On the Virtues of Not Being an Expert

“[H]e who makes the programme is the god.” –Peter Carey, The Chemistry of Tears

“Expert, text-pert, / . . . Don’t you think the joker laughs at you?” –Lennon-McCartney, “I Am the Walrus”

In Peter Carey’s novel The Chemistry of Tears, he fictionalizes the building of Charles Babbage’s Difference Machine, including the dramatic moment when the machine produces it’s first calculations. The moment is a disappointment to the workers who had spent months meticulously hand-crafting the parts for the machine because they think it miscalculates 102 + 2, not realizing that Cruikshank (Babbage’s fictional namesake) had written a new law regarding the product of 102 and 2:

[A]s a result of a decision beyond your knowledge . . . [y]ou saw two plus 102 equals 171. In nature this is what we call a miracle and I, who predicted it, would be called a prophet.

Cruikshank, as engineer of the programme, possesses a god-like power: he can determine facts and rewrite Truth. He can subvert others’ knowledge and expectations.

In many ways, teachers share this god-like position. We are the writers of programmes, i.e., curriculum, courses, and lessons. We determine what needs to be known and how it is known. Our knowledge and expectations take precedence over the knowledge and expectations of our students. In our role as expert, we determine the Truth as our students come to know it.

The all-knowing, all-seeing power of a god is also a monstrous weakness, for it renders him incapable of seeing things from others’ points of view. He cannot empathize with mortals’ short-sightedness, their fear and confusion when confronted with the unfamiliar or the uncertain, their lack of knowledge about things the god finds wholly knowable and intimately familiar.

Similarly, teachers often forget what it is like to be a student–to be unfamiliar with and intimidated by a subject; methods for reading, writing, and thinking about that subject; or even by the expert teaching the subject. Maryellen Weimer articulates this insufficiency in her blog post “A Failure to Communicate”:

Faculty, intimately familiar with the content, see how all the details fit, relate and become the big beautiful picture they know, study and love. What some have lost is the ability to see how the picture looks to others who are looking at it for the first time. How could those perfectly obvious concepts be missed?

Far too often, especially in the humanities, when we position ourselves as experts, we do so in terms of our ability to critically analyze a text–whether it be a piece of literature, an historical event, a sociological phenomenon, an archeological artifact, or a film/painting/photograph/musical composition. We attempt to guide our students towards an understanding and analysis as profound and articulate as our own, ignoring, dismissing, or, at best, humoring their initial, inexpert responses to the text. We push them to look beyond the obvious and the aesthetic, to recognize the symbolic, the implicit, the transcendent; in other words, we want them to value and recognize those aspects of the text that we and other experts think are the most important.

And in teaching students to read and interpret a text or understand a mathematical or scientific concept, we often use language that is as bewildering to them as the semantic bantering that takes place in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or the incomprehensible nonsense of The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus.” In the latter, John Lennon ingeniously uses “linguistic chaos” to voice an ironic critique of the practice of textual analysis:

“Expert, textpert…” (the latter another probabl[e] portmanteau) deflects the attempts of folks (like me!) to explain what’s happening in the song. However, within the song’s context, these experts are more of those sneering, snide establishment folks, caught in the same trap as the desperate singer (“like pigs in a sty”) but unwilling to admit that there’s something real and fearsome to bewail. “…the joker laughs at you”, the lyrics tell us, but in “IATW” pronouns usually refer to us *all*, not just the second person singular.

In fact, legend has it that much of the song was guided by Lennon’s knowledge that a teacher at his former primary school was having his students analyze The Beatles’ lyrics. Lennon’s semantic hacking is both a commentary on the pedantic nature of school(ing) and an attempt to resist such pedantry. It’s his (unsuccessful) attempt to have his music accepted and enjoyed at face value, in much the same way that our students wish to accept our course content.

But such ideas rarely guide teachers as we create our courses. We are much more concerned with establishing ourselves as the text-perts. Being anything less is an uncomfortable and discomfiting proposition; it hints at lack of control. But what is the worst that can happen if we enter the classroom as something less than omniscient?

This is a question that currently preoccupies me as I plan a course on graphic novels, something that I have never taught before nor am I an expert in. In fact, I am currently very much in the role of student of the graphic novel. I only just “discovered” them about a year ago, and, while I was immediately and inexorably enthralled with the genre, I quickly discovered that my training and expertise in reading traditional texts had not provided me with the skills needed to fully understand and appreciate graphic novels. And so I have embarked upon a self-education in graphic novels, first by reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and now by reading every graphic novel and comic that I can afford to get my hands on. Initially, I had planned to incorporate a third phase in which I read as many scholarly articles, books, and blog posts on the genre as I could before the class starts next summer. But I have begun to reconsider this part of my education. I hesitate to read the numerous scholarly sources that I have discovered because I wonder just how much they may cloud my initial unadulterated awe at the understated aesthetic power of Alison Bechdal’s Fun Home or the pristinely bittersweet humor of Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. I could very well become an expert, at least from my students’ perspective, on the graphic novel and teach the course as such, exerting, in the process, control, power, and influence. Or I could enter the classroom at the same novice-level position as my students, affording me a better ability to read the course’s texts through their eyes and to learn to interpret and analyze those texts alongside them, not with the language of the academy, but with honest unsophistication.

