Thursday, November 29, 2012

Teaching with E-portfolios

Here are the pages I worked up in Mahara for today's UWP teaching with technology roundtable.

You can also find the link on Twitter if you search #UWPTwT
Hope things go well.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Why Teach the Argument?

If politicians can gain by misrepresenting the facts, if people in finance can make millions by omitting key facts about investment opportunities, if manufacturers can dominate a market by hiding forced labor conditions, if these and other examples of evidence abused are true, then why should I focus so closely on the ethical use of evidence in a writing class?

In my writing course this quarter, we are finishing up the unit on argument and evidence. Everyone in the class picked an Oxford style debate to listen to. Now they are writing up a position paper intended to inform a continued user-generated online debate. We discussed the form and function of formal modes of debate. We also read about the etiquette and ethics of argumentation.

So on the eve of an election, I asked them if the rules of argument we've discussed in class are used to guide arguments in high profile settings like presidential campaigns.

I wasn't surprised to hear an overwhelming 'no,' but I was more interested in the answers to the next question: If we don't see quality arguments in high profile settings, then what is the advantage to learning how to produce a quality argument?

My students gave some thoughtful responses, but I'd like to throw this question out there.

With legislators suggesting that critical thinking is not a skill worth teaching in public schools, I think it would be worth it to hear a strong defense of defensible arguments.

So, why should we teach argument?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


For reasons I'd prefer to keep private, I spent the last month disengaged from political discourse. My mental and emotional faculties were needed elsewhere, and I'm pleased I was able to step back from what has always been an addictive interest in political debate.

I do love a good argument. I also love a bad argument. When it comes to politics, there are few things I enjoy more than popping the hood and getting a good look at what makes an argument run.

That's why I jump into discussions with people I disagree with. I think it's important. I'm convinced healthy democracy will wither when we stop listening to the other side.

But I have limits.

Today, two people who I have occasionally engaged in political argument prompted me to doubt my faith in the utility of discourse.

The first person posted an link to a Washington Times piece about a book on tax policy. The book might be interesting, but that is not what got my attention. Citing the Heritage Foundation, the WT author presented the following evidence to argue that lower tax rates on the wealthy are good for the American economy:

1920s: The top tax rate fell from 73 percent to 25 percent, yet the rich (in those days, those earning $50,000 and up) went from paying 44.2 percent of the tax burden in 1921 to paying more than 78 percent in 1928. 

You read that right. The author used the wealth-friendly tax policy from the 1920s to argue for more wealth-friendly tax policy.

How can I argue with a person who cannot see how stupid that is?

I can't.

The second person who shook my faith in the utility of argument was a Facebooker responding to a question about the new job numbers. The lead off to his argument was "Govt jobs should not count."

On a better day, I might have been able to stomach this, maybe even construct the reasoning that informs such a statement. But then I think about people serving in the military, fire fighters, food inspectors, judges, teachers, transportation safety officials, EMTs, sanitation workers, civic janitorial staff... I could keep going. But with each item on the list, I hear those words echo: " Govt jobs should not count."

How can I argue with someone who would posit that teaching or protecting a community shouldn't be counted as employment?

I can anticipate the response, but no matter how eloquently stated, no response could walk that back.

I can't imagine a way to reasonably converse with a person who would make that statement.

I'm at a bit of a loss. I would like to listen to people who hold political beliefs that are different than my own, but I've become convinced that those people aren't even listening to themselves anymore.

Friday, September 14, 2012

He Hasn't Seen the Study?

Both Mitt Romney and liberal media outlets are insulting the intelligence of the American public.

There is a real debate to be had about the Romney tax plan, but the debate is being overshadowed by inanities.

In his interview with George Stephanopoulos, Romney was pushed to offer some specifics on his tax plan.

Stephanopoulos acknowledged the studies that Romney has used to argue his plan will increase tax revenue. These are the studies Romney has used to answer critics who say his plan has arithmetic problems.

Stephanopoulos then asked about an important detail from one of those studies. He asked if Romney planned to "eliminate the home mortgage, charity, and state and local tax deductions for everyone earning over $100,000." This was one of the ways the Martin Feldstein study showed a rise in tax revenues.

Romney said he did not plan to eliminate those deductions. Stephanopoulos replied by saying those deductions are an essential part of Feldstein's plan.

To answer these concerns, Romney actually said these words: "Well, [Feldstein's study] doesn’t necessarily show the same growth that we’re anticipating.  And I haven’t seen his precise study."

Wait... what?

Take a moment to think about what Mitt Romney just said to George Stephanopoulos.

The study Romney has been citing as evidence doesn't show the same results he argues will materialize AND he hasn't seen the actual study.

When I read an argument based on ill-fitted evidence that the author hasn't actually read, I conclude that the argument is garbage. I challenge that author to provide a better case or change conclusions.

That is the detail voters need to investigate. That is the question that has been left unanswered.

But instead, liberal media outlets have decided to focus on comments Romney made a moment later about the middle income being $200,000/year. The general tenor of these articles has been, "Can you believe how out of touch this rich guy is?"

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Mitt Romney and the media think this is too complex a thread to follow. Romney is hoping he can just let it all slip by, and the media think we'll pay more attention to character attacks.

