Tuesday, October 28, 2014

#worthassigning: Matt Reed on the tensions caused by loss of local faculty governance

Matt Reed, who writes the Confessions of a Community College Dean blog at Inside Higher Ed, has a post up that traces the shifts in decision making on policies and curriculum in higher education, a shift that's veering away from faculty governance/local control.
The post is at https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/confessions-community-college-dean/bossypants-conundrum

Here's an excerpt:
In many ways, higher education’s mode of production is still artisanal. Each professor sets her own standards for grading, selects her own materials, and to a significant extent reigns supreme in the classroom.  The apprentice-journeyman-master structure of grad school makes some sense in the context of an artisanal model. The artisanal model has its own dogma, in which academic freedom and shared governance are supposed to ensure that the artisans are substantially left alone.  As with any working dogma, it has its own internal contradictions -- shared governance can work against the autonomy of dissenters, for example, which is why dysfunctional department meetings are endemic to the industry -- but it has held up for long enough that some people think it’s natural.

Over time, the economic limitations of the artisanal model led to a wave of unionization based on the industrial model.  Unionization had clear benefits, although it introduced a whole new set of tensions.  For example, the artisanal ideal that every professor is a special snowflake sits uneasily alongside payscales determined solely by seniority.  “Master” status relies on being somehow special; collective bargaining relies on solidarity.  And the boundaries between curricular decisions, which are subject to shared governance, and economic decisions, which are subject to collective bargaining, aren’t always clear.  Is program elimination curricular or economic?  (The correct answer is “yes.”)  Still, to the extent that the unionization drive reinforced the artisanal ideal of faculty being substantially left alone, most of the contradictions could be contained.

Now a new logic is emerging, and it’s bringing new tensions.  State governments, often following initiatives from national foundations, are starting to look more intentionally at community and state colleges as branches of state workforce development systems.  In so doing, they’re working to shift the locus of decision-making from the campus, where shared governance remains the preferred method of decision-making, to the state.
I recommend the link for the full context. 

Why is this a piece worth assigning?

The changes Reed describes, even if you don't agree with his description of them or if what he says isn't true for you locally, are broadly true that the analysis is useful. The piece will be useful especially for graduate students to read, as they begin their careers and need to think strategically about where they want to be in ten and twenty years. It's a hard thing to do, think ahead about where a career in learning and teaching will go, but as tenure and full-time positions are already being reduced, it's also the new reality. 
The skill sets that most current faculty needed and used to get jobs still apply, but onto that, adjuncts and graduate students and newly hired assistant professors, need to develop other skills, and will need to be ready to adapt to conditions that most of their graduate school mentors cannot imagine. Newly minted or early career faculty in traditional programs will need to do the traditional things -- publish, present at conferences, serve on committees -- but they'll also need to be ready to shift gears if their programs are cut, or colleges are reorganized, or simply because opportunities for full time work that do not emerge in traditional colleges might be found in nontraditional programs.

What's also true is that new models of teaching are emerging, ones that are clearly not artisinal. Competency based education programs (see shar.es/10oyYn for new programs announced at public colleges)  -- where entire degrees and certificates are offered -- often do not follow an artisanal model at all. Faculty roles are unbundled -- curriculum and course design is separated out from leading discussion, giving feedback to students on their work, tutoring, and mentoring. In that world, what will professional development look like?
Will the raw numbers of traditional faculty roles in traditional colleges and campuses remain steady, either as adjuncts or full-time tenured artisans,  and will competency based programs, or badging programs, or other alternative educational ecosystems  simply emerge side by side, creating an alternate higher ed universe? Or will competing models merge, will institutions become hybrid, and faculty roles hybrid?

If faculty lead hybrid lives -- doing some artisanal course sections on brick and mortar campus where they design the curriculum and buttress their choices with academic freedom, but also serve on a curriculum review/design board for a competency based program, are hired to design a course for continuing education, or teach as learning coach in an online degree program -- what does that mean for their professional identity, how their work is valued, how promotions and pay increases are determined?

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Why ETS Might Not Want to Let Les Perelman In

Update on October 27, 2014.

In a discussion on WPA-L, Les Perelman responded to this post with two e-mails that shed more light on the nature of the proposal he submitted and his research goals. I've added those below.

At  Is MIT researcher being censored by Educational Testing Service?, Valerie Strauss has a post by Les Perelman, of MIT, detailing what he describes as a censorship condition imposed by Educational Testing Services (ETS) on research Les proposed to them.  ETS would only give Les access to E-Rater, their technology for automatically assessing writing, if he agreed to have his findings reviewed and to make corrections to errors ETS might find. If Les opted not to take their corrections, he could publish his findings but could not mention ETS or its products by name. The post includes a response by ETS asserting that the practice, which they do not dispute, is not censorship.