There’s equal power in not knowing and discovering for the very first time as there is in knowing from a distance. It’s this distance that I think needs to be re-evaluated. In graduate school, my professors had an easy answer to the anxieties that plague novice teachers: just stay one step ahead of your students and you’ll be okay (read: in control). But what if we were right in step with our students? Or even one step behind? Many educators have advocated for the students to become the teachers (although I suspect that some do so with the expectation that, ultimately, they’ll still have their finger on the automaton’s trigger). But far fewer are advocating for teachers to become the students. In traditional schooling, the teacher stays behind the curtain–remotely extolling facts as gifts and manipulating Truth. It’s the students’ role to discover the right path and overcome the obstacles along the way. But as our role as experts comes under pressure from the Internet and canned digital content and massive open online courses, there is a need to re-discover what it is that makes a classroom so special. It’s not the wizard behind the curtain. It’s the collective journey towards knowledge, the obstacles that problematize our progress, and the discoveries about Truth, as humans have defined it, made along the way.

It’s time we dispensed with the curtain and admitted that we’re really just students, too.

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RTFS: Remix the F****ing Syllabus

photo credit: Barbara.K via photo pin cc

Now that my summer classes are over, I’m transitioning into what is, for me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching–planning my next set of classes. There’s something to be said for the clean slate. I love the opportunity that a new semester offers in terms of trying out new methodologies and introducing students to new texts and ideas to work through. Of course, not all aspects of planning courses are equally enjoyable.

Take, for example, the syllabus. I often put it off until the last minute because I dread the tediousness of copying and pasting departmental policies and procedures (“must be worded exactly as indicated,” warns the departmental email) and attempting to infuse at least some of the excitement that I feel–and want the students to feel–about the course (a difficult task considering the punitive, fear-inspiring language in which our policies and procedures are worded). And then there’s the reality that few of the students will actually read the syllabus and, since I refuse to spend time during the first class meeting reading it to them, may happily survive an entire semester without ever being aware of anything it contains–neither the Kafkaesque departmental code of conduct nor my inspired introduction to the grand ideals of collaborative learning networks, active learning, and authentic assessment. How many times have you politely answered a question that would not need to be asked if the student had simply read the syllabus (while silently thinking, “Why don’t you just RTFS?”)? Which has led me to wonder if the syllabus is yet another aspect of traditional schooling that needs to be hacked.

Some instructors are doing just that. There’s now syllabi that are comics and syllabi that look more like brochures for an adventure through ideas. One of my favorites is a syllabus for a biological anthropology class that incorporates some rather friendly-looking skeletons (study buddies?). As pointed out by Jason B. Jones, new software and web tools have given us the ability to make our syllabi more visually engaging. But these are just superficial changes to a vestige of factory-style education whose entire purpose and content may need to be completely re-imagined.

For me, what brings the traditional syllabus’ irrelevancy to the fore is, ironically, two current trends that are centered upon the syllabus itself. One is the practice of creating repositories of syllabi for open use by other educators via tools such as Git Hub (see “Forking Your Syllabus”). The second is the sharing of syllabi among members of social media forums, such as Twitter chats. It’s not that I think that either of these practices is bad; in fact, I think they are extremely important because they encourage the kinds of open exchange of ideas and exposure to diverse teaching methods that are vital to promoting lasting and meaningful change within our educational institutions. But I’m not sure how well the syllabus really contains the kinds of ideas and disruptive methods that we really need to be promoting. Maybe some of them contain a hint of the teacher’s pedagogical philosophies or some kernel that allows us to imagine the kinds of thinking and writing they encourage in their classrooms. But I don’t think that a syllabus really tells us much about what actually happens on the ground; it is, after all, a static (dead) thing, created before we have even met our students, much less attempted to enact and give meaning to its rhetoric.

My own syllabus doesn’t say much about me or what happens in my classroom at all. I used to keep a working copy of my syllabus for each class in a folder. After each class meeting, I would annotate it, making note of what worked and what didn’t and what I should have done/asked students to do that I didn’t. This working syllabus, marked up to the point of illegibility for anyone but me, said more about the class than the version posted on the class website. As I have moved farther and farther away from canned lessons and have allowed my students to help define our objectives and shape how we reach those objectives, I have had to take more and more out of my syllabi. For example, I no longer include a tentative schedule in my syllabus because a class’s schedule is often so fluid that it’s far easier to create a Google Doc that can be easily updated. Even the section in which I outline the assignments that students will complete is purposely vague, allowing for a kind of flexibility that I have found is necessary when your focus is student- and learning-centered. How can I even begin to put into words what I imagine will take place as students read, discuss, and write about the texts I assign them? And what if what actually happens is nothing like what I imagined? What if it’s better? What if it’s a total inspiration-sucking disaster? How can the syllabus reflect or communicate any of this?

Maybe it’s not supposed to, but, if not, then what can/should it do?

The syllabus, in it’s current form, has never worked for our students, despite our constant refrains to RTFS. And it is increasingly incapable of creating a snapshot of what goes on in the right kinds of classes (Ann Lemott’s analogy of writing as a slowly-developing polaroid comes to mind: “You can’t–and, in fact, you’re not supposed to–know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing”).

It’s time that we begin to remix the f***ing the syllabus. The question is how?

Hacking Literary Analysis: Mashup as the New Canon

Two Gentlemen of Lebowski image via The L Magazine

Debate about the place of literature within the First Year Composition course has been raging for years (Jill DeGraw provides an effective and concise overview of both sides of the debate in “Literature in the Freshman Composition Class”). For me, there are valid points made by both sides. But whether or not I agree that the literary analysis essay is an effective method for teaching students the kind of critical and analytical reading and writing skills that they will need throughout their studies is a moot point; I teach in a department that believes that it is, and I must adhere to the course objectives that those in charge of the FYC program have established. But that’s not to say that I can’t question and test their definition of literature.