I want to know where the money that will fund Romney's tax cut will come from. For the time being, I have to reject his plan as garbage because that is exactly what his argument supporting it is.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Do you use the skills developed in your writing classes?

An early attempt at mapping writing skill transfer (spelling errors are included to test readers like you)

The picture above is what I worked on yesterday. I was attempting to clear up some concepts.

Here's what I'm going for in the picture:
I drew a timeline representing the writing development of an imaginary student named Pat. There's a hexagon to represent a task Pat composed in her freshman-year writing course. And there's a square representing a writing task she composed years later for an upper-division course in her major. These two events are described as separate, but they are really fragments of Pat's literacy development.

Here's the issue I'm attempting to get at: The type of writing Pat did in her freshman writing course is very different than the writing she did later in college - and later in life. This raises the following question: What skills did Pat learn in her freshman writing course that helped her with her later coursework?

The answer to that question should describe the skills teachers emphasize in freshman composition, but the work I've done for the past few years has shown that instructors often dodge this question or answer with vague unmeasurable abstractions.

The diagram is an attempt to get at something instructors can act on. It's still rough, but it is moving me in the right direction - away from the abstract.

Let's say that after Pat finished her freshman year she declared a major in mechanical engineering. Later, near the end of her junior year, Pat is told to write a technical report about some work she's done on wireless networking.

Take a moment to think about all the differences between between the two tasks
  • Time has past
  • The audience is different
  • The purpose for writing is different
  • The writing conventions are different
  • The subject matter is different
  • Pat is different!
It's easy to spot the differences. The challenge is to identify what remains constant.

The sidewalk in the video here changes over time, gains a new audience, and a new purpose. The chalk drawing fools the eye into thinking that the sidewalk is no longer a sidewalk at all. For someone hoping to create something like this, however, it is crucial to remain aware of the qualities the sidewalk had before the first line was drawn.

Getting back to Pat, which skills used to write her freshman composition paper are still useful when writing the technical report?

Here's the direction my drawing has taken me: Beyond a firm command of grammar and spelling, we expect a college-level writer to have skills that facilitate independent learning in new writing environments.

In other words, after completing college, Pat should have the skills required to join a new community and teach herself how to effectively write in that setting. Of course she can't do that alone. In order to learn to communicate in a new setting, the new community must afford Pat the time and resources required to learn about the ways people in that community write.

So, Pat has to know how to find and evaluate the writing of others. She has to know how to solicit, recognize, and utilize feedback. She must be practiced at self-assessment. She must know how to identify clues that will help her adjust her writing practices, which assumes she knows how to adjust her writing practices. And Pat needs to have the self-confidence and patience to recognize that these skills will only get her foot in the door - that writing for a new community will require the application of these skills to produce new knowledge - knowledge that will eventually help her gain a voice and authority in the communities she seeks to join.

I also believe that Pat should be intellectually wary of any community that makes it either too easy or too difficult for new members to move through these processes. But that's for another blog post.

So that's what I'm working on. I may take the blog along this road for a while. Trying to express these ideas for people who are not compositionists seems like a good way to maintain the blog while staying focused on my work.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Why Has the GOP Stopped Believing?

These guys still believe, but...

The GOP no longer believes in America's greatness.

Let me explain how I've reached this conclusion.

According to the plan they've put forth and defended, Romney and Ryan do not believe the American economy is strong or dynamic enough for our government to provide my generation and future generations with the services it has provided for the Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation.

Specifically, the GOP believes the government cannot provide future generations with retirement income, healthcare for the retired, or assistance for the poorest among us. They seek to cut funding to the programs that support those services and allow the Baby Boomers to use up what funding is left.

So, according to the GOP, my generation should expect these programs to have shrunk or disappeared by the time they would be of any use to us.

Now, before we get into whether or not the programs are sustainable, let's look at the history of the America that had those programs in place.

Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are benefits that progressives put in place between the 1930s and the 1960s. My grandparents and my parents spent their adult lives with those benefits as part of the American economic landscape. I know conservatives hate those programs, but look at all our nation achieved with those programs in place. With Moon landings, the end of the Cold War, and the networking of the globe at the top of the list, it is difficult to paint those decades as anything but prosperous.While those programs were in place (although not necessarily because of them), our nation's wealth, strength, and importance have grown tremendously.

Romney and Ryan's plan, however, suggests that our American success story is over; the country is no longer successful enough to provide the same services that were in place for previous generations. Romney and Ryan are effectively saying that America's economy cannot support the country the same way it has during the past 50 years of growth, strength, and prosperity.

I find their assertion dubious, mostly because in the time since my generation has entered the workforce, the US economy has continued to grow (on average). In that time, America has faced several challenges. We have impeached a president, been attacked by terrorists, gone to war, and weathered a major recession. Nevertheless, we have continued to grow and prosper - even while the global economy is still struggling to recover from a massive balance sheet recession (one that inflated the value of both assets and low-skill labor).

Despite the dreary picture the GOP would have us believe, the US is recovering faster than the rest of the developed world. While the EU attempted austerity, we stepped in with stimulus. We believed our economy was strong enough to risk that debt. Today, the EU faces inflation, rising borrowing costs, and no job growth. We, on the other hand, have dodged inflation, our borrowing costs have remained low, and we have slow job growth. (UK economists are starting to see it our way, btw.) Ours is clearly a dynamic economy that can weather very rough times. In relation to the rest of the world, our nation is a strong as ever.