So my post here is not about whether ETS conditions are censorship, but something else. Why automated testing companies might choose to make it difficult for Les to have access to their products, and how other researchers might opt to test the claims of these products.

Automated Writing Scoring Companies Do Not Trust Les Perelman

In his post, Les cites the model of consumer watch dogs -- "All I want to do is what organizations like Consumers Union and the Underwriters Laboratory do all the time: determine 1) if an advertised product meets its claims and 2) whether or not it is defective."

Les observes that ETS is selective in applying the research policy under discussion, "Over the next few months, I discovered that the provisions ETS had told me were common practice were not consistently applied. Around the same time, another researcher had applied to use Criterion and had no problem gaining access."

In addition to ETS, Les also asked Pearson for access to their automated essay scoring technology, he writes:
Pearson Educational Technologies wouldn't even reply to my request to test their WriteToLearn® software, and Peter Foltz, a Pearson Vice President, was quoted in the 2012 New York Times article as justifying Pearson’s refusal to give me access to their product because “He wants to show why it doesn't work.”
I'm not surprised that ETS and Pearson (LightSide Labs is a welcome exception on this front) will not give Les easy access to their technologies. Les's goal is in fact what Foltz says it is it is: to prove that, quoting from Les's post,  "computer generated nonsense could receive high scores from Automated Essay Scoring (AES) computers," or put another way, that the software can be tricked into giving high scores for bad writing.

Les's goal, in their view, is not to test their products with the kind of prose most writers who use their products will write. So from their point of view, the review he proposes isn't of the kind Consumer Reports does -- using the products under the conditions they're designed for -- but is instead to show that their software can be tricked with a program that students will not be using. And if that is in fact their view, then I'm not surprised access isn't forthcoming.

I am surprised that ETS didn't just say -- if that is their reasoning -- as much in their rebuttal. From the point of view of these companies, my guess is that the see Les as provocateur, and not as open-minded curious researcher. Les's work is invaluable, and I love reading it. But I can see why these companies might not want to give him access at this stage. It may be cowardly on their part, but it also has a logic to it: very few us make things easy for those we think are out to get us.

So Can, Automated Essay Technology Be Reviewed Openly and Fairly?

But back to testing this technology, which does need to be studied and tested. Les evokes the work of the Consumer Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, and Underwriters Laboratory, a product safety project, saying his research is akin to theirs.

But Consumer Reports, doesn't ask for permission or access to products; it goes out and buys the stuff they will test. That specifically frees them from the kind of entanglements Les's proposal instigated.

So a Consumer Reports model that looked at ETS would not be the kind of project Les has proposed -- using software specifically designed to fool the technology, but instead using the technology under the kinds of conditions and writing that ETS claims to have designed Criterion for.

A research project could be done this way: access to Criterion is purchased for students, and the professors who will be using it would go through the required Criterion training.  The teachers would teach with Criterion as part of the course mix, students using it to do the work of the course,, with the writing emerging for submission to the software under course conditions. The study can include a comparison of feedback from Word on the same draft submitted to Criterion, as Les proposed. But the basis of the study would be using the product the way it was designed to be used.

And ETS doesn't have to be told at all that the product is being studied in a class test of this kind.

I know when I did a back of the envelope analysis of grammar checkers using a single student essay -- and I accessed a variation of e-rater/Criterion by paying for a Turnitin.com WriteCheck (http://en.writecheck.com/) account, Word, Grammarly (another platform I checked) and E-Rater as expressed in WriteCheck all got some things wrong. See the following two links for a summary of that:


But even that quick study doesn't get at what a class test would reveal about how the technology affects students and teachers, how they need to adapt or how the classroom feedback ecology and workloads are shifted.

The important question about automated writing assessment technologies is less about how accurate they are compared on one another, and more about how their presence in classrooms and in the hands of novice writers may hurt or help the teaching and learning of writing. And to know that, it's important to study the technology under the conditions where teaching and learning happen.

Responses from Les Perelman

First e-mail

I think you are being too kind to ETS and the other companies., Lightside excepted (we both have considerable respect for Elijah).  My purpose with BABEL and my other experiments is to demonstrate that overall AES does not work.   Various testing companies make absurd claims in volumes like the recent one edited by Burnstein and Shermis (2013).  MT Schmidt in that volume states “IntelliMetric is theoretically grounded in a cognitive model often referred to as a “brain-based” or “mind-based” model of information processing and understanding..”  I an trying to refute that claim and others.

