Collegereadywriting.com Relaunch

The mothersite, collegereadywriting.com, is currently down in preparation for a major relaunch, to happen sometime tomorrow/Monday.

I’d really like to thank my friend, Jordan from http://www.mybelvedere.com/, for helping me with this relaunch. And, when I say helping me, I mean pretty much doing it all for me. Please visit his business’ website and help support a good guy and his family. Show some love to small, online, family businesses!

I’ll be updating the news here and on Twitter once the site is ready, reloaded and lookin’ fine!

A Fresh Start, or Why I’ve kept all of my (informal) writing from High School

I love the beginning of the school year, especially the beginning of the college academic year. I primarily teach freshmen through Freshmen Writing courses and I see in them (and their writing) that promise of a fresh start college often brings.  Shows like MTV’s If You Really Knew Me (which I highly recommend) and stories about bullying throw into sharp focus the pressures teens are facing. I’m not saying that teens are facing anything generations of teens and pre-teens have faced before; read the middle stories in The Little House on the Prairie series to see that kids have been cruel to one another far longer than texting and social media brought it to a whole new level.

Between the pressures at school and the pressures at home, college often represents an escape, a chance to start again. Delete your old Facebook account and start a new one.  Experiment in ways you never could in the fishbowl of high school, under the glare of your parents. I decided when I was 14 that I was going away to university, first on a swimming scholarship, then by whatever means necessary. I knew if I could just survive high school, I could go off to this far (enough) away fantasy land and remake myself.

I have seen students go on and become something different and something wonderful. And I have seen students unable to fully extricate themselves from their former lives and dropping out as a result. I have worked with many non-traditional students who have humbled me with their strength and courage, sharing with me the obstacles they had to (and continue to) overcome in order to become a successful college student, in order to be able to discover and express who they are and who they want to be. I see it as my job to help these students succeed in their journeys. One of the ways is to help them connect with themselves through their writing.

This is one of the reasons why I’ve kept so much of my informal writing from high school and my undergraduate days: notes between myself and my friends, unsent letters to boys, my stories and poetry, and most importantly my diaries. Sometimes these writings are found inside of notebooks, in between half-remembered class notes, written during times when I should have been paying attention. They remind me of what it was like at that age, and what writing was like. How shallow my own arguments were, how cliche the stories and images. I remember so I can go easier on my students, so when I am tempted to say, I was NEVER like that when I was a freshmen, I can look and say, yes, yes I was.

And I also keep them for my own children. My writing, no matter how childish, was still practice. And it was therapy. So when my kids are feeling completely alone, overwhelmed and misunderstood, they can look at it and see that someone else went through something similar and survived. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll be encouraged to write and express themselves as well.

As a mother and a teacher, I know the power of writing and it’s something I want to share.

For all the freshmen out there hoping to make the fresh start, good luck. And write it all down for yourself. You’ll be glad you did.

How Higher Ed Makes Most Things Meaningless (Long Version)

This is a longer version of a post that originally appeared through the University of Venus blog on Insidehighered.com.

