Wednesday, June 24, 2015

#worthassigning: five online essays by Charles Moran

In Case You Don't Know Charlie Moran, An Introduction

On Father's Day, June 21, 2015, Charlie Moran died at home, with his wife, Kay, and his two children, Seth and Amy, by his side. He lived a wonderful life, energetic and generous, as this profile, published after his death in the North Hampton Gazette, illustrates. I recommend it for a fuller sense of the man and his remarkable contributions to teaching writing, his community, and his family.

As for me, I first came to know Charlie, I think, back in 1991, when I began as a graduate student in the PhD program at the English Department of U. Mass, Amherst. I started teaching there in a computer networked classroom -- a local area network built on Novell, with WordPerfect as the word processing software, a simple tool for making class announcements, and what was then a new program for real time online classroom discussions in writing called Daedalus Interchange.

Charlie, along with Marcia Curtis, oversaw the graduate student teachers who taught in the two networked classrooms; both he and Marcia innovated pedagogically, she focusing on perhaps one of the best basic writing programs ever developed, and he on traditional first year writing courses. Most of my time in those classrooms came with Charlie as my course director. Through that, and as I also took graduate courses with him on teaching with technology, he opened up doors to an online world of teachers who taught writing with computers (a novelty then), a world where I found a way of intellectual and professional life I enjoy and cherish to this day. 

Things You'll Notice About Charlie's Academic Writing

The other thing Charlie did, besides being a great teacher, and did productively, was write and encourage his graduate students to write and publish. He was a teacher-scholar who pursued both parts of the hyphenate equally, the art of one and the discipline of the other informing each other. He shared his insights with the field at large in his body of published works, at conferences, and via voce in the classrooms and offices at Bartlett Hall. His work models how to be a teacher-scholar.

He collaborated with graduate students on essays. He collaborated with colleagues. And even when he solo authored, his work often referenced or thanked those who read drafts, helped his thinking. This is no small thing, this collaboration.  The UMass Writing Program encourages GTA's to explore and use collaboration in the design of courses, via peer review, the sharing of drafts, discussions to foster ideas, and for asking for co-authored projects by students. Charlie practiced what he taught his first year students; that practice made him a better teacher of those things he asked his students to learn.

In looking over the pieces I've found online that he's written or co-written, I notice some wonderful things. The chief quality that comes through is his devotion to teaching and learning, evidenced by a deep respect for students and teachers. His pedagogical inquiries, his application of theory, always put students and their learning at the absolute center, and teachers in close proximity. Even when an essay doesn't evoke a student directly, reading it you can see that students are central to his concern. 

A look back shows that Charlie's brilliance as an academic writer came from his ability to observe and reflect. So many of his pieces observe students, or his own or colleagues' teaching practices, or larger trends (automatic writing assessment engines; testing mania). Whether looking at small acts of practice or and larger trends, he looked to see how they supported or distorted the central mission and necessary relationship teachers and students share. 

A Tangent: Charlie as Observer and Teaching Mentor

I remember, in rereading some of his essays, how great he was at doing teaching observations of graduate student teachers he was assigned to mentor. Charlie would come into the computer networked classroom, find a terminal that wasn't going to be used, and sit unobtrusively. Charlie would sit and write on the keyboard, creating a running narrative of what he observed about the class, the teaching and the dynamics, noticing things the teacher could not. I don't have those reports any longer, but I remember things like, to quote approximately, "this class has a row of male jocks, all with ball caps and broad shoulders sharing the back terminals, almost like a frat row in the classroom." Or, "as Nick leans over an helps two students, students a row back, swap files and both type feedback into one another's draft, they are discussing the drafts as they type, but also other things, using off tasks asides, it seems, to keep them largely on task."

He'd capture the telling detail, the nature of interaction, and do so on the fly in long, generous reports that came from continuous typing as he looked; his hands operated independently of his eyes and ears, transposing what his mind made of things as he continued to watch and listen.

Discussion afterwards about what he noticed, what interpretation he had based on what he could see, became apprenticeships in reflection. He'd ask questions that would lead, at least in my experience, to teaching insights, finding strengths, and finding weaknesses, and talking about both with equal comfort and candor.

Reflection imbues so much of Charlie's writing in the essays below. Some of pieces are about his adjustment to technology -- or in one case, going to a classroom where it was absent. One essay frames modestly his work based on his own classroom observations as auto ethnographic, not seeking to make a big claim. But those pieces are finely wrought, hand-crafted jewels of insight that, even though the technology in question may be twenty years past, offer lessons in adjustment, observation, reflection, patience, and humility which matter still. They serve as useful models in faculty professional development, as ways faculty can explore their own teaching, can explore whatever technology they have on hand, whether it is very new or somewhat bewhiskered. 

Other pieces are more contemporary, and many of the links, you'll see, are made available via the National Writing Project, an organization Charlie devoted some of his best thinking, leadership, and writing to. 