Secondary to my claim that AES does not work are several other claims. First, students could game AES machines like E-rater, that already grades high stakes tests like the GRE simply by memorizing word lists and peppering them throughout their paper with no regard for making meaning.  I have done that already with E-rater GRE online test.  There is a second human reader for machine graded tests like the TOEFL and the GRE, but given the scoring conditions, I would be interested to see if human readers would catch such strategies.  E-rater gives a score that is a continuous variable (e.g. 4.6), while  humans are limited to integers.  The two scores go to another human reader only if the difference is greater than 1.5 point on a 6-point scale.  If the second human reader’s score is between the scores, the three scores are averaged.  Otherwise the outlier score is thrown out.  ETS has a research report on E-rater but does not present the crucial statistic of when there are outliers, what percentage of the time is the E-rate score the outlier.  Given that Pearson wants to use their AES scoring engine as the second reader for the PARCC Common Core tests, these questions are extremely relevant.

Moreover, the specific study I was proposing was going to use student papers from the ASAP study to observe how well e-rater compares to MS Word.  It would have been similar to the excellent study comparing instructors to e-rater in the current issue of Assessing Writing.  In a phone conference with ETS, I even offered to show then the results afterwards before dissemination and discuss it with them.  The only condition I would not accept was censorship.

As for the Consumer Reports model, I mentioned buying Criterion and using it in a class as you suggested during the conference call with ETS, and was told that the Terms-of-Use agreement with ETS for classroom use prohibits published research without ETS’s permission.

I believe that there may be a few legitimate uses for AES (and Elijah may well find them).  However, I also am convinced by argument from people like Noam Chomsky and other cognitive scientists that our knowledge of semantics is way too insufficient for  most uses of computers to evaluate writing.

Les Perelman, Ph.D
Excerpt from a second e-mail from Less, written after I offered to post the first here:
I did not mention the source of the papers in the OpEd, although I did in the proposal, because most people reading the Washington Post would not know what the ASAP study was and it would take too much verbal real estate to explain. 
I did say, however, "I submitted a detailed proposal to compare the accuracy of Criterion to that of the Microsoft® Word Spelling and Grammar tool. I would conduct the study with a colleague from MIT who has a Ph.D. in linguistics from MIT and who worked with Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle, the founders of modern linguistics.” 
In my conference with them I told them I would agree to use Criterion for no other purpose.  That was not good enough for them.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

#worthassigning: Mark Bernstein on Notetaking

Some of you will remember, or perhaps still use, Storyspace, software that EastGate released for creating hypertext fiction. If you're not familiar, the import of Storyspace, via a discussion of Michael Joyce's _Afternoon, A Story_, is described in a 1992 NY Times Book Review piece called "The End of Books" by Robert Coover (http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/09/27/specials/coover-end.html).

Bernstein's current project, which grew out of academics trying to use Storyspace for note taking and information organizing instead of post-modern fiction, is Tinderbox.  From chapter one of his book, The Tinderbox Way, which is both a user manual and a meditation on the value of systemic note taking, Bernstein describes the software this way:
Tinderbox is designed to help you write things down, find them, think about them, and share them. Tinderbox is an assistant. Its meant to help, to facilitate. Its not a methodology or a code. Its a way to write things down, link them up, and share them. Its a chisel, guided by your hand and your intelligence.
I pulled the quote above from Sources and Methods #5: Mark Bernstein, a fascinating podcast interview with Bernstein conducted by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Matt Trevithick. The interview runs about an hour, but below the podcast recording, you'll see a time line, indicating at what minutes in the discussion different topics arose. The full interview is worth a listen for context and continuity.

Here's an excerpt from that timeline to give you both a sense of the conversation, and how the timeline helps you to find key areas to return to:
8:54 - Idea: Discovering the structure information should take is the essence of what research is about.
13:14 - Idea: Agile software development has come into force more recently, rather than structuring all the rules first. Writing the software and then revising the software - where most of what you do is editing, rather than designing and debugging - has been extremely fruitful, and has gone in just 10-15 years gone from outlying heresy to the dominant paradigm of software development today. [Note: Bernstein goes on to describe how Agile software resembles writing prose.]
15:08 - Idea: When you’re writing, you’re talking to yourself, or rather to the page. When you write, you are meeting minds on the screen, and in fact one of those minds is a manifestation of ourselves.
20:38 - Idea: People don’t like to think about their process of writing. We have this essentially romantic conception of idea generation writing, that it’s essentially inspiration, and it should come to you in a flash, and that it’s mystical, and that it’s based in someway on your innate goodness, and therefore people don’t spend much time thinking about how to improve because you can’t improve on your own innate goodness.
There's a lot in the discussion that maps on to teaching writing, teaching research, teaching thinking, and faculty development for those professors who want to help students get better at writing, research, and thinking. 

The interview can be assigned in time points for students, or one might scroll to to a point and play a snippet as a way to launch a discussion. For students especially, this discussion focuses on the role of noting, of seeing and recording, and in the act of doing so, of thinking, organizing, and finding order. 

In a way, it's about slowing down, of taking the time to start a system that will serve a learner as a writer, and over time, as they change as writers, learn more, know more, and will find it more and more useful to be able to go back into their reading and writing history to recall, reorganize, and rethink, note taking as a key element for revision.

