my students. I did not make any major changes to the overall plan for my Writing II class but I did change some procedures/methods/practices in hopes of improving usability and the overall user experience for me and my students. I thought this might be a good time (the end of the second week) to review some of those changes and what has happened so far for my own reference. I know from past experience that I don’t always remember these details when it comes time to plan for the next semester. By December I know that August will seem like only a hazy memory of sunshine and heat.

As I have blogged about before, I consider classroom community important and so was determined to work much harder on developing it this semester. There are a number of educational benefits but it also makes my experience so much better too. One of the disadvantages of teaching online (and there are many) is that you often don’t get to know your students well and, even worse, many of your interactions with individual students are negative (grading, nagging, reprimanding etc.). You also do not get to witness (many) light bulb moments (when students make a key discovery or significant revelation) which is one of the great rewards for all the negative aspects of teaching.

I decided to work on community in a couple of very deliberate ways this semester. First, I mandated a certain level of Twitter activity that was purely social in nature. It really helps me get to know my students and understand what they are all about. I think this type of interaction helps replace some of the chatter and banter that would take place before class begins or during breaks in a traditional classroom. I find that students are using Twitter to ask for help and clarification which I am happy to give but it is wonderful to see other students respond as well so the interaction doesn’t just become a version of online office hours.

Second, I created reading groups based on major and intended profession and interests (each student is in three reading groups). I hope that creating smaller groups within the larger community will make students feel less isolated and I hope that the bonds of the group will be greater due to their shared interests. This is a change in the way I handled the reading assignments last semester. Last semester that assignment was not a success and I’m hopeful that this semester will go better. Too soon to say with this but the assignment of readings was a bit smoother/easier although still time consuming. Still seeking a way to deal with the logistics.

Another frustration for me has been trying to get my students to become more reflective writers as I believe this is a crucial step to becoming self-regulating writers. In the past only a few writers reached any depth of introspection and so I knew I needed to do something different. This semester I tweaked my reflection/metawriting assignment so we begin with a literacy narrative which then becomes a work-in-progress to incorporate the reflections and metawriting that I previously required. However, in order to feed this reflection I have required journals posts (and now that Morehead State has upgraded BlackBoard we can do that right in our course shell), Twitter posts, and discussions about these issues. So far I have seen much more evidence of introspection and critical thinking and am pleased with this promising start to the semester. I have tried to provide more scaffolding for this than I have in the past and think those efforts are successful but then this is the beginning of the semester. Have to wait and see if it holds up. However, getting them to think about their writing is an important first step so I’m happy to see if happening.

A final change is more procedural than anything. I have always believed in full disclosure and thought it important to give students the complete assignment as we began work on it. I still think honesty and full disclosure are the best policy but I also know that students frequently feel overwhelmed and frightened by large, complex assignments (OK, they freak out about them, in my experience). So this semester I have delayed giving assignments and began with giving students simple tasks that can be done in very short amounts of time. After most of the tasks associated with an assignment have already been completed, then I will give students the actual assignment. I have only done this with one assignment so far (although I’m going to have to deliver a second assignment fairly soon) and students have told me (when I asked) that they much prefer the list of tasks that guide them through the assignment. Again, the upgraded version of BlackBoard has helped me out with this as I have been using the Task list function to keep us on track – even if it is a tad clunky.

And so I feel pretty good about the changes I’ve made for this semester. They have improved my experience and early reports seem to be that they have improved the student experience as well.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Community and Social Capital

Spinuzzi (2003) argues that “community implies more than simply information swapping” but notes that some communities “lack the sort of infrastructure necessary to do more” (p. 217). He contends that successful communities require a wide range of civic mechanisms not just communication mechanisms and notes that these civic mechanisms share information but also investigate and evaluate past efforts and current actions as well as deliberate on future developments.

This means that successful communities do more than share information – they are learning organisms. Information sharing is an important function of a community, and often a primary reason for its formation, but in order to be successful the community must also exert social control so the community’s resources (information) are utilized in the best way possible for the community as a whole. Even more important, the future success and health of the community requires that new resources must be cultivated and developed. That is why it is important to understand social capital as this theory offers important insights to further understanding of how a community functions.

