Monday, July 30, 2007

Rhythm Science

Just finished reading Paul D. Millier (AKA DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid)'s Rhythm Science. I've become a tunnel-visioned reader, analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating everything in the context of McLuhan, but until I develop other research interests, I guess I am stuck with those blinders.

I had heard and read others talking about Rhythm Science, but I finally got around to purchasing the book when I realized it was part of the MIT Pamphlet series, an series of books inspired in part by The Medium is the Massage--short texts, innovative in typography and design, not densely scholarly in citations, but clearly informed by a scholarly career. RS and N. Katherine Hayles' Writing Machines (another title in the series) are both much more autobiographical than MM, and neither are as visually interesting as MM, but RS offered me more than WM, which actually annonyed me because Hayles' called for "media specific analysis," a blatant but unacknowledge re-working of "the medium is the message," IMHO.

But I digress. Here are a couple of thoughts / reflections.

Miller / Spooky has actually used McLuhan's voice in his DJ work. He uses McLuhan on the CD to say "'electric circuitry . . . the flowing' is taking us on an 'inner trip . . . which involves us in depth in things that had formerly been merely superficial, visual, external and detached from our own beings.'" M/S goes on to argue that the opposite might actually be true "the specialization, fragementation, and routineization of work, space and life" has prevented the kind of in-depth participation McLuhan describes, and this particular description of postmodern life (for lack of a better label), continues to be problematic for me as I work with McLuhan. What M/S goes on to express throughout RS, it seems to me, is a desire for the kind of depth participation McLuhan describes, he just seems to think that very few people have achieved that depth participation. That might be the kind of account I am looking for and trying to articulate myself.

The mechanical age, as much or more than the electric age, seems to have influenced a culture of specialization, fragmentation, and routineization of work, space and life (think of some of Dickens' characters); the electric age seemed to presented the possibility of depth and integration, or a move from mechanical to organic metaphors, but the mechanical, modern infrastructure in place, the heavy weight of the way things are, and the mechanical, specialized nature of even many "electric" processes (i.e. writing code?!), has limited the impact of electric circuitry on our lives. Many educational theorists, however, now point out that our mechanical approach to schooling is dramatically out of synch with our students' "in-depth" living (although the "good students" learn to play along).

I am starting to digress again, and have exceeded my 10 minutes, so I will have to follow up with sequel.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Misunderstanding the Assignment

I am using Doug Hunt's Misunderstanding the Assignment in my TA Strategies Class this fall, and just finished re-reading the book. Now I need to remind myself why I decided to use it!

1. Accessibility: The TAs I have taught the last three years have often struggled with the more traditional academic article approach, or even the collections of essays I have tried. They have particularly been mystified by the debates the articles are often a part of. Perhaps steering away from the debate is going to turn out to be a bad idea, but I thought I would try a book that doesn't try to argue strongly for a position so much as try to increase readers' understanding of what happens in a first-year composition course.

2. Relevance: What could be more relevant than "seeing" how somebody else negotiated a semester of teaching first-year composition? I started to record my classes last semester, but I ran into some technical difficulties, and I was not capturing the students' perspectives. The 11 person research team was able to capture classroom data, student interview data, instructor interview data, and author analysis.

Upon re-reading it, and thinking about it as a teacher of teachers, I'm thinking about the following complications and possibilities.

1. The course taught isn't very much like the course we teach at NDSU. It seems to be a cultural studies class of sorts, asking students to analyze TV shows about the family, read and analyze free will in pieces of fiction. A syllabus and assignment sheets would have been a nice addition to the book. The big ideas are front and center, the teaching of writing happens inductively through workshops, conferences, and "Mr. Paragraph" classes. I do think this difference will turn out to be valuable in the long run, but the new TAs might have preferred to "see" a course more like ours.

2. I am excited about the possibility of "re-playing" some classroom scenes and some 1-on-1 conferences. I'm not saying the teacher handled situations incorrectly, but the book gives real situations (students in class who keep asking "what do you want?"; students in conferences who say little or nothing) that we might try to role play to give the new TAs (and me!) other strategies for handling these common situations.

3. I would like to design a smaller scale study modeled on this book. I have only 4 new TAs to work with, and they are primarily engaged in the process of learning how to teach, but I want to try and introduce them to the scholarship of teaching and specifically classroom research. My interest in computers and writing has me thinking that I would like to research the most overtly technologized assignments in English 120 and see to how our students are understanding them. I would probably ask the new TAs to function as the eyes and ears in my class (to put me under the microscope, rather than them), to conduct one interview with a select # of students, and probably to survey the 120 class as a whole. I used this mixed methodology with TAs two years ago and we published "What's Going On?"; maybe this year's cohort can develop another article.