Friday, October 17, 2014

#worthassigning -- 3 essays on rape and death threats against women in the age of #gamergate

Online violence against women scares and worries me. As it morphs from virtual threat, which is bad enough and still violent even if not overtly physical, into offline threats that drive women from their homes, offices, and families and into hiding, the damage and danger has become palpable enough to make news.

Writing in her Washington Post Blog, Act Four, Alyssa Rosenberg sums up the three high profile cases:
[Anita] Sarkeesian has had to leave her home because someone who threatened her claimed to have her address and that of her parents. Brianna Wu, who co-founded the video gaming company Giant Spacekat, also moved to avoid threats made in response not even to sustained criticism of video games, but to jokes she made about the Gamergate campaign. “Depression Quest” developer Zoe Quinn went into hiding after a vengeful ex-boyfriend published a long account of her alleged infidelities that seemed to imply she chose her partners for professional advancement.
These women's stories are in the news now, coming shortly after a spring and summer that brought much needed attention to campus sexual assaults and the lack of protections and justice most of its victims endure. It seems to me, then, a look at the issue of virtual assault having devastating consequences in physical world, can also increase understanding and shed light on campus sexual assault.

To that end, here are three pieces on virtual assault that I recommend and would assign. Note, these are frank discussions and long pieces. But they're compelling.

A Rape in Cyberspace

I'd start with Julian Dibbell's "A Rape in Cyberspace," available online at his http://www.juliandibbell.com/articles/a-rape-in-cyberspace/

A version Dibbell's essay first appeared in the Village Voice in 1993. That's right, twenty years ago. Dibbell's piece focuses on how a violent virtual rape in LambdaMOO, a text based virtual world where rooms, characters, spaces and actions are all described in words that allowed players to enter, create avatars, and interact, shocked those LambdaMOO members into realizing they were a community. The article describes how the victim of the rape, though virtual, suffered physically -- fear, anxiety, tears. While the community recognized the rape as an assault, they realized there was nothing they could do to punish the perpetrator in real life, no way to bring charges, to get an arrest. And so they develop rules to try to deal with future actions virtually, by setting up guidelines for expelling offenders from the Moo.

I'd start with this piece for a few reason. It's one of the first, perhaps the first, documented case study of cyber rape and its affects. Unlike the underbelly of the contemporary accounts of virtual sexual assault under consideration in the next two pieces, the rapist didn't have recourse to comrades, drum up justification that blamed the woman he assaulted, or wage the assault in multiple sites and social networks. The rape happened in a relatively small and closed community, a community that became more formally formed in response to the rape, and because it was small, was able to adopt more quickly rules and policies to better protect members.

Why the Trolls Will Always Win

First published by Kathy Sierra at her own blog as "Trouble at the Koolaid Point," Wired Magazine republished her original post verbatim just days later with the title "Why the Trolls Will Always Win," and that's the version I link to here: http://www.wired.com/2014/10/trolls-will-always-win/. I'm opting for Wired because Sierra indicates that she might at some point take her original post down.

But off the bat, a first question for students to consider -- how does the different title give by Wired shape their reading?

Sierra's piece marks the tenth year anniversary of her first online threat, of which, Sierra writes, "I thought it was a one-off, then. Just one angry guy. . . .  But looking back, it was the canary in the coal mine…". What's changed? Sierra's work picks up from the one angry guy, the kind of person the LambdaMOO community faced, to a world where social networking -- Twitter, especially in her personal experience -- amplifies and spreads the assault against a lone woman exponentially, as trolls amplify, get picked up, facts are ignored, lies are believed. She explains:
I now believe the most dangerous time for a woman with online visibility is the point at which others are seen to be listening, “following”, “liking”, “favoriting”, retweeting. In other words, the point at which her readers have (in the troll’s mind) “drunk the Koolaid”. Apparently, that just can’t be allowed.
[. . .]
But the Koolaid-Point-driven attacks are usually started by (speculating, educated guess here, not an actual psychologist, etc) sociopaths. They’re doing it out of pure malice, “for the lulz.” And those doing it for the lulz are masters at manipulating public perception. Master trolls can build an online army out of the well-intended, by appealing to The Cause (more on that later). The very best/worst trolls can even make the non-sociopaths believe “for the lulz” is itself a noble cause.
Sierra describes first what her experience tells her about the logic and motivation of trollers and then why and when she stepped back from online life -- how she was harrassed out, and why, with this post, she is stepping back in.

The Future Of The Culture Wars Is Here, And It's Gamergate

Written by Kyle Wagner in Deadspin, this piece (http://goo.gl/5yWvnL), published Tuesday, October 14, begins with the news that Brianna Wu fled her Boston home over the weekend, "after an online stalker vowed to rape and kill her."

Wagner does three very useful things.