Portes (2000) calls social capital one of the most successful “exports” from sociology in recent decades. Social capital is comprised of the collective features of a social organization that enables mutual cooperation for mutual benefit (Gargiulo & Benassi, 2000; Burt, 2001; Portes, 1998; Onyx & Bullen, 2000; Kawachi, Kennedy, & Glass, 1999; Hofman & Dijkstra, 2010; Fukuyama, 2001). Hofman & Dijkstra (2010) say social capital gives us access to different resources through our social connections. An individual’s willingness to act on behalf of the common good depends greatly on their sense of community (Lochner, Kawachi, & Kennedy, 1999) and the mutual advantage of belonging to that community (Onyx & Bullen, 2000). Lochner, Kawachi, & Kennedy (1999) argue that social cohesion plays an important role in individuals’ willingness to intervene on behalf of the common good. They suggest social capital is an ecological characteristic of the social structure.

Not every community, group, or organization develops social capital. Portes (1998) argues that social networks are not “a natural given” but instead “must be constructed through investment strategies.” The community must have a number of features in order to develop social capital. First, membership must be voluntary and offer equal opportunity. This is essential to fostering the trust that is necessary for social capital. Onyx & Bullen (2000) also stress the notion of reciprocity or the combination of short-term altruism and long-term self-interest. Community members must also trust in the community and that the social norms embraced by the community will provide sufficient social control. Onyx & Bullen (2000) stress it is the combined effect of trust, networks, norms, and reciprocity which creates a strong community that is mutually advantageous.

So why do community members engage in the difficult and challenging work necessary to build a community and establish social capital? As Spinuzzi notes, many communities form out of an initial need to share information but Portes (2000) argues they persist for the benefits that they will bring later. Burt (2001) points out that building social capital is a form of investment and those with higher social capital experience higher returns. Portes (1998) makes the case that social capital offers three basic benefits: social control, support, and connections. Hofman & Dijkstra (2010) says organizations use social capital to coordinate actions without relying on formal authority or traditional influences. Garguilo & Benassi (2000) argue that social networks facilitate access to information, resources, and opportunities. Portes (1998) also points out that social capital also comes with disadvantages such as exclusion of outsiders, excessive claims on members, restriction of individual freedom, and downward leveling norms.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

2012 CCCC Acceptance

Very excited to receive the news that I was accepted to present at the 63rd Annual Convention of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, which will be held in St. Louis, MO, March 21-24, 2012.

I am presenting as part of a panel "Tranfer: The Gateway to Writing in Multiple Contexts" which includes Heather Hill and Misty Winzenried of the University of Washington and Elizabeth Fogle of Penn State Erie. Our panel will present research results on the transferability of writing in several disciplinary and workplace contexts. It will discuss pedagogies that may possibly aid students in transferring what they know and suggest possible solutions to the problem of transfer.

My specific presentation will share the results of research exploring the impact of recent pedagogical theories focused on helping writers understand how writing works and the implications of these theories for assessment and transfer. The speaker will use results from three mixed-methods studies to address the impact of the pedagogy on writing self-efficacy, or the belief that the individual possesses the skill and knowledge to successfully perform a specific task. Research data will be shared concerning the short- and long-term effects of this pedagogy utilizing case studies generated from three mixed-methods studies including students in first- and second-semester undergraduate writing as well as graduate writing classes.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Creating a Classroom Community

Lately I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the idea of community. In part because my current research focuses on that topic and I’m fortunate enough to have a great group of likeminded friends and colleagues with which to collaborate (my own little research community about community) but also because this is the time of year when I am building my fall courses. I have always included ice breakers and various “get to know your classmates” activities. I am not alone in this effort. Just last night I helped my 10-year-old son fill a paper bag with items to share with his fifth-grade class for precisely that purpose. I imagine all across my county (and beyond) there were school children engaged in similar activities.

Of course, simply placing people in the same room and sharing a few facts about each other does not a community make. It certainly relaxes the classroom atmosphere and helps the teacher learn names, which are of course worthwhile results, but what does make a classroom community and why should we care?

I care for two reasons. In the short term, I believe that creating a learning community supports writers and writing and fosters learning. Rovai (2002) reports that studies have shown that strong feelings of community increase persistence in courses, flow of information among learners, availability of support, and satisfaction. In addition, according to Rovai, students who are part of a classroom community are less likely to cut class or come to class unprepared. Finally, Rovai says community decreases student burn out and increases overall retention. Obviously, classroom community can’t replace teaching and learning but my own experience (as well as the research) tells me that it makes teaching and learning more fun and everyone benefits.