A quick search revealed that Misunderstanding the Assignment was reviewed in Composition Studies and College English, but it doesn't seem to have made much of an impact on the field. I think its project is worth extending--good book.

Online tools

I just discovered a new McLuhan resource, which I tagged in, and included a note that looks like a blog entry. I have been thinking that notes seem like blogging (250 words or less).

I was actually trying to use Zotero for the first time, but the Zotero icon is not yet appearing on my Firefox browser; need to keep messing around I guess.

Set up a Furl account on Friday; don't know if I will be able to use Furl and and Blogger. Testing the tools is interesting, but using and managing them all is difficult. Good thing I set up the Suprglu account.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

FYC as Intro to Writing Studies: The Next Big Thing?

Doug Downs and Elizabeth Wardle's lead article in CCC has gotten people on the WPA-L fired up. I tend not to post much to lists because I read them in digest and always feel out of the flow of the conversations. The 3-5 times I have posted to various lists in the last 3-5 years, my post almost always kills any conversation, or at least signals that the conversation was over two days ago. Also, as I think about preparing new TAs, I am also thinking about my own learning style--definitely an observer / watcher type more than any other style. Even kids in high school noticed my style.

Back to FYC as Writing Studies. I've been using and advocating something a tiny bit like what Downs and Wardle describe, but I have been using popular press kinds of articles, mainly about "new literacy," not writing specifically, so I guess I am philosophically sympathetic, but I could go much further in practice. Their article did make me think about scholarly articles I could assign in my fyc class without making a radical shift this fall, although I haven't made any decisions along those lines yet. I'm thinking about things like an article on peer review (Nancy Welch's "Sideshadowing"? -- too theoretical?), something on revision, etc. I also just started watching Take 20; I need to wath the chapter where people recommend a piece of scholarship.

What I really wanted to reflect on, however, is one of the posts on WPA-L that suggested that this article signals "the next big thing" in fyc and writing studies. I have no objections to this approach being the next big thing, but I wonder how we, as a field, could measure, evaluate, assess, document in some way, that "the next big thing" actually leads to some kind of improvement in something. That something might be better student writing, but I actually doubt that. That something might be TA training, which seems more reasonable (TAs are more likely to learn about scholarship in reading, writing, research, etc.), or that something might be "better classroom dynamics," although one of my nagging questions as I read the piece was "how boring / exciting is this classroom / pedagogy?" Geoff Sirc has challenged all of us to engage our students, and I am just not sure how well this approach would accomplish that goal. The student comments included in the article suggested some success in this area, but I wonder what the majority of the class thought? The authors acknowledged the high percentage of students who "failed" under this approach; my hunch is those are the students who might succeed under a pedagogy that doesn't so obviously remind them that they are novice writers who are unlikely ever to acquire the habits of expert writers.

Last thought on why I don't think student writing would "improve." Connors and Lundsford documented that student rate of error in writing has not changed statistically throughout the 20th century (I think this research was updated, but I didn't see the resulting article). Types of errors changed, but not overall error rate. I did some research about 5 or 6 years ago on a program publication that lasted 20 years and survived 3 theory changes in the department. The writing assignments changed, so the students' writing changed, but I got the impression that the program wrote the students, and each "big new thing" in the department lead to changes in assignments, teaching methods, and genres taught, but there was no evidence that student writing, as a whole, got better. Theory / approach changes often seem like window dressing; I'm not saying such things are useless (window dressing can be a valuable change), but changes in labor practices, infrastructure, staffing, etc., are more likely to get observable, documented, positive change. The Chronicle of Higher Ed, citing changes at Princeton, Duke, and a few other Ivy-ish places, called this change the "million dollar solution" to first-year writing. THAT would be the next big thing if public institutions like mine put up the money to take fyc even more seriously.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Back online

Took two weeks to re-visit the roots, rural Manitoba, and had a great time. I'm guessing not too many people have ever visited rural Manitoba, there being no real tourist destinations in towns like Virden, where I grew up, or Carberry, where my extended family grew up and still lives, but these places are quite beautiful in subtle, prairie ways, and, as McLuhan predicted, these people are pretty plugged into the global village. There were some throw back elements--not many wireless access points--but also cutting edge elements--my cousin monitors much of his farming operation over the Internet. I won $40 at Men's night in Carberry--a bit of a 50s masculine throw-back kinda event in which my skinny bookish masculinty seemed a bit out of place--but my high school reunion was hosted by one of my openly gay classmates. My vegetarianism was challenged to the max--I must have eaten about 4lbs of French Fries in Carberry, the potato capital of Manitoba--but my cousin's husband managed to track down some sort of faux chicken burger at the local grocery store.

I'm back in the midst of administrative work, which tends not to lead to much blogging, but I'd like to try to carve out a bit more research time this summer.