Supposedly Different College Writing Classroom Dynamics

My hypothesis walking into my two classrooms in Moulton Hall at Kent State University this semester was that my morning classroom would facilitate discussion better than my afternoon classroom.  The reasoning behind my assumption was that the morning classroom has a great big central table with almost enough room for my 25 students to sit around it, and the afternoon classroom has “United Nations” style forward facing rows of tables in a distance learning enabled room.  My experience as a student and hearing others’ experiences led me to believe that sitting in a circle, so that all classroom participants, students and instructor, may see one another, produced better discussion.  It seemed like the traditional classroom layout of students facing forward and seeing the backs of one another’s heads stifled inter-student discussion and promoted instructor led lecturing.

img_0535Morning Classroom


Afternoon classroom

Now that we’re about to begin week 11, I have found over the semester that the conversations and discussion in the classrooms are nearly the same.  I suppose that it comes down to the students and the instructor.  My morning students talk just as much as my afternoon students.  In both cases, sometimes the conversation takes off organically, and other times I employ wait time, begin with writing prompts, or call on individual students to begin the conversation.  The one thing that I have noticed the most is that students in my afternoon class might develop sore backs from turning around in their chairs to see who’s talking or to address another student directly.  

There are a myriad of other possibilities that could contribute to the way my two classes engage in discussion despite the different classroom configurations.  My concern about the different classroom layouts may have contributed to both classes having good discussions, because I may have tried to get the afternoon class more energized or my observation and reflection on the earlier class may have honed my approach in the afternoon class.  Additionally, the students in the afternoon class may be a group of students that don’t need face-to-face contact to engage in lively discussion.  

This is certainly not an extensive survey of classroom dynamics, but it was a lesson that I was glad to learn and wanted to share.  I want both of my classes to be active and I want my students in both classrooms to have an equally positive and enriching experience.  I’m very glad that my assumptions about the classrooms didn’t come true.  

A short note on recent classroom activities:  This past week, we had a slow march into Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001:  A Space Odyssey, because I wanted to engage the students in two short writing assignments based on a documentary on the film version of 2001 that showcases the technology they would encounter in the book and film (which we will begin watching Friday), and a passage from the book on dissatisfaction and using our imaginative foresight to devise personal plans for overcoming person dissatisfactions.  This past Friday, my students shared their short dissatisfaction essays out loud in class, and we had some fruitful conversation in both classes based on that work.

Preparing for Comprehensive Exams

Yesterday, Professor Babacar M’Baye [and check out his new blog here] was kind enough to let Seth and I miss half of class to attend Kent State’s Faculty Professional Development Center’s presentation on “Preparing for Qualifying Exams.”  When Seth and I arrived at Moulton Hall, I learned that Jillian Hill, AGES President and all-around awesome individual, was leading the presentation.  She did a terrific job giving us some ideas and strategies for getting ready for comps.  

I looked around online for comp preparation strategies when Yufang began reading for her comps over the Summer.  However, I didn’t find much information on the Internet for comps preparation.  So, I figured I would post some of the things that I learned from Jill’s presentation yesterday for others taking the penultimate step prior to the PhD dissertation.

