Sunday, July 21, 2013

Blogging via Moleskine: the Pedagogy of Transcription

Writing in Slate, blogger Justin Peters describes his blog-post writing process:
I’ve always enjoyed writing things by hand, but I didn’t formalize the process until I started blogging daily for Slate. Almost every morning, before the day starts and I start drowning in emails, I go to a coffee shop with a pen and a small Moleskine notebook. There, I try to conceive and write drafts of two separate posts before 10:30 a.m. Then, it’s back to my apartment, where I shed my pants, transcribe, and refine what I’ve written. (One of the nice things about writing my posts by hand is that it allows for a built-in revision process.) 
I can write in my notebook anywhere and everywhere. I will frequently bring it with me and dash off a rough draft while in transit—waiting for the subway, sitting on a bus. This is very convenient, as it allows me to be productive on the go without having to own a smartphone. (My current cellphone is at least 10 years old … but that’s a story for another time.)
This reminds me of something I saw close to thirty years ago, and I forget where, maybe 60 Minutes?, but it was a profile of Woody Allen and he described how he'd write short pieces for the New Yorker by long-hand on a legal pad before typing the piece for submission. But more to the point, Peters observation on revision recalls this bit from Craig Fehrman:
In the last 30 years, however, technology has shifted again, and our ideas about writing and revising are changing along with it. Today, most of us compose directly on our computers. Instead of generating physical page after physical page, which we can then reread and reorder, we now create a living document that, increasingly, is not printed at all until it becomes a final, published product. While this makes self-editing easier, Sullivan thinks it may paradoxically make wholesale revision, the kind that leads to radically rethinking our work, more difficult.
Fehrman's piece draws much from the work of Hannah Sullivan and her recently published The Work of Revision ( Sullivan's main focus is on how technologies -- cheap paper, typewriters for faster drafting -- made possible the kind of revision that literary writers (Hemingway, Wolfe, Pound, Eliot, and other modernists she studies) did. But what's key is that the act of switching  -- or not switching -- composing media, from pen and paper notebook draft to online draft (or not), alters how writers revise.

In teaching writing, then, there's a virtue to be found and built on in urging writers to use varied writing tools, everything from audio notes recorded via a phone, to a series of tweets, to notes on napkins, to drafts in notebooks, to writing in discussion boards, to drafts in a word processor, or entries in a blog, and so on. Moving one's thinking on an idea from writing space to writing space, from writing tool to writing tool, from writing occasion to writing occasion lets an idea both age and blossom in the way wine does. With any luck,  no idea would be served before its time (and place and purpose and audience).

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

On the Death of My Wife's Cat

Ebony beloved cat of Barbara Crowley-Carbone, died, after 20 years of devotedly sleeping on her head most nights, in his owner's lap on Sunday, July 7. He is buried in our backyard, in a place that will become a small flowerbed, likely perennial bulbs that will bloom early each spring.  Ebony was predeceased by a brother, Bogart, who died of kidney failure in 2004, and a sister, Simba, the runt from their litter, who died at two weeks old, found tightly curled --and very stiff-- on a sun-streamed bedroom pillow. All three cats were as dark as Ebony's name, with small triangular Siamese faces, and, if you looked closely, tiger stripes of a deeper black.

Ebony lived to and died from old age and his final months came with weaker vision, less spring, confusion that left him wailing on occasion, and towards the very end, it seemed, the search for a quiet place to let go of living. And so we'd find him in places he never went before: a very tight spot behind a book case, behind a book bag under an old school desk, asleep on top of basket of keys that sit atop a cabinet where we store coffee and tea, and, for some reason only after a bath, he'd sleep in the litter box. But still, his favorite place to sit, was on my wife; if she sat on the couch to grade, he'd walk over her legs, across the math-paper pile on her lap, and climb to her neck, and settle, with his head under her ear, fore legs over her shoulder, and rump on her breast.