All of the pieces, too, are well-written. Charlie has an accessible academic writing voice, making his work especially useful for people new to a field as well as important to those long versed in the literature. Charlie cites important and complex thinkers as needed, but still writes in a way that uses specialized terms and jargon minimally, in sentences of ordinary length with strong verbs. He writes, really, what seems to me speakable prose; that is, you can read it aloud and hear a cadence easy on the ear. 

So for all these reasons, I think the following works of Charles Moran are worth assigning, and if you do assign or read them, I hope they open the door to reading some of the excellent work he's done that doesn't happen to be readily available online but can be found easily enough in a campus library's academic journal catalogs, or his work in books, perhaps the in stacks. 

Five Online Essays by Charlie Moran that  Are #WorthAssigning

I've included a small excerpt from each essay, so you have a sense of its flavor, and sometimes a note two about the essay and why I recommend it specifically. These are in chronological order, oldest to newest.

with Nick Carbone, Margaret Daisley, Ed Federenko, Dix McComas,Dori Ostermiller, and Sherri Vanden Akker, "Writing Ourselves Online." in Computers and Composition 10(3), August 1993, pages 29-48.

At the beginning of our project, six of us divided into pairs. We looked at each other's online language in "Class News" bulletins, in online prompts and messages we left for our students, and in the comments we volunteered in Daedalus INTERCHANGE sessions. In addition, we observed our partner's classes, focusing on our partner's live classroom presence. Then, with our partners, we co-wrote drafts of the three sections that follow. We also met regularly as a full group during the semester and the subsequent summer to reflect upon what we were seeing and writing and to focus and refocus the project.  
As we proceeded with our project, it became clear that each of us had a different online voice. Yet each of us was, according to our student-teacher evaluations, a "good" teacher. Like the Lake Wobegon children, we were all above average. We could, therefore, freely speak of "difference," but we could not so easily speak of "good" or "bad" ways of presenting ourselves online.  
Further, it became clear to us that our online presences existed in a complementary relation to our live, off-line presences. Together the two worked, though in each case differently. We knew of a strand in the literature in our field that assumed that we should each adapt to the computer-equipped classrooms in the same way (e.g., Barker & Kemp, 1990; Handa, 1990; Kiefer, 1991; Klem & Moran, 1992; Spitzer, 1990).  
These studies begin with the assumption that technology drives change. Because we were teachers, what we saw was perhaps inevitably different: that different teachers will successfully use technology in different ways, adapting it to their different goals and needs. We came to believe that the relationship between teacher and technology was what Paul Levinson (1990) has termed a "flexible, feedback process" (p. 7). We write, therefore, as soft technological determinists (Pool, 1990, p. vii) who know that we influence, and are influenced by, our environment. How the teacher uses a given teaching environment depends upon the character of that environment, of course, but it also depends upon who that teacher is. As William Carlos Williams tells us, "It all depends. . . ." 

Note My recollection -- apologies to my co-authors if I am wrong -- is that Charlie wordsmithed most of the excerpt above, from the article's "Note on Method" section. I draw on this essay because it shows a bit how Charlie mentored graduate students -- all of us listed as his co-authors were graduate students who were part of his course director group. We meet regularly as a team on a range of issues related to teaching. Charlie used the project to help us learn how to observe teaching, to work with fellows as peer mentors, to practice good teacher reflections, to collaborate on an article, and to meet the needs and goals his role as a course director required. So as a teacher-scholar, the experience was as much about how to work productively, getting as much value from the work we had to do as possible. I also remember that after the article was accepted, and final draft sent in, Charlie turned to us and said something like, "my habit is to put these behind me once their done and turn to the next project," and so we didn't talk about it after it was sent, but moved on.

"From a High-Tech to a Low-Tech Writing Classroom: You Can't Go Home Again," in The Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 3, Summer 2000. Available at

I begin to resent, too, the amount of new work I seem to have to do. For instance, I've had to go all the way to my office to get to my computer to put together a writing exercise for the class, print multiple copies on blue paper, and cut the pages in half to distribute to the class. I wrote, "All this cutting and copying is time- and resource-consuming!" 
I resent the grade book I have to construct for myself and my need to discover a new way of organizing the course. I wonder: should I purchase a three-ring binder? And an ominous note: I begin to feel that as a teacher I have to become more active, because I'm feeling that not much is happening.

Note This is one of my favorite pieces, and I share it in workshops with faculty who are just beginning to take deeper dives into using technology. It focuses on what is lost when one goes back to not using the technology after coming to rely on it, and so it reverses the anxiety many faculty feel when they start to use technology. Charlie does a great job of making a simple brick and mortar classroom feel strange. The essay also shows Charlie at his reflective best, for example in this expert you see it in his "ominous note" about starting to do more in the classroom -- filling time and air -- because it's harder for him  to get students engaged without the technology he became used to using.