My academic research will not change the world. Don’t get me wrong, I love the authors I am currently studying, found fascinating all of the topics and areas I have previously written about. But at the end of the day, most people are not really interested in what I am doing, including most people in the academy or in my discipline.
I am creating new knowledge. For my dissertation, I wrote about the relationship between author, translators and publishers using archival documents, many of which had never been read. The result? An archived dissertation and a conference presentation. My masters thesis examined two postcolonial dystopian novels that, I theorized, force us to reexamine how we look at science fiction. The result? A journal essay that I can’t even get for myself through inter-library loan.
Please don’t mistake this as me feeling sorry for myself. I continue to do research and write on what I enjoy, with or without an audience.  I know I am not alone in my current academic obsession, author Dany Laferrière, because I unearth articles from all over the world on various aspects of his writings. There have been conferences that have dedicated multiple panels to his work. But outside of these conferences, accurate databases and wild Google Scholar searches, we remain for the most part isolated and disconnected, despite our shared interest.
Recently, however, I began blogging and Tweeting, not about my current academic research interests, but more largely about education and the direction of higher education. This work has the potential, if not to change the world, then at least to be an active participant in changing academia. Through social media, I have reached a broad audience of academics, teachers, parents, professionals, non-profits and other people who are interested and care about education.  I have been invited to contribute blog posts for a number of different sites. My writing has been featured on other sites, UVenus included. Suddenly, not only am I working on a topic I am passionate about, it seems to matter.
With a foot in both worlds, there are a number of questions about what academia really values from its (theoretically) most important employees, the professors.
Are Academics really interested in “sharing”?
We, as academics, are not really encouraged to share our research and our knowledge. We are encouraged to “share” our findings in limited environments: the conference or specialized journal.  For example, I was unable to attend a conference this past year because I was unable to afford it, even though it was the largest collection of academics working on author Laferrière I had ever seen. Outside of the abstracts, there is currently no way (that I can find) to access the complete presentations, limiting the audience to the few who were able to attend.  These papers are mostly likely being “saved” for publication in an obscure journal or academic book, both highly priced (for the consumer) and highly valued (by the academy), giving the research meaning.
While more and more scholars are using sites like Academia.edu or SlideShare, and even self-publishing, this type of sharing isn’t rewarded when it comes time for decisions on hiring, tenure and promotion. We are taught instead to hoard our research and findings to share with a potentially smaller audience in venues with more “prestige.”  Why not work to improve Wikipedia in whatever field you specialize in? The entries on Dany Laferrière’s works are lacking, calling me to improve on them, hopefully introducing and informing a broader audience about the author. But because the medium is “crowdsourced” instead of peer-reviewed, career-wise, my work there would be meaningless.
Instead of having to travel to conferences, forcing our academic libraries to pay obscene fees to subscribe to journals, or waiting for years and years for our research to finally appear in print, why not harness the power of Twitter and other social media outlets to share information and research in real time? In the field of education alone, there are at least 27 weekly Twitter-Chats that take place on various sub-topics (http://www.cybraryman.com/chats.html). Each chat takes place at a set time, is usually archived by the host, and lasts about an hour. The chats bring together teachers, researchers, and other interested people to talk about a pre-determined topic, often decided by online vote. People link to relevant research, sometimes their own, sometimes from others.  These Twitter Chats represent an opportunity to learn, connect and share in real time without the hassle. Why can’t academics organize their own Tweet chats about their field (the Digital Humanities are a large exception to the rule; they tweet just about everything)? Because hiring committees and tenure committees wouldn’t care, making the work meaningless.
Are we allowed to be ourselves?
When I first decided that I was going to be an academic, I was told that I had to give up my online life (I blogged before it was even known as blogging) if I ever wanted to be taken seriously as an academic. While I agree that I needed to give up those subjects that an undergraduate would write about, I wish I would have been encouraged to blog about my research interests or life as a graduate student. Instead, I was encouraged to give up every part of my life that didn’t have anything to do with my research, lest it make me appear unprofessional or that I lacked dedication to my chosen profession.
I have written about this before, but it bears repeating: browse the blogs of junior faculty members, graduate students and recent PhD graduates and you will notice one thing – they are almost all anonymous.  Why? Why can’t we blog about not just our narrow research interests but everything we are interested in or want to write about?  Is academia that insecure that it can’t take a little criticism or allow for a professor to be more than a talking head in front of the classroom or byline on a book or article? Outside of those two functions, the person behind the professor would appear to be meaningless.
Deciding that I didn’t care about any of that anymore was freeing in many ways. It allowed me to blog and engage with a larger peer group as myself: my own name and all of my interests in tact. Yes, I am a mother of two young children. Yes, I swim and watch TV and movies and have a messy house and a messy life. Yes, I care about the future of higher education and no, I do not agree with much of what is going on right now (#higheredapocalypse, anyone?).  And, yes, I read and write about Dany Laferrère and other materials related to my academic interests that have nothing to do with my PhD (writing, college readiness, testing, standards, social media in teaching). But only one of those areas has any meaning for the academy.
And perhaps the most liberating part of no longer trying to be someone I wasn’t in order to be valued was that my research improved; it improved because I allowed the research to be what it was, not what I thought it needed to be in order to have meaning by someone else’s standards. I am no longer desperate to make my research sound like it will change the world in one way or another in order to fit myself into a job or funding opportunity. I continue to publish and present at conferences, but I choose the opportunities that fit with the research, with me, and not the other way around. 
My research may not change the world (or ever be read), but it is far from meaningless. My outside interests may be meaningless according to the academy, but may help change the world. Academia has such a narrow view of what is meaningful, and I, for one, have stopped listening to what higher ed narrowly thinks I should be and started defining it for myself.

So You’re Going To Community College

Recently, on the Twitter weekly #collegebound chat, we discussed how students could save money while attending college. One answer that came up frequently was to forgo going away to a four-year college for two years and attending a local community college. More and more students are choosing community college as their first post-secondary destination.  I want to offer some advice so that you can make the most out of your community college experience. Much of this advice can be transferred to any four-year institution as well.

1) Research transfer arrangements.  If you have a good idea of where you eventually want to end up, then you need to make sure that you take as many courses as you can that transfer to the four-year college you want. If you are interested in a specific degree program, check the program’s policy on transferring credits; some of the demanding degrees are more strict when it comes to accepting credit from other institutions.