Combined with summer heat and a new-to-her cat allergy, the location wasn't the best of places, but as often as not Barbara would take a Zyrtec, shift the papers to her left and his rump a bit to the right, adjust her bra, and let him be, knowing he had little time left.  And on the not-times, when things were too hot or itchy for her, he'd wander over and sit on me. I don't like cats on me. The rule of thumb for pets in our house is that they don't belong to me. I don't feed them, hold them, groom them, pick up after them. I'd occasionally flick a string at the cat to get him to jump, or throw a toy his way, but I was just as likely to toss a pillow to get him off the bed, or a dish towel to get him down from the table. Still, as he got weaker and weirder, it got harder to push him away, and so in the last few weeks he'd come to me, searching for the same location. I'd tuck a couch pillow on my lap, lacking as I do the perch he found with my wife, so he could climb to where he wanted to be. It made reading or writing a trick, and so when he came my way, I'd often switch to a gin-and-tonic and Netflix moment as a bribe to myself to be kind to him in his dotage dolorous.

Ebony, in his dotage, allowed on the coffee table so he can look at the skinks.

Still, for the odd crying jags, the more frequent search for new quiet spaces, the increased lap time, there were moments when Ebony would be or try to be himself: his appetite stayed good until the last day or so, when he switched to water; he'd pop his head up at the window when a rabbit stopped outside of it to eat the clover that grows in our yard; if one my daughters trailed a cat toy, he'd follow after it (though they had to play the game in slow motion); and he'd come to the table for scraps, sniffing and beseeching for a nibble of pork, chicken, fish, or pop-corn if we had a fresh-popped batch.

My kids got in the habit of sneaking him food because when Bogart, his brother, was alive, if Ebony didn't finish his breakfast before Bogart had finished his own, Bogart would Bogart Ebony's food, shoving him out of dish with a head bump and a look. So Bogie was plump, Ebony thin, and my daughters in empathy got him hooked on scraps. And that habit held on to the end, an end marked by the things that come with getting old punctuated by habits from a life lived. He carried on, doing what he could on his own when could, crying honestly when he was lonely and confused,seeking time with those he was about to leave behind, and despite occasionally doing things that would be embarrassing -- sleeping in a litter box when wet of fur -- seeming never ashamed of who he was and how his days were spent.

Strange to say, for a pet that wasn't mine, whom I grudgingly acknowledged, and certainly didn't love, I do miss his presence. I think in maybe the same kind of way George Bailey discovers, in It's a Wonderful Life, that he's happy to see even the exasperating broken newel on his staircase. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad to be one pet less, and that much closer to no litter dust or stench, no pet food odor, no scratch marks, no dander, and all kinds of wonderful no mores to come (after the remaining cat moves out with my daughter if she ever can afford to move out). And so as happy as I am to have cat-things diminished, Ebony will be missed. Maybe because when he begged for a bite, the kids had a running joke they'd make, or when he did one of those dumb things cats do, like slide in panic on a new-polished floor, my wife would laugh a certain way because it was him, and that laugh, that one special one for that occasion, won't be heard again.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Students: We'll Give You Our Print Textbooks When You Pry Them From Our Cold, Dead Hands

Digital Book World did a $45 webcast yesterday on e-textbook trends. Happily, they provided a free summary today because the news isn't new and instead confirms what we knew.
While publishers are increasingly creating and selling digital materials and students increasingly have the devices on which to consume that content, only 3% of students last semester used a digital textbook as their primary course material (for a specific course). That’s down from 4% for the fall semester.

Overwhelmingly, students prefer print, according to the survey of 1,540 undergraduate college students at both four-year and two-year institutions of higher education.

When asked why, about half “prefer the look and feel of print;” nearly half say they like to highlight and take notes in the textbooks; and a third cite that they can’t re-sell digital textbooks.
So it goes.

U.S. director of Bowker Market Research, Carl Kulo, who presented his research, predicts e-textbooks will take off in the standard prediction range: 3 - 5 years, the rate of take off now for the past 15 - 20 years. Hey, don't laugh, predict this often enough and it's bound to right.

But digital sales are increasing  -- "Despite the stagnation of digital textbook adoption, some publishers are reporting that a significant portion of their revenue is 'digital'.” -- with Pearson reporting that 50% percent digital revenue.

So let's ask this: if e-textbooks aren't selling, what is? Homework systems? Tools like e-portfolios? Course design and faculty development services delivered digitally?

What purpose does a textbook serve? To dump information, advice, activities, assignments, guidelines into a single device -- for years a print device bound by covers and held by string and glue -- so that an instructor could direct students to read, do, discuss, remember, write about, lab about, and even learn about what the book covered.

