Metawriting posts from the new blog location

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.