"Computers and Composition 1983–2002: What we have hoped for" in Computers and Composition 20 (2003) 343–358. Available at

In accounting for the optimistic and positive tone of our journal, the cultural cross-currents I’ve referred to are important. But at least as important as these cultural forces has been the agency of particular people at particular times. As a community we reflect the values of our leaders (they’d hate to be called this, but they are and have been)—three generous, energetic, and hopeful teacher–scholars: Kate Kiefer, Cynthia Selfe, and Gail Hawisher. These remarkable teacher–scholars have drawn to their work others who share the same generosity, energy, and optimism. This group, call it a de facto (and partially de jure) editorial board, has shaped the journal and the community, infusing both with temperament, enthusiasm, and vision.

Note I love this short excerpt because it captures so much the spirit and generosity of Charlie. In this project, he acted as both emcee to, and historian of, the nearly 20 years the central journal in the field of Computers and Composition had been publishing, rereading every issue to prepare the article. That he rightly acknowledges the founding editors, citing their work as a team that engaged collegially with their readers and authors, bespeaks too, in a single-authored piece, his belief in collaboration and community building. As a piece that looks at the history of one journal, it's a great survey piece for an introductory course on teaching writing with computers.

In 2003, the same year Charlie published this piece, Computers and Composition initiated The Charles Moran Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Field. The editors write:
The award celebrates the first 20 years of the journal (1983-2003) in which Charles Moran not only contributed over 30 publications-books, articles, chapters-to the profession but also supported the growth of the journal and field in multiple ways as a valued member of the Computers and Composition Editorial Board. We can think of no other person who better exemplifies what it means to be an esteemed scholar and colleague in these rapidly changing times of the information age.

With Anne Herrington, "Challenges for Writing Teachers: Evolving Technologies and Standardized Assessment." in Teaching the New Writing: Technology, Change, and Assessment in the 21st-Century Classroom, edited by Anne Herrington, Kevin Hodgson, and Charles Moran. Copyright © 2009 by Teachers College, Columbia University. Available at

Writing teachers have inevitably felt pressured to change from the forces we have listed above. But more important, teachers, and in particular those who have contributed to this book, have felt the world of writing shifting under them and have wanted to account for this change in their teaching. These teachers are embracing technology in their teaching, to support not only the learning of traditional essay texts but also new electronic text types—what Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel (2006) call “post-typographic forms of texts” (p. 23). These new electronic texts—a Web site with words and images, blogs where multiple readers and writers contribute—challenge our basic notion of written texts as linear, verbal, single-authored texts.
At the same time that new forms of writing—and thus literacy—are emerging in our culture and in our classrooms, forces of assessment and standardization exert a counter-pressure, asking us to prepare students to produce conventional, formulaic print texts in scripted ways. Paradoxically, technology is also being harnessed for these purposes by educational publishers and testing companies, taking the form of machine-scoring and responding to student writing. So it is that technology seems to be leading us forward to new forms of writing, but, as used by standardized testing programs, backward to the five-paragraph theme.
Teachers are caught in this conflict, for their students’ sake wanting to respond to the changes taking place in this thing we call writing, and at the same time wanting their students to do well in the 19th-century school essay called for on standardized tests.
Note As the first chapter of an edited collection, this piece surveys the evolution of computer technology in writing courses, moving in particular to assessment technologies. I chose this excerpt because it includes the kind of trenchant observation Charlie was so good at making: that instead of using technology to move to 21st Century writing needs, testing is preparing students for 19th Century writing. The full chapter is online and excerpts from other chapters, as well as ordering information for the book, can be found in the link with the book's title above.

With Anne Herrington, "Writing to a Machine is Not Writing At All," an essay hosted online by The National Writing Project. Undated, but guess is about 2010 or 11 based on the citations. Available at

Imagine the effect of this 95%-wrong feedback on the student writer and on the teacher. The feedback would at the least confuse the student writer, leaving the teacher somehow to counter the confusion—although if the student were using her Criterion card on her own, as purchased from the bookstore, there would be no teacher to intervene. If the student accepted the feedback, here are some of the lessons that would be learned: do not use e.g., or texting, or peloton, in any of your writing; do not use the dash as a mark of punctuation; shorten and simplify all sentences so that the program will be able to parse them accurately; do not use inductive, specific-to-general, sequences, but stick with deduction—topic sentence first. Among our goals as writing teachers are these: help students discover and use their voices; help them take risks with their writing; help them master the grammar, usage, mechanics, and styles of written English. In this trial, and in earlier trials we have reported on (see Herrington and Moran 2009, Herrington and Stanley), Criterion has proved not a useful assessment tool but, to quote Ed White again, “a major impediment to what we need to do for our students” (1994, 3). 
Note The essay looks at how Criterion, ETS's automated writing feedback tool, treats student writing. As you can see, Anne and Charlie found it treats students shabbily, in ways counter to what good teachers seek to do and what students need to learn about writing. Charlie's early work, as you saw above, looked at teachers adapting their pedagogy -- enhancing it, or trying to -- via technology. Here and in other later work, especially with Anne, the focus is on what comes when technology is imposed between student and teacher.


susan said...

What a beautiful remembrance, Nick.

The link to the online profile is wonky: I think you want

Nick Carbone said...

Thanks, Susan, for the kind words and the catch on the link. I've made the edit.