2) Research your instructors.  You want to find instructors who will help you get where you want to go. Professors in higher ed might not be the best at helping you to get a job, but they know how to work the university system. Research where they graduated from or are currently studying; they probably still have connections they can put you in touch with. They might also know about paid research or grant opportunities open to you. Start by looking on the college’s website, where their will often be instructor bios, and then move on to using Google Scholar, a place where you can get a better idea of their research and writing.

3) Let your instructors get to know you. It’s not who you know, it’s how you use them. Once you know about your instructors, let them get to know you. Talk to them after class or during office hours. Ask them questions. Share your goals with them. They can’t help you if they don’t know what you are looking for from them and your experience at community college. Show them you mean business and most of the time, they’ll be willing and ready to help you/

4) Be ready to work and to learn. Hopefully researching your instructors will show you that there are plenty of talented, intelligent and dedicated people working at your community college. They want to help you succeed, but you need to be ready to put the work in. Put aside the idea that going to community college is “easier” than what your friends might be doing at their four-year school. You need to dedicate yourself to your studies as much as you would at any other school.

5) Learn about the resources your school offers. College completion is a big deal right now, at all levels. Most colleges have tutoring and counseling services, as well as writing centers, available to help you succeed. You paid for them through your tuition, so why don’t you take advantage of them? Student services, student unions, and other student organization can help you have a well-rounded and exciting experience, as exciting, interesting, and rewarding as a four-year institution.

6) Keep an open mind. You have goals, but take advantage of the variety of courses available to you. Try new things, meet new people, and be prepared to perhaps change your mind and your direction. One of the biggest advantages of community colleges are that they are affordable – so changing your mind isn’t the end of your finances. And the people you meet could open doors for you that you never imagined. Be open to the possibilities, because they are there, waiting for you to discover them.

Yes, even at a community college.

Good luck, and make the best of it.

An Open Letter to Nixty.com and Adjuncts

This is a letter, actually, to all those who are looking to seriously change higher education, such as supercoolschool.com, odijoo.com, udemy.com, and everyone else.

I have a dream. It is a dream where adjuncts (aka contingent faculty) teach their classes and get paid a fair amount. In fact, they can set their own amount, with a cut going to the system administrator. These courses will be accredited, or at least accepted for credit at a student’s home institution, perhaps the institution where the instructor has taught in the past. It would be the biggest teaching institution in the world, housed entirely online.

Because, let’s look at this objectively. In the case of California, the largest public system in the nation, the large majority of a student’s tuition is not being spent on instruction and the community colleges are outsourcing the classes they apparently can’t afford to provide. Students in the Cal State system can’t get the classes they need to graduate.  This is just an example, but it is an illustrative one. We are laying off adjuncts, turning out students because they can’t finish. Why, instead of outsourcing, do they not accept a course, taught by a qualified instructor as an equivalent? It could be a win-win – adjuncts get paid what they deserve and universities graduate students.

But there are always the thorny issues of accreditation. Nixty, God bless’em, have seem to have come up with a solution so simple, it’s truly revolutionary. On their page for educators, they give seven reasons why an educator should choose to use Nixty. Reason number 4:

“Teach Credentialed Courses – If you are employed at an academic institution and teaching in your specialty area, then your courses will be “credentialed” to differentiate them from other courses on NIXTY.”

So simple and elegant. If you already teach at an accredited institution, then you must be qualified and teach courses of equivalent value! Or, as I like to put it, teach first, ask questions later.

Please imagine it if you will: teach one class at a university or community college and teach the rest of the time online, as many students you can handle for as much as you think you deserve. No more highway driving between colleges. No more begging, borrowing and stealing every summer down time. No more inability to afford health care. You are accountable to the students and to yourself.

Because, as I have written elsewhere, we can’t afford to give it away for free. But if we can leverage our collective strength, knowledge and take advantage of the power of Web 2.0 technologies, we can be in the driver’s seat.

There is still an issue of financial aid and the guarantee that institutions will accept the courses. But these are desperate times and there is increased pressure coming from various levels of government to increase college completion rates.

This represents a tremendous opportunity for all of us. We just need to be willing to work together to see this change. It’s my dream and I hope to make it yours, too.

What Are You Passionate About?

I came across a tribute video today for the long-lost Montreal Expos MLB team.  That, along with this weekend’s induction ceremony, meaning that we are about to have our second player in Cooperstown, is making me feel downright nostalgic for a team that I grew up cheering for. My father arrived in Montreal the same year the Expos started playing. He used to tape the games off the radio. He took us to the games growing up and he would have them on the radio playing as we splashed in our pool during the summer. My first real date was to an Expos game. I was there for two of Gary Carter’s last three games. I watched Vladimir Guerrero out-slug Mark McGuire during batting practice. And I cried in 1994 when our team was robbed of the opportunity to finally play in the postseason.