In our program, FYC consists of a two-semester sequence: the first semester supplies an introduction to the basics of expository and persuasive writing, while the second semester is a combination introduction to literature and analytical writing course. The objectives for the second semester course are daunting: students are expected to come away with a knowledge of the formal qualities of poetry, drama, and short fiction; have read several examples from each genre; be able to apply their knowledge of the formal qualities of each genre to a critical reading of those examples; be able to articulate their findings in an analytical essay; and be able to conduct research to locate relevant and reliable sources, synthesize those sources, and use them to support a thesis-driven literary analysis of one of the texts studied during the term. Aside from the Herculean nature of accomplishing all of these objectives in fourteen weeks (or in my case eight, since I teach the summer short-term version), there’s the added difficulty of selecting texts that will be both understandable and challenging to students and that they will find relevant or interesting enough to not only read but spend considerable time re-reading, analyzing, perhaps even researching, and eventually writing about at length.

As Andrea Lunsford says of the old practice of having FYC students read and write about literature:

[C]ollege writing courses that asked all students—no matter their own interests or prospective majors—to write about “classic literature” for an entire term or two were almost guaranteed not to connect with the majority of the students in them.

In considering ways to remix my summer short-term second semester FYC class, I was most concerned with the issue of relevancy. I often incorporate pop culture into the course, asking students to apply what they learn about analyzing plays, poems, and short fiction to movies, songs, and music videos, but I wanted to make the literature itself more relevant to the kinds of media that students are exposed to outside of the classroom. The previous term, I had been surprised at how engaged my first semester students had been with creating their own memes as part of their work with DS 106. Personally, I had recently discovered mashups after reading Ryan Cordell’s “Mashups in the Literature Classroom” and had avidly been building a playlist of mashups on my YouTube channel, as well as researching mashup blogs and websites. This research had led me to discover Kirby Ferguson’s Everything Is a Remix film series. In a wonderful overlap with my discovery and exploration of the mashup genre and remix theory, I was also reading every graphic novel I could get my hands on in preparation for a course I will be teaching next summer, including Peter Kuper’s Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Neil Gaiman’s Dream Country from The Sandman series, which includes his take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What began to coalesce in my mind was a course that taught literature as remix/mashup and remix/mashup as literature.

In asking students to explore how works of literature are referenced by, sampled in, and combined with new texts, I hoped to teach them to discern how a knowledge of the literary canon can help them to better understand, appreciate, and critically analyze their own cultural milieu. For the final research project, students would either select a remix or mashup not studied in class to analyze or create their own remix or mashup, using a particular literary theory to inform their work. I knew the course would be very challenging for the students, but, in my opinion, it turned out to be just the right kind of challenge. In this post, I’ll briefly outline how I sequenced the course and share some examples of the students’ final projects.

Course Sequence

I began the term by introducing students to remixes and mashups by providing various examples and having them watch the Everything Is a Remix series. While most students were familiar with music sampling, the majority had never heard of mashups. In order to help ground their understanding of what remixes and mashups “do”, I asked them to use Ryan Cordell’s theory of mashup as a lens:

The best mashups juxtapose materials deliberately; they make the implicit explicit. They expose or highlight underlying features of the source materials-formal, thematic, or stylistic-that casual viewers, listeners, or readers might miss.

I also had students complete a diagnostic piece in which they were asked to apply a specific literary theory to a particular mashup (see the Diagnostic Essay guidelines). I used the results of this diagnostic to design the assignment sequence for the rest of the term. What became apparent from the diagnostic assignment was that students needed a scaffolded sequence that required them to analyze each text separately before tackling a comparative analysis within the context of a remix/mashup.

For the first unit, I asked students to select a poem and its companion illustration from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience to analyze. I thought it best to begin with texts that had been remixed purposely by the author and were meant to be read contemporaneously. For each subsequent unit, I first asked them to read, discuss, research, and analyze an original text from our literature reader (Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream respectively). Each student was free to select and apply a literary theory of their choosing to the text, but we worked as a community to understand the text and the conversations taking place around it amongst other readers. Students were then introduced to two current texts that either remix or mash the original in some way. Students selected which remix/mashup they wished to focus on and used their analysis of the original as a lens for analyzing the remix/mashup (for Kafka, they could choose between Carlos Atanes short film The Metamorphosis of Franz Kafka or Kuper’s graphic novel; for Shakespeare, they could choose between Gaiman’s comic version or the BBC’s ShakespeaRe-Told version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

What I’d do differently the next time

It’s not so much what I’d do differently as what I’d do if I had fourteen weeks as opposed to eight. For one, the students needed more time to become grounded in the theoretical underpinnings of remix and mashups. They needed more time to practice analyzing each genre together in class before they worked at doing so on their own. We also needed more time for students to develop, receive feedback on, and revise their analyses to help ensure that they were addressing both texts fully and effectively. Specifically, students would have benefited from more direct instruction in analyzing films and graphic novels. While I provided them with resources to help them do so, they still had difficulty with addressing the unique characteristics of these mediums, especially the visual components and how they highlighted or subsumed aspects of the original texts.

Secondly, I wish that we had had more time to discuss the original texts as remixes themselves (Blake of Barbauld’s Lessons for Children and Hymns in Prose for Children, Shakespeare and Kafka of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Shakespeare of English folk and fairy tales). And I wish that we could have discussed the implications of copyright, creative license, and fair use for remix and mashup practices (and how Blake, Shakespeare, and Kafka did not have to contend with these issues).

