Saturday, October 08, 2005

Writing about Literature in the Media Age | NEXT\TEXT

A copy of a comment I wrote over at Next/Text. I'm putting it here because I'm not sure it posted there (got an error message after posting):

I've seen the same behavior Kathy's described -- students despising the books they're assigned to read. Sometimes they should. The books are bad. Sometimes they don't like the book for other reasons -- they don't care for the course; the subject doesn't interest them; the teacher doesn't use the book the well. For those extra-book reasons, it's unlikely that, once you get past the novelty of a new media book being new, that some new form of the book is going to change much how students feel about it.

That said, rethinking the whole idea of what a book is matters greatly because education matters greatly.

In so far as a textbook is a pedagogical tool, the real question is about how it is delivered --via print or digitally-- but rather what it helps students and teachers to do in the context of a classroom. What's changing radically, of course, is what is meant by "context of a classroom." The tools for teaching and learning have changed and are changing the epistomologica (and ontological) frameworks and assumptions of education.

Dan's CD does some really cool stuff and it gives teachers a leg up they didn't have before. It helps with the transition; it's a kind of bridge and its necessary to the evolution of things.

And I'm guessing for a lot of teachers, part of what's needed to help them work with the CD is training --workshops, ideas from other teachers, some sense of how this new thing can fit in with the traditional things (the print literature anthology) they're using. What role does the CD play in the course? What assignments can it support? What does it help teach? How can it help students learn? What changes to the course will a teacher need to make to take advantage of that? How can those changes be made in ways that don't make too much new work? What will be given up to make way for this new way of learning? How can you make it clear to students why the work matters? What do you do to tie the work to the goals of the course and your learning objectives so that it's not busy work or new media distraction?

All those questions need, if not answers, some tentative directions. And it's those kinds of things publishers are trying to think through as they develop variations on the book of the future.

Luckily, there are teacher/scholars like Dan (or Cheryl Ball and Kristin Arola) who are fun collaborators to think through these things with. And it's really an adventure now because who knows where we'll end up.

Nick Carbone
Director of New Media
Bedford/St. Martin's.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The Blogosphere as a Carnival of Ideas

In "The Blogosphere as a Carnival of Ideas" (, Henry Farrell describes how and why academics are using blogs, noting along the way how they differ from some forms of traditional scholarly publishing, but recall other forms.

Of note and use are some of the links to blogs referenced in the piece, and for me, this observation and prediction:
Why are so many academics beginning to blog? Academic blogs offer the kind of intellectual excitement and engagement that attracted many scholars to the academic life in the first place, but which often get lost in the hustle to secure positions, grants, and disciplinary recognition. Properly considered, the blogosphere represents the closest equivalent to the Republic of Letters that we have today. Academic blogs, like their 18th-century equivalent, are rife with feuds, displays of spleen, crotchets, fads, and nonsenses. As in the blogosphere more generally, there is a lot of dross. However, academic blogs also provide a carnival of ideas, a lively and exciting interchange of argument and debate that makes many scholarly conversations seem drab and desiccated in comparison. Over the next 10 years, blogs and bloglike forms of exchange are likely to transform how we think of ourselves as scholars. While blogging won't replace academic publishing, it builds a space for serious conversation around and between the more considered articles and monographs that we write.

This makes sense to me.

Now it is possible, as Into the Blogosphere ( demonstrates, for a blog to be made up of longer more considered posts. Into the Blogosphere uses blog technology to deliver a collection of essays on blogging; it was a conscious attempt to not do that collection as a printed book, which would have been the usual route. The essays were called for, submitted, reviewed, revised, and edited with the same academic rigor that an academic press publication would have demanded. But instead of the editors seeking a press and trying to line up a contract, and instead of contributors waiting for their pieces to come out in the book, the work went right to the blog.

There are always exceptions and you'll continue to see experiments and variations, but Farrell's observations about how blogs are generally used by academics remains correct. And so too, I think, will his predictions pan out. Other things will happen too, which makes the use of blogs all the more interesting.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Peer Review: Writing and Students' Engagement*

In Peer Review: Writing and Students' Engagement, Richard J. Light, reports on a student who in her senior discovered the value of peer review. In this excerpt, the brief description of the rules of the group are telling and useful:
The friend told her that, at the newspaper, editors criticize one another's writing ruthlessly. Relentlessly. For many student writers, this tough but constructive criticism is a high point of working on the Crimson. The friend suggested that the woman enlist several other friends to serve as a writers' consulting group.

She did it. She and three others began to meet whenever any of them had a substantial writing assignment and wanted to discuss it. The group had only two rules. First, the person who wanted feedback on the paper had to have at least a second draft. Second, the other three students were not allowed to do any word-by-word editing and fixing.

They met approximately once a week. Each of the four students had about six long papers to write in their senior year, giving them twenty-four papers to discuss. The woman called this group her "turning point." She said it was by far her most time-consuming obligation at college, yet of all her activities it was the most valuable. She wouldn't have considered missing a meeting. Her enthusiasm was obvious as she told about the impact of this working group on her writing. For her, work that was once frustrating had become a pleasure.
The above article is excerpted from "The Most Effective Classes" in Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds by Richard J. Light, pp. 54-62, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Two other useful tidbits from the excerpt for teachers who assign writing are these:

  1. Courses with writing assignments engage students more deeply than lecture/test courses. Writing with more than twenty pages total, with the writing done in several shorter papers and spread out over the semester are more engaging than the single 20 page term paper model.

