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.