So, I don't accept Romney and Ryan's assertion that America is in decline. I believe America will continue to be great for generations. I'm sorry to see that the GOP has stopped believing in American greatness, but that is what their platform says.

Now they'll argue that their cuts to services will give more American room to grow. They'll argue that these programs are a drain on our national economy. They'll see my argument as a demand for another handout and assert that hardworking Americans don't need these programs.

To which I say:
Many among us may not have needed a safety net these past few decades, but what of the wage earners who were dreaming of starting a small business? What would have come to pass if Baby Boomers were uncertain about how they would pay for healthcare after they retired; if they were afraid to invest their nest eggs in that restaurant, that storefront, that software company, or that photography business? How many potential entrepreneurs would have balked if that net weren't in place? How many failed entrepreneurs would have been forced to become dependents in their children's' homes? Those costs would add up to very real economic losses for the nation.

But we don't have to worry about that. The programs were in place, and America has done wonderfully. My parents' generation is the most successful American generation in history. These programs do not limit entrepreneurs, small business owners, or visionaries. Historically, these programs have been the security people needed to take the first step toward greatness.

So, I assert that Romney and Ryan's lack of faith in our economic strength is either a belief that America's best days are behind us, a scare tactic, or the next attempt to cut proven programs they are philosophically opposed to (probably a combination of the three). Whatever the case, I am not buying the defeatism that the GOP is pushing.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Fair to the Truth

NPR's new handbook caught my attention today. I doubt I'm alone.

Boing Boing reported on this, linking to the Pressthink post, and these are the kinds of outlets that lead to wider coverage.

Most of the new handbook is pretty standard stuff, but the concept of "fair to the truth" is bound to get attention, and it's is worthy of any attention it gets - particularly in a world where ideas about the media, authority, context, and the value of information are all in flux.

From the handbook:
...our primary consideration when presenting the news is that we are fair to the truth. If our sources try to mislead us or put a false spin on the information they give us, we tell our audience. If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the age of digital information places the burden of context in the hands of the critical consumer. I see NPR's concept as a way of placing their services in the middle of that context-sorting process.

NPR is acknowledging that the information is all out there, and the older paradigm's attempts to report all points of view does not help consumers - the news has become a series of opinionated people telling us what to think about an event.

Instead, NPR would like to add a lens to their reporting that acknowledges how news maker's often seek to spin a story.

Critics will howl, as is their want. They'll view this as an attempt to allow editorial views into the news content - where it doesn't belong. But a critical consumer of news knows that there's always been an editorial view in our news content. The people who decide what news gets covered are making editorial decisions (btw, did you know we've been at war for the past 9 years?)

So now we have this new concept: fair to the truth. I'm interested to see if the concept gets traction outside of NPR.

I have long since grown tired of watching political bickering being portrayed as news. I hope this is a shift away from that.

I just hope it doesn't change the format of Wait, Wait...

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Reaction to "We, The Web Kids"

Below is some of the best writing about the internet and culture that I have ever read. It is Piotr Czerski's "We, the Web Kids."

It's been translated from the original Polish and posted on Pastebin. (Go Central European thinkers!)

I think this text should be required reading for anyone looking to talk about the role of the internet in society. 

Best quote: "What unites us is not a common, limited cultural context, but the belief that the context is self-defined and an effect of free choice." 

While I think the text is fantastic, I do have a thing or two to say about the way Czerski sets the Web Kids apart from older generations.

I am not a Web Kid. Czerski states that the Kids who grew up with the web did so over the past 15 years. I was 21 when that period began. Not a kid.

It is true that I didn't grow up with the web. Instead, the web grew up with me.

I remember going to my friend Ryan Raddatz's house and setting a phone receiver on a modem to dial into BBSs where we downloaded space-based strategy games and lists of other BBSs. That was probably in 1989 or 1990.

I remember the Gopher competing with the world wide web back when I was a freshman at Columbia College in Chicago (before I transferred to Madison). The computer geeks who lived down the hall showed me that there were in fact two internets to search.

By the time I was finishing college, the web started to look something like what it has become, but my generation watched it mature through a very difficult awkward stage.

I can't claim to have had much of an impact on its development, but I do think the relationship between my generation and the web is unique - and that relationship blurs the line Czerski uses to divide his generation from my own.

I did not grow up with the internet, but I bore witness as it changed us... and as we changed it.

The Web Kids have a different perspective than the generation that proceeded them, but my generation benefits from a different kind of knowledge. We know how much the Web can change. The last 15 years of web development have been amazing, but that is also true of the last 25 years.

For me, the Web isn't a part of who I am, it is more like a familiar companion with whom I grew up.

And there's a powerful bond between two who endure their awkward stages together.

Psst, hey, Internet. If you promise never to tell anyone that Poison was my first favorite band, I won't tell anyone that you used to think AOL was the coolest. 

Oh, and btw, if you want to read a fun inter-generational battle on Czerski's piece, visit The Atlantic's posting of it and read the comments.