  2. Writing feedback where students perceive that the instructor feedback is too intrusive frustrates students. This is worth quoting from:
    The frustration occurs when a teacher seems to forget whose paper it is, and begins to change the voice of an essay from the student's voice to the teacher's voice. One young woman comments about a literature course: "The professor meant well and worked hard with me. I did many drafts. But she kept trying to force her perspectives into my essay. At the end I wanted to tell her that her revisions of my work read well, but now it was her paper, and that I was now ready to start over with a different topic to write my paper."
  3. Note the difference in how student peer review groups worked and how teacher directed revisions can work. It's not that one is good and one is bad, but there's an interesting intersection sometimes between teachers beliefs about what makes writing right and good, and what kind of direction students need to get to that. The degree to which students can self-discover what is good and find their voices increases the likelihood that they'll become better writers. Sometimes you do have to prescribe rather describe and direct rather than suggest, but activities and practices that can encourage discovery are important.

    One last thing about Light's research -- many students admit that they looked back fondly on first year writing courses in their junior and senior years, but at the time they were first year students, the courses weren't appreciated. However, once students are in their majors and writing more in and around topics they have come to care about and have a developing intellectual stake in, writing becomes more important to them. And it's at that point that a lot of the lessons first year courses had sought to impart come back into use.

The Power of Peers

In Writing Portfolios: What Teachers Learn from Student Self-Assessment, Kim Johnson-Bogart wonderfully describes --through her students own words-- the power and benefits of peer review.

The Power of Peers

Students' portfolios and reflective essays have also taught me that they learn from each other and want to contribute to each other. They want to be useful. And what I find is that learning from one another and learning from themselves are mutually reinforcing. One student made the following comments about reading his classmates' drafts:

Reading other peoples' papers helped me to develop my analytic reading skills. It was sometimes hard to stay focused in reading other peoples' papers because I would often find myself saying "Why didn't I do that?" or "Did I also make that mistake?" Reading other peoples' papers served to break the sort of mind block with which one typically views one's own paper. After reading another person's paper, as unrelated as it may have been to mine, I could look at my own paper with a fresh perspective. I think the reason for this is because in reading somebody else's composition, one must identify with the writer and see the issue as they do, thus breaking out of your own mental cocoon. (Derek)

Derek demonstrates that he values his effort to step into another writer's perspective as a way of learning about his own writing. He shows how this shift gives him valuable practice as a reader, practice that he can employ in reading his own work-in effect, becoming a "fresh" reader of his own writing.

Another student focuses on the reciprocal nature of this process:

For me, peer review was an excellent way to work on our essays. Not only do I feel that my classmates' evaluations were important for my learning, I believe that my comments were valuable to them. My letter essays reflect a careful reading of the essays, as well as including a thoughtful discussion. I tried to approach the author with care-by being sensitive I was able to point out both the weak and the strong areas in their papers. Looking at the way in which other people write helped my own writing as well. I was able to learn from their mistakes, while at the same time I was able to see how to improve my writing based on their strengths. (Christina)

As she explains the value of being both writer and critic, Christina articulates the care that I find most students take as they respond to one another. They want to be critical in positive ways because that is what they want back. Thus, provided focused opportunities to take the role of both writer and reader, students mutually create the positive grounds for critical discussion.

The next example is representative of students' desire to contribute to one another in meaningful ways and to take an active, responsible role in promoting each other's learning:

Selections #5 and #6 [in the portfolio] are overnight letters and peer reviews of different essays . . . selections #5 and #6 helped me realize I enjoy posing questions to other writers that complicate their thinking and writing, just as I enjoy peer reviews and specific questions that push me to complicate my own writing and thinking. (Priya)

Two things are important to me here. First, Priya wants to substantively affect her fellow students' work. She wants to heighten the stakes in their dialogue to their mutual benefit. And secondly, Priya reveals that because together they are faced with responding to an essay assignment, students share an understanding of their writing situation that teachers do not. For me, this means creating meaningful opportunities for students to work with each other, and creating an environment in which they are motivated to produce for one another. Whereas I have always had students look at one another's first drafts, I now ask them to work with each other at the problem-definition stage, and I ask them to read and respond critically to one another's revised essays. Students find this last step particularly illuminating because they follow one other person's work from inception to completion, playing an active-respectfully and critically responsive-role throughout. No amount of general talk and examples from outside the class on my part could approach the gains they report in their reflective essays.

It's worth noting that Ms. Johnson-Bogart, in addition to teaching students how to do peer review also instructs them to write reflective essays of the type she quotes from. This combination --close reading and commenting on peers' writing and close examination and reflection on one's writing and writing work done in a course gives students useful tools for becoming aware of how writing works and how they work as writers.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Teaching about Cheating

What some students forget is that if they can find an article to steal from, I can probably find it, too. When I edit assignments, I plug random quotes, clauses, and full sentences into search engines to check for similar word patterns. I look closely at poetic turns of phrase or quotes that seem too good to be true and verify the names of all sources and affiliations. If I can't confirm the existence of a source used in a story—say, she isn't on Google, Lexis-Nexis,, or Zabasearch—I tell the student to provide contact information, and I then call or e-mail that person."

From "Me Against My Students - How I use the Internet to combat plagiarists, fabulists, and cheaters," by Adam L. Penenberg, in Slate:

Here's a teacher doing the right things. He's reading his students' writing and getting to know their style and voices. He can use search engines as ably --if not more proficiently-- as can his students. He lets them know that he can. He's considered, but sees it as too blunt an instrument (which it is).

What this article is also about, however, is a journalism instructor acting towards his students as a good editor would act towards his reporters. That is, sources are confirmed and facts are checked. The editor/instructor reads closely, knowing their reporters/students. Ethics are stressed and practiced and steps are made to keep folks ethical --double checking, reading closely-- yet the methodology isn't heavy handed -- using something like blindly.

And patience. When you read Penenberg, you sense a good deal of patience and care in his prose and voice. I think that's key to successfully teaching students away from plagiarism.