Friday, December 19, 2014

This Week in E-Mail Auto Response, 12/15 - 12/19

About This Week in Auto Response

Each workday, I write a new auto response e-mail for my work address only: nick.carbone AT macmillan DOT com. If anyone e-mails me, they get an auto response, even on days when I'm in the office. I mean why not? It's not quite a "set it and forget it" move, but the auto response does at least confirm for a send of e-mail to me that their letter has arrived.

http://bit.ly/1qEx6Pv for a note on the rhetoric of auto responses.

Monday, December 15: Blank You, Spam

I do hope you do not mind getting this automatic reply. Please feel free to fill in the ending blank:

Because I must do that work due that I do so well, I reply to tell that my unread inbox will swell.  I've turned off the chime, shut down the bell, so no alerts my progress will quell. If you need a response I'll get back in a spell. Unless you've sent spam, in which case, you can just go to ___.

Tuesday, December 16: Peter, Paul, and Mary and Me

I've been thinking about hammers of late, and the Peter, Paul, and Mary song that starts, "If I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the morning . . ." keeps popping into my head because of it.
A hammer is a technology in search of things that need hammering: nails, of course, but sometimes horseshoes, or pegs, or the handle of a chisel, or metal to be shaped . . .
Hammers vary and can be banged for a lot of different purposes and situations. Sort of like writing. Writing is a technology in search of things that need hammering out too. I guess that would make the song go like this:
I'd write out danger,
I'd write out a warning,
I'd writer out love between,
My brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.

Wednesday, December 17: It's a Wonderful E-Mail

Quotes from It's a Wonderful E-Mail, the story of an outbox in despair because it thinks it makes no difference what it sends; Outbox learns its messages matter after an angel in need of wings shows Outbox how its messages have made a difference.
Hey look, Outbox. We serve hard drinks in here for unwritten mail that wants to get drunk fast, and we don't need any characters around to give the joint "atmosphere".  
Strange, isn't it? Each e-mail touches so many other lives. When it isn't sent around it leaves an awful hole, doesn't it? 
Remember, Outbox: no e-mail is a failure that has contacts.  
You see, Outbox, you've really had a wonderful e-mail. Don't you see what a mistake it would be to never send again? 
A toast to Nick's Outbox: The longest messages in town. 
Every time an autoreply is read to the end, an angel gets its wings. 

Thursday, December 18: I Am a Romantic, but Not Ridolfo

Right now the rain is almost snow. Some drops are clearly water, some white globs, slush on the way to being flakes. Given a few more degrees, I'd need a shovel today. But the degrees that do come will be warmer not cooler and so no shoveling just yet. Still, it's good sweater and hot drinks weather, simmer a stew weather, and, sitting with a warm computer on one's lap, in the cozy glow of the snow-white editing screen longing for words, writing weather. 

This is clearly not La Boheme, I'm no Rodolfo writing despite the cold in a gusty garret, but there is something Romantic to writing on a blustery day, even if only for work. Some of the stuff I'll be working on, the pedagogical stuff not the expense report stuff, requires idealism, passion, and even with all the science I know, respect for what remains mystic and uncanny about teaching and learning. So that's largely what I'll be doing today, writing stuff for courses I won't be teaching, instructors who are not me, students who will not be my own, creating imaginary classrooms with real students in them.

Friday, December 19: Writing to Unstuff

My head is stuffed. No, not because my ego is bloated (though it often is), in which case anyway, to be pedantic, I'd've said my head is swelled, but rather because I get allergies from, I suppose, dust in the winter, when windows and doors stay closed  and the air dries.

And so, while I wait for my daily ZYRTEC® to take effect , which I wash down with my morning shot of brandy, another winter tradition used only as a daily medicinal against the allergy, which medicinal, because it makes me sleepy, is followed by two cups of coffee, a brisk shower, and a morning walk to my office, which, since I work at home, is a short perambulation of six strides from bedroom to living room where couch and laptop await, I work on small things that can happily be done with a stuffed head in something of a slight haze.

Today that work is converting Microsoft Word documents of multiple-choice quizzes into the Respondus quiz format. It's tedious markup, remind me much of the days when I used to write with Word Star, a wonderful word processer that wasn't WYSIWYG when I used it. You were never quite sure until you printed whether the underlining or italics you marked up the text to have were rightly marked up. Same too with converting a quiz in Word to one in Respondus. It ain't until you import that Respondus manuscript that you really know whether there's an error.

So the work is tedious because I didn't write the quizzes, don't like the quizzes -- they're banal grammar questions, not fun at all -- is really a matter of conversion as a favor to a professor using some of our technology.