Piotr Czerski
We, the Web Kids.
(translated by Marta Szreder)

There is probably no other word that would be as overused in the media discourse as ‘generation’. I once tried to count the ‘generations’ that have been proclaimed in the past ten years, since the well-known article about the so-called ‘Generation Nothing’; I believe there were as many as twelve. They all had one thing in common: they only existed on paper. Reality never provided us with a single tangible, meaningful, unforgettable impulse, the common experience of which would forever distinguish us from the previous generations. We had been looking for it, but instead the groundbreaking change came unnoticed, along with cable TV, mobile phones, and, most of all, Internet access. It is only today that we can fully comprehend how much has changed during the past fifteen years.

We, the Web kids; we, who have grown up with the Internet and on the Internet, are a generation who meet the criteria for the term in a somewhat subversive way. We did not experience an impulse from reality, but rather a metamorphosis of the reality itself. What unites us is not a common, limited cultural context, but the belief that the context is self-defined and an effect of free choice.

Writing this, I am aware that I am abusing the pronoun ‘we’, as our ‘we’ is fluctuating, discontinuous, blurred, according to old categories: temporary. When I say ‘we’, it means ‘many of us’ or ‘some of us’. When I say ‘we are’, it means ‘we often are’. I say ‘we’ only so as to be able to talk about us at all.

We grew up with the Internet and on the Internet. This is what makes us different; this is what makes the crucial, although surprising from your point of view, difference: we do not ‘surf’ and the internet to us is not a ‘place’ or ‘virtual space’. The Internet to us is not something external to reality but a part of it: an invisible yet constantly present layer intertwined with the physical environment. We do not use the Internet, we live on the Internet and along it. If we were to tell our bildnungsroman to you, the analog, we could say there was a natural Internet aspect to every single experience that has shaped us. We made friends and enemies online, we prepared cribs for tests online, we planned parties and studying sessions online, we fell in love and broke up online. The Web to us is not a technology which we had to learn and which we managed to get a grip of. The Web is a process, happening continuously and continuously transforming before our eyes; with us and through us. Technologies appear and then dissolve in the peripheries, websites are built, they bloom and then pass away, but the Web continues, because we are the Web; we, communicating with one another in a way that comes naturally to us, more intense and more efficient than ever before in the history of mankind.

Brought up on the Web we think differently. The ability to find information is to us something as basic, as the ability to find a railway station or a post office in an unknown city is to you. When we want to know something - the first symptoms of chickenpox, the reasons behind the sinking of ‘Estonia’, or whether the water bill is not suspiciously high  - we take measures with the certainty of a driver in a SatNav-equipped car. We know that we are going to find the information we need in a lot of places, we know how to get to those places, we know how to assess their credibility. We have learned to accept that instead of one answer we find many different ones, and out of these we can abstract the most likely version, disregarding the ones which do not seem credible. We select, we filter, we remember, and we are ready to swap the learned information for a new, better one, when it comes along.

To us, the Web is a sort of shared external memory. We do not have to remember unnecessary details: dates, sums, formulas, clauses, street names, detailed definitions. It is enough for us to have an abstract, the essence that is needed to process the information and relate it to others. Should we need the details, we can look them up within seconds. Similarly, we do not have to be experts in everything, because we know where to find people who specialise in what we ourselves do not know, and whom we can trust. People who will share their expertise with us not for profit, but because of our shared belief that information exists in motion, that it wants to be free, that we all benefit from the exchange of information. Every day: studying, working, solving everyday issues, pursuing interests. We know how to compete and we like to do it, but our competition, our desire to be different, is built on knowledge, on the ability to interpret and process information, and not on monopolising it.

Participating in cultural life is not something out of ordinary to us: global culture is the fundamental building block of our identity, more important for defining ourselves than traditions, historical narratives, social status, ancestry, or even the language that we use. From the ocean of cultural events we pick the ones that suit us the most; we interact with them, we review them, we save our reviews on websites created for that purpose, which also give us suggestions of other albums, films or games that we might like. Some films, series or videos we watch together with colleagues or with friends from around the world; our appreciation of some is only shared by a small group of people that perhaps we will never meet face to face. This is why we feel that culture is becoming simultaneously global and individual. This is why we need free access to it.

This does not mean that we demand that all products of culture be available to us without charge, although when we create something, we usually just give it back for circulation. We understand that, despite the increasing accessibility of technologies which make the quality of movie or sound files so far reserved for professionals available to everyone, creativity requires effort and investment. We are prepared to pay, but the giant commission that distributors ask for seems to us to be obviously overestimated. Why should we pay for the distribution of information that can be easily and perfectly copied without any loss of the original quality? If we are only getting the information alone, we want the price to be proportional to it. We are willing to pay more, but then we expect to receive some added value: an interesting packaging, a gadget, a higher quality, the option of watching here and now, without waiting for the file to download. We are capable of showing appreciation and we do want to reward the artist (since money stopped being paper notes and became a string of numbers on the screen, paying has become a somewhat symbolic act of exchange that is supposed to benefit both parties), but the sales goals of corporations are of no interest to us whatsoever. It is not our fault that their business has ceased to make sense in its traditional form, and that instead of accepting the challenge and trying to reach us with something more than we can get for free they have decided to defend their obsolete ways.

One more thing: we do not want to pay for our memories. The films that remind us of our childhood, the music that accompanied us ten years ago: in the external memory network these are simply memories. Remembering them, exchanging them, and developing them is to us something as natural as the memory of ‘Casablanca’ is to you. We find online the films that we watched as children and we show them to our children, just as you told us the story about the Little Red Riding Hood or Goldilocks. Can you imagine that someone could accuse you of breaking the law in this way? We cannot, either.