Final projects

For me, and I would hazard a guess that for the students as well, the most successful aspect of the course was the final project. Not only were the students’ choices of remixes and mashups both varied and interesting, but their analyses were insightful and engaging. Here’s a list of what the students chose to do with their final projects:

  • a feminist critique of Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” (which samples but deftly revises Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman”)
  • a cultural studies critique of Baz Lurhman’s Romeo + Juliet
  • a postcolonial critique of the “So You Think You Can Be President” mashup
  • a postcolonial critique of “I Have a Dream” by Common and Will.i.am
  • a cultural studies critique of Weird Al’s “Eat It”
  • a feminist critique of the “Disney Mean Girls” mashup

Only one student chose to create their own mashup. She chose to use a Marxist lens to mash Kuper’s graphic novel version of The Metamorphosis with Modest Mouse’s “Doing the Cockroach.” This is the amazing result:

Resources

If you’re interesting in exploring and incorporating remixes and mashups into your course, here are a few sources that I found helpful in getting started:

The Meta Mashup

Mashup: A Fair Use Defense

DS 106: Ranting about Remix

10 Things Every Creator Should Remember but We Often Forget 

Remix Theory

Political Remix Video

For resources that students can use to create their own remixes and/or mashups, see my post on the course’s blog.

Gaming the First-Year Composition Course

In my last post, I addressed the idea of disrupting the First-Year Composition course. One of those disruptive pedagogies that I’ve been monitoring for some time is gamification. I don’t like jumping on any pedagogical bandwagon until I’ve had some time to observe it from afar for a while and reflect on how it fits within my own teaching philosophy and practices. I’ve been doing so with the concept of gamification for almost two years now and up until recently was still uncertain about how I felt about it and how it would benefit my FYC students, if at all. This post is my attempt to clarify some of my initial conclusions on how game theory might be used to help make the FYC experience more engaging for students.

[Disclaimer: This post will not seek to debate gamification’s merits and/or deficiencies. I have mixed feelings about the application of gaming to teaching, some of which I will address in this post. It’s also important to differentiate gamification from game-based learning–the direct use of games and game creation within the classroom. I’m more concerned with how we can use the philosophy of game design to guide our pedagogical practices.]

For me, my own ideas about how gaming philosophy can be integrated into the FYC course were solidified as I watched this TEDx Talk by Paul Anderson, in which he outlines why and how he gamified his science classes:

Recently, this same video was the focus of a post by Adam Renfro on the Getting Smart blog. The post does an excellent job of breaking down and explaining the elements of gamification and how they can be applied to any class. As I read the post, I became increasingly aware of how much I am already applying the principles of gamification to my FYC classes. But the post and video inspired me to consider other aspects of my course that could be gamified to create a more immersive and disruptive experience, so I sat down with pen and paper and, using the outline Renfro provides in his post, did some brainstorming. Here’s what I came up with:

The Story
For me, the story is always supplied by a course theme. One semester it was how education is used as political currency and the lengths that people will go to to get an education; another semester it was the freshman year experience; next semester it will be the purposes, strengths, and shortcomings of universities in the 21st century. I use the course theme to help me select the nonfiction books that we read together as a class and to provide a focus for the students’ self-selected reading, but the students write the “story” themselves, choosing which of the infinite plot lines within our theme they wish to pick up and develop in their writing (in much the same way that “choose your own adventure” books work).

Clear Goals
As Renfro points out, in gaming, goals are concise, specific, and clear (no behavioral objective jargon or Bloom’s taxonomy verbs to muddy up what needs to be done or why). While I’ll still have to use the course objectives provided by my department as written (for some esoteric and, more than likely, bureaucratic reason), I’ll spend some time explaining those goals in plainer language on the course website and I’ll certainly begin to utilize the kinds of clear goals used in gaming when designing the assignments and tasks for the course. [As a rather disturbing anecdote, one semester I asked my students to re-write the course objectives from the syllabus in their own words and explain what the objectives meant in terms of what they needed to learn to do; not a single student could do so, even after looking up all of the unfamiliar words in a dictionary.]

Challenges
The most obvious challenges to establish in an FYC course are the writing assignments. For my students that means creating and maintaining a blog where they publish all of their writing for the class (the “story” they choose to tell about our theme) and reading and commenting on their peers’ blog posts. It will also mean using the skills they develop over the course of the term to solve a relevant problem for our university and its goal to become a 21st century learning environment (I’ve addressed this in a previous post).

Reading, as Anderson acknowledges in his TEDx Talk, is also a challenge for many students. Next term, my students will crowdsource the reading of our class book by collectively annotating it using Google Docs. This challenge works in tandem with two other challenges that I will establish: improving their digital literacy skills (they’ll be annotating Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart) and building a Collaborative Learning Network. Part of the students’ objective in annotating the book is to create their own challenges for integrating the skills discussed in the book into the class. This type of self-authored challenge opportunity is one aspect of gaming that is becoming more popular (my 9 year-old son, who is an avid Lego architect and gamer, revels in games that require him to build his own gaming environments).

Image courtesy of Technorati

Competition
For me, this is one of more problematic aspects of game theory in terms of its pedagogical applications. I recognize that competition can be healthy, I’m just not convinced that the classroom is a context within which that is the case. If students decide, on their own, to compete with their peers to achieve a certain number of “likes,” “+1’s,” or shares, then that is fine, but I’m not comfortable creating forced competition.