Such sometimes is the glamorous life I lead and why today, though my head is stuffed, it sure as hell ain't swelled.

Friday, December 12, 2014

This Week in E-Mail Auto Response, 12/09 - 12/12

Series Introduction

I have, in an effort to be more efficient at work, decided that I will only check my work e-mail  -- nick.carbone at macmillan dot com -- twice a day. And thus since replies will not be instant, each day I will write a new auto response so that my virtual correspondents know that in due time I will in fact read their tender missives.

I began this new approach with great resolve on December 9, a Tuesday. Though I suppose I could have saved it for a New Year's resolution, I believe in starting early when an idea is good. Also, it's year-end review season, and I can point to the tactic as an accomplishment in the same way that having a child just before the end of year is a great tax break.

Here are the auto responses for this first week. Each Friday, I'll post the weekly collection. Whatever I use as Friday's message will stay through the weekend.

See http://bit.ly/1qEx6Pv for a note on the rhetoric of out of office auto responses.

 

Tuesday, December 9:

And on the 9th day of December, the skies opened and the rain deluged, and verily I said unto me --- 'tis a good day to stay home and write unperturbed by the nuisance of a drench-the-trenchcoat commute to an office where, once I arrived, I would simply be writing while wet, with door shut to be undisturbed, meeting with no one, talking to no one. So I am home writing dry. If you need me, write me. If you need me to pay attention immediately, call me, my number's in the .sig below.

Though come to think of it, if you are seeing this iteration of my o/o/o, you are not someone who works in my office, and so it makes no difference to you where I am because it's not like you're in my office looking for me. But at least now you know I'm dry. And writing.



Wednesday, December 10:

Once upon a time I came to the office, sat at my desk, and turned on the automatic reply message. I then shut down my e-mail program. It was a gray and blustery day, and my work for the day included one brief face to face meeting and then lots of reading & writing. So I am in full e-mail denial if you are reading this: I've silenced the e-mail notification ding and icon and removed the e-mail shortcut from the start tray. If you're reading this far, know that I will blithely ignore my inbox until tomorrow. If you really need my attention, best to call.



Thursday, December 11:

Thank you for writing. No, really, I do mean it. Thank you. Even if your e-mail consternates, requires me to jump-to something, means more work of one kind or another, thank you. Sure, an e-mail of some other kind -- notice of good news, a gentle reminder to do something pleasant, like "Nick, don't forget to take your office nap today," praise of any kind, even if it's not for me -- might be more enjoyable, and so if you're sending one of those, consider my thanks even more profuse.

But really, whatever you send, since I'm a don't-let-the-sunshine-spoil-your-rain kind of guy, thanks. I'll get back to you as soon as I get back to e-mail reading, which is now deliberately intermittent.

Today my attention will be enslaved by other things, more, so I hope, productive things. 


Friday, December 12:

The Incredible True Story of the First Textbook

Because my new work efficiency diet requires me to cut down on my e-mail consumption, let me tell you a very truthy story while you wait for my reply.

Today is Friday, December 12, with only 378 days until Christmas 2015. On this day in 105 AD, paper making was invented in China. On the next day, that would be December 13, 105, the first textbook was published. No, not by Macmillan, we're not that venerable. The book was print on hand-written command. The first draft required readers to scroll, but after two unrolls to see more text, eye-ball tracking revealed that reading stopped; instead, students took to watching thieves get their hands cut-off, the role-playing video game activity of the time. Professors, since times were stricter then, tried corporal punishment, but the poking students in the eye with a stylus and yelling "since you will not do the assigned reading, dog, you do not need this!" proved counter-productive. So in revision, the book came out in a compact edition, a single sheaf, no scrolling required. However, by then, in addition to to thief punishment, other diversions had emerged -- ceramics was a growing hobby, and rice krispie treats were invented because opium had been discovered too. hus in its third revision, the book was reduced to an illustrated koan that could be copied by just about anyone. And so it spread, almost like a virus, across the land, causing giggles with each forward. But it also put the publisher out of business.

Glad those days are gone.