I could write a book about my memories of the Expos.  We all could fill a book with our memories of something cherished or if we were talking about something that truly inspires us. I have bored many a friend describing exactly why watching Micheal Phelps swim makes my heart ache because it is so beautiful. Students are rarely asked to write about a subject that they are passionate about; most of the time, as adults, we could care less. In fact, we wish most of the time that they would concentrate on “more meaningful” interests. And when they talk about those things they love, we only half-listen, because, really, why should we care?

We should care because they care. And because they care, we have an opportunity to reach out to them and improve their writing. As an evaluation exercise at the beginning of the semester, my students were required to write an in-class essay. One of the subjects they could choose to write about was their most prized possession. Having never written anything outside of a 5-paragraph essay, most of my students had no idea how to communicate their passion onto the page; I would get three reasons, duly enumerated and described. One example that always stood out for me was when students would write about their prized sneaker collection. I read that they were prized because they were expensive, that the student worked hard to buy them, that they represented the student’s individuality.  But never once did I read an essay that actually described the shoes.

What do they look like? How do you feel when you wear them? How did it feel when you found them and then were able to buy them? Don’t give me an expository essay about your shoes; tell me about your shoes. And, suddenly, an average-to-poor writer will come alive. A good-to-great writer will become even better. And, most importantly, a scared, scarred writer will begin to see that they have nothing to be afraid of anymore.

Grammar can be taught and practiced writing about anything. Learning how to use powerful, descriptive, active language can happen more readily when the student has powerful, descriptive, active things to write about. When a student cares about actually conveying a message, they more readily learn about organization. All of these skills can easily be transferred to writing about anything and everything. Including academic, college-level writing.

I’m not saying anything new nor am I reinventing the wheel. But sometimes we need to be reminded that when a student has never been asked to write about something they care about, they come to hate the task itself as much as the subject.

But what about critical thinking, that next step in achieving college-level writing. Once you get a student started down the path, it becomes a lot easier to push them in new directions, getting them to answer more difficult and challenging questions about that thing they are passionate about. Take the example with the designer sneakers. Why are these shoes so desirable? Why are they so expensive? Why do you need 20, 30, 100 pairs of shoes? Where and how are the shoes made? You can get into critical conversations about sweat shop labor, the power of marketing and branding, or the nature of our consumer society.  The student might never give up collecting designer sneakers, but at least they have begun to see the complexity of the world around them.

So, ask your students or your teens what they love. And then, get them to write about it. Their college professors will thank you for it.

Higher Ed’s Missing Women (and why we all need to care)

There was a recent post on The Washington Post’s website, Why Women Leaders are MIA from Academic Life. I wrote a similar post, A Women’s Work in Higher Ed, a few months ago. Blogs like UVenus exist because an entire generation of women academics feel like academia has little place for them. Reading the comments on The Washington Post article, you’d think that it’s more whiny women who can’t cut it and want special treatment over men, who clearly deserve it or want it more. It when so far that when I tweeted the MIA article, it was retweeted with the comment, “feminist propaganda.”

What I think many people outside of academia don’t understand is how late in the game, compared to just about any other profession, academics actually start their careers. You need your undergrad (min. four years), masters (one-two years), and then PhD (four years plus). In the sciences, you are also expected to complete one or more postdoctoral fellowships (another three plus years). And then, if you are lucky, you might land a tenure-track job, which means another seven years of breaking your back in order to win tenure. The rest of us labor as casual, low-paid, contingent faculty.

Do that math. A woman must wait until she is in her mid- to late-30s in order to have kids if she wants to go the path of the academic. Or, she lacks insurance in order to pay to have a kid.

Men, on the other hand, can have babies until, well, forever. Which is why the system doesn’t punish men in the same way.

Let’s look at other, high-demand professions where women have also historically lagged behind: business, law, medicine. These professions typically demand some post-undergrad education. But the length of those programs is nothing compared to getting a PhD, almost half the time. In business, the MBA typically comes once the person has some experience in the business world. While residencies in order to specialize in medicine are long and grueling, the doctor is paid a fair amount of money during this period. Not a king’s ransom, but fair. And there are a number of choices a new doctor can select in order to specialize in a program that suits their lifestyle and life goals. As a lawyer, even if someone chooses to only practice law part-time, they are still paid the going rate for lawyers, not paralegals.

For a woman getting a PhD, there is no less-demanding specialty, no part-time option, no flex-time, nothing. You either ride the tenure-track or you get paid next to nothing as an adjunct. 