Defining the Roles
Since my FYC classes are hybrid, I require that students create an avatar to use in all of our virtual learning environments. I’ve streamlined this as much as possible by using all Google apps for our virtual class work. Students create a Google account during the first week of class and complete a Google profile page with an image of their choosing. They use Blogger for their blogs, Google+ for virtual interaction, and Google Docs for collaborative writing, so their interactions are automatically associated with their avatar. For their first blog post they select a skill or passion to share with their peers as way of introduction. This assignment usually reveals some gurus and go-to’s for various aspects of the course (this term, for instance, I had a tech geek, a journalism major, and a cheerleader, all skills highly valued in an FYC course for various reasons). I encourage students to seek out peers who posses the domain skills that they are in need of if I’m not available or skilled enough to help them, and I encourage students to use their individual skills and personality traits to build and support a collaborative community in both the physical and virtual learning environments.

Equipment
Rather than relying solely on a writing handbook, I’ve begun compiling videos, handouts, and web pages that I can direct students to when they need additional guidance. Last term I experimented with not using a handbook at all and, instead, created a wiki of writing resources. For each writing concept, I tried to provide as many different varieties of resources as possible: at least one video; a concise overview or outline of the concept; a longer, more detailed web page; at least one source that provided examples; and a PDF handout or graphic that they could print out and keep handy. Many students responded enthusiastically to this method and the resources themselves and I received overwhelmingly positive feedback regarding the wiki when I polled students on the most effective aspects of the course. This term, I plan to organize these materials into different lessons on Mentor Mob and invite students to add to them (as Renfro points out, the challenge is increased for the students when you allow them to create and use their own equipment).

Scaffolding
Renfro warns that giving all course materials out at once is confusing for some students. This, of course, runs counter to what many consider “best practice” in hybrid and online teaching, which holds that everything should be front-loaded so that your expectations and the course requirements are clear and students have access to the materials so that they can work ahead if they wish. In my experience this has had two results: for weaker students, it is overwhelming and they tend to take an “if I ignore it, it will go away” approach to accessing and reading materials; for stronger students with type-A personalities, this creates anxiety as they constantly try to stay ahead of the game and often miss out on what’s happening in the moment. Next term, rather than uploading all of the writing assignments to a static page on the class’s WordPress site, I plan to post assignments to the blog as I feel they need to be on students’ radars; this has the added advantage of providing a central location for students to post questions and comments on the assignment and for me to answer them.

Badges
Right now, I’m still observing and reflecting on the badge system. Students are already familiar with social media’s voting systems, so I will encourage them to use the existing systems to promote and reward each others’ work.

Level Up
I already provide a kind of leveling up system via students’ self-assessments of their work and the formative feedback that I provide on these assessments (see my post on deliberate practice). I ask students to identify the weaknesses in a piece of writing and to work on improving those areas in their subsequent pieces. Once the student feels that they have developed those areas sufficiently, then they must identify new areas to address, essentially leveling up to a new set of criteria. At this point I haven’t established a hierarchy of levels because I am mainly concerned with getting students engaged with the act of writing and I don’t want to discourage their own assessment of their writing by imposing my own rules about which weaknesses to tackle first. While I might value sentence construction more than paragraph organization, for example, the student might find it less daunting to better their paragraph organization than their sentence constructions. (I’ve found that students generally know their weaknesses and have a good sense of which ones can easily be corrected with some resources and a little more effort and which ones will require intensive, and likely frustratingly difficult, work). I’m not sure if I want to enforce a hierarchy of levels or continue allowing the student to determine at what level they wish to work at any given time. The ability to select different levels of difficulty may be a more important gaming principle to apply to the FYC course than scaffolding of skills.

Leader-boards
Because this aspect of gaming is directly tied to competition, it’s problematic for me and I’m not willing to advocate it.

Flipping for Individualization
Like gamification, flipping the classroom is a hotly debated pedagogical disruption right now. I’m not so much interested in debating it here as thinking about what aspects of it make sense and can be used effectively. English teachers have basically been flipping our classes since time began, so it’s a moot point for FYC, as far as I’m concerned. The aspects of the flipped class that I think teachers of writing need to pay attention to is how it allows students to work at their own pace and how it allows us to individualize their instructional needs. I’ve already discussed how I encourage students to work at self-selected levels by assessing their writing, setting goals for improvement, then monitoring their progress with the help of my formative feedback. When this type of self-paced goal-setting is combined with access to a variety of resources that you have gathered or created and made available using a wiki or a tool like Mentor Mob, this gives the student the power to shape the course to meet their individual learning needs. Students don’t waste time on skills they already posses, they don’t have to spend a week on a skill if they only need a day, and they can spend two weeks (or three or four) on a skill that they couldn’t master in one.

Failing
I’ve already addressed failure in a previous post. I truly believe that one of the most effective ways to eliminate students’ fear of failure is by doing away with grades. Until then, the portfolio system is the next best thing in terms of removing both anxieties surrounding individual assignments and the overarching stigma of failure. For each piece of formal writing, my students receive formative feedback from me but no grade. I encourage them to view each piece of writing as deliberate writing practice, the same kind of practice that gamers are free to enjoy without anxiety or stigma if they fail to level up. At the end of the term, the students select which pieces of writing they want me to use to determine their grade for the course and provide me with detailed input on why they selected each piece and what they think it demonstrates about their writing abilities. If at any point a student is uncertain of where they stand in terms of their progress in the course, I will discuss their concerns, but try to steer clear of situating the discussion within the context of grades or points.