Students are right -- simply taking that print thing and dumping into a PDF and delivering it on a screen does suck compared to having the print book. It's like difference between drinking a fresh gin and tonic on a sunny afternoon on the back porch overlooking a quiet beach from drinking a gin and tonic that was poured a few days ago and delivered flat and diluted for your drinking pleasure in a place where the view is of the brick wall across from you stuck-shut window in the room with no a.c.. Sure, it's still a gin and tonic, but it don't look and taste the same, and isn't improved by being in a hot room with no breeze and no view.

Now we do PDF-based e-books because they're cheap, fast, and make more money than they lose for being cheap and fast and allow us to say to the market we have lower-priced options and books that can be read on an iPhone (even though Bowker finds most students prefer laptops still), and other reasons.

e-textbooks will take off -- are taking off in fact -- when and where the word 'book' means something different than what the print thing is. Where the purposes and contents and activities once in print live a native digital life, with a digital rationale, where things are unbound from covers and rebound to learning purposes and needs. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Unsolicitated Solicitations Solutions

From: Carbone, Nick
Sent: Tuesday, May 28, 2013 2:40 PM
To: 'Breanna Colin'
Subject: RE: Publishing Industry Prospects

I am an F level executive at a D level subsidiary of a B level conglomerate.  I make no decisions and being where I am, only know by rumor the names of people, not how to contact them were I ever to dare to, who could make a decision about purchasing a database such as yours. We generally try not to know these things as the news from others in the business is usually glum, depressing us about our prospects, or glad, depressing us even more than bad news because they’re invariably doing better.

If I happen to be in your database, it's probably best, for your product's reputation, that I be removed. If you've ever ordered ice-cream for dessert at a nice restaurant and found a used band-aid in the scoop after your second or third spoonful, you'll know what having me in your database will be like for your customers.

Nick Carbone
Director of Digital Teaching and Learning
ncarbone AT bedfordstmartins DOT GOES HERE com
phone: (six one seven) two seven five – one eight seven two


From: B*** C*** 
Sent: Tuesday, May 28, 2013 2:34 PM
To: Carbone, Nick
Subject: Publishing Industry Prospects
Importance: High


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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Deep Learning and Memory Implants, Oh My! MTR's 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2013

MIT Technology Review (MTR) magazine offers an annual list of 10 technology breakthroughs. This year's list is embedded in their introduction to the full set at
Our definition of a breakthrough is simple: an advance that gives people powerful new ways to use technology. It could be an intuitive design that provides a useful interface (see “Smart Watches”) or experimental devices that could allow people who have suffered brain damage to once again form memories (“Memory Implants”). Some could be key to sustainable economic growth (“Additive Manufacturing” and “Supergrids”), while others could change how we communicate (“Temporary Social Media”) or think about the unborn (“Prenatal DNA Sequencing”). Some are brilliant feats of engineering (“Baxter”). Others stem from attempts to rethink longstanding problems in their fields (“Deep Learning” and “Ultra-Efficient Solar Power”). As a whole, we intend this annual list not only to tell you which technologies you need to know about, but also to celebrate the creativity that produced them.
Each link in the introduction above leads to an article length exploration of the breakthrough. Deep Learning and Memory Implants caught my eye. Deep Learning uses computer processing power to simulate neural networks; the article focuses on Ray Kurzweil's work at Google, where they've made magnitudes of progress in speech and image recognition using deep learning. The image recognition will be key to Google Cars, to indexing images and video; the speech software does the same for sound, including human speech. Kurzweil's next area of inquiry? -- natural language understanding:
    Kurzweil isn’t focused solely on deep learning, though he says his approach to speech recognition is based on similar theories about how the brain works. He wants to model the actual meaning of words, phrases, and sentences, including ambiguities that usually trip up computers. “I have an idea in mind of a graphical way to represent the semantic meaning of language,” he says.
    That in turn will require a more comprehensive way to graph the syntax of sentences. Google is already using this kind of analysis to improve grammar in translations. Natural-language understanding will also require computers to grasp what we humans think of as common-sense meaning. For that, Kurzweil will tap into the Knowledge Graph, Google’s catalogue of some 700 million topics, locations, people, and more, plus billions of relationships among them. It was introduced last year as a way to provide searchers with answers to their queries, not just links.
    Finally, Kurzweil plans to apply deep-learning algorithms to help computers deal with the “soft boundaries and ambiguities in language.” If all that sounds daunting, it is. “Natural-language understanding is not a goal that is finished at some point, any more than search,” he says. “That’s not a project I think I’ll ever finish.”
Imagine what kind of grammar checker  that would produce. Or maybe it could create an auto-writer instead as well as writing assessment tools -- ask the computer (speech recognition, remember; no need to use a mouse) to create a report on the latest trends in and it arrives in your inbox in a day or two, freeing your assistant to do proper things, like pick up your dry-cleaning and getting your lunch. And then, if you really want to get scifi with it, imagine that the memory implant, the idea of which is to embed a chip that allows the return of long term memory capabilities for people who have lost (perhaps from traumatic injury, or Alzheimer's) that ability. Once that's possible, would there be a service that offered to preserve your memories on a chip so that should you suffer a stroke, and receive a memory implant, the implant provides not just the ability to create new long term memories, but restores key prior ones? What if the implant could give you memories you never had but would like or need, such as, oh, maybe remembering the contents of that history textbook you never got around to reading before the final exam?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