In the long term, I am also interested in helping my writing students understand how communities shape the communication that takes place within them. I am not interested in teaching my students context-less forms and rules. As NCTE’s position statement about the teaching of writing notes: “Literate practices are embedded in complicated social relationships.” I want to help my students learn about the ways that different communities use communication (written communication in particular) and how writers can learn the rules and expectations of those communities. This is our class project. I hope that by making the goals of my classroom activities and assignments explicit and discussing the formation of our own classroom community as well as their developing knowledge will help them negotiate future community memberships and communications.

However, before we begin with that challenging work we will need to work to become a community. This, of course, does begin with those ice breakers and introductory activities. As my class is online and asynchronous I have chosen to use Twitter and the six-word memoir as our initial activity. Then, during the first weeks of the semester, we will Tweet about our lives and activities and thoughts. In the past when I have used Twitter this has been one of the ways that I have developed a sense of my students as people. I hope encouraging (requiring) this activity will help us get to know each other and lay the foundation for our classroom community.

Of course, to truly become a community we need more than “mutual engagement” (which I suppose is pretty expected of any class), according to Zucchermaglio & Talamo (2003). We also need joint enterprise. I hope that my planned ongoing discussions of our class project and the continued sharing of the individual projects that contribute to our larger work will help us create and sustain a classroom community.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Analyzing my lesson of the day

I learned something today and that always makes for a good day. Unfortunately (or typically might be more accurate) what I learned is that there are gaps in my knowledge. Today I didn’t really begin to fill in those gaps but I am locating their boundaries so I suppose that makes today productive. Even better it gives me a plan for future work.

I have learned that I don’t know a whole lot about rhetorical analysis and that I will need to do quite a bit of study before I’m ready to embark on my next research project. This shouldn’t be shocking. While I have a number of research methods courses under my belt (thank you TTU TCR program), my dissertation project didn’t employ the type (or depth) of rhetorical analysis that I expect my current project will require. In fact another thing I’ve learned is that there is a whole lot more I can do with my existing data but that will be another project and another day.

For today, I think it is enough that I have expanded my understanding of what I know (and don’t know) about content analysis, discourse analysis, and rhetorical analysis. According to Huckin, content analysis is analyzing semantic data in text(s) to uncover underlying rhetorical themes/patterns. Barton describes discourse analysis as the study of the ways in which language in different communicative events function to create and reflect aspects of culture. Selzer defines rhetorical analysis as the study of how people in specific social situations influence others through language. Understanding what separates these different types of analyses is helpful to me as I knew I wanted to analyze a specific set of texts but was unsure which method to employ. I now understand that while I used content analysis (in a most basic form) as part of my mixed methods dissertation research I will more likely utilize discourse analysis for my next project.

My next project will focus on four documents, a type of annual report, that provide yearly snapshots for a group’s transformation from organization in crisis to thriving community. I am interested in what these communicative events can teach us about the evolution of the culture and community of this organization. I’m pretty excited about this project and can’t wait to dive in.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

My Research Agenda

One of the most exciting things about life post-dissertation is the freedom to embark on new and interesting research. Of course this is also a little frightening (if I’m honest more than a little…). After all, so many things excite interest and I also need to think about what type of rhetorician I wish to be so that I can attract the interest of the types of institutions and academic programs I want to join. However, sifting and sorting the scraps of paper and digital notations that reflect my interests, questions, and random thoughts I do find that there is some method to my madness and definite trends and links. I am relieved to note that I do actually have a research agenda even if at this point in my career it is more agenda than action. I am interested in agency and efficacy, communities of practice and learning, and digital digital rhetoric.

While my dissertation research focused on agency and efficacy, I still have many research avenues and questions to pursue in that area. However, even as I continue to collect data related to this project, my immediate research focus is going to focus on other areas. I have always been fascinated by the ideas of collaboration and negotiation in communities of practice and learning communities. I want to study these issues in terms of technical communication and pedagogy. I think this is my number one priority right now and I’m pretty excited about it.