  1. He explains the origin of #gamergate, a movement that claims to be about holding the press who cover the gaming industry to journalistic ethics, but that began with a deranged ex-lovers lies and rants about Wu Zoe Quinn, including the false claim that her romance with a journalist lead to a game she wrote being praised.
  2. He critiques the coverage of #gamergate in the traditional press, The New York Times and the like, noting that their instance on even handedness creates what press critics have called false equivalence, a logical fallacy. Such coverage lends undo legitimacy to those who committing the assaults.
  3. This is key, Wagner describes the mindset of the trollers and assaulters, why they feel aggrieved enough to do this, and he likens it the kind of motivations that drive certain segments of the Tea Party and other reactionary groups: change they don't like is coming. For some in the Tea Party, its the recognition, embodied in our first black President, that the nation's demographics are changing and that whites will become a minority.  For those in gamergate, its a reaction against the fact that more and more women play games, and that new games are emerging designed to appeal to those players. 

What Can One Learn From These?

Taken together these three essays move both historically and technologically. Dibbell's piece sets an early example, when the Web was young and new and a smaller place; Sierra's first person account gives voice to a victim of assault and violence in her own terms, introducing and explaining terms and techniques that show the role of social networks in turning the derangement of a lone actor into a a deranged and even more dangerous mob; and Wagner's work takes a step back, offering scathing attack on Wu's assailants and their motivations, and then tying it to a larger cultural trend.

Combined, these are long reads, but as I said, compelling. Each is written in Web vernacular, each is frank, each has its own truths to convey. I like them because they are one-sided, advocate for women and for a civil online social communities, even as the work by Sierra and Wagner show how difficult that goal is. I also think they bring forth the physical and psychological cost of assault, how the relentless nature of these kinds of attacks, have consequences in the offline world. This is not a painless crime, not just words.

And finally, they pieces shed light on the anger and entitlement mindsets of the attackers. So those insights, empathy for the attacked and anger and hate of the attackers, can provide some grounding for a discussion of campus sexual violence.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

#worthassigning: Daniel Waisberg on getting and presenting insights from data

More and more writing and other courses require students to do original research, to work with data they generate or find. For example, on October 7, TechRhet, an e-mail discussion list for writing teachers who focus on the nexus of writing and technology in their pedagogy, had a query from a colleague about assigning an infographic in first year composition courses.

It's with that kind of assignment, or assignments where research projects ask students to develop and/or work this data that this resource might be one #worthassigning. "From Data to Insights: The Blueprint for Your Business," by Daniel Waisberg, an analytics advocate at Google, looks at two processes: one on defining data and the other on presenting data, two processes that inform one another.

While Waisberg's title addresses the use of data to guide business decisions, the piece is really about using data for finding insights, insights that can lead to action. So where writing assignments invite students to use data to offer insight, to motivate people to one action or another, the advice by Waisberg will serve well.

Here's an excerpt that gives you a sense of how well this piece can serve any course or project where data plays a role, including for academics doing their own research, whether for scholarship, service or teaching purposes:
Defining the data
Gaining successful insights means figuring out what you want from your data—finding its value. Consider what you want to do with the actual data. In Thinking with Data, Max Shron offers a helpful framework for narrowing the scope of a project such as data analysis. Similar to a story, a project will always include exposition (the context), some conflict (the need), a resolution (the vision) and, hopefully, a happily-ever-after ending (the outcome).

Answering the following questions will help illuminate the best plan for using your data.
  • Context: What are you trying to achieve? Who is invested in the project’s results? Are there any larger goals or deadlines that can help prioritize the project?
  • Need: What specific needs could be addressed by intelligently using data? What will this project accomplish that was impossible before?
  • Vision: What will meeting the need with data look like? Is it possible to mock up the final result? What is the logic behind the solution?
  • Outcome: How and by whom will the result be used and integrated into the company? How will the success of the project be measured?
 As you can see, Waisberg makes recognizable textbook moves -- linking to and citing an authority, offering a heuristic for planning, one that maps easily onto the kinds of questions we ask students to consider about audience, purpose, and context.

The other value to Waisberg's piece for faculty is that he provides a framework and vocabulary for discussing with students data planning, gathering and visualizing/presenting. Waisberg draws inspiration for his steps to follow, questions to consider from "Michael Graves, emeritus professor of architecture at Princeton." Graves, reports Waisberg, sees architectural drawing "as much a process as it is an end product, and that while computers have their place, so does the human/emotional element. He deconstructs architectural drawing into three types: the 'referential sketch,' the 'preparatory study' and the 'definitive drawing.'"

I'll leave it to you to visit Waisberg's piece -- http://bit.ly/10UKDhg -- to see how well and how usefully he maps Graves's insights into practical steps students can be taught to follow and practical questions they can be taught to ask about their own and peers' projects.