But at the end of the day, if you believe in the innate, natural, biological differences between men and women, and you care about the future of higher ed, then you should be screaming for more women to rise the leadership ladder. Much of the criticism of the current direction (and rapid regression) of higher ed is directed at the top-down, business-like leadership. Universities, the criticism says, are being run like corporations and less like institutions where collaboration and share governance are prized. Universities, in other words, are being run by men like a stereotypical man: dictatorial, ruthless, and profit/prestige driven. If the university is to survive, it needs a stereotypical women’s touch: collaboration, cooperation, and compassion. 

If these are the values and skills we want our undergraduates to have in order to succeed in the 21st Century, we need leadership at the universities that reflect those values and practice those skills. The university needs more women leaders.

Can 21st Century Technology Really Help Students Become Better Writers?

Another guest post today – this one over at Next Gen Learning Challenges.

When I was younger, I would love to have had the technology students have access to today. Although I knew how to read, I almost failed Kindergarten because I couldn’t cut paper. In grade 2, I was devastated because I could never do well enough in the penmanship exercises. I have very clear memories of sitting at the dinner table, late at night, crying because I was going to have to rewrite my paper again, as I had made four mistakes and couldn’t have more than three liquid paper corrections.  My handwriting is still terrible and I still can’t spell. But now I have a word processing program that makes those issues largely irrelevant.

But that is late 20th Century technology. Many have argued that even these, now basic, technologies have weakened our children’s writing skills.  When teaching, I wish my students would rewrite their essays, rather than just inputting in corrections. Computers make it easier to plagiarize, whether the student means to or not, because cutting-and-pasting is so easy. And I do romanticize about the act of putting pen to paper to write down my thoughts, even if I’m the only one who can read the writing.

These, however, are just excuses. We chide the 21st Century developments because we see so many faults with the 20th Century ones. But Web 2.0 tools provide so many avenues for students to improve their writing in order to achieve a level of language and sophistication that would make them “college ready.” I want to propose some ways that teachers can use the technology and information that is out there in order to help their students find a love of writing.

What are your students writing about?
Textbook costs are through the roof. School boards are cutting budgets, classroom essentials are becoming outdated more quickly, and there is no money to replace them. The Internet, however, is always up-to-date and available for students and teachers to use.  A recent study strongly suggests that the best indicator of school success is the number of books in the family home. If a child is exposed to book, they will appreciate them. I would argue that the same goes for the Internet. If a child is exposed to all that the Internet can offer, they will use it.

OpenCourseWare, iTunes U, YouTube.edu are all resources that are available for teachers and students to use. More and more professors are publishing their research and presentations online. Yes, these are challenging, designed for a college audience, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be adapted for a high school, or even middle-school, classroom. These resources provide students with a world they can explore according to their own interests; teachers can discover new ways of teaching a topic.  Students and teachers can explore the different ways information is communicated, written and otherwise.

What about all of the paper-mills and free analysis available on the Internet? I say, throw the doors open on them. Get students to find an essay and critique it.  Have them present the source to the class. Most of the time, these resources (legal or illegal) do provide insight on a given topic, as well as provide effective (or not effective) models for students’ writing.  The more types of writing a student is exposed to, the more models the students can pull from when they engage in their own writing.

Who are your students writing for?
Web 2.0 is all about sharing. And this sharing is mostly done in the written form, even if that writing isn’t appropriate for a college essay. But, neither is the 5-paragraph essay students focus on throughout their middle- and high-school years.  Blogs, wikis, tweets and other forms of online engagement offers opportunities for students not only to write, but also to learn about writing for different audiences and different purposes.

Students typically only write for two audiences: their teachers and their peers.  Social Media opens up a whole new audience for students to be able to share their ideas and their passions. The potential audience is limitless. This is also an ideal time to talk to students about Internet responsibility. When students know that others outside of their peer group are reading what they are posting, it will send an important message about being cyber-responsible. Teachers should invite professionals, people from the community, other bloggers and member of their own PLN to visit and offer feedback on the students’ online work. The larger the audience, the better and more varied the feedback. The better the feedback, the more chances a student will have to improve their writing.

(I’m leaving aside privacy concerns for the moment. I think we need to re-evaluate privacy given the open world we are living in. This is not a call for irresponsibility, but instead a call to give students the widest variety of opportunities and empower them to create their own PLN.)

How are students learning to write?
Video games and other interactive technologies have proven useful at helping early literacy skills. An excellent example is http://www.readtoday.net, which targets pre-literacy and early literacy skills.  But the jury is out on video games and other interactive technologies help with more advanced literacy skills. Mark Bauerlein has written extensively on how the Internet and video games are in fact decreasing a student’s ability to concentrate, and thus read carefully and think critically. You can check out Online Literacy is a Lesser Kind or many of his blog posts on The Chronicle website.