My interest in digital digital rhetoric continues. This interests me as a technical communicator as well as a teacher. The TC-geek part of me is always enamored by new tools and tricks. Also, as an administrator I am always seeking new ways to facilitate communication with my various constituencies. Of course, as an online teacher I also want to facilitate communication with my students as well as prepare them to negotiate those channels and prepare them to face the ever-changing digital communication frontier. Currently, my interest in this area overlaps with my interest in community. How does digital communication help and hinder the development and work of communities?

There. I feel so much better to have a research agenda and plan. Now I better go do something about it...

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Foundational Knowledge/Beliefs

A recent discussion on the WPA-L Listserv about the foundational beliefs of rhetoric has led me to mull over where I fall on that spectrum.

I strongly resist teaching writing as anything that resembles a mechanical formula that involves simply inputting a few words to receive some form of output. I have (and will probably do so again when the situation warrants it) taught some useful structures to guide novice writers. This includes the five-paragraph essay and formal argument structure as well as formal research article structure. I see these formulas as useful stepping stones or frameworks to negotiate specific writing challenges for specific kinds of writers. If they are taught as tools that have benefits and drawbacks then I do not believe I am betraying my rhetorical training. I do believe quite strongly that teaching such formulas as the beginning and end of writing training is wrong and that using such formulas does not make anyone a writer. Writers can, and do, use formulas but they have other tools on their belt to wield as necessary and have the knowledge to choose the correct tool for the job. Sometimes the job calls for a simple hammer so why choose a more precision tool?

In essence, I hold these truths to be self-evident – or at least agreed upon by those who have studied and researched rhetoric and writing:

Writing is a process not a formula. Each writer undergoes multiple processes depending on the context and goal. Writer’s processes change and develop as they grow as writers. Learning to be a writer is a process as well. My job as a writing teacher is to help people become writers. This means helping them develop the confidence and agency as well as the knowledge to select the right tool for the job at hand. My current pedagogical choices focus on those areas but my classes also include teaching certain tools such as contextual and genre awareness.

Writing is contextually situated. Writing is a social activity in that it is written to make something happen whether that something is a thought or an action. Yes, writing shares information but it is more than that. It changes hearts and minds and deeds. Yes, writing can be art, but I hold that art is also meant to invoke some thought or emotion or change. However, effective writing must conform or fit comfortably within the context and meet the expectations of those expected to read it. This is deeper and more complicated than “audience awareness” and must involve not only learning about a community but investigating its boundaries and history. Genres change dependent on the context as each community adapts its own unique genres to serve its own unique purposes. This is a foundational belief of our field and essential knowledge that must be understood before one can become a writer.

It is hard to disentangle composition and rhetoric . Cutting through the Gordian Knot is an even greater challenge when you add in my other field—technical communication. I see both composition and technical communication as falling under the umbrella of rhetoric—the study of human communication—with composition falling more toward the learning to write end of the spectrum (which often falls during education) and technical communication embracing writing that works (not to be confused with writing at work) in life as well as work. I see technical communication as knowledge work that is conducted by communicators. I believe that my work in the field of technical communication can feed my work as a compositionist and vice versa.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

What is Community?

I am interested in the idea of “community” from two related but different angles. Not a straight-forward social or geographical community, but a network, such as a community of practice or learning community. This idea of community as a place to grow and learn interests me as a technical communicator and as an educator.

As a technical communicator I am interested in the development of a professional learning community and organization. The project I am embarking on will involve the rhetorical analysis of a community’s documentation (annual reports in particular) to study the community’s transformation from an organization in crisis to a thriving community.

As a teacher, I am interested in the impact of a learning community on the transformation to writer (the focus of my dissertation and classroom research). I have found evidence in some populations that participation in a learning community decreases writing apprehension and increases evidence of self-regulating activity such as agency and self-efficacy. I intend to continue studying the impact of community on writing development and transformation.

The challenge is that the definition of “community” has evolved over time and it is necessary to re-evaluate what defines or makes a community. I am currently conducting a literature review to better understand how “community” is defined in the fields of technical communication and writing studies.

Zucchermaglio & Talamo (2003) argue that because writing is a social activity a writer is always a member of a community. They point out that each community develops specific communicative practices, both oral and written. These practices are affected by the development of the main dimensions that characterize a group as a community of practice: mutual engagement, joint enterprise, and shared repertoire.