You'll find it useful, and if, you're doing work on your own with data or teaching students how to work with data, a link #worthassigning.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

#worthassigning: Katy Waldman on how comics portray mental illness

In "Patterns and Panels: How comics portray psychological illness,"  Katy Waldman (http://slate.me/1sdIx7r) looks at how an array of comics and comic book art depict mental illness, arguing that the medium brings unique strengths to that endeavor.

The piece surveys a range of artists and styles, showing different techniques and approaches, and includes insights from some of the artists as well as academics who study the comic book form and/or mental disability. 

It's a good piece for students both as a possible model -- the writing and writerly moves are good  -- and as piece for discussion and leads to further research. 

Here's an excerpt, without the images that appear between the 2nd and 3rd graphs in the original:
Ellen Forney helped clarify my mess of questions and impressions when I spoke to her on the phone. “Comics can give presence to tone and feeling and emotion in a way that’s difficult to do in other media,” she explained. “What happens with mental illness is that while there’s a lot of the story that is very specific—like text, which says a precise thing—there’s also a lot that’s really difficult to put into words. That’s where the language of comics comes in, the reliance on visual aspects that are strong in presenting mood.” 
I asked for an example. “A comic that’s drawn dense and scribbly will come across as much darker in tone than something that is clean lines,” Forney said. “Those kinds of expressiveness are more visceral, like music.” Forney herself played with the abstract visual metaphor of the grid in Marbles. She used neat boxes to narrate her orderly therapy sessions, and loose, misshapen ones to convey the trapped feeling of a depressive episode. (The mania pages burst free of grids entirely.) 
As I talked to Forney, I realized that working through a comic book reminds me of working through a poem. There’s an initial sense of disorganization and unfamiliarity, but then intuition seems to kick in. The structure may not be linear, but it still makes itself felt. In his essay on Shakespeare and depression, Jonathan Farmer writes that a good poem doesn’t “run like an aqueduct”—it meanders like a river. “Doubt,” he concludes, “is essential to poetry,” just as questioning your perceptions is fundamental to writing about your madness. Yet both madness and poetry offer their own bizarre scaffolds for experience. Powell gets at that, in Swallow Me Whole, when he uses the emotional logic of images to unfold one of Ruthie’s schizophrenic transports: She is scared, bugs are scary, and suddenly there they are, massing out of an air vent. Or think of David B. puppeteering the reader’s movement through Epileptic by alternating small consecutive squares with full-page boxes. You may feel as though you’ve passed outside of authorial control, but the comic is still pacing you, opening and contracting its world, shaping your responses.

As a writing teacher, I like the passage because it uses lots of citation -- weaving in of quotes, references to works, experts -- in a way that doesn't obscure Waldman's voice. She's responding as a reader, as herself, and does so in a way that acknowledges sources naturally and effectively. Notice, for example, the first three sentences of the 3rd graph in the excerpt. "As I talked to Forney" is a form of citation, but it's also conversational, and sets up an insight -- that reading a comic reminded her of reading a poem, an insight that is then explained. Notice then how that insight leads to the citation, an apt citation, of Jonathan Framer.

Those kinds of moves may seem obvious, but for novice writers, they're not, and they're sometimes hard to do. Seeing writing that does this, asking writers to track and trace how sources are weaved into Waldman's argument, offers a good model for how those writers might do something similar in their own essays, especially if in a college writing course their essays will also include a works cited list and use more formal academic conventions in the text for sources cited. 

I also like the piece because it stands as readable and interesting work. It's visual, and is about a medium many students enjoy. But for me, what I like as reader, is that in her exploration of how comics explore mental disability, Waldman too sheds light on mental disability. Her exploration requires her to explain what the works reveal about mental disability and how the art tries to bring the reader more into the point of view of a person who may have the disability illustrated. 

To that extent the work does two important things: first, it provides a vocabulary and examples for understanding the techniques of comic art; and second, through that increased understanding, empathy.

So for me, this piece works on many levels, and it can fit into all kinds of courses: writing courses, pop culture courses, communication courses, visual arts courses, psychology courses, to name a few. It's also the kind of piece, given its insights, that might be useful for faculty professional development. Faculty work with colleagues and students who live with a range of mental disabilities, many, as Margaret Price notes in Mad at School, often invisible or misunderstood, but still present. 

Friday, October 03, 2014

Faculty Who Diss Student Writing Under the "Kids Today" Trope Forget They Were Students

An answer that Steven Pinker made in a Q and A with Gareth Cook in Nature about Pinker's latest book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, touches on a view of students many college teachers carry.
It seems that it is pretty standard, in books about writing style, to bemoan the decline of the written word. Yet you don’t. Why? 
Every generation thinks that “the kids today” are ruining the language. They confuse changes in themselves (people pay more attention to language as they get older and consume more text) with changes in the times. Studies of writing quality in student papers have shown that there has been no deterioration over the decades, and no, today’s college students don’t substitute smiley-faces and texting abbreviations for words and phrases.
Pinker's made this point in other places: there was no magical time when students arrived at college as literate and able as faculty imagined students used to be when the faculty were students themselves. If this understanding informs Pinker's style guide, that's wonderful; I look forward to reading it.