We are used to our bills being paid automatically, as long as our account balance allows for it; we know that starting a bank account or changing the mobile network is just the question of filling in a single form online and signing an agreement delivered by a courier; that even a trip to the other side of Europe with a short sightseeing of another city on the way can be organised in two hours. Consequently, being the users of the state, we are increasingly annoyed by its archaic interface. We do not understand why tax act takes several forms to complete, the main of which has more than a hundred questions. We do not understand why we are required to formally confirm moving out of one permanent address to move in to another, as if councils could not communicate with each other without our intervention (not to mention that the necessity to have a permanent address is itself absurd enough.)

There is not a trace in us of that humble acceptance displayed by our parents, who were convinced that administrative issues were of utmost importance and who considered interaction with the state as something to be celebrated. We do not feel that respect, rooted in the distance between the lonely citizen and the majestic heights where the ruling class reside, barely visible through the clouds. Our view of the social structure is different from yours: society is a network, not a hierarchy. We are used to being able to start a dialogue with anyone, be it a professor or a pop star, and we do not need any special qualifications related to social status. The success of the interaction depends solely on whether the content of our message will be regarded as important and worthy of reply. And if, thanks to cooperation, continuous dispute, defending our arguments against critique, we have a feeling that our opinions on many matters are simply better, why would we not expect a serious dialogue with the government?

We do not feel a religious respect for ‘institutions of democracy’ in their current form, we do not believe in their axiomatic role, as do those who see ‘institutions of democracy’ as a monument for and by themselves. We do not need monuments. We need a system that will live up to our expectations, a system that is transparent and proficient. And we have learned that change is possible: that every uncomfortable system can be replaced and is replaced by a new one, one that is more efficient, better suited to our needs, giving more opportunities.

What we value the most is freedom: freedom of speech, freedom of access to information and to culture. We feel that it is thanks to freedom that the Web is what it is, and that it is our duty to protect that freedom. We owe that to next generations, just as much as we owe to protect the environment.

Perhaps we have not yet given it a name, perhaps we are not yet fully aware of it, but I guess what we want is real, genuine democracy. Democracy that, perhaps, is more than is dreamt of in your journalism.

"My, dzieci sieci" by Piotr Czerski is licensed under a Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa-Na tych samych warunkach 3.0 Unported License:

Contact the author: piotr[at]

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Have We Truly Democratized Data?

Dora has a friend and former classmate who worked at Lehman Brothers in 2008.

I was working at a business school at the time, but even in that environment, I had never paid much attention to economic news. If it hadn't been for that friend of Dora's, that personal connection to the first facade to crumble, I likely would have continued to pay very little attention to economic news, even at the beginning of the largest economic crisis of my lifetime.

But I had a personal connection, and I was keeping a blog back then. So I wrote a little something about the fall of Lehman Brothers.

The effort plugged me into the story. I sought out resources that would help me understand what I was living through, and I found Planet Money. Planet Money was a podcast published three times a week (now they publish twice weekly). The producers come from the NPR News team and the This American Life team. In the early days of the economic crisis, they worked to produce economic news stories that the average listener could understand - more than that, they strove to make those stories engaging (they still do).

It worked on me. I didn't miss an episode, and I got what felt like a peek behind the curtain of the world of economics. I came to have a fairly strong grasp on how complex quantitative tools of analysis, tools only understood by a few, made the mortgage market appear safer than it was for several years. The savviest of investors recognized the risk a little before the general public, but even those investors had spent years pouring capital into mortgage securities constructed by "quants" using algorithms the investors themselves didn't understand.

And we are still dealing with the aftermath.

The role quants played in the economic crisis has many parallels to the role of the people doing the tagging of data on the internet. The people who use HTML to code the massive amount of information posted online everyday have a grasp on the data that few information consumers can understand. The people who tag the data know where the data come from, how its connected to other sources, and how its distributed. Meanwhile, the people who use that data to make important decisions in their lives would not know how to get at the information's information.

In economic terms, that represents information asymmetry, and it rarely ends well. 

In my literacy and technology class, I've referred to an argument I've made here about the change in information literacy practices I've witnessed as a writing instructor working during the rise of Web 2.0:
Students no longer have to learn how to find information, they have to learn how to sift and winnow information.

That task would be much easier if my students had stronger functional literacy skills, the subject we aim to discuss today in class. If my students knew how technology delivers data, then the task of tracing information back to a source would be made easier.Their literacies would be made richer.

Stray observations:
  • This experience of thinking about literacy through the lens of technology has led to repeated associations with my enjoyment of science fiction. Early in the quarter I was thinking of Snow Crash and Neuromancer, books that describe the role of information literacy in a not too distant future. This week had me thinking about the back story of the Dune novels, set in a far off future, centuries after a religious war has destroyed and forbidden all machines that reproduce the thoughts of a human - the war was motivated by those who thought such machines took knowledge out of the hands of people.
  • The fact that my own dabbling in digital literacy with this very blog is what led to my engagement with economics is a nice little added bonus.

Monday, February 13, 2012

New Blog Layout

Wow. I decided to update my blog layout, and found that Blogger has been hard at work rethinking what blogs should look like.