Ornatowski and Bekins (2004) agree that “community underpins rhetorical action” but ask what is a “realistic” idea of community today. Communication and transportation innovations have challenged and changed previous notions of community sometimes beyond all recognition. The “diverse contexts” that have resulted from these changes make pinning down a definition of community difficult at best.

Hampton & Wellman (2003) note that the idea of “community” has both persevered and changed over time and is rarely based on local neighboring, densely-knit solidarities, organized groups, or public spaces. They observe that communities consist of far-flung kinship, workplace, friendship, interest groups, and neighborhood ties that concatenate to form networks providing sociability, aid, support, and social control. Communities are usually not groups, but social networks that are sparsely-knit, loosely-bounded and far-flung.

Network Weaving (2011) defines a “community” as a network of people who share things in common. Others are more specific about those “things” the members of a community share. For example, Grossman et al (2001) and Rovai (2002) define a community as a group of people who share social interdependence, participation in discussion and decision making, and practices that both define the community and are nurtured by it. Grossman and Rovai also agree that the most essential elements of community include a sense of connection and trust, task-driven interactivity, shared interests, meaningful relationships, and overlapping histories among members.

Ornatowski and Bekins (2004) point out that the concept of “community” is typically used as a “god-term” in the sense coined by Kenneth Burke: reified, ubiquitous, always positive, and ultimately unexamined. They question the idea of “shared beliefs and values” that is often noted as a characteristic of (or as the very foundation of) community when any conceptualization of community today must grapple with…the context of diversity and value pluralism. They call for research and theory concerning the complex relationships between rhetorical actions and their impact on communities.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Reflections on the dissertation process

I just completed the final draft of my dissertation and as a teacher who promotes reflection, I should practice what I preach for my own benefit and hopefully others as well. While I will never write another dissertation, it is likely that long-term research projects and writing books based on those projects is in my academic future. I know that a dissertation is not a book and vice versa but enough parallels exist that I should record the lessons I learned from this experience.

Writing a dissertation is exciting and exhilarating and fun – at times. There are also times when it is hard physical and mental labor that leaves you drained and twitchy. Writing a dissertation is a mixture of discovery and drudgery. Even though I received a great deal of advice, I was still unprepared for the process. I don’t know that you can ever be truly prepared. You can receive training and preparation and advice, but in the end you need to get your head in a certain place and no one can control that except you. But enough of the zen and more of the practical.

If I had to sum up the most important lesson that I wish I understood going in one word that would be: recursive. I was told repeatedly that a dissertation is a recursive document but until I understood that writing the dissertation is also recursive I still struggled. It is not a linear experience but rather a tightening spiral with your final dissertation message as the epicenter. I am sure that if I had realized this sooner in my process then the writing and revision of my dissertation would have been much less painful. Think of preparing your reading list and preproposal and taking your qualifying exams as a large loop that then gradually loops inward as you plan your research and craft your proposal. The collection and analysis of your data creates another inward loop until finally you reach the central point, lesson, or finding of your work – your take-away message. After you have worked through your results and analysis and worked out that take-away it is much easier to go back and work through the other chapters. Maybe doing so would save you some of the wheel-spinning and revision that I had to do by thinking too linear.

A more practical (rather than conceptual) piece of advice that I cannot stress enough (and a primary reason I was able to get through this process in a timely fashion) is that timing is everything. Give yourself time. Dissertation writing, in my experience, requires large chunks of prime time, but of course, mileage may vary according to the driver. I needed large chunks of time to read-think-process-write. During course work I frequently had large projects/papers but nothing on this scale and I learned early on that the work habits and practices that moved me through course work would not work for dissertation work. Writing a dissertation is different from writing a paper or article. In my opinion it is better to carve out one or two large time blocks a week than five smaller time blocks a week because I found that in small time block it took me too long to get to the place I needed to get (by reading, thinking etc.) to be productive. Mileage may vary for those who have chunks of time during the day to productively think (runners, for example, or commuters) without distraction, but as family and work demands fill all my waking hours the only time I could really focus was during the dedicated blocks of dissertation time. I aimed for three or four large time blocks a week. Sometimes I got them and some weeks I couldn’t. Fortunately, my family was supportive of this endeavor and I was able to adjust my work schedule to accommodate dissertation time. Finally, as I mentioned early on you should strive for locating those chunks of time for your prime time. When are you most alert, focused, and at your best (mentally and physically)? For me this is morning. As I teach primarily online (at least that is what I requested during this process) I was able to perform most of my teaching functions in the afternoon and evening and could then dedicate my mornings to dissertation work.