  • Write a project description first, and then tease out three contents areas based on your project/dissertation abstract.  It’s important to consider asking faculty that are recognized in your content areas rather than just working with faculty members you like personally.
  • After forming your committee, compile your content area reading lists.  Use “forward searches” on Google Scholar and database searches to find relevant material that is well cited in the body of work in that content area.
  • As you circulate your reading lists with your committee members for final approval, include your project description, a brief contextualization and justification for those readings, and a number of questions to guide your reading.  This front matter will eliminate the need of your committee members to refer back to older emails with that information, and it will facilitate your lists staying on track.  
  • Email your lists to committee members prior to meetings so that they can read over them before you show up, and leave more meeting time for more important discussion time.
  • Create a reading schedule that breaks down your book and article reading lists on a week-by-week basis.  This will help keep you on track as you work through your lists.
  • Maintain an annotated bibliography on each of your reading list sources.  Also, scan pages with significant passages, charts, or graphs.  
  • If you are a visual learner, you should map out your sources’ arguments.
  • Assemble a binder will all of your notes and review material.
  • Leave yourself time prior to your exams to review all of your notes.  During this review time, write a literature review to help synthesize the material that you’ve read and to make it fresh in your mind.
  • Remember that you’ll be locked in a room for several hours to take your exam, so you may consider replicating the environment at home or in your office.  Prepare for the experience–shut the door and write down everything that you remember.
  • Some faculty may ask us to write sample questions.  Give this some thought.
  • If you show your committee members that you put a lot of effort into your studies and reading, they will probably be more willing to guide you in preparing for the exams.
  • Remember that selecting your committee and reading lists are organic processes that involve negotiation on all sides.  
  • If your program or committee requires an oral defense following the exam, then you will want to carefully review what you wrote on your exam.  At the beginning, you may be asked to speak for about 15 minutes providing justification for your answers and a self-assessment of your work.  Each committee member will take turns asking you questions about your responses on the exam, and there will be some back-and-forth between them as the defense goes forward.  Additionally, the defense is supposed to be about your exam, but your committee may turn their questions toward your dissertation prospectus.

If you have advice or pointers from your own experience, please share them in the comments.

Good luck to everyone on your exams whenever you take them!

2001 A Space Odyssey and College Writing

One choice that I wanted to adhere to in designing my first college writing course was that I would have my students read some Science Fiction.  Since I settled on the space exploration theme for the class, I thought that Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001:  A Space Odyssey was the path of least resistance to bringing SF into the writing classroom, particularly when the majority of them had never read SF (a suspicion confirmed by talking with my students).

I assigned the novel as part of the second unit of the course, in which my students will write their second formal essay.  Over the course of two weeks, I have my students read one (during the week) or two parts (over a weekend), and we come together to talk it over in class.  In addition to the text, I bring a lot of materials to class such as documentary videos and still images from the Kubrick’s film and astronomy observations.  Also, I bring my science background to class, because my students have had many poignant and spot-on questions about the science that takes place in the novel.  The integration of science, which they should have had some exposure to in high school, into the writing curriculum allows for another level of instruction in addition to the tremendous, yet not impossible, amount of writing that I require of my students.  Also, their curiosity about how and why things work the way that they do is leading them down the path to developing better critical thinking skills.

I can report that there have been good days and bad days in regard to our discussions on the novel.  A large part of that is my own lack of experience in leading discussion, using wait time, and encouraging my students to think about things before class through tailored assignments.  I spend a lot of time, a whole hell of a lot of time, planning my classes.  My student’s weekly two page journals have been an invaluable resource for altering course when one thing works better than another, because I can get their reflective feedback on things that we do, in addition to my own observations of class and my performance.

As much as I’ve enjoyed using 2001:  A Space Odyssey thus far in class, I’ve now come up against a wall regarding their next writing assignment.  I have a couple of ideas, but I will have to narrow these down tomorrow and put together a handout to give out on Friday after we finish talking about Bowman’s exit and return through the Star Gate.

This returns us to planning.  I’m still grappling with finding the appropriate time to devote to class planning and responding to my students’ work.  I can confidently say at this point in my burgeoning professional career as a teacher and researcher that I cannot meet my students on the page with the same intensity and time as someone such as Carmen Kynard, who writes about her work and experiences as an instructor in her article, “‘Y’all Are Killin’ Me up in Here’:  Response Theory from a Newjack Composition Instructor/SistahGurl Meeting Her Students on the Page.”  I wish that I could, but there isn’t enough time in the day (and I’m only teaching one course–Kynard writes about having 140 students!).  I spent approximately 10 hours evaluating my students’ first essay, and I regularly spend at least an hour and a half to two hours prepping for each class.  I realize that this is my first time teaching, so I’m building up an archive of materials and methods of teaching that I will be able to remix and re-purpose in future classes, but at this point, it all seems rather overwhelming to me.  I want to give my students my all, because I expect no less from them.  On the other hand, teaching is only one aspect of my PhD career at this point, and I have to engage the courses that I’m taking and produce my own work for those courses (and conferences–I still have to rewrite my Transsexual Technologies paper for SLSA 2008).

