“Pump Up The Volume”: Lessons about Social Media, Education, and Change

In an interesting coincidence, my post for the University of Venus about why people in higher education should blog (agency and action, people!) came out on the same day that the now-former president of Egypt finally stepped down, a product of a revolution fueled by social media. So while I read comments (ok, one comment) on the post about how futile it was to write about our anger and dissatisfaction, a dictator was brought down by that same seemingly futile anger and dissatisfaction. 
But the comment does bring up a good question: who is really listening? I would argue that if your feelings and perspective are shared by others, then you are speaking to while simultaneously creating a community, and leaving an archive that can be found and read by those who might not even know that such a community even exists. But really, at the end of the day, there is something, as I wrote, really empowering about finding your voice and finally using it honestly and authentically, even if your audience is potentially non-existent. Because you never know what could happen.

The movie Pump Up The Volume came out when I was 12 or 13 years old. It starred Christian Slater, who, at that time, was my super-dreamy dreamboat. And in this movie, more so than say Heathers, he pulled off being both rebellious and insecure, which is like candy to a 13-year-old’s fantasy life (that metaphor made no sense). Slater plays quiet, insecure Mark Hunter, a new student at a large high Arizona high school. But at night, he becomes Hard Harry, broadcasting an illegal radio show using the ham radio his parents bought him so he could theoretically talk to his old friends back on the East Coast. As Hard Harry, he behaves outrageously and says outrageous (but truthful) things, things that “the man” doesn’t want to hear (and plays awesome music; this movie was my introduction to Leonard Cohen). Mark doesn’t have an audience; he broadcasts his show for no one but himself and a theoretical audience of his peers. 

It should be noted that the movie opens with a Billy Idol wanna-be being thrown out of school, along with a couple of other rough looking teens and Hispanics. That same Billy Idol wanna-be is sitting in a field at night and happens to come across the Hard Harry Show. The news of the illicit show and shock jock (Howard Stern wasn’t yet in syndication, so I don’t even know if the term existed yet) spread like wildfire across the school (the term now would be “going viral”), with students passing around tapes of the show they made themselves. It was bedlam at the school, and soon he was Public Enemy Number One, especially after Hard Harry didn’t dissuade a student from committing suicide.
The movie ends with the FCC coming in and shutting down the “illegal” broadcasts (he didn’t have a license; which is as laughable as the EPA being the reason that the Ghostbusters were shut down). But before that happens, a sympathetic teacher, informed by questions Hard Harry was asking, uncovers the corruption and fraud going on in the high school; those students who were expelled in the opening scenes were removed because of their low tests scores but the school was still drawing state money for them. It should also be noted that Hard Harry’s father was a big-wig working for the school district who was also completely ignorant of the fraud going on under his watch. It was, in fact, the angry and lonely rants of a young teen boy that brought down the system that was failing the students.  After we fade to black, we hear a tentative female voice asking, “Is anyone out there listening?” and she is joined by a number of other young voices, broadcasting themselves, inspired by Hard Harry and the impact he had on his community. 
Now, we have blogs, YouTube, Twitter, facebook, and any number of other means of adding our voice, creating community, and affecting change. And, twenty (gulp, really, this movie is 20 years old) years later, many of the issues the movie addresses, albeit sometimes subtly, have been exploded: focus on test scores, unequal educational opportunities based on race, general fiscal corruption, and the dangers of a powerful and misguided bureaucracy. What goes viral nowadays has more to do with gross-out humor (which Hard Harry did a lot of) and pop culture. But, as we see in Egypt, there is the great potential for ordinary people using their voices for real change. I think Pump Up The Volume can teach us, ahem, volumes about the power of individuals using their voice to create change, especially in education. 
To co-opt the expression from Hard Harry: Blog Hard, everyone, Blog Hard. 

Anti-Social Media, Parenting, and Teaching about Modern Rhetoric

Last week, I had a massive argument with my almost-four-year-old daughter about (wait for it) whether or not a piece of bread had butter on it. It did, but because she hadn’t seen her father actually spreading the butter on that particular piece of bread, she refused to believe me. I call it an argument, but it devolved into a stressful version on Monty Python’s The Argument Sketch (note how the next sketch featured is “Hitting on the Head Lessons”; it was that, too). The argument devolved into foot stomping, yelling, door slamming, tears, and a lonely little piece of buttered bread waiting on a stair to be eaten. In my role as mother, I wanted my daughter to calm down, see reason, and eat some food (one of the reasons she was being irrational to begin with). In her role as head-strong toddler, she wanted to be right, even if the bread clearly was covered in butter.