MFA Writing Programs, where MFA = (M)entors (F)or (A)spiring Writers

arn Wilson, writing for Brevity, has a post ( called "Of Spinning and Writing" In Defense of MFA Programs."

She sets her piece as ruminations that occupied her mind during the a spinning class, where she reviews the often scathing and dismissive critiques of MFA programs, acknowledges those critiques have some merit, but then she considers what MFA programs do well. It's not just the feedback on writing, but on seeing how to live a life that makes room for writing. And she touches on the differences between people who can find mentors organically, perhaps because they live an already networked life, a life where they get to know and see and talk to people who think of themselves as writers first, on the one hand, from those who need help finding a mentors to learn how to live a writing life. MFA programs offer that.

Here's something else she says that's true, and not only for MFA programs, but for developmental writing courses, first year writing courses, or any other teaching of writing situation:
And those complaints that MFA programs produce too many writers and that writing can’t be taught? I agree there is a certain luminous originality in the finest writing that can never be taught. But after years of seeing students’ awe-inspiring growth over a semester’s time, no one can convince me that most writers won’t improve, dramatically, with regular practice and structure and meaningful feedback.  (I think that is also a cultural bias, an American Western, individualistic, frontier mentality: many other cultures value apprenticeship, elders and generations of accumulated wisdom.)  The typical MFA program may not birth genius, but the students improve.
Writing can be taught, it can be learned -- by writing, getting and giving feedback, revising, and learning habits of mind that foster writing. Every writing course can help any writer improve, no matter how novice the writer, how unsure, how raw, simply by offering "regular practice and structure and meaningful feedback."

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Mindsploitation -- Now That's the Way to Do It

Laura Runge, an English professor at the University of Southern Flordia, tweeted a link to info on Mindsploitation, a book by television comedy writer Vernon Chatman, a comedy writer. I bought a copy ( because it touches on an issue I frequently do faculty workshops around -- plagiarism and cheating. But I really bought it because it looks to be a fun read.

Here's what the book, along with its full title, is about:
Mindsploitation: Asinine Assignments for the Online Homework Cheating Industry
There are hundreds of online companies that will do your homework for you – at a price. But will they write ANY essay you request? Only the WORST of these horrible companies were employed in the composition of Mindsploitation. A GREAT DEAL of money was wasted ACROSS THE GLOBE to commission what may be the dumbest collection of ridiculous assignments in HUMAN HISTORY.

What does it say about our society that we can buy a quick custom eulogy for our grandmother, or pay to have a love poem for a mistress prepared by a stranger at the click of a button? How entitled is a culture that keeps these services afloat? Mindsploitation uses such questions as a launching pad for wildly entertaining comedic exchanges. The 50 assignments in this book hilariously explore self-help, spirituality, family, health, diet, pop culture, love, and more.

I haven't read the book yet, but just based on the description above, I'd be tempted to assign it in a writing course if I were currently teaching. It reminds of Don Novello's The Lazlo Letters (The Lazlo Letters by Don Novello | 9781563052859 | Paperback | Barnes & Noble ); in that, Novello, playing a character named Lazlo Toth, who sent off-beat letters to politicians and other leaders which resulted in funny exchanges, a kind of literary version of what Ali G went on to do less inventively. Mindsploitation seems a work in that vein, one that exposes some absurdities and creates a few of its own along the way.