Walkthroughs and Cheat Codes
Two aspects of gaming not mentioned by Renfro are walkthroughs and cheat codes. Walkthroughs demonstrate step-by-step instructions for navigating a game environment, while cheat codes are glitches that allow players to cheat the game by accessing hidden objects, shortcuts, or locked characters. Both are deployed to make the game easier or to give the player an advantage over the game. One way that I’ve been experimenting with walkthroughs this term is by using one of the students’ pieces as a model for effective writing, then conducting a paragraph-by-paragraph walkthrough of the piece with me recording our discussion and marking up the text using the Show Me iPad app; once I post the link to the video of our walkthrough, students can revisit and watch it if they feel the need to do so. Another possible way of encouraging the use of walkthroughs and cheat codes in the FYC course is the use of peer instruction. As outlined in the Harvard Magazine article “Twilight of the Lecture” and demonstrated in this video, peer instruction harnesses the collective brainpower of small groups:

By identifying muddy points and misconceptions, then allowing students to discuss and work them out in small groups, peer instruction applies the same methods used by gamers as they crowdsource to share tactics and problem-solve how to game the game.

These are some ways that I think gamification can be applied to the FYC course. Below are a few resources that have helped me to better understand gamification and the pedagogical implications it holds. I’ve tried to provide a balance between the pros and cons of gamification; however, this is by no means an exhaustive list and I welcome any additions you can make to it or any thoughts/experiences that you wish to share about how the principles of game design should or should not be applied to the FYC classroom.

“What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning” by Jessie Chuang

“How to Hack into the Joy of Gaming” by Susan Lucille Davis

“Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother?” by Joey J. Lee & Jessica Hammer

“Jury Out on Zamzee, Other Forms of ‘Gamification'” by James Temple

“Kathy Sierra on Gamification in Education” by Larry Ferlazzo

“My Practical Criticism of Gamification: Why Not Do Better?” by Ishai Barnoy

“Gamification: Bring Game Mechanics into Non-Gaming Environments” by Adam Renfro

Disrupting the First-Year Composition Course

Image courtesy of ClipPix ETC

At last week’s THATCamp, one of the stand-out sessions, at least as reflected by the responses of those live tweeting the event, was Mills Kelly’s session on disruptive pedagogy. You can see my Storify of the session here.

As the tweets began populating my timeline, I was immediately excited about the idea of disrupting pedagogy and disciplinary values because Kelly’s ideas both validated practices that I am already using and offered encouragement for seeing just how far I can push the boundaries.

The Google Doc for the session has some excellent practical ideas for disruptive assignments, but this one struck me as most relevant for the First-Year Composition course:

Remove the tools traditionally used in a discipline, thereby refocusing attention on underlying assumptions of processes.

This is an especially salient method for disrupting the teaching of writing as more and more writing, including academic writing (the kind of writing that I think FYC courses should teach), becomes digital in nature and, as a result, more openly accessible. As writing becomes digital, many of the assumptions about the rhetorical context and the process that is used to negotiate that context are laid bare (and, sometimes, come up short). Peter Rorabaugh recently wrote about the organic nature of writing, a nature that he argues becomes more pronounced in digital environments:

Organic writing develops in non-linear clusters, like the way organisms develop. Calling writing “organic” is not solely poetic; it’s a concept that permits a clearer view into the pulpy, fleshy process of giving linguistic, visual, and electronic architecture to our ideas.

Traditional approaches to teaching writing at best ignore and, at worst, seek to repress this organicity. The trappings of compositional pedagogy–outlines, thesis statements, length requirements, mandates regarding number and types of sources, bibliographies–seek to exert control and order over the chaotic disorder that characterizes what is essentially a subjective, creative endeavor–a disorder that grows exponentially within the digital environment. It is naive to believe that, at the same time that many of us are requiring our students to write within digital domains, we can continue to teach writing in the same ways that we did for non-digital domains. When a plant becomes root-bound, it has two choices: burst through its container or wither and die. To help prevent either of these scenarios, good gardeners transplant it from its constrictive environment to a new one that will accommodate its growth; but this alone is not enough–the plant will not thrive in its new environment unless its roots are disturbed so that they can probe and connect with their new environment. It is no longer enough to attempt to transplant students’ writing into the new digital domain; if we want them to thrive as digital authors, then we must disturb the roots of compositional pedagogy.

One of the traditional practices that I abandoned quite some time ago is that of “the teaching of writing.” I think that we spend far too much time talking to (or more precisely, at) students about how to write. We require them to read chapters from a writer’s handbook or a textbook on writing; we lecture about the parts of an essay, thesis statements, the writing process (a discreet linear process that moves from pre-writing to proofreading/editing), how to cite sources, etc.; and sometimes we even quiz them on all of this information. There are several reasons why I abandoned this methodology, one being that it fails to recognize the various skills levels of the students. I found it much more effective to direct students to specific resources depending on their individual needs as writers. A student who is capable of articulating an argument and organizing their writing but who has issues with sentence mechanics benefits more from consulting resources and engaging in deliberate practice on sentence construction from the very beginning of the course (rather than having to wait for the class to get around to the mechanics of sentence construction). I have also found that students tend to experience a deeper change in knowledge about writing methods (what we’re trying to teach when we “teach writing”) when they are asked to access resources and receive instruction on skills as they are needed (one method for doing so that takes advantage of hybrid pedagogy is “just in time teaching”). A student who, in the midst of research, cannot find the information they need in the sources in which they are used to looking, will respond more actively to resources and instruction that helps them locate and explore other research options than a student who has not even started the research process.

Rather than spending time “teaching” how to write (and all of the complex, interrelated actions and assumptions that the writer must negotiate in situ) or how to research (and all of the context-based exceptions and muddy points that researchers often run into), I ask students to begin the messy work of writing and conducting research. In the process, I place them in contexts that encourage cognitive disfluency: they are intellectually uncomfortable–out of their depths–but also primed for deep and lasting learning.

