Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Following Up on Johnny's Teaching Ability

Last fall I wrote a response to a Chronicle of Higher Education opinion piece that was critical of how we teach composition.

I've never had a post get as many hits as that one, and I get it. This is a popular debate.

While I was happy for all the visits, I know my response could have done more. I kept my blog's casual tone and stopped short of going into much of the research to support my response.

I am pleased to see that the Chronicle has published a response in which the always brilliant Doug Hesse did the heavy lifting I did not do.

His response cuts the snark and is backed by the knowledge of a well-established community of scholars.

Here are some highlights:
A 2005 article, "The Focus on Form vs. Content in Teaching Writing," analyzed why formalist approaches — like the back-to-basics kind that Professor Teller advocates — remained so popular in teaching composition, despite overwhelming empirical evidence that they were significantly less effective than other methods.
The teaching of writing happens — or should — within a deep field of practice, theory, and research. It’s also an enterprise marked by a fair amount of what Steve North, in a 1987 book, The Making of Knowledge in Composition, called teaching "lore." Lore consists of ideas and assumptions that are grounded in local experience ("what worked for me") and then passed along informally, for the most part, from one faculty member to the next. Lore is sometimes informed by research, and thus transmutable and generalizable, but more often it is not.
Teller’s essay participates in the tradition of lore. Not having been in his classes or having read his students’ work, I can’t judge his local experience, but I can judge how well his approach compares with the most effective national practices.
For example, his assertion, "Substantial revision doesn’t happen in our courses," might speak for his own classroom, but it surely doesn’t speak for mine or those of thousands of other professors. Consider his claim that students "do not use the basic argumentative structures they need." Again, while perhaps true of students in Teller’s own classes, that broad claim is unsubstantiated by my experience, by research on my campus, or by the wider literature in the field.
I am happy to belong to a community of scholars that includes the likes of Professor Hesse.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Rules I Don't Know

I'm writing today, and while doing some editing I realized I wasn't sure of a mechanics rule.

Check out UNC with the top result on Google!
If I place an independent clause after a colon, do I capitalize the first letter of the independent clause?

So, I looked it up.
That's how I write.

I have no qualms about publicly sharing I don't know this rule.

I know to seek the rule out during the editing stage of my writing.

Again, that's how I write.

I draw on a ton of outside resources as I go. My writing ability is by no means housed exclusively in my mind. In class, I refer to this by its fancy name, distributed cognition.

It is something I work hard to teach my composition students - and something I work hard to teach future instructors. Writing is a socially supported ability. You can't do it all by yourself. Most of "learning how to write" is the process of discovering what resources you need and how to access them.

This is one reason I shared a minor objection on social media yesterday about a NYT opinion piece on technology in the classroom.

The author wrote an excellent argument for disallowing laptops in her lectures, but the argument went a step too far, suggesting that everyone ought to ban laptops.

I let my students use their phones, laptops, and tablets in class. If they're on Reddit, I ask if it's related to what we're working on (sometimes it is). I want them to incorporate the technologies they use every day into their writing practice. I design classroom activities around that goal and my technology policy.

I would not ask another instructor to model their classroom (or their lecture hall) after my own.

This is all to say, I had a nice moment while writing today. It helped me reflect on my writing practice - both how that is related to my teaching of writing and how it is related to my teaching of pedagogy.

Now, back to editing.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Are We Different?

Last week I facilitated the final college prep session of the semester at the O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility. It is work I am doing through the Prison Education Project.

Each week, three student volunteers and I ran an early-evening session in the correctional facility's library. We ran discussions and activities with 17 wards, all of whom had expressed interest in going to college when released.

The profound impact this experience had on me was made clear during the second-last session when one of the young men told me he wanted to ask a question unrelated to the group activity we were doing. It was a challenging and insightful question.

This young ward of the juvenile correctional facility asked me,
"Are we different?"

He went on to clarify what he meant. He knew about my work as a professor. I had talked to him about my 12 years of experience working with incoming freshmen. He wanted to know, based on my time at O.H. Close, is there something that differentiates a minor convicted of a crime from the other students I've worked with.

I told him it was a brilliant question. The other three at our table knew it was brilliant too. They leaned in to hear how I would respond.

I told them, as is the case with any brilliant question, there isn't a simple answer.
I was stalling for time.

I started by saying, I treat all my students like adults. Each student may have a different set of needs, but that does not change how I think about them as a person. My students are grown people who deserve my respect. That's where things start.

Then I explained how I approached the college prep sessions at O.H. Close. I had made a conscious effort to treat the young men at the facility like incoming freshmen. I delivered each session in the same way I would have delivered an orientation for new students on campus.