I went with the dynamic mosaic layout, and I like the look.

I did lose my blogroll, links, and other sidebar stuff.  But I'm not sure how much of a loss that constitutes.

Anyone want to weigh in on the new look?

Okay. So I'm ditching the mosaic look.  I might try something like that later, but for now I think the traditional look will work best.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Looking Good

This week I'm prepping a presentation on how to use e-portfolios in composition classrooms. I've been spending a lot of time with an open source platform powered by Mahara.

So my head is in an odd kind of space. Presentation prep has me thinking about teaching students to compose academic work for online spaces, teaching a novel interface, evaluating students based on their ability to work in a digital environment, and all while trying to learn the new technology myself.

This has me thinking about what digital texts look like, and that is why, of all the week's reading for my Literacy and Technology course, Matthew K. Gold's chapter in From A to : Keywords of Markup has engaged me the most.

Gold writes a surprisingly engaging chapter on the horizontal rule HTML tag, otherwise known as "hr".

Let's see if I can compose an 'hr'. I'm going to switch my blog's composition box to "Edit HTML" mode and add a horizontal rule.

See. It worked.
And I have a fuzzy screencast video of the process.
(Btw, if you plan to use screencasting software, it looks like you have to pay for quality. Actually, I just needed to learn the software better. I think the Camstudio open source screencasting software will work out just fine.)
But even if my screencast video doesn't look that hot, its inclusion is a vast improvement over the kinds of web-texts I remember from the 90s.

Popular Website from the 90s
The huge number of readers and composers of web-text has resulted in a rapid reconceptualization of the reading space. Both Gold and Wolf call on the Sumerians to help develop an understanding of how even the oldest conventions of text influence web text. Gold explains how the linear divisions on Sumerian pictographic texts depicted a hierarchy of gods, kings, and the vanquished.

While most modern text horizontal conventions do not have quite so stately divisions as the Sumerians, it remains interesting to see how people have struggled with layout. The the gap between the Sumerian writing system and today's web texts is filled with conventions dictated by technology. From the printing press to slow processing speeds, texts have long been restrained by the mode of production.

I found it amusing when Gold got around to describing the worst kinds of ornamental perversions of the HR: flowering vines, fire trucks, and dancing figures dividing the text. It had me thinking of MySpace's downfall - allowing users to add whatever bells and whistles they wanted to their personal page. That was a social experiment that taught us never to distribute an animated dancing baby.

That disaster of popular culture, in turn, got me thinking about Wolf's echoing of Socrates' concerns about the impact digital texts could have - Could we lose our sense of a text's true meaning in the flurry and flood of information now available? Gold reiterates this concern when he quotes Helfand, who describes "a new kind of illiteracy" motivated by the urge to self publish.

Gold does not join Helfand in fretting about the decay of literacy, arguing instead that as the rules change, so too will our conceptions of literacy. I think I sit somewhat uneasily in between the two views. I see the changes taking place, and I believe people will adjust. I also believe, however, that at the moment, most people do not know how to read or compose effectively for digital spaces. That is a kind of illiteracy.

I suppose the question that raises is this: How do we teach society to read and compose for a rapidly changing medium?
Result of an image search for "HR Tag"
 Interestingly, when I did a Google Image Search for "hr tag," the image to the right was the number one result. I find it funny that someone choose to illustrate the HR by dividing pop song lyrics from 2000. It's as though they knew the shelf life of both the tune and the textual convention.

If our writing conventions have the same staying power as our bubblegum, what's a composition teacher to do?

Friday, February 03, 2012

Reaching the Summit

Yesterday I attended the Academic Literacy Conference Summit here at UC Davis.

It was a great experience.
I posted about the event on twitter, which was a fun way to engage in the event. 

Here I want to focus on the table of people with whom I shared lunch.

That was an odd experience.

People who had led breakout sessions were each assigned a table. The idea was that people would have follow-up conversations about what happened in the session. I had missed the first session because I had to teach, but when I arrived for lunch I saw Aaron, Jenae, and Mary all at one table. So I sat down with them at the "Bill Macauley" table.

Bill Macauley is an Associate Professor of English and Director of the University Writing Center at the University of Nevada, Reno. He'd led a session on audiences for student writing. Very sharp man with some great ideas on writing instruction.

It promised to be an interesting table.

We didn't talk much about writing centers, however, or even writing instruction in general. Efforts to dig deep into what it means to facilitate writing instruction were repeatedly stymied by a pair of attendees from a regional college that I'll call Wassamatta U.

The pair took issue with almost any question posed or subject brought up for discussion. Their contention seemed to be that all constructive talk was useless because their students aren't capable of carrying out even the most basic of educational tasks.

Example 1: the pair reflected on the morning's keynote presentation by Jose Rivas. Rivas had demonstrated an entertaining and engaging science lesson on Newton's Second Law. According to my lunch companions, Rivas would not have engaged the students of Wassamatta U. because those students would not participate in activities or respond to problem solving prompts. [laughter]

Example 2: When Luciana C. de Oliveira showed the Common Core expectations for kindergarten level narrative texts, I was told that students at Wassamatta U. were not able to compose at that level. [laughter]

Example 3: When Bill Macauley suggested finding entertaining and culturally relevant sources for developing grammar skills, we learned that the students at Wassamatta U. don't watch television or share any common cultural mores. [laughter]

The easy thing for me to have done would be to dismiss the pair as burntout or bitter. I tried to do as much, but I couldn't shake this question: If things were so hopeless for these two, why were they attending the summit?