I wish textbook publishing had room for books or digital learning projects that could do more with humor, could teach with a lighter touch. An outlying instructor here or there pulls that off, but by and large, most professors eschew humor from their pedagogy, and so making a book which relies on it simply isn't practical. Too much self-seriousness in teaching.

That said, I wonder how it would work to use a professional writing cheat to do some of the writing the job requires. If you were try that, engage a writer to something you're asked to do, what's the most asinine assignment, based on the kind of writing you do for work, that you could imagine?

To help imagine the kind of thing Chatman did, here's a sample request he made for a commissioned school assignment:
My midterm thesis essay paper is an exploration of Alternate Endings To Great Works of Literature. All I need from you is to come up with some Alternate endings to some Great works of literature … Provide a new ending to Catcher In The Rye where Holden Caulfield turns into a crawfish and goes into some kind of retail business.

Here's a Dilbertesque work assignment of the kind I mean:

My editorial team has been asked to provide use cases on nontraditional teachers for programmers at an educational software vendor coding a product for us. Can you write use cases for the following potential teachers?: the odd lady at the bus station with the sign on her neck about end times who follows families around trying to get the children to get the parents to get outta Sodom, Sodom being, in her mind, the bus station;  the loud guy in the business suit and bluetooth cell headset at the airport bar whose dropping names and instructing someone somewhere to buy, buy, buy, or sell, sell, sell, the guy whose voice gets louder, back gets straighter, and stomach gets sucked-trimmer every time any woman even looks at the stool next to him, which stool remarkably stays as empty as a handicapped driver parking space in a crowded parking lot during a torrential rain.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Cynicism Leads to Evil Learning Software

Yesterday I read a talk, "Decode the Academy," that Barbara Fister, co-author of Research and Documentation in the Digital Age and a gifted librarian, whose scholarship focuses on teaching students to use the library effectively, gave at LOEX, a conference for librarians. I want to draw attention to a critique she made of one particular brand of citation software:

But before we do that, let's take a look at a student's-eye view of research. There's a clever piece of software on the market that explains very clearly how many students perceive the practice of putting together a research paper, because it's designed to help them do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. It’s called Citelighter ( and it lets students go to webpages, grab quotes, save the bibliographic information so citations can be generated from it, and offers a space to glue them together in a document. The video on the website explains how it can make your life better. You go to your favorite sources, highlight the facts you need (and everything you find in a source is described as a "fact"), arrange them, add your own thoughts, and push a button. Your paper is done. Better yet, this process is socially networked so you can share your collections of facts and borrow them from others. No need to search out and read any sources at all. Perhaps more dispiritingly, the video shows how a student with dreams and an urge to create something meaningful is finally able to do that – once he has completed that tiresome paper.

It's a clever app for doing more efficiently what students apparently think they should be doing. And we have evidence that this is, in fact, exactly how many students perceive the practice of writing research papers, in the Citation Project (, an ongoing study led by Becky Howard and Sandra Jamieson. They led an effort to gather and analyze first year writing samples from multiple institutions, largely in an effort to understand student research writing behavior to help them avoid plagiarism. What they found is that most students avoid paraphrasing or summarizing the source they use. Instead, they grab quotes and don’t bother to interpret them. They grab them mostly from the first or second page of articles. They grab what works, whether or not it's in any way representative of the main point of the article. And they use those quotes as building material glued together with a thin mortar of their own words. Most of the work reviewed in the study is “patchwriting” rather than analysis or argument. The study suggests students are able to find the kinds of sources we hope they will use—that’s the good news. The bad news is that they don’t read them. Reading is not required when you think the point is to harvest and arrange quotes. By the way, this is not a product of our digital era. Jennie Nelson studied undergraduate writers some years ago, back when the quotes they mined had to be copied from books, and concluded almost exactly the same thing: most first year writers gather material and quote it without engaging in the recursive process of reading, writing, and making meaning, the very process that we are trying to promote with these assignments.