I told the guys that I did not treat them differently and they had never given me a reason to treat them differently.

I looked at the young man who had asked the question and said, "But that isn't really a complete answer to your question." And I shook my head. "This is a tough one. This is a challenge. You're challenging me. You know that, right?"

And he laughed, because he did know. The other guys laughed as well.

And that's when I told him what I thought. The life experience that lands people in a youth correctional facility, and the experience of living in a youth correctional facility, those things shape a person. Those things don't disqualify a person from the college experience. They don't make a person less...

But if my answer suggested that these young men's college experiences were going to be similar to my own, I would have been lying. Sure, I could have fallen back on the clichĂ©: All students are unique, and each faces their own personal challenges.

But these young men know what it is to be fed into a system that enforces its expectations.

And colleges do that.

In many ways, by enrolling in classes and declaring a major, these young men would be defying the expectation colleges have.

I said all this.

I told them to take pride in that kind of defiance.

But I also said that their life experience would make their college experience different.

And I admitted I didn't know how it would feel to be them on a college campus. A lot of people wouldn't know, and that was going to be a challenge at times.

But I think it's a pretty cool challenge. I asked the guys if they could see it that way.

Then I looked at the young man who had asked me the question in the first place, and I asked, "How'd I do?"

And he knew what I was asking.

That's the impact this had on me.
I now know why I have to keep asking how I did.
Because we are different, and that's a challenge.

When I argue with people who see the world differently than I do.
When I design a course.
When I assess a placement exam.
When I react to an election.
When I stand up for people.
When I stand up to people.
Each time I have to keep asking myself: How'd I do?

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Even if it doesn't matter to you...

People tell me the president-elect says a lot of things he doesn't mean.

They say I need to understand 'he should be taken seriously, but not literally.'

I'm told he's not like other politicians who are careful with words, and I need to take that into account before I accuse him of saying stupid things.

This expectation is considered reasonable because "Trump is a new kind of leader."

I hear that.
I can even understand it through the fog of flawed logic.

But just to be clear: I am not gonna to do that.

Seriously. Fuck that.

And if you don't like me cursing on a blog where I rarely curse - if you think that interferes with the potential for a reasonable discourse - you are sure-as-shit on to something.

You see, words intended for public consumption have an impact. They matter because they are out there for anyone to hear. Even if it is not my intention to offend, I need to take the potential impact of my words into consideration, right? Fuckin' a, right.

Thought experiment:
The president-elect says "Muslims," 
but he wants me to understand 
what he actually means is
"potentially dangerous people who are Muslim." 

If I react to the word he used
and point out that laws applied exclusively to a religious group
are against the Constitution and basic human decency,
the president-elect and his supporters will whine,
"Don't take the words so literally.
You're just looking for an excuse to hate on a political opponent." 

But what about the president-elect's political allies

Who is explaining all of this to them?

The people asking me to take the president-elect's words with a grain of salt are failing to take into account all of the people who are listening to the man. 

CWPA Statement 
I am not looking at the president-elect. I couldn't care less about that silly man. 

I am looking at the country he plans to lead. 

That's what I do. It's my training. 
I look at the spaces where words have an impact, and I study what happens when new words are introduced. 

This does not make my opinion more valuable than anyone else's. 

But I hope people will understand why I can't simply 'stop taking the president-elect's words so literally.' 

If there are people who want to take those words less literally, I'm not going to stop them. I may occasionally point out how dangerous that choice could be, but they probably won't take my words very seriously. 

It is unreasonable, however, to ask me or my professional peers to take our eyes off the words of a leader. 

So, stop asking.

CCCC Statement 
Both of the professional organizations I'm affiliated with have put out strong statements related to this. Each statement explains why the public must consider all of the potential meanings that can be derived from the president-elect's words. 

I am more proud than ever to be associated with these organizations as well as the entire community of rhetoric and composition scholars. 

Our mandate is clearer than ever, and I see people I respect stepping forward to act on it in bold and thoughtful ways. We know this is important. 

Even if it doesn't matter to you, this is important to us. 

Living in a civil society requires all of us to live with these kinds of differences. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Do You Support Trump's Appointment for Chief Strategist?

The day after the election, I posted this olive branch on social media.

I have family and friends who support Trump. So, I tried to express some hope that maybe they see a different man than I do. Maybe they know something they're not telling me.

That is what prompted my hesitant peace offering, my agreement to "wait and see."

So, nearly a week has passed. I've waited a little and seen a little.

This weekend we got news of Stephen K. Bannon's appointment as Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor.

This news was met with tremendous enthusiasm from the White Nationalist community. The Southern Poverty Law Center collected the online celebrations from some of the more prominate figures in the White Supremacy movement. They also posted this comment from Stormfront, the famous neo-Nazi message board.