So, that’s my report thus far from a lone spaceman in tiny pod floating in space and feeling many millions of miles from home.  Luckily, my shipboard computer didn’t try to kill me, but the stresses of second year PhD life are taking its toll.

College Writing and Space Exploration Theme

As many of you know, this is my first year teaching college writing at Kent State University, and it’s already been an enlightening experience.  I chose space exploration as the course theme (after a suggestion by Brian Huot and protracted consideration on my part and a mad scramble for resources before classes began), because I can use this theme to bridge science fiction with the real world.  

I’ve already had my students write about Walt Disney’s short film, “Mars and Beyond.”  Soon, they will read Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and then move on to Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot.  Through their viewings and readings, I’m having them write extensively to develop their writing skills.  Also, I’ve taken steps to connect their career goals and hobbies with the rewards of space exploration through personal email exchanges, which I hope to incorporate into later assignments.  I’d say, so far, so good, and much thanks to everyone who offered me teaching advice and assistance!

If you’re interested, you may read my course syllabus here, and my first assignment handout to accompany the Disney film here.

ONTAP 5 Minute Teaching Session – Sci-Fi or SF?

Today, I had to give a five minute lesson to my ONTAP group at Kent State University as part of graduate teaching assistant training.  We were asked to teach the class something that we were familiar with, it could be on any subject, and we could teach it anyway we wished.  I chose to teach everyone the distinction between sci-fi and SF.  I got some good comments from everyone in class, which ranged from “I watch a lot of Science Fiction movies, and now I have the language to talk to my friends about it more effectively,” to, “I didn’t really follow what you were saying.”  I tried to construct it to connect with everyone, but I guess Michael Berube was right and we’re “teaching to the six.”  Anyways, I’ve included my notes below (I would have included the video that they made, but it’s on VHS tape and I don’t have an easy way to convert it for posting on YouTube).  Enjoy!

ONTAP 5 Minute Teaching Session

Today let’s talk about Science Fiction, sci-fi, and SF.  Science Fiction, as the scholar Darko Suvin puts it, is the literature of “cognitive estrangement.”  What does that mean?  Science Fiction is estranging, that is it puts the reader in unfamiliar territory.  You might say that other literature such as the gothic or even postmodern literature does the same thing, and you’d be right.  However, what sets Science Fiction apart is the cognitive aspect of its estranging function.  The cognitive estranging aspect of Science Fiction is called the novum, which is the technological and scientific extrapolation from the here-and-now that is the kernel of the story, the techno-scientific kernel of the narrative that is essential to the story and sets it apart from mainstream or fantasy literature.  What are some novum examples?  One example of the novum might be robots.  Can you name some others?  Space ships, ray guns, aliens, and humans with a multiplicity of sexes rather than just male and female are a few other examples.

Okay, so now you roughly know what Science Fiction is, however did you know that Science Fiction is a little more complicated than that?  You see, for much of the history of Science Fiction, beginning with its naming by the pulp magazine publisher, Hugo Gernsback, in 1929, academic and journalist elites have often sneered at Science Fiction as marginal, low, or pop culture.  These Science Fiction detractors pointed to the weakest stories and worst movies as examples of the supposed overall low quality of Science Fiction.  An early response to this problem was offered by the Science Fiction author Theordore Sturgeon in the 1950s when he stated that, “ninety percent of everything is crap.”  That observation is now known as Sturgeon’s Law and is available in the Oxford English Dictionary.  Sturgeon’s point is that there’s a lot of good Science Fiction, but there’s a lot more bad stuff that people point to when they talk about Science Fiction.  Also, the implication is that ninety percent of mainstream literature is also crap, and canonical literature such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet isn’t derided because of the multitude of trashy Romance novels.

This state of affairs expanded with the widespread adoption of the truncated term, sci-fi.  Sci-fi became widely used to describe Science Fiction by journalists with an implied insult toward the genre as a whole. 