Now Citelighter markets directly to students, and so the cynicism of their approach taps into the drudgery students experience with wretchedly designed research assignments, the kind that emphasize research mechanics and penalties  -- double spaced, 1" margins, MLA style, at least 6 sources, three must be from the library, no use of Wikipedia, piss-in-this-plagiarism-detection-engine-cup-before-turning-in-the-paper-because-if-you-plagiarize-the-wrath-brought-down-upon-you-will-be-like-no-judgment-you-have-ever-known kind of thing -- more than being curious and having something worth saying to people who might want to read it because they're curious about the same stuff. Citelighter knows that for many students, sadly, research assignments aren't about writing, they're about compiling a correctly cited and formatted document, one that meets a checklist of requirements, the least of which is to be interesting to read.

We're looking at/for software that at its base does what Citelighter does -- helps researchers save and cite sources, notes on sources, draft writing that uses the sources, and source sharing -- but we want software that offers those features (and others) in the service of research as inquiry and curiosity, not as a meaningless hurdle. We're looking for software that respects the writer's integrity, assumes it, and gives them tools for learning what integrity means and tools for managing their sources to avoid accidental plagiarism. We're looking for software that lets teachers see what students are doing, so that teachers can coach students beyond quote harvesting, help them assess sources, help them revise their thinking as they learn more, help them decide what role a source plays, and other acts of deeper reading and synthesis that the Citation Project and Jennie Nelson described as missing from most novice research writing.  We seek software that supports student-to-student sharing so that students can swap source leads, share drafts, co-author if a project calls for it and otherwise help one another in all the ways that faculty get help from colleagues when they do research. We seek to do no evil.

And here's what else -- we know for that software to work well, to really help writers, good design is essential, but never enough.  Instructors will need help on how to design research assignments that take advantage of what the software offers in two ways:

One, if software features address the mechanics and formatting and time management and proofing checklist aspects of the research project, if it helps address plagiarism, it addresses two areas that cause many teachers anxiety. If we can show teachers how the software lessens anxieties for them and students, then we can show teachers how it can affirm aspirations. No teacher really wants to read a boring, atonal, quote-harvesting research paper. It's mind-numbing and soul-crushing to end a semester doing that. But fear of students not being seen as correct by other teachers, or fears that research is too hard to teach and mechanical correctness in source handling is essential above all to route the scourge of plagiarism, leads to assignment designs that lead to mind-numbing, soul-crushing reading.

Thus two, the need will be to help teachers out of those fears, which can be deep-seated. Software alone won't budge it. Teachers' instincts will be to use their same assignments and practices and tone that just student writing down, that misplace emphasis, and that lead to wretched-to-read research. Having software that offers a better path isn't enough; teachers will need help taking steps on that path. The software, chosen well and designed right, provides an opportunity and means to find a better way to teach research writing, offering tools that never before existed, but teachers will need stories of how others like them changed their assignments to take advantage of the possibilities, workshops on drafting their assignments, practical advice on how to work differently, what to read and when, what not to  ready and why of students' works.

There is no magic software. Only software that makes magic possible.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Words Count, and So Should Word Counts

James Fallows, at, points out some advanced features of Scrivener, a word processor, one of which is kind of cool in my view: it provides word length targets for projects and measures on progress. The link above leads to his post, and it shows an image where a range of writing projects are listed in table. You’ll note three columns that abut one another in this order: Total Words; Total Target; Total Progress.
Fallows lives, as a journalist, in a world where assignments are by word length, but more and more writing teachers in first year composition in the U.S., and teachers in other courses where writing is assigned, are basing assignments on word counts instead of page length. For those professors, the move isn’t tied to column inches but rather to the erasure of the print manuscript. Interestingly Fallows reports that he doesn’t use the feature for his columns, but rather for writing books, and he uses them as a way of “setting the daily output targets that are crucial to maintaining sanity through the months-long slog of finishing a protracted writing project.” I know a lot of folks working on dissertations and first books who would benefit from this.
Such a tool rejiggered a slight bit for novice writers in college, who are learning the craft of writing longer pieces, or, simply who need to hit writing targets to keep up with work, especially in integrated into an online classroom space, could offer useful learning analytics. For example, if a professor assigned a sequence of writing activities with total word targets, especially for low stakes writing like daily discussion prompts or journal writing -- where part of the goal of such assignments is to work muscles, to get students into a writing habit, much the way some activities in a gym are to build strength, build cardiovascular capacity, build muscle memory – then the system might allow students to see their total words, the target words, their progress on target and as well the class average of total words. Or if students opted to form writing teams or groups, they could see the total words of each member.
So just this one slight thing – capturing word counts and displaying them in slightly different contexts -- changes how writers see what they’re doing and how teachers of novice writers see, and can assign, different writing activities. 