Even if Wassamatta U. was paying for the day (which I don't think is the case), no one at the conference was taking role. The pair could have picked up name tags and hightailed it to a day spa. Something didn't fit.

So I turned to one of them and asked about teaching at Wassamatta U.
Here's what I learned:
There's no money. The students arrive with a lot of baggage and few skills. The college and the larger institution to which it belongs offer no real support to instructors. There are colleagues and supervisors who are incompetent.
And then I heard this: "Have you ever used the Yoda Sentences? Students can build all sorts of sentences after just a few minutes with that exercise."

What? Wait...

The person who said that was clearly excited about a student's learning.
That's not the excitement of a burntout teacher. 

And then it hit me. This pair was fighting on the front lines. They worked where most of education's casualties fall. Even if the pair at my table go to work on Monday and work as hard as they can using the best practices available, many of their students are going to fail. A morbid sense of humor is pretty valuable in a place like that.

And that shed a new light onto the rest of the conference.

The Common Core asserts that academically literate students need to reflect on learning experiences and think critically. It sets high standards for students and asks teachers to find a path to reach those goals.

This was emphasized in the afternoon breakout session, which demonstrated ways to help students critically engage what the Common Core has deemed a 9th grade text, "A Quilt of a Country." The methods described are powerful classroom tools. I'm glad I attended. But the text had me thinking about Wassamatta U. The reading refers to novels by Phillip Roth, Francie Nolan, and John Cheever, as well as a "Calvinist undercurrent in the American psyche."

Those kinds of references would have sailed way over my head in 9th grade. I am thrilled that we have set such challenging standards, and I think talented teachers working with motivated students will achieve some wonderful results. But I'm left questioning the meaning of the word 'common' in the Common Core. I don't think the resources required to reach these goals are commonly available in every community.

If we really are interested in such a high level of academic literacy, then summits like the ALS need not only to assess what is at the core of literacy, they also need to describe the tools and techniques communities require to attain academic literacy. Then there's the task of showing schools how to take an inventory of their own learning environments to identify where they need to make changes. It's a tall order. The ripple effect from the ALS has to be very powerful.

I hope attendees feel the weight of that, because it was an impressive group to spend the day with, and I think we could have an impact.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Defining Literacy

This week, Rebekka asked the class to think about what the term 'literacy' means in a digital world.

Interestingly, shortly after I put my last blog post up on Facebook, my cousin asked me a similar question in the comments section. An image of the exchange is posted here because...

  1. I think I composed a nice little definition there, if I do say so myself, and...
  2. That exchange is a an good example of reading in today's digital environment.
Some explanation of the exchange: When I posted to Facebook, I noted that my literacy narrative referred to the white-on-blue word processing screen made famous by the TV show "Doogie Howser M.D." As a result, the comments that followed include hyper-specific pop culture references alongside a discussion of the abstract concept of literacy.

I love this about digital literacy. A quality exchange normally has multiple foci. Digital literacy is found in the act of navigating all the points, counterpoints, ironic responses, non sequiturs, misfires, misunderstandings, baiting, esoteric references, and the all-too-obvious observations that are each accepted as part of the discourse.

Paul's Boutique
I'm reminded of the Beastie Boys 1989 album, Paul's Boutique. The Wikipedia page for the album's 6th track, "The Sounds of Science," lists no less than twenty-one pop culture references, and that list is nowhere near complete. Luckily, Soopageek has provided a much more complete annotated version of the song's lyric.  Here's one annotation from Soopageek's page:

Ponce De Leon constantly on
The fountain of youth not Robotron
  • Ponce De Leon was a Spanish Explorer who discovered Florida while searching for the fountain of youth.
  •  Robotron: 2084 was a popular arcade video game released in 1982.

Now I know that the Beastie Boys' effort to innovate through extensive sampling and rapid-fire references from across the cultural spectrum is more of a reflection of postmodernism's influence than it is of digital literacy, but... And this is a big 'but'...

The fact that a postmodern approach to ideas had seeped so deep into our culture by 1989 has a lot to do with what digital literacy looks like today.

In our class last week, Aaron argued that for the digitally literate, the onus is on the reader to understand how a link or allusion informs the document at hand, and this is true regardless of the cultural capital the author is drawing from - from Spanish explorers to early 80s video games. Aaron's argument suggests it is no longer the author's task to anticipate the reader's frame of reference.

I resisted in class, but I'm coming around.

Here's an instance that might explain why: Today I read James Sullivan's review of William Gibson's latest book. Among other things, the review refers to Skip Spence's 1969 album "Oar," the post-hippie era, Jorge Luis Borges, eBay, politics in Singapore, and of course Gibson's entire body of speculative fiction.

I was on a website I visit regularly reading about an author with whom I am familiar. Nevertheless, I had to look up Skip Spence (good stuff, btw).

It's not the number of references that requires a new kind of literacy, it's the range. A reader attempting to take in the full meaning of that review needs to have access to such a broad swath of cultural knowledge that internet search becomes a necessary part of the reading process.