In the 1970s, Science Fiction scholars and critics decided it was time to distinguish hackwork from the 10% of good stuff.   The new term for the best work, which often received the most critical attention, was simply SF.  SF works are those based on a novum and are as well or better written than its mainstream counterparts.  Sci-fi was used to label works with a much less extrapolated novum, and a very low level of quality in writing or production in the case of movies or television. 

So, what are some examples of SF and sci-fi?  A recent example of SF film would be The Matrix.  It extrapolates from our world to create a reasonably plausible future based around computer simulation, autonomous robot beings, and a planet devastated by war.  An example of sci-fi would be George Lucas’ Star Wars movies.  Sure, there are space ships, ray guns, and aliens, but there’s also the Force, which is more fantasy than Science Fiction, and the laws of physics are violated egregiously in space such as having things slide off space ships in outer space as if it were an airplane in the Earth’s atmosphere.  What are some Science Fiction movies that you’ve seen, and what would you classify them as–sci-fi or SF?  Some other examples of sci-fi include Plan 9 From Outer Sapce, Back to the Future, Cloverfield, and Red Planet.  Other examples of SF include A.I. Artificial Intelligence, A Scanner Darkly, WALL-E, The Dark Knight, and Mission to Mars.

Now you’re all initiate Science Fiction scholars who know the difference between SF and sci-fi!

Multimodal Project – Competitive Team Blogging

I turned in my teaching project and final exam to Brian on Thursday for the Teaching College Writing class that I’ve been immersed in for the past four weeks.  I think I came up with a cool idea for low load college writing teachers to use in the classroom.  It’s a semester-long blogging project for his or her students to use for all of their writing exercises.  The way it works is that the class is divided into groups (either at random or by major or interests), and each group is responsible for developing and maintaining a blog based around a theme unique to that group.  Also, all major assignments will be posted to the blog, and the teacher responds in comments to those assignments.  If you’re using portfolios, each student’s final post will include links to all their revised work, which in turn will link back to earlier drafts that the teacher has commented on.  Now, the competitive aspect of team blogging is intended to encourage students to “ache with caring” (Mem Fox).  Each week, each group must give a five minute presentation on blog performance metrics (# posts, views, most popular posts, incoming links, etc).  The group with the most traffic and cross linking will win (keychains, t-shirts, etc).  To read more about my idea, download a pdf of my project–complete with methodology, handouts, and a screen capture walkthrough of setting up blogs on–here.

Writing Delayed, Reflection on High School Psychology

Today in our last class of Teaching College Writing, Brian held a workshop on teacher evaluation and responses to student writing.  While I was talking with Dave and Dale about our first round of exercises, I remembered how a poor evaluation of my own work in psychology during my senior year of high school.

In other classes, my teachers commented very positively about my writing, and my grades reflected my growing skill in written communication.  My Latin teacher, Magistra Metz, gave me kudos for a paper that I wrote on the Roman pecuniary system–not only on the substance, but on the way that I wrote it.  However, a particularly poor evaluation didn’t make me fully doubt my writing ability, but it did make me shut down in the classroom when I should have maintained my focus prior to going on to Georgia Tech.

In psychology class, the teacher (her name is on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t recall it right now–I can see her face and I remember where her room was on the side of the wing nearest the library) gave us a research paper assignment.  We had to research some aspect of psychology on our own and write at minimum a 5 page paper on that topic.  It’s important to remember that there was no Internet access when I was in high school–at best, you could search CD-ROM databases for information.  Though, I didn’t have any problem picking my topic.  Independently of class, I was reading Roger Penrose’s (he’s a well established and respected mathematician and theoretical physicist–more on wikipedia here) latest book, The Emperor’s New Mind (available on Google Books here).  His thoughts on the quantum hypothesis of human consciousness excited me.  It combined two fields that I still enjoy reading about–physics and neurophysiology.  I was so jazzed by the assignment’s possibilities that I began writing and citing with gusto.  Before I realized it, I had a 21 page paper on my hands–the longest essay that I had ever written.  I was beaming with pride when I gave it to my teacher for evaluation and grading.