This is just one example of how I am disrupting the teaching of writing (of course disruption, like writing, is all about context; what’s disruptive within my particular context may be the status quo within another context). But the discussion that took place around Kelly’s THATCamp session has encouraged me to think of more assumptions about writing and how it can/should be taught that may need to be disrupted as I become less an instructor of academic writing and more an instructor of digital writing. Here’s just a few thoughts that have been itching to be scratched since I read the tweets and the Google Doc that were born out of the session:

Thesis statements: Do we still need them? Do we need to change what a thesis statement is/does? I’ve always taught thesis statements as an answer to a question. Oftentimes, students will persist in using their question as their thesis and I will dutifully remind them that a thesis must be a statement, not a question. Do I need to stop doing that? Could the students be right when they claim that a question can be a thesis and vice versa? Does the openly discursive nature of blogs, for example, place more value on questions rather than answers? Should we be encouraging students to avoid prematurely reaching conclusions before they’ve had the opportunity to engage in the kinds of debates that social media both allows and thrives on? Does it really matter if they ever reach some kind of final conclusion, especially in their freshman year?

Research: What would happen if I told my students that they had to use Wikipedia in their research? Do we need to teach students how to mine social media as a source of research information (as I often do)? I often encourage my students to grapple with issues in ways that others have not or to select topics/texts that others have not analyzed; how do I reconcile this with my program’s requirement for a researched essay? Should we even be teaching research in FYC?

Sources: Do we need to re-think reliability? Can a blog be as reliable a source as an academic journal? I know and read several blogs that I would not hesitate to qualify as reliable, so what does that mean for the kinds of blogs that my students are interested in? Are they less reliable because they’re not written by academics? And, if so, when I qualify those people’s arguments/ideas as unreliable, what implicit message am I sending to my students about their own value as bloggers? Are we being hypocritical when we tell students that their ideas matter enough that they should be published on the Internet but then de-value “Internet sources”?

Citations: Do we still need to teach them? Do we need to change the way we teach them? How do we accommodate both hyperlinks and traditional citations (for non-open access sources)?

I welcome your questions and thoughts on how much we should and/or should not disrupt the FYC classroom. How much longer can we legitimately sustain a methodology that is root-bound? How far can/should we push against the boundaries that we’ve built in an attempt to contain the uncontainable? At what point does the chaos of the rhizome that is digital writing prevent the connections that our students need to make in order for them to be able to exert their own influence on its growth and direction? Or should we encourage them to accept and revel in the rhizomatic nature of writing (and researching and learning) within the digital environment, trusting that the cognitive disfluency will ultimately lead them to become master gardeners of new paradigms?

Rhizome of sedge carex image courtesy of Commercial Gardening, vol. 1 by John Weathers

Hip Hop Genius: Remixing Education

In this video, Sam Seidel defines hip hop genius as creative resourcefulness in the face of limited resources, or, as it’s known in hip hop, flipping something out of nothing. He argues for the need to transform schools using hip hop genius.

 

 

These are just a few of the ways Seidel proposes we can use hip hop genius in education that struck me as salient for hybrid pedagogy:

  • the role of sampling/remixing: teachers can borrow from diverse models and improvise innovative blends of educational practices; we don’t have to do the same old thing or follow one model
  • staying fresh: we must do something new and different to remain relevant; this is a continuous process
  • students have brilliant ideas and instincts: as teachers we should respect and build on their ideas and instincts and allow students to engage as creators, not consumers

The aspect of hip hop culture to which I am most drawn is graffiti. As Seidel points out, graffiti artists realized that they didn’t need a private art gallery for their work to be seen. By using the urban landscape as their art gallery, their work could reach a much wider public audience. But this was (and still is) seen as disruptive, so graffiti artists began to use the disruptive nature of their art as a way to voice political and cultural protests (in much the same way that skateboarders are forced to be disruptive because they have been denied spaces within which to practice their art).

Our students now have the public space in which to explore and create, but far too often they are denied these spaces by schools, teachers, and parents because the spaces and what they do within them are viewed as disruptive, when what we should be doing is encouraging and teaching them to use these spaces in ways that are relevant and meaningful to others and that allow them to engage in promoting change and innovation.

We need to empower them to make their hustle positive or they will (continue to) use it as a negative response to our irrelevancy.

photo credit: niznoz via photo pin cc

Building a Better Blogging Assignment Redux

photo credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com via photo pin cc

One of the sessions at last week’s THATCamp dealt with the issue of designing a better model of student blogging. You can view my Storify of the session here.

I thought that I would add some of my own ideas and discuss how I address some of the issues raised during the session (since, unfortunately, I couldn’t be there).

As noted on the session’s Google Doc, a major problem with requiring students to blog is that the large majority of them are unfamiliar with blogs, so we need to identify effective methods for acculturating them to the genre. Since I’m an advocate of immersive learning, I’ve found that many students begin to “get” blogging by spending a good deal of time actually doing it. But I’ve developed a few orientation assignments that help them get off to a good start.

  • Require students to locate, deconstruct, assess, and subscribe to blogs on topics that interest them: As homework during the first week of class, I have students locate several blogs on a topic that they’re interested in. They pick the best three and subscribe to them. While exploring blogs on their topic, they create a list of criteria for an effective blog. We use a class meeting to collate their criteria into a master list that they can then use as a checklist for their own blogs. Next term I’m planning to expand this assignment by having students work together to deconstruct a blog.
  • Teach them how to comment: This is something that I still struggle with. I provide students with several resources on commenting, including those mentioned at the session; nonetheless, many of them provide largely superficial comments. Next term I plan to have students read and assess comments on the blogs they’ve subscribed to and add their own comments. Similarly to the assignment above, students will work together to establish criteria for effective commenting.