I agree with many of his observations. But I think learning how to read and interact critically online is the same as learning how to read a short story or poem critically. Students move from learning to read the words, to understanding the sentences, to decoding and recognizing complex patterns and symbols. Each is its own kind of reading or literacy level. And each level is evaluated, in part, how well the students not just read, but communicate that comprehension, typically through writing.

Why can’t we teach students to read and write using those areas that they are interested, or even obsessed with? Video games are now immersive universes that are ripe for critical study. But even getting students to simply write a guidebook to the world would be a great way to engage their literacy skills, their ability to adapt their language to different audiences, and, if done as a wiki, could put them in contact with people from around the world who can add insight and provide feedback. The teachers might not play the games, but ask the students to actually write about something that they know and are passionate about can be the door to getting them to improve their writing. From their, the students can move to a higher form of literacy, decoding the symbols and patterns the video game universe presents to them.

How are we evaluating our students?
This is one of the ways that technology does not really help the teacher.  Word processors used to have “Readability” as one of the tools you could use which would give you various scores or grade-levels of your writing. But those programs were not very useful and are no longer available. At the end of the day, good writing goes beyond proper grammar, and we have not yet discovered the algorithm that can evaluate an essay.

This is not to say that there aren’t good teaching tools for helping a student learn good grammar skills. An excellent teaching tool online is http://spellcheckplus.com. It was designed initially for ESL learners but as more and more people use the site, the database of common grammar and usage mistakes grows. The site offers feedback and suggestions but the student is left to rewrite the essay on their own, reinforcing the lessons.  But it cannot evaluate a student’s arguments, supporting evidence or organization.

One advantage of unleashing your students’ work on the Internet is that you can try crowdsourcing the grading. In other words, students become responsible for evaluating each other’s writing.  According to the article linked above, it leads to the students doing more and better writing. At the high school level it might be difficult to implement (and you don’t see university professors flocking to try this themselves, either), but it does offer some new and different ways of helping students improve their writing through taking ownership of the entire process, from start to finish.

Another advantage of the students being available online is that it is always there for a comparison.  A student or teacher can quickly and readily compare what the student’s writing was like at the beginning of the semester and at the end of the semester. A student, or even parents, can consult or compare their own writing to a peer’s writing so grading becomes a point of discussing, not a mystery.  And, the writing is more organic; rather than a pile of papers at the end of a term, there is a give-and-take that evolves as the term progresses. Think of it as the ultimate drafting of a term- or year-long assignment: becoming a better writer.

All of this is scary – scary for teachers, scary for students, and scary for parents. But, as any college instructor of Freshman Writing will tell you, what is happening right now in high school is not preparing students to write at a college-level.  And I am not calling for the elimination of good, old-fashioned books from the curriculum. But as a student becomes a more confident writer and their literacy skills increase, they can apply these skills to reading books. How many students complain about not wanting to read because it is “too hard” or “too boring.” I believe that by engaging students where they are with what they are interested in will allow teachers to get them to where they need to be.

And where they need to be is out of remedial English at the college level.

Reading, Writing and Technology in the (Online) College Classroom

Edit (February 21, 2014): The original post is now gone and I’ve been asked to “unlink,” so I have. I’m keeping the interview up however, since I think it still holds. 

L.O.: Several years ago Mark Bauerlein wrote the article, Online Literacy is a Lesser Kind. The piece questions technology’s place in the classroom, given Millennials’ seeming inability to divorce their free time Web habits from their school-related Web assignments. It also blames the Web for sapping students’ intellectual initiative, in terms of their desire to read novels or untangle metaphors – for example. From what you’ve seen, do you think our “reading culture” is in jeopardy?

Dr. S.: I’m so glad you brought up Professor Bauerlein; I’m a big admirer of his writing. More evidence is being presented that we are living in more distracted times. I myself can’t write without having music playing in the background while continually checking my email and Twitter feed. Part of that is that it is my job to stay on top of my contacts – part of it is that it is convenient that I blame it on my job! While I agree with just about everything Professor Bauerlein writes, I think he doesn’t take the next step: how do we deal with this new reality? We’re not going to convince kids to unplug, not completely, so what do we do?

I say, let’s meet students where they are. Let’s use the web and their web activities as a means to our own ends. A recent blog, Essential Skills for 21st Century Survival: Pattern Recognition, argues (rightly) that students need to be able to recognize complex patterns in order to be able to act and react better and come up with innovative solutions. While this takes mindfulness (which indicates a willingness to slow down and reflect on the information around you), we can teach students to see patterns anywhere. And, at the end of the day, what are advance literacy skills other than a form of pattern recognition and learning to interpret those patterns?