A week or two passed, and she handed back our papers.  I got an A- for some spelling and grammatical errors.  At first, I was a little put off that she concentrated on grammar and spelling when the ideas were so much more significant and above the bar for a high school psychology class.  But what threw me for a loop was my seeing a cheerleader in the row next to me receiving a big “A+, Terrific Paper” on a four page pamphlet on sports psychology.  Even though I got a respectable grade, I believed that I deserved a higher grade for doing a greater amount of research, critical thinking, and writing than my peer.  I was so incensed that I didn’t talk to the teacher or participate in the class for the remainder of the semester.  This means that I didn’t take tests or hand in any more work.  I thought that if my teacher devalued my work in such a pedantic way, I didn’t have the energy or desire to give her the satisfaction of my attention and time.

This took place just prior to graduation.  I was warned by other faculty that I should do something to mitigate my eventual “F” in the course, because it would lower my class rank.  I told them I wasn’t that concerned about it–mathematically I knew I would be bumped down a slot and remain in the top five.

I don’t want this to happen in my classes.  I don’t want to shut down a student, because I focused on the wrong things in their papers.  Students are writers, and as writers, they have something to say, and it’s part of my job to listen to what that is.  By listening, I can help guide them to revising their work so that it’s even stronger, and in so doing, they become stronger writers.  The “tip of the iceberg” stuff (form) will follow the “under the surface stuff” (function).  Form follows function (Shuy will back me up on this).  And more importantly, I want students to own their work, be proud of it, and not stop writing.  Therefore, I have to do my best not to do something boneheaded that might shut them down or feel that they need to shutup.

Science Fiction and Your World

Continuing from my last post, Dr. Takayoshi asked us to practice what she preaches and create a multimodal work to show to our students (e.g., an example of how to do multimodal work, something that ties into a multimodal assignment, or an introduction to our class).  Also, it should be 4 minutes in length.

As much as I didn’t want to do something of this magnitude in one day, this assignment did help me crystallize my thoughts regarding the first writing class that I’ll teach in the Fall at KSU.  I decided to go with the theme, “Science Fiction and Your World.”  I’m going to assign my students a number of SF short stories and secondary readings to begin discussions about contemporary issues, which will lead into their writing assignments.  I found a nice anthology edited by Orson Scott Card that I’m going to assign, which is titled, Masterpieces:  The Best Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century.  I wouldn’t say that it’s the best anthology out there, but it has a number of enjoyable and topical stories that I believe my students will enjoy.

After deciding my course’s theme, I storyboarded an introductory video that’s a campy informative mix.  It’s just over 4 minutes long, and available on YouTube.  However, you can watch it here:

Multimodal Composition and Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End

Over the summer, I’m taking an intensive, four week class on teaching college writing.  The course is led by Dr. Brian Huot, Kent State University’s Writing Program Coordinator, and for three days this week, Dr. Pamela Takayoshi is introducing us to multimodal composition.

Multimodal composition is the use of media other than paper and pencil for rhetorical communication and composition.  For example, blogs, Powerpoint presentations, Youtube videos, Podcasts, brochures etc. are other ways to make persuasive arguments and enter critical discourse.  In multimodal composition, the printed essay does not reign supreme.

There seems to be a push in writing programs, which are increasingly influenced by the growth of rhetoric programs to the detriment of literature programs, to teach students to compose by any means available.  This means that students should be encouraged to create arguments, whether it be with audio essays or videos for example, with the tools at hand in order to increase their own involvement in the increasingly technologized mediums of communication.

I like this idea, on the surface, because students should be aware of the ways they do and may be called upon to communicate in the twenty-first century.  Also, I engage in these practices in my own personal and professional lives with this blog, YouTube, and Flickr.  However, I first understood the basics of writing practices and composition before or in analog with my additionally technologized communication practices.

My belief is that a grounding in traditional writing practices and composition empowers the individual to translate and apply those to other means and mediums of communication.  In the introductory writing classes, I feel that I not be meeting my students needs if I didn’t guide them towards an increased proficiency in writing before allowing them to use multimodal composition practices in the classroom.  Analogously, a pilot must earn a single engine pilots license prior to earning a license in larger and multiple engine aircraft.  Our students should safely pull out of a stall on a small Cesna before experiencing an F-15 flame out.  Therefore, I assert that students are better prepared communicators if they build on tried-and-true translatable communicative practices before using expressive, yet not as directly translatable, modes of communication.