A second, and equally important issue, is the logistics of blog management, both for yourself and the students: controlling pacing (so that you don’t have to deal with an influx of posts and comments at the last minute), encouraging engagement with the blogs (both their own and their peers’), and assessing the blogs.

  • Establish submission guidelines (and stick to them): I establish strict deadlines for post submissions and stick to them from the very first post. I generally make the deadline the night before class in the case of totally face-to-face courses. For my hybrid courses, the deadline is on the day that we do not meet. Either way, I set the deadline for a time well before I and other students need to access the blogs.
  • Encourage engagement with peers’ blogs: I require that students subscribe to each others’ blogs and read and comment on a certain number of them each week. I’ve tried to encourage more depth to their comments by staggering the due dates for posts and comments (generally they have 12-24 hours after the blog post deadline to read and respond to peers’ posts). I’ve had even better success this past term with combining this with rotating students’ roles between posters and readers/commenters. This allows them to fully focus on and engage in their role. This method requires reducing the number and frequency of posts for each student, but I think that the pay-off will be worth it, especially by placing as much emphasis on their comments on others’ blogs as on their own blog posts (which means that I’ll have to invest more time into assessing their comments somehow).
  • Make the blogs an integral component of the course: I try to immerse students in their blogs as much as possible because I’ve found that the more they blog, the better bloggers they become. I now require that all of their writing be done on their blog and I ask them to blog and comment on blogs as frequently as possible (at least once a week). I think that it’s a major mistake to have students blog but then not integrate the blogs into the classroom interactions in some way; this encourages students to view the blogs as secondary to the other class work. In my literature courses, the students’ blogs become the fulcrum for the class discussions. I encourage students to pick the most thought-provoking for us to look at together in class. In my FYC courses, I pick one model post each week for us to critique as a class, asking students to assess the post in small groups, looking for reasons why I selected the post as being a good model. Since the class uses Google+ as a virtual learning space, I also “plus 1” those posts that are especially thought-provoking, well written, and/or visually appealing (I encourage students to do this, as well); this provides students with almost instantaneous feedback and encourages those who might not have read and/or commented on the posts to do so. This also results in a type of gamification of the blogs, as some students begin to work to earn “plus 1’s” from me and their peers. Next term, I plan to also encourage students to use other social media to promote and “like” their peers’ posts.
  • Involve students in the assessment of their blogs: In a previous post, I outlined how I require students to self-assess their writing. I have been happy with the way I’ve asked students to create a portfolio of their blog posts to submit to me at the end of term, rather than assigning a grade to each individual blog post (I’ve tried to eliminate traditional grades as much as possible in my classes). Normally, I have students do this via a final assessment form that they fill in and submit to me via email, hyperlinking to specific posts that they want to include in their assessment, and discussing in detail why they selected them and how they demonstrate what they’ve learned about writing. But I’m considering remixing Mark Sample’s idea of a blog audit; I think that making their reflections public on their blogs will encourage an even deeper consideration of who they are as writers and what they’ve done as bloggers over the course of the term, mirroring the way that many bloggers use their blogs as reflective spaces. I also like his idea of having students revisit and revise some of their old posts, which is something I used to encourage students to do with their writing before I switched to blogs, and would like to re-incorporate into their portfolio creation.
  • Utilize formative and peer assessment: This is still something that I’m tweaking. So far, I’ve found my method for providing formative assessment effective (and students have indicated the same). What I haven’t been able to integrate as effectively is peer assessment. I would love to use a badge system, like Mozilla’s Open Badges, but I haven’t had the time to figure out the best way to do so (or if it’s even possible, since I don’t know how to code or if it’s necessary to know how to do so to use the program, two issues I’m hoping to remedy soon). In the meantime, I’ll encourage the use of readily available social media feedback systems such as Facebook’s “like” and Google’s “plus 1” buttons.

A third issue that seems to have been prevalent during the session is that of how to allow for disruption and alternatives within the blogging domain.

  • Allow/encourage alternative uses for blogs: Since I require that students publish all of their writings for the class to their blog, this means that sometimes their blog posts contain nontraditional material (although I always try to help students understand that, with the advent of photoblogs, vlogs, and podcasting, there is no longer such a thing as traditional blog content). For example, this term I’m requiring my FYC students to use Storify to create their annotated bibliographies and then embed their stories into their blogs for comment by me and their peers. Last term, my students participated in DS 106, which meant that their blogs became populated with memes, mashups, animated gifs, and sound clouds.
  • Disrupt the digital environment: Interestingly enough, as participants were discussing Mills Kelly’s ideas about disruptive pedagogies and then subsequently considering ways to disrupt student blogging, I was blogging about Paul Fyfe’s theory of teaching naked and considering how to disrupt the digital environments within which I ask my students to work. One idea that I blogged about that serendipitously showed up on the blogging session Google Doc is that of requiring students to engage with and use their blog posts in non-digital ways. I think that this is an aspect of student blogging that needs more attention and I hope that a conversation can develop around it.

These are just a few of the blogging methods that I have found effective and, as indicated, I’m still working at improving some of them. I encourage those who require their students to blog or who are thinking of doing so to help continue the conversation here, on my Storify of the THATCamp session, on Mark Sample’s THATCamp blog post, or on Twitter (use the #thatcamp hashtag).