Wisdom of the crowds my Yelp

So, you want stars do you? Reviews by readers of your books, of diners of your restaurant, of sleepers in your bread and breakfast, of subscribers who view the movies you stream. Stars, likes, micro reviews, and more. They matter. "The Harvard Business School’s Michael Luca has found, for example, that a one-star uptick in a Yelp review can lead to a nine percent improvement in revenues for independently owned restaurants. Other studies have shown a similar impact for independent hotels—and for books," notes Tom Vanderbilt writing in Wilson Quarterly ( But as Vanderbilt goes on to say, the quality of the written reviews can be paltry, and which reviewers get higher rankings has more to do with being early to a review than to being good; also, has an average number of stars emerges, reviews that deviate from the average, even if well-reasoned, get less respect:
But curiously, as more ratings trickle in, a study by business professors David Godes and Jose Silva has found, the average rating begins to decline. “The more reviews there are,” Godes and Silva suggest, “the lower the quality of the information available”; later reviewers tend to be either less serious or less disposed to like the book, or to respond to other reviewers rather than to the book itself. While one might think a five-star review would summon more passion than a four-star review, one study found that four-star reviews were, on average, longer.

What consumers make of reviewers is also a fertile field of study. A team of Cornell University and Google researchers, for example, found that a review’s “helpfulness” rating falls as the review’s star rating deviates from that of the average review—as if it were being punished for straying. As the team noted, defining “helpfulness” is itself tricky: Did the review help people make a purchase, or were they rewarding it for conforming with what others were saying? There are a number of feedback effects: Early reviews tend to draw more helpfulness votes, simply because they’ve appeared online longer. The more votes a review has, the more its “default authority,” and the more votes it tends to attract.
So the crowds aren't so much wise as lazy maybe? Another interesting tidbit Vanderbilt exposes -- when people judge others reviews, they tend approve critiques of objects more readily than critiques of art, or put another way, a critique that carries a resemblance to fact more than opinion, will get more likes and favorites:
As Temple University’s Susan Mudambi and David Schuff found, people tend to rate longer reviews for “search goods”—such as cameras or printers—more positively than those for “experience goods.” A strong negative review for a camera might reflect some discrete product failure (pictures were blurry), but a strong negative review for a book might simply be another person’s taste getting in the way.

My use of online reviews follows the split -- I'll skim for a technology purchase, or to buy a tool, or to hire an electrician or carpenter -- but not ever for things like restaurants, hotels, music, books, films, and other things where the use is for immediate enjoyment while consuming, watching, reading, hearing, or tasting the thing to bought.

Vanderbilt's piece goes on to focus on the quality of written reviews, the stuff that justifies the stars. Most of what he finds in written reviews isn't useful because as so many opinions accumulate, it's hard to know how to weigh the picture of the whole, especially in a review system where stars seem to be generously given for often vague reasons. Who's right -- the person who decrees the food the best ever and most authentic or the person who decries it as wretched, with poor service to boot? I don't want to wade through that thicket.

What interests me as an editor and some one who occasional writes on things I've read a lot about, or on or in areas I've done a lock of work in, often for audiences who know my prior work and my name, is how amateur reviewers often try to signal their authority. Vanderbilt again, "If the Internet was supposed to wrest criticism from elites, a good deal of the reviewing energy on Yelp (and other sites) is precisely an effort to establish one’s bona fides. In the reviews for a new seafood restaurant in my neighborhood, a number of the writers tout themselves as “New Englanders,” thus implying that they implicitly know of what they speak."

What professional reviews offer, restaurant, move, book, travel, is a consistent view and voice. I don't need all critics to agree on a movie before I decide to plunk dollars for a ticket, or all notices of a restaurant to be raves. I just need a few critics whose views I understand and can trust to be consistent. Even if I come to disagree with their tastes, if I know their tastes, then I know what will work for my own.

