Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Last Week of Classes

I'm starting to get a sense of the rhythm of things here at Davis.  Of course, all of that will be tested next month when I start a new quarter.

My writing students presented on their Writing in the Disciplines papers yesterday, and I walked away very impressed.  They showed a deep understanding of both the task and the aims behind the task.  And they did that without much guidance from me.

I've worked hard in the past few years to reduce the amount of hand-holding I do in my classroom.  When I got to Davis I really stepped that up.  I put a number of task descriptions on the course website that I never spoke about in class.  I counted on the syllabus to speak for itself.  I used class time to teach, not to walk students through time-management exercises.  And the students rose to the occasion.  It's heartening to see students present thoughtful commentary on how the linguistically diverse audience of a hard sciences paper should dictate the grammar choices a writer makes.

Things were less heartening in another class - less heartening, but enlightening.  There was the lively discussion we had in pro-seminar yesterday.  Each of us presented a prominent scholar's take on Scientific Research in Education.  It is a booklet describing the research methods that a group of scholars deem to be the most trusted - and therefore the only types of research that should receive Federal grants.  We called the exercise "The Debate," because there is a wide spectrum of arguments surrounding the booklet.  However, the ship has more or less sailed on this "debate."  The winner is... quantitative research that uses randomized trials and yields reproducible results.  Loosely translated, the science of education should look more like the natural sciences.

I think studies that fit the above mold are excellent, but I do not believe it is the only kind of informative research in the social sciences.  I'm not alone, and that's what led to the lively discussion.  The group went round and round for a while.  It was a comment about intended audiences from our professor Rebecca Ambrose that led me to realize what was behind all this: when the government funds research, the researchers' intended audience is government policy makers.  I know, seems obvious, right?  It was less an "ah-ha" moment than it was a "duh" moment.  But it sure does muddy the waters that I dove into this fall.

I had a naive notion of pure research lingering in my head. Left over, no doubt, from my days in the humanities.  It was a bit foolish, I guess.  I won't claim to have been completely grounded just yet, but this article sent by my professor today helped that process along.

Yesterday, as I attempted to sketch the rhetorical situation that illustrates the relationship between all the education stakeholders, I got a sense of what kind of work I'm setting out to do.

This drawing here is what I came up with.  I want to make a sculpture on which the positions of the stakeholders can shift.  I won't have time, but it's a fun idea.

On what may feel like an unrelated note, can someone explain to me the economic thinking behind making the Bush Tax Cuts permanent?  Before jumping in, however, please take the following into account: These tax cuts may have helped us out of the 2002-03 dip, but they were still in place before and during the 2008-09 recession, making it difficult to argue that they have longterm beneficial effects on the economy.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


For this post I started with a Google Image Search: "Contention."

The cover of the 23rd Xanth novel (23rd??!!) caught my eye.

Piers Anthony's Xanth novels were the first books I read without any outside encouragement.  They were the first books for which I would actually go to the bookstore and spend my own money.

I don't think many would describe the books as serious literature, but they were fun, and they were more involved than anything I was being asked to read in sixth grade.  Xanth showed me how novels base themselves in intricate worlds with tremendous amounts of activity taking place off the page.  The books sparked my interest in long form reading and writing.

I owe a lot to the first eight novels in the series.  From there I moved on to Hitchhiker's Guide, then Dune, then Notes From Underground,  and suddenly a lot of books were on my self.  Somewhere in there I started writing.

The trend continued, and years later I was studying fiction writing here at Davis, and then I was in Hungary teaching writing, and now I'm back at UCD studying writing education

I've always felt a strong link between my love of literature and the act of writing.

That link is what came to mind when a debate broke out in practicum on Friday.  We were performing a dry run of portfolio grading.

We started discussing the first essay in the portfolio of a student-writer with a particularly strong voice.  That is when things got contentious. 

From what I read, a clearly talented student developed an effective voice for a piece, but unfortunately the composition fell short of coherent. My focus on composition left me wavering between Satisfactory and Unsatisfactory (portfolios can receive 1 of 3 grades, Meritorious, Satisfactory, Unsatisfactory).

Several people disagreed with me. Which was a good thing; unsatisfactory marks and meritorious marks deserve a discussion.  I was thankful to have the opportunity to discuss the case. 

But I was surprised to hear that some readers would have given the essay a Meritorious. These readers were impressed by the student-author's voice and wordplay.  They cited clever phrases, a playful tone, and the essay's ambitious thesis: a suggestion that strong writing is a subjective matter. They were impressed by some of the essay's literary merits.

As the debate developed, I cited the course rubric which states an Unsatisfactory mark should be given when “the organization of the text may be confusing or ineffective.” One of my peers argued that the organization was not problematic and then suggested what I had missed: The essay was strong because it was written in an unconventional mode

I was struck dumb for a moment. 

I wanted to be congenial. So I kept this to myself: the comment was insulting. It suggested I had misread a student essay at a very basic level, that I lack the capacity to interpret the modes of discourse explored in a draft UWP 1 essay. 

I have since posted my reaction to this exchange on a course blog, and I hope it sparks a dialogue.  But I bring the story here for a different reason.  

The contentious debate I took part in last week is one aspect of a bigger issue, an issue being addressed in the academic journals and university departments that concern themselves with the teaching of writing.  In CCC's latest issue Melissa Ianetta has a great piece on the subject - the unclear divide between the study of literature and the study of composition. 

That divide is complicated, and it forces us to ask some uncomfortable questions: Is a literature scholar the best person to teach an engineering major how to write?  Shouldn't it be the responsibility of each discipline to instruct its students on its conventions of writing?  Does the teaching of introductory writing demand too much time/effort of literary scholars?  

These questions force us to consider delicate subjects, e.g. expertise, funding, labor, and academic priorities.
So it should be no surprise that a debate got contentious when a group of lit people and comp people statrted discussing an essay with strong literary qualities yet troublesome composition issues.  

One of my new goals here at Davis is to speak openly about the contention this subject inspires.  I think contention can be a good thing, if it helps people solve problems.  

So while I'm here, I want to ask lit people and comp people where they stand.  I want to develop my stance and write about it.  I want to speak to people from other departments who work with students who have gone through writing programs. I want to hear from students who have gone through such programs.  

A lot of these wants can be satisfied by a good literature review, but I think this kind of contention is going to call for open dialogue. I hope I can contribute.  

Thursday, November 04, 2010

"Babies are bad at math, and they have very little toes." - Martin

Today in intro to statistics for the social sciences, our professor Lee Martin was demonstrating that correlation does not mean causation. He asked the class if we thought there might be a correlation between math skills and toe length. Someone rightfully said there is a correlation, which prompted Lee's observation, "Babies are bad at math, and they have very little toes." I wrote that down.

The other line of Lee's that I had to commit to paper today was this: "In a real scenario you'd want to know what actually matters."

I like the way stats has asked me to bend my thinking.

Dora is amused to no end that I'm enjoying stats class. She knows just how nervous I was about dipping my longish toe back into mathematical waters. In high school I had come to believe my brain was missing something mathy. So when I started feeling confident in stats, I came home bragging. For this I was mocked. Dora has always seen me as a bit of a geek, and this new found pride in my math skills has driven that point even further home.

Anyway, reflecting on this reminds me of a student in my UWP 1 course. She has written two drafts of an essay about how she does not have the skills needed to write well. She is certain of this. She has family and friends who can write well with little effort, but no matter how hard she tries, she can't manage an A essay. She really wants to convince her readers that she isn't good at writing. She's put a lot of effort into explaining her frustration and failed efforts.

Looks like it'll end up being a good essay.