So what does this have to do with Vernor Vinge’s postsingularlity SF novel, Rainbows End (now available for free online here)?  In the novel, Robert Gu, a former great poet in the last throws of a slow Alzheimer’s death, is resurrected through regenerative medical technologies.  However, his disease has left a mark on his mind, and he has to relearn how to be a poet as well as learn about the changes in technologically mediated communicative practices.  Toward this end, he enrolls in a high school where he works with a teenage student, Juan Orozco, to create a multimodal final project in “shop class” that involves dance, music, holographic projection, and poetry.  There’s an exchange of ideas between the two characters–Gu introduces Juan to poetry and the power of the written word, and Orozco shows Gu the potential of story telling and art with the advances in technology during Gu’s illness.

For all of the good things in Vinge’s novel, his writing about the multimodal compositions fell flat for me.  In fact, I cringed at the possibility that we’d move away from reading and writing within such a short time.  With the rapid advances in technology, and technology’s relationship and impact on the classroom, it seems like there is not enough reflection taking place on its long term and post-graduation effects on our students.  It’s one thing to write about how great this brave new world will be, but I question if that will be so.

Granted, I haven’t been in the classroom yet, and I know that a large part of my own developing ideas on teaching practices are borrowed from the ways that I was taught, but m greatest rebellious response during the past couple of weeks in Brian’s class has been in regard to multimodal composition.  I don’t think it has a place in my introductory writing class, and I question to what extent I might employ it in higher level courses where students can demonstrate their ability to communicate effectively with the written word.

A final issue that I have with multimodal composition is the technical instruction aspect of it.  I don’t do fucking tech support.  In my previous life, prior to fully engaging my research interests in graduate school, I built more computers than I can count, I’ve repaired more Macs than I can imagine, and I gave phone, teletype, and email assistance to innumerable customers at the late, great Mindspring in Atlanta, Georgia.  I didn’t sign on to pursue research and college teaching to help students learn how to use iMovie, much less the poorly designed Microsoft Movie Maker.  I love technology, and it’s an integral part of my life, including  two World of Warcraft accounts, a 30″ Apple Cinema Display and Mac Book Pro, iPhone, building a Media Center PC, blogging, and keeping my girlfriend’s ailing Sony Vaio alive while she studies for her comps, but I strongly insist on keeping that separate from my goal of enriching the lives of my students by challenging them to think deeply, imagine new possibilities, and effectively communicate through writing before moving up to multimodal composition practices.

Why Teach English?

We were talking about professing English in the required Theory seminar of Kent State’s English literature doctoral program.  Until that time, I hadn’t really formulated why I wanted to teach English–at least in a concrete way.  My original vector had to do with the academic rigor of research and sharing ideas with a community of peers.  Over time, my approach to professing English broadened to include the community of students in my charge.  I thought back to my Latin teacher in high school, Magistra Ingrid Metz, and some of my early English professors at Georgia Tech such as Professors Holloway-Attaway, Rebecca Merens, and Lisa Yaszek.  Each of these professors, as well as others, imparted something beyond the subject matter that each individual course was about.  I learned writing and studying skills from Magistra Metz.  Professor Holloway-Attaway helped me improve my writing skills as well as introduced me to a whole world of music that until that time I was oblivious to.  Professor Merens helped me find the right path for me at Georgia Tech as well as listened to me on the morning that I found out my grandmother had died.  Professor Yaszek introduced me to the world of academia, SF authors, and her many friends at ABC Brewery.  I want to do that for upcoming college students.  You might say that my desire to teach is a politically motivated action.  I want to introduce them to new ideas and as yet unseen possibilities.  I want to share with them the things that I think are important and enjoyable in this world.  They may not accept all that I have to offer, but the few things accepted and the students that I connect with, will be the rewards that I’m looking for.  Those are the things that will hopefully lead to a better world and a more fulfilled life for myself and my students.