I’d love to hear about others’ experiences to see if their recommendations and advice compare or differ.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Fostering Agency and Writing Self-Efficacy: The Making of a Writer

Note: This is the most current version of my dissertation abstract. Dissertation successfully defended May 25.

Writing is an essential professional skill as well as important life skill. The goal of writing instruction is to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to successfully meet future writing challenges. However, despite years of writing instruction, many writers struggle to transfer skills and knowledge from one context to another. One reason for this struggle is that even after years of instruction most people are highly apprehensive about writing and do not consider themselves writers. In order to overcome the problem of transfer, we must improve our understanding about writing apprehension and the role it plays in the transformation to writer. Writing research and theory has brought us to the current understanding that writing is a set of complex skills that is contextually situated and socially influenced, and yet most writing instruction focuses on general, basic skills. As a result, instruction does little to lessen writing apprehension and foster the transformation to writer. This mixed methods study focused on the transformation into writers of 17 teachers attending a National Writing Project (NWP) Summer Institute and addressed the impact of immersion in this learning community on writing apprehension. This research spanned a year and studied the writing apprehension of the participants before, during, and after their transformation by focusing on the role that agency and self-efficacy played in the transformation to writer.

NWP’s mission is to improve the teaching of writing, and central to that goal is the belief that teachers who write are better writing teachers. This makes the transformation of teacher into writer the primary purpose of the NWP Summer Institute. The Summer Institute is organized as a learning community focused on professional development, research, and leadership as well as writing. Most of the 17 women involved in this learning community experienced a decrease in writing apprehension while undergoing the transformation to writer and maintained that confidence level during the following year. The writers’ reflection journals reveal that as apprehension decreases evidence of self-regulating activity, such as goal setting and metawriting, increases as does agency and self-efficacy. These findings contribute to our understanding of the transformation to writer and how this transformation connects with writing apprehension as well as how this transformation can be fostered in a learning community which attends to agency and writing self-efficacy.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Fostering Agency and Writing Self-Efficacy: The Making of a Writer

Rhetoric, the practice and study of human communication, has existed for millennia and is one of the oldest academic subjects. The study of writing is one of the most universally required subjects from kindergarten through college. Writing research and theory has brought us to the current understanding that writing is a complex set of skills that is contextually situated and socially influenced. Extensive theory and research has focused on the acquisition and teaching of these skills and yet there is much we do not know about the transformation to writer. We do know that writing apprehension hinders this transformation and writing self-efficacy helps it. This mixed methods study focused on the transformation of 17 teachers attending a National Writing Project Summer Institute into writers and addressed the following questions. First, what is the impact of immersion on writing apprehension. Second, how does immersion influence the sources of writing self-efficacy which include mastery experience, vicarious experience, social persuasions, and physical/emotional state. Third, what other aspects of immersion influence writing apprehension and writing self-efficacy. This study spanned more than a year and includes recording the writing apprehension of the participants before, during, and after their transformation and studying writing reflection journals kept by the participants for the sources of writing self-efficacy and other aspects of writing apprehension and writing self-efficacy.

NWP’s mission is to improve the teaching of writing and central to that goal is the belief that teachers who write are better writing teachers. This makes the transformation of teacher into writer the primary purpose of the NWP Summer Institute. The majority of the teachers immersed in the Summer Institute this research addresses experienced a long-term decrease in writing apprehension. Most significantly, writing apprehension levels remained stable during the year following the Summer Institute. While study of the participants’ references to the sources of writing self-efficacy indicated that mastery experience and their physical/emotional state were the strongest influences, this information did not offer insight into the question of why some participants experienced a greater decrease in writing apprehension than others. Instead, it was participants’ references to goal-setting and discussion of plans to achieve those goals that differentiated between the two groups. My research contributes to our understanding of the process of becoming a writer and the roles of agency and writing self-efficacy in that transformation.

References Handout

PowerPoint Slides