Meanwhile, I do check e-mail, but only twice a day, not constantly. So I will find your message eventually and if it requires one from me, I will respond. If a response is not required, know that I read every word you wrote, underlining the good ones.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Want to Pass a Writing Test? Memorize an Essay



A July 12, 2013 New York Times Magazine piece by Curtis Sittenfeld about her time, while a creative writing graduate student, tutoring a woman who needed to pass the writing test on her GED exam, describes an unsuccessful two year struggle to pass the exam:
During the two years my tutee and I worked together, she tried to pass the English section of the G.E.D. several times and didn't succeed, always unable to write a sufficiently coherent essay. It crossed my mind from time to time that maybe I wasn't her ideal tutor. For one thing, my understanding of grammar was more instinctive than formal. I didn't think of, say, gerunds or reflexive pronouns as gerunds or reflexive pronouns; I just knew how to use them correctly, which wasn't the same as knowing how to clearly explain them.
Sittenfeld got a job on graduation, and moved before her student passed the GED, under the guidance of a different tutor. But she had become friends with her tutee, who, after passing, explained to Sittenfeld her strategy:
Over the phone, my tutee told me about her new tutor’s approach to the English test: together they would construct a vaguely worded essay. My tutee would memorize it, and depending upon the test’s essay question, she would alter it slightly. Weeks after I moved away, she used this method, and it worked; she finally passed.
And that seems to me to be the issue so often in teaching writing. Learning, about gerunds and reflexive pronouns wouldn't necessarily have helped  pass the writing test. The test isn't about gerunds and reflective pronouns; it's about writing a formulaic essay that's predictable and acceptable enough to be easily scored and passed.

There are two lessons in this. 

Lesson 1. If You're Teaching Writing, Let Students Write

I want to be clear -- I don't mean to criticize Sittenfeld here. She did the best she could with what she knew and with her experience as a 25 year old volunteer. But the lesson from her experience I encourage is this: Let writers write. 

I do a lot of work with teachers of developmental writing, and they often do stress the need for their students to be able to know grammar and usage terms and rules, so much so that the students don't really get as much writing done as they would in first year writing courses. They do more workbook exercises, here lectures on grammar, read grammar handbooks before and during writing. So grammar and rules are first, and finding something to say a distant second.

We don't know enough about how Sittenfeld taught to know what the balance of workbook to actual writing was in her tutoring, but the attention to error and rules before writing is a common practice still in developmental writing courses. And it's the kind of attention that makes it harder for students to write well because it leads with anxiety by focusing students first on perceived deficiencies. 

The place for her to get tutee to have gotten to, is the place Sittenfeld describes for herself when she writes, "For one thing, my understanding of grammar was more instinctive than formal. I didn't think of, say, gerunds or reflexive pronouns as gerunds or reflexive pronouns; I just knew how to use them correctly."  

That balance of mainly playing and referencing would translate to mainly writing and then referencing a handbook or learning a rule for grammar or usage as needed. But too much developmental writing focuses on the rule book and exercises first, not play, not a reason to want to know the rules. It's the opposite of the balanced and explicit-about-transfer approach recommended by the NCTE's Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar.


Lesson 2. If the Test is Stupid, Undermine it By Teaching Tricks for Passing It

If your students are going to be assessed by readers trained to read like a machine, or a machine trained to match the reading and scoring of humans normed to read like a machine, discover what the testing regime will pass and teach students to mimic that. Don't let the weight of such tests, meaningless often in what they measure, stand in the way of students moving forward. Sittenfeld's student needed the GED to get into cosmetology school, and was motivated enough to do that for over two years, working through and past GED test attempts until she got it. Most students lack either that resilience or the means to keep trying even if they were a mind to. 

That the student passed by memorizing a formulaic essay, a strategy that probably alleviated the stress from prior failures, is not a condemnation of the student nor Sittenfeld's work as a tutor, but rather of the inanity of the test. The strategy worked because the test design allows and encourages it. 

But if testing is going to treat students so shabbily as to call for the kind of formulaic writing only ever used to pass writing tests, then the tests what they deserve for not being valid in the first place.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

#worthassigning: How to Write Effectively without Really Trying

This is cross-genre advice. Feel free to use these tips when sending memos to your supervisor, e-mailing colleagues, working with an author who needs some help, drafting a personal ad, and other places and times when writing makes a difference but you are really too busy to give it much thought.

  1. E-Mail: End all e-mail with "Sent from my iPhone," or "Sent from Blackberry."  Research shows that readers of messages with those auto-added advertisements forgive grammar errors and typos more readily:  collision detection: Why people forgive your bad spelling in email "sent from my iPhone"
  2. Georgia, Georgia, the whole document through, just an old sweet font, keep Georgia on your mind, for better grades.  How typeface influences the way we read and think - The Week
  3. If page length matters . . . Triple Space! Graphics!: http://www.homestarrunner.com/sbemail64.html
  4. Extortion, lying, and sudden endings: tips for getting readers to read: http://workableweb.com/_pages/tips_how_to_write_good.htm