In fact, readers now expect digital texts to send them off searching. If readers aren't moved to teach themselves something new as a result of a digital document, than the author isn't properly taking advantage of the medium. And if that's the case, then the author is not fully digitally literate.

So, if we lost functions of memory in the shift from an oral to a literate culture, as Wolf and Hass suggest, then perhaps we'll have to sacrifice the concept of individuals owning cultural capital in the shift to a digital culture.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

I'm in a New Class

I've enrolled in the UWP's Literacy and Technology course this winter. The seminar is being led by Rebekka Andersen.

Maintaining a blog is one task in the course. I've been keeping a blog for a while, as my 3 readers know, but I'm looking forward to the added direction. This week I'm posting a literacy narrative with a focus on how technology has impacted my reading and writing. Normally I won't explain a post's aim like this, but I thought the shift in focus might merit an explanation for those who have visited before.

Below is a video of a spokesperson from the Hunt Institute talking about his institute's take on 'literacy in other disciplines' as seen through the lens of the common core standards. You can watch it if you want. The man says nice things, sounds smart, and paints a wonderful picture of the value of literacy in science and history. I want this guy to be right about what school can achieve, but this task of composing a literacy narrative has me feeling skeptical. When I listen to someone describe students acquiring broad cultural literacy via a formal process, I can't help thinking about how messy that process was for me personally - a white, Midwestern, middle class, heterosexual male; I'm the kind of person for whom the system was designed... when it was designed over a century ago. 

So, how is a formal education system to inculcate literacy across disciplines to a diverse population in a world where literacy is changing at the speed of technological development?

I don't know the answer to that question, but I think developing a narrative of an event that contributed to my literacy could be a point of departure.

When I was in eighth grade, every assignment in our English class was geared toward the composition of a large autobiography. Each student was to assemble final drafts of all the assignments into a binder, personalize the collection of assignments with photos and additional writings, and put finishing touches on what would be read as one coherent work. A select few of the projects would be judged by a panel of parents who would declare one student "The Author of the Year."

I would love to say that I set my sights on that prize the day it was announced, but I was not that kind of student. I was a reader, but I rarely read the assigned texts. I would occasionally complete a writing assignment, but only if the assignment grabbed my interest. In short, I was a bad student. My teacher told me as much when she pulled me aside a few weeks before the final deadline and expressed her concern. "Hogan, I know you have some good ideas, but I haven't seen any of your revised work yet. I'm afraid that you don't have enough time to complete your autobiography, and if that happens, you won't pass eighth grade."

I cried.

Don't feel bad. That was nothing new. I was a crier back then.

But when I stopped crying, I decided that my teacher was clearly in the wrong. While I may not have had my autobiography written, I had a lot of rough drafts, and more importantly, I had been thinking about the project quite a bit. I just needed to sit down at the computer and type it all up.

Word processing before fonts.
So the weekend before the year long project was due, I booted up the family PC, entered the appropriate MS-DOS commands, and had a blank blue screen of the early MS word processing software.

I got to down to the business of putting my ideas on the page. I had a lot to say. All the thinking I had done in the run up to the writing had the words flowing from my mind to my fingertips.

And that's when I realized I was a lousy typist.

It was bad. Hunting and pecking really isn't a fair description, because I spent so much time hunting.

After taking more than three hours to write one full page, I did the math and realized there was no way I would finish the project before Monday... or ever. I had something of a meltdown at that point.

Worth noting here: I am a middle child with an older sister who is the only girl and two younger brothers who are twins. It was a difficult environment in which to effectively communicate my needs. At that stage in my life, the only method of getting attention I had mastered was a horrible melodramatic outburst.

In the instance of the autobiography, this strategy worked. My folks calmed me down and listened as I explained my predicament. They picked up on something I haven't really explained here yet. In my tone my parents heard something they normally didn't associate with my orientation toward school: I didn't just want to finish the project and pass eighth grade; I really wanted to do a good job.

There were a few contributing factors:
  • That year I had started hanging out with a new group of friends, and they were all good students.
  • In seventh grade I had started reading the Xanth fantasy novels, and after finishing a few books with +500 pages, I had begun to fancy myself as a bit of a literary type.  
  • I needed to prove my teacher wrong.
My dad told me that my execution of this whole project was a disaster, but he then told me that he would type if I read aloud the words I wanted to have on the page. We got to work on Sunday morning and did not go to sleep that night (yeah, my dad is great).

I ended up winning the "Author of the Year" award, which was really exciting.

My Autobiography's Cover
But something else happened as well. Throughout that day and night of writing, as my dad and I would print up a final version of this or that portion of the project, I began to compose the whole. I thought about appearance, order, pictures, captions, cover art, and the kinds of details I had never considered before. 

I have awful handwriting and trouble spelling things on the first try. So before using a computer to complete an assignment, I really just wanted to get the required material on the page. Computer publishing put a well-composed document within my reach, and suddenly I was thinking about a reader's first impression.
Double-stick tape, a Sharpie, and dot-matrix printing.

Since that long day of writing with my dad, I have read and composed texts using technology quite a bit. But my appreciation for how technology and composition are woven together stems from this story.

So thinking back to that guy from the Hunt Institute video, I'm not sure if anyone can bottle that kind of experience and make it work for a diverse population of students. But I'm here at UC Davis trying to find methods that will help students discover their own set of circumstances that will lead to a better understanding of literacy.