As Andrea and Karen Lunsford note, mistakes have always been a fact of life and the number of mistakes students make has held constant for a hundred years. Things are not getting worse. In many ways, since students are writing more in their everyday lives, things are getting better.

But a lot of faculty -- and not just those who do not like teaching, but also faculty dedicated to teaching and learning -- believe students today are not as able as students were when today's faculty were students.

Five facts that contribute to that way of thinking

Fact one: Every faculty member teaching today was once a member of an undergraduate freshmen class.

Fact two: All faculty members teaching today were, when they were new students, taught by faculty inclined to the same broad judgments faculty hold now: students today cannot write, read, nor think as well as students before them.

Fact three: Very likely, most faculty learned academic reading and writing fairly quickly, came to like it because they took to it. There's also a very good chance that most faculty teaching writing now were not required to take a first year writing course.  Because they tested out of the course, they never experienced learning side by side with writers for whom learning academic writing was a struggle.

Fact four: To become faculty, one must like higher education enough to get the required graduate degrees. Faculty career paths centers on he reading, writing, and thinking their disciplines foster. Even those who do not publish, largely read and write for a living.
Fact five:  A lot of non writing faculty who care about helping their students improve their writing attend writing across the curriculum workshops, and take other steps to become more confident teachers of writing. But many, many more, including sadly faculty who regularly teach first year and developmental writing courses, fall back into their frustrations, and instead use fatal error policies, harsh grading, belittling comments and other counter-productive methods that work against student progress. This prevents students from improving as writers by setting them up to take the blame for not withstanding the pedagogical assault of these tactics.

But there is another fact to remember.

The primary fact and truth: All students can learn to write. Writing can be taught, students can come to enjoy writing, and can come to know how to write for a particular academic discipline, following its rules for thinking, researching, and communicating. 

Even the weakest writer placed into the lowest level developmental writing course can write. And because the very weakest writers turn are furthest from the conventions and stylings of academic writing, they turn out sentences and paragraphs that delight in the most wonderfully inventive and joyous ways.

And to be open to that delight, all a teacher has to do is remember that there really was never a time when students today were not as good as the students who came yesterday. How do I know? Because in five, ten, fifteen or twenty years, the students we do have today will be the students from the past who future "students of today" will be compared unfavorably against.

Or put another way, the students you have in this moment are always as good as students get.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

I Plan to Play With Writefull -- an App Designed for ESL Writers

In this NY Times online story (reprinted from the Chronicle of Higher Ed?), "For U.S. Colleges, a Drive to Retain Foreign Students" (www.nytimes.com/2014/06/09/us/for-us-colleges-a-drive-to-retain-foreign-students.html), Karin Fischer notes, ". . . the number of students from overseas continues to increase — the Institute of International Education reports there are 40 percent more foreign students at American colleges than a decade ago. . ."
I didn't attend the summer WPA conference, but colleagues who did reported discussion of how writing programs are adjusting to more students taking first year writing course for whom English is not a first language.

In that context, this Writefull (http://writefullapp.com/) might be useful. I'll be checking it out in the coming days, and will write up my notes. But for those who like to kick tires, here's a bit about it:

It offers editing help by comparing writing to content from Google books.  According to an introduction to his guest blog post at "The Thesis Whisper" (http://thesiswhisperer.com/2014/10/01/a-new-app-for-your-writing/), it was created by Juan Castro . . . for people who are doing their thesis in English when it is not their first language.

Here's how Writefull describes itself:
Writefull is an application that provides feedback on your writing. You can select a piece of text in any writing tool (from Microsoft Word to Gmail) and a small popover will appear above your selected text. This popover offers five options to assess and improve your selection with the use of the Google Books database.

Many of us use Google to check if our writing is correct. We enter different phrases until we find the one that gives us most results – and this is the one we use in our own text. A smart approach, but not without its annoyances: revisiting the Google webpage breaks the flow of our writing, and its results often contain grammatical errors.

What if you could use this Google-approach, but within your own writing tool, with better results, and with writing-tailored search options? This is exactly what Writefull does!

Writefull is a light-weight app that uses data from Google Books (5+ million books) and the Web to give you language support. All you need to do is select writing, activate the Writefull popover, and choose one of its options.
The writer chooses text -- by highlighting it -- and that action pops up the Writefull app, which offers a menu for searching that phrase to see how often it is used. From an ESL point of view, the idea is that the more something is found, the greater the chance that the use is correct. If a writer isn't sure, he or she can compare options (in the link above they comparison is 'less people' [11.2% of returns] with 'fewer people' [88.8% of returns).