We can teach students to be mindful of whatever they are reading or interacting with, be it video games, social media or even gossip sites. Get students to analyze the writing (and the comments) to see what kinds of patterns emerge, what they can see if they take the time to look. And then, get them to write on whatever they are interested in, some would even say obsessed with, both critically and uncritically. And when they’ve developed stronger literacy skills, more confidence in their writing and ideas, you can move on to applying that to the more “traditional” narratives, such as history or literature.

It is our jobs as teachers not to lament a time passed, but to teach students with the tools we have now. Students went through a similar process when learning to read: first the words, the making meaning from the collection of words, then moving on to added meaning implied by the specific pattern of words. But this was a process that needed to be taught or guided; students don’t just figure out imagery or literary allusions on their own. Why not teach the same skills with those things that students are most comfortable interacting with then move to where you want them to be?

I can understand Professor Bauerlein’s frustration, because as someone who has also taught university students, it is frustrating to see them lacking the skills they need to be successful in college and beyond. It is also extremely difficult to break them of these habits once they hit university; it was good enough to get them here, why shouldn’t they continue on the same path? As university instructors, it is a challenge, especially in English, where most (but certainly not all) were trained in more traditional literature. But we are responsible for teaching the future teachers, so if we want the students we get to be more adaptive and receptive, then we need to teach the teachers better, too. We all need to work together to help our students deal with the reality of the 21st Century.

L.O.: For students, how do you reconcile online writing skills (tweeting, texting, blogging) with traditional composition rules? Do they need to be reconciled? Differentiated?

Dr. S.: Which “traditional composition rules”? The 5-paragraph essay that the kids are drilled on in high school? Students need to be able to adapt their writing depending on the audience and purpose of what they are writing. The answer in high school to how to write is always the 5-paragraph essay, which is completely inadequate for the needs of college. How do you write a 10-page literary essay or 15-page lab report when the only two forms of writing you know are the 5-paragraph essay and texting your friends?

I tell my students that they already know how to adapt their language, message and delivery; they just do it unconsciously most of the time. I ask them to describe their weekend to a close friend (written down) and then describe the same weekend to one of their grandparents (also written down). They immediately see the difference, but we go on to discuss those differences and what they tell us about audience and purpose.

Once students see the many possibilities about writing, they begin to feel good exploring the different types, including blogging. We also read different kinds of essays to see what other writers do well (or not so well). That is one of the strengths of the Internet – the students can experience so many different writing styles, but they can also take advantage of the different audiences out in cyberspace. While the students will be typically drawn by a certain style, they can be taught to see their own habits to then adapt them for different audiences and purposes.

Obviously, you have to teach certain “hard and fast” rules for university writing: proper grammar, no using text language, no slang, little first-person, no contractions, etc. But you explain that these are rules in the same way that LOL and smh are conventions that everyone agrees to follow in online or text conversation. You also need to help them understand that proper grammar and following conventions is the same as showing up to a function properly dressed. You don’t show up to prom in jeans and you don’t show up to a dive bar in a gown. Same things when you write.

Students also need to realize that when they write online (blogs in particular), anyone can read them. Obviously the conventions are different for a blog, but is it a good idea to present a blog post written with completely incorrect grammar and filled with profanity? Who is the audience for that? And what impression will that leave on a casual reader?

We need to teach our students to be aware of their audience and purpose when they write and teach them to be able to move between types of writing, both online and offline.

L.O.: In your own writing, how do you approach the two contexts? How do they compare?

Dr. S.: For me, it’s more than two contexts. As an academic, a blogger on different topics for different audiences, a new Tweeter, and someone who is also trying to communicate with undergrads, I wear so many different writing hats. It’s also different for me because I grew up and really learned about writing as all of this was coming to be and evolving.

I started my undergraduate degree in 1996. I always wanted to be a writer. I did a program where you specialized in Professional Writing and had multiple paid internships as part of the experience. I learned about journalism, technical writing, copywriting, editing and translating, as well as more creative writing. The program was small and so flexible to the changes that were taking place with the rapid growth of the Internet. We took a class in web publishing and online journalism, such as it was understood then. I edited our school newspaper and oversaw the first online editions, which were simply the print articles placed online. All very basic, but really cutting-edge for an English BA at the time.