And so, I return to last week's peace offering.
The reaction from openly racist communities confirms some of my worst fears. The White Nationalist Movement believes they have the President Elect's ear.

They are publically celebrating because they believe their agenda will be represented in the White House.

If you support Trump, do you also support this appointment?
Do you support an appointment that gives White Nationalsists the impression their ideas are represented in the West Wing?

Because if you do support this appointment, you support the White Nationalist agenda.
Even if (and this is a big "if"), even if Bannon is not a voice for White Nationalism, he has never disavowed the support he receives from that community. That is how people in power legitimize hatful ideologies.
So, I'll say this again: If you do support Bannon's appointment, you support the White Nationalist agenda.

And if you support the White Nationalist agenda and want to argue, "But I'm not racist," then you are an idiot.

There is no nice way to say that. You cannot believe that non-racist people support White Nationalism unless you are stupid. Even White Nationalists know that.

So, Trump supporters, do you support the Bannon appointment?

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Robot Overlords

Maybe Black Mirror has broken me, but I've come to believe resistance in futile.

Engineers are going to develop tools that evaluate writing as effectively as a human.

We may be a long way from that reality, but even as we approach, what computers can glean from a text is impressive.

This worries a lot of people, and I get that.

Writing assessment is very complex work. It defines so much of what writing teachers do. But more importantly, writing assessment feels like something humans should own. Writing is, after all, a form of person-to-person communication. Right?

A computer-produced report on my writing is not a valid assessment, because it is not measuring a person's response to the text.

Only people can provide a valid assessment of a text written as person-to-person communication.

And you know what?
Teachers are people!

Teachers can do things computers can't do, like... be people.

This is a reasonable argument, up to a point.

See, teachers are people.
And people are the intended audience of most writing.
But, here's the thing, teachers are not the intended audience of most writing.

This is particularly true in college composition. As students begin college, they enter a new stage in their writing development. They are preparing to join various scholarly, civic, and professional communities.

Writing teachers do not belong to all of those communities.

As a writing teacher, if I am the only person a student has learned how to "write for," I have failed.

So, we cannot say 'the writing teacher provides a completely valid assessment.'

The only completely valid assessment of a text takes place when the actual intended reader reacts to the text.

I need my students to learn to write for a variety of readers.

My job is to help students understand this: From now on, as a writer, you will have to use what you know today in order to learn the rules anew each time you decide to write for a new audience or a new purpose.

There are tools I can give students to do that. So the function of college composition courses remains important.

But I need to leave some of the assessment to others - to my colleagues in other departments, to other students in the class, to other writing teachers, to potential employers, and the list goes on.

So, why not computers?

Are we afraid we are going to be replaced by robot writing assessors?

There is some legitimacy to that fear. If we believe that keeping people in "the assessment loop" is too expensive, or that the labor conditions writing teachers work under are unsustainable, then maybe it's time to welcome our robot overlords.


But that assumes we are satisfied with writing assessment as it is performed today. Are we comfortable saying that?
Try saying it: 
We know how to perform effective writing assessment that reliably predicts a person's ability to write across a wide variety of circumstances. 
I don't buy it. What we do is still very messy, and it's always going to be. That's what drew me to this work.

It was DalĂ­ who said, "Have no fear of perfection - you will never reach it."

So, when IBM rolls out a tool that produces "Personality Insights" based on text samples, I don't see that as IBM working to replace human readers. I see IBM tinkering with just how much computers can learn from writing - and maybe just how much they can contribute to a more comprehensive assessment of writing ability.

Here's what they learned about me in a Sunburst Chart:

Reading that analysis, it feels like I visited a psychic, and not in the "Wow, that's uncanny" way.

It feels like someone sized me up as I walked through the door and then made some vague observations using language intended to sound specific.

In other words, it still feels like a trick. It's a cool trick, and it's rooted in some pretty sophisticated understandings of human behavior and communication, but... it still feels like a trick.

Trick or no, it is progress. That computer made observations about me based on my writing.

I hope these tools get better, and as they do, I hope to use them to add more dimensions to the work I do when I assess the writing my students produce.

As it stands today, I recommend my students consider assessment from their peers, from me, from tutors, from roommates, from professors in their major, from grammar checking software, from study groups, and anywhere else they can get some assessment. And then I ask students to consider the feedback critically and use it to improve their work.

I can't think of a good reason to treat assessment software differently.

If someone tried to suggest that such software will replace me and all those other sources of assessment, I'm ready to tell them why that is absurd. But I think they know. If not, the computers will probably tell them...

Or will they?