You don't get that kind of consistency in the Yelpland, where the wisdom of the crowds seems nothing more than the aggregation of exhaustion.

My Sophomore Year Was 5 of the Best Years of My Life

I didn't know it then, but when I was a college sophomore, chipping away at credits by taking courses at six different colleges in two different states, that what I was doing then would be more common now. But there's a name for it now, that thing I did over 30 years ago: Educational Buffet.

Jon Marcus, writing the The Hechinger Report, notes for more and more students, the "Conventional college route shifts to 'education buffet'" in an article posted here:

The education buffet, writes Marcus, appeals to
a new type of college student, one who doesn’t start and finish at a single brick-and-mortar campus, but picks and chooses credits toward a degree or job from a veritable buffet of education options.

These include dual-enrollment courses—college-level courses offered to students while they’re still in high school—advanced-placement programs, military or corporate training, career and life experience, and classes taught online.
Now unlike the woman profiled by Marcus, I did the buffet not because I had a job that made traditional college untenable but more because I had jobs in restaurants -- waiting and bartending -- that put a lot of cash in my pocket, late nights in my schedule, and a ready supply of colleagues and friends who liked to drink, eat, and play after work, especially when work ended at midnight or later. So where the contemporary student working the education buffet consciously builds an array of credits and life experience that can converted to a college degree, my buffet had a bit of bacchanalia to it.

I learned that if you transfer from one college to another, the new college will be happy to matriculate you to take your tuition and fees; in exchange they will not take the courses that earned Ds or lower, and so those were expunged from the transcript, bring my GPA up to where it looked good. It was sort of like a bookie laundering his cash. And so I was able to flunk statistics, fail first year French twice, get an F in a college writing course (a course I went on to teach), and all kinds of fun things because I knew that a simple transfer and reboot was possible. So after fifth year of my sophomore year, I had had a lot of good food, good drink, good times, good array of courses, and a good transcript.

I'm glad more students are discovering the method, especially if by doing this, they're staying out of debt.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

"I Don't Know" as a Reason to Write and to Teach Writing

The New York Times runs a regular series of posts by guest bloggers on writing. On April 29, Tim Krieder posted ( an entry, “The Power of ‘I Don’t Know’,” with a passage that bears directly on first year composition, one of our core markets. Krieder writes:

This voice is trained into us early on, back in high school or Comp 101, when we’re taught to make our arguments as succinct and cogent as possible, omitting wishy-washy qualifications like “in my opinion.” You’d think these disclaimers could go without saying; every piece of writing includes the tacit caveat: Or I could be wrong. And yet quite a lot of readers respond to your personal observations with wounded outrage when they fail to reflect their own experience, as if you were proposing your idle speculation as totalitarian law. That rhetorical pose of weary expertise has metastasized to the Internet, epitomized by the opener: “So let me get this straight.” It seems telling that this smug, knowing tone has become so endemic at the same time that the amount of information available is so numbing, and actual expertise so rarefied, that almost nobody knows enough about anything anymore to have the right to any opinion at all.

Composition struggles with this tension – getting students to write assertive arguments about things new to them, that by definition they do not know yet. Some instructors meet the challenge by inviting their students to write about things they do know, or at least care to learn, but very often that deepens the impulse of the writer to be assertive. Armed with more authority, they mimic more deeply the certitude they think academic writing calls for.

So here’s what I think I know: it is possible to urge students to write assuredly about being unsure, clearly about confusion. But it’s a different kind of thing to do that, and I suspect many teachers would need help creating a pedagogy of ‘I don’t know’. I don’t know if it’s possible to create heuristic software that might support that, something that brings forth and celebrates doubt and curiosity. I imagine it might be possible, but the trick might be that what it gives writers isn’t always certain and quantifiable, the way a quiz score is, or they way a spate of rubric averages are. And that uncertainty, while the point, might be unsettling to teachers who decide what students will do in their courses.

Or maybe that’s what we might explore, rubrics instead of heuristics that foster alternatives to pretended authority – rubrics for doubt, rubrics for curiosity, rubrics for humility, rubrics for serendipitous insights.

I don’t know if people would want those, but I do think teaching from and with them would make the class different, maybe over time safer for students to be honest about what they don’t know.