My work terms were primarily in technical writing for high-tech firms, but I did do an internship working for a government intranet (does anyone even know what that is anymore?) newspaper. I learned a little more about web design and writing for the screen, rather than writing for the page. I contributed columns for a friend’s website (which had started as an email newsletter to members culled from his days on bbs – primitive social media), blogging before it was called blogging. But I hated the dry, formulaic requirements of technical writing, which is where the jobs were, so I decided to do a Masters in literature. And I had to start all over again learning how to write.

The style I had learned in my BA was completely incompatible with academic writing in the humanities. I was trained to write in simple, direct sentences and to say what I had to say in the least number of words possible. Writing 15 pages on a novel, following the conventions of academic writing was the exact opposite, or so it seemed to me (don’t believe me; find an academic article in the humanities). I was also advised to abandon my side activities as a blogger, lest I appear unprofessional in my pursuit of higher degrees (I knew I was going to do a PhD) and a tenure-track job.

I never felt completely at home writing as an academic. But because of the conventions of academia, I felt like I missed the boat on blogging and other forms of social media, including the rapid evolution of web design. So coming into it now, it’s like I’m back where I started almost 15 (15!!!!) years ago, thinking I was a pretty good writer and being knocked on my ass, if you forgive the expression. It takes constant vigilance to remember who my audience is at any given time when I write. I also have to maintain openness in order to learn how to be better on Twitter and keep to fewer than 140 characters!
But one thing that 15 years of experience brings is a certain level of confidence. I’ll be wrong, but it’s ok, I’ll do better next time. All writers, no matter the level, should not be afraid to fail but also be willing to learn from those failures and remember the lesson the next time.

L.O.: Do you use technology in your classes? Is the goal to make your lessons relevant to students, or to make students relevant to employers?

Dr.S.: It’s been a challenge to really integrate technology into my class. I’ve used discussion boards, had students write Wikipedia-like entries on stories, and I try, whenever possible, to save students money by using online resources as to avoid the costs of textbooks. But at the end of the day, students typically come into class expecting one thing and that is to sit and be lectured at with either an exam or paper at the end. To get them to break out of those expectations is difficult. Part of it is to try and make the learning process more active for the students, to get them more involved. Part of it is to get them to think about how to use the technology differently, more actively, as well. Will it make them more relevant to their employers? I hope so, insofar as they will be more adaptive, flexible and early adopters of whatever technology comes along next week.

Professors are not actively encouraged to innovate in the classroom. In our research, certainly, but the time it takes to really experiment and develop new assignments or course structure is seen as better spent on your next publication, especially when you are learning the technology yourself. This isn’t an excuse, but it is a challenge we all face as teachers as we watch the world completely before our eyes. I think, for me, my way incorporate technology is to integrate it as a legitimate &quottext” that can be studied and written about. I think it’s important to mix traditional writing with online writing as that is the world the students will be entering.

L.O.: Online classes are more convenient for many students, but they’re also cost-effective for budget-strapped colleges. Pre-designed courses can be “administered” by adjuncts, and expanded without physical facility costs. Will these facts of e-learning homogenize curriculums, or do the opposite, by removing classroom walls and geographic barriers? 

Dr. S.: Online courses are a lot like face-to-face classes, you get out of it what you put in. And that goes for both the student and the professor. A student could attend every class and do homework for other classes or just simply zone out while spending little time on homework or assignments. A professor can simply read from the textbook or recycle the same lecture they’ve used for the last 30 years.

In the same way, an online class can be a wonderful experience or it could be a waste of time. Some professors treat it as a high-tech correspondence course while others work really hard to make it a really immersive experience. And some students treat online courses as a learning opportunity and others as a way to get easy credits.

As for pre-designed courses, that’s already happening in face-to-face situations in courses such as Freshman Writing. Low-paid adjuncts are handed textbooks, assignments and criteria. Or, because of they have so many courses at different places, they begin to keep reusing the same course over and over. Could it be made worse by moving the whole enterprise online? Yes. Could it be glossed over by pointing to the very real potential to reach non-traditional students? Yes.

Not really sure what to do about it, unfortunately.

L.O.: Some view e-learning as a “delivery” choice, others say it has to be a fundamental component of your teaching theory. Where do you stand?

Dr. S.: I think, as I said above, we need to meet students where they are. And if that means having forms of e-learning, then so be it. But it doesn’t mean that all students are on the same level technically. The great majority of Twitter users are older than 25. I’ve taught non-traditional or first-generation students with no reliable access to a computer or the Internet. So we have to make sure we achieve a balance and, again, to work with students where they are. Because 5, 10 years from now, the undergraduates will be completely different in terms of their technical knowledge and skill. The future may be in hand-held devices, smart phones. We have invested so much time and energy in certain e-learning tools, but it may be the wrong tools. If I could, I’d get into the app business. We, as instructors, need to be as flexible and adaptive as we hope our students to be.