Here's the logic for that process from the inventor, a nonnative speaker of English, quoting from his entry at "The Thesis Whisperer" linked to above:
For me, the hardest part was knowing if I was saying things the right way. At times I realised there was something odd about my sentences, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Other times I had a sentence in mind, but I just kept looking for that one word that would fit in nicely. It was these sentence-level issues that made the thesis-writing process slow and painful.
Anyway, this intrigues for a few reasons:
  1. It's a palpable example of taking a technology approached usually used for plagiarism detection, and turning it to writers to use for self-coaching sentence level revision.
  2. Writers choose the text to check. This doesn't attempt -- at least not currently -- to grammar check. Cognitively I like that because it calls on the writers to have a hunch, to reflect, to be curious, to work through a struggle.
  3. It offers writers data -- the number of times a phrase turns up -- but also the option to see the phrase in context. So it gives quantitative and qualitative guidance, and I'm curious to see how they balance.
  4. It seems to me the kind of thing that would be useful in a 1:1 writing session, working with a writer who uses it, helping her or him to choose which phrases to search and how to read the results, setting them up to work further on their own.
  5. While it was created for ESL writers, I suspect it might work for any writer where a professor borrows from  Mina Shaughnessy's work on patterns of error, or Constance Weaver's on teaching grammar in context, for example, or where a writer learns or believes they have persistent quirk in their prose and could use help checking their work against other writers.
After I've used the app, I'll post more detailed notes on how it went here.

Six Reasons JSTOR Daily Will Make a Good Composition Reader

Jennifer Howard has a blog post up at the Chronicle of Higher Ed (http://bit.ly/1ud2VoN) describing JSTOR Daily. Here's  a key description:
Aimed at general readers, the journal mixes shorter blog posts with longer reads, grouped into broad categories: Arts & Culture, Business & Economics, Science & Environment, and so on. The Civil War historian Megan Kate Nelson is writing a weekly column about historical and archival research. A specialist in green building design contributed a link-rich essay about why we need to get outside more.

Offbeat and lighter takes on scholarship are welcome. “The quirkiness is what’s a strength here,” the editor says. “We’re trying to cast a wide net here and be really eclectic,” sort of in the spirit of the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Conversation.

JSTOR Daily is free to read, as are the JSTOR articles it links to.

JSTOR Daily as a Reader

I work for Macmillan Higher Education, and Readers are a category of book we publish in composition. Readers collect essays, usually, but also excerpts from longer works sometimes. The writing may be scholarly or general interest, from all kinds of sources -- academic journals, scholarly Web sites, magazines, edited collections, and more. The thing which distinguishes a reader is the editorial work of selecting and grouping readings, and the pedagogical work the author who selects the readings puts into framing the pieces, supplying teaching apparatus. Apparatus might include biographical notes on the contributors, questions to consider before reading, questions for discussions, annotations on some essays to draw attention to the writer's method, grouping of readings by theme or issue, cross references to other pieces in the work, chapters written by author with his or her own advice -- ideas for assignments, writing advice, citation advice, and more.

JSTOR Daily is a journal, not a reader in the sense outlined above, but I think of it as a potential reader because a teacher with time can use JSTOR to supplement a publisher's reader.  And for teachers who don't use a publisher's reader but instead draw on the Web, put items on reserve in the library, or send students to their campus library databases, JSTOR Daily becomes another resource for finding good reading assignments, acting as a reader without apparatus.

Six At a Glance Reasons Why JSTOR Looks to Be Useful for Faculty and Students
  1. for students and faculty, it's free. More importantly, the articles referenced and linked to are free. So it provides gateways to all kinds of students and faculty, including those who may be at a college whose library does not subscribe to JSTOR. 
  2. for students, assignments that require them to read the journal and to read one or more of the essays the journal article links to, teaches them to follow sources. It builds an academic skill.
  3. for students, it's a good writing resource, a place to send to go in search of things to write about, conversations their own writing can join, and writing examples they can study for writing craft.
  4. for students, it shows writers connecting scholarship, sometimes old scholarship, to everyday things. Seeing the connection of scholarship to the issues of the day, to ones own life, can help improve intrinsic motivations for learning (At the very least, it certainly cannot hurt them.).
  5. for teachers who do remix assignments, or assignments that ask students simply to write an academic essay and also on the same topic, to create an essay, or brochure, or presentation, or video, or some other format for a different audience and purpose, this journal will exhibit some of that.
  6. for faculty who like to draw on scholarship yet write with more freedom from the kind of academic, scholarly prose habits and conventions Steven Pinker curmudgeonly says leads to too much academic writing that stinks (http://t.co/A0uKHJJQhc), then playing in this journal, with its invitation to quirkiness, might be fun.