I used this example in my class to show how having the best interests of your reader or listener can really change the tone and content of an argument. We have been discussing the differences between Sophists and Philosophers, then moving on to Gertrude Buck and her essay, “The Present Status of Rhetorical Theory.” (On an aside, why isn’t there a wikipedia page for Buck and her writings? Lack of female contributors, indeed. People, get on this!). She talks about how the Sophists were anti-social while the Platonists were social. The reason? Sophists only had their best interests in mind while arguing, while Platonists were arguing for the benefit of the listener. I asked my students, although we talk about “audience”, do we really write for the benefit of that sometimes real, sometimes imaginary audience, or do we really write for our own benefit?
In school, typically, we write for our own benefit: for the benefit of grades. We’re not writing to inform or enlighten our professor or teacher, we’re writing to get an A. Imagine if your students actually wrote for your benefit, rather than their own? My students couldn’t imagine, but they saw the difference. Imagine if we assigned papers or presented an assignment in a way that had students consider a benefit other than their own? Isn’t there the potential to read papers that truly offer some insight in perhaps an engaging way? Tenured Radical makes a similar argument about how simply using the word “prompt” causes students to write in a way that truly benefits no one, other than being awarded a good grade.
When you write a paper for publication, are you writing it for the benefit of the reader or the benefit of your tenure case?
I tell my students that this line of thinking isn’t just limited to the papers they write for class; what about the discourse we see, hear, and read regarding politics and other “hot button” issues of the day? How many times to they hear arguments that aren’t about them, the listener, but have everything to do with benefiting the speaker? How much of the vitriol that goes on in the comments sections of newspapers and popular blogs have nothing to do with “enlightening” the author or other readers, and everything to do with either establishing the superiority of the writer or ensuring their privileged position? Is the openness of the Internet really an “anti-social” form of rhetoric? 
I think my students are really thinking more carefully about their education, their ways of communicating, and the rhetoric, be it visual, aural, or written, that they consume every day. As for me, I wonder if I genuinely had my daughter’s best interests at heart as I continued to argue with her over that stupid piece of butter bread; her logic (I didn’t see Daddy put butter on it, thus there must not be butter on the bread) was sound, if simplistic. Was it so important that I win this argument? Was it for her benefit that I tried to show her that she was, in fact, wrong, or my own, in order to maintain my dominant position in our dynamic? I’m not sure anymore. But I do know that I want to engage in more meaningful, beneficial, and productive forms of rhetoric with my kids and my students. 
Here’s to really being social. 

My Awesome Week

My week has been awesome (see title). Both the professional and the personal have gone better than I could have hoped this week. Here’s a brief run-down:

Monday: Latest post for the University of Venus appeared. Snarky/mean comment on said post lead to a show of communal support and solidarity, which was most gratifying. Also lead to my next uvenus post finally coming together. And an invite to guest post for another site. Received an email offering me some advice and moral support on my Laferrière research idea/project.
Tuesday: Worked out with a colleague/neighbor/fellow mommy. We’d been meaning to get together more during the fall semester, but both of us were felled in our efforts by the demands of the job and taking care of kids. Now both our sons are going to preschool together, leaving us time to workout and talk about our kids and our jobs. Also had a lunch date with my husband. Was accepted to THATcamp Southeast. Found a book where the main character shares the same name as my son.
Wednesday: Essay on reading to my kids and how it teaches me as well appeared on the New York Times Motherload blog. My son actually took a two hour nap at school, making our time together at home in the evening much, much, much more enjoyable for all. Finished reading a book. Had a student in my class raise a thoughtful question that showed she was really thinking about what she had read, and she made a promise to reread it again to more fully explain what she was trying to figure out. Had most successful #FYCchat to date.
Thursday: Worked out and fostered actual face-to-face friendships. Was told by a student that he really enjoyed my class and my teaching style. Had one of my posts appear on the NPR On Campus blog. Another lunch date with my husband. Finally found a computer chair for my office that does not cause back pain when I type. This may be the thing I am most excited about. Figured out how to integrate a  piece of writing into my over-all argument for an essay I have to finish writing this weekend.
Friday, Saturday, Sunday: Who know? It might be a disaster. I hope not. I have to finish writing two essays, due Monday (one more informal, one academic). My daughter is also doing a dance clinic and will be performing during halftime of the basketball game. I’m excited for that. I’m also excited to write. I’ve been reading, thinking, and more informally writing in preparation and I’m looking forward to seeing how it all comes together (or not).
I am grateful for this week, even if it didn’t necessarily start off fantastically. I want to record these moments, these events, so I can come back to them when things aren’t going well. Life doesn’t always cooperate, but these highs make it so much easier to deal with the lows. I’ll stop now before I descend into the realm of even more tired cliches. I just wanted to share the good news. 

My (Virtual) Experience at MLA ’11

I didn’t go to the MLA this year, at least not in person. There are a number of reasons: I’m not on a job search, I wasn’t presenting, I spent Christmas at home in Canada with my family instead, I couldn’t really afford it because we have just bought a house and moved immediately before the holidays, etc. But the truth is, I didn’t even submit an abstract to be on any panels; each previous year, I submitted PILES of abstracts and my rate of acceptance is dismally low. And when the abstracts were due, I thought I was kissing my academic career goodbye (I’m pretty sure I’ve kissed any hope of the tenure-track goodbye, but anyway). All of this to say, I wasn’t planning on having anything to do with the MLA this year, or perhaps any year after this (unless by some miracle, it comes to Kentucky, which I doubt). 

I don’t like the MLA. In fact, I don’t really much like academic conferences at all, big or small, despite my writing to the contrary. And I don’t like them for reasons that are unique; I am completely incapable of interacting normally with my fellow academics. I get so nervous that I end up blubbering and babbling and gushing and sticking my foot in my mouth. I act overly-familiar or too distant. I don’t know how to make “friends” and I never really know anyone and no one really knows me. I work in a weird field (Haitian-Canadian/Caribbean-Canadian writing, among other things) and teach in a completely different area (composition). I’m usually a very social person who is at ease in groups of strangers. But when those strangers are my intellectual “superiors,” I turn into a mess. 
When #MLA11 turned up in my Twitter timeline, I was sucked in. I followed along and got involved in the discussions about Digital Humanities and how technology is changing the profession (#openprof and #newtools). I asked questions that I may have been too shy or blubbery to ask otherwise (seriously, 140 characters is a blessing for me). I read blog posts about other presentations (a big, big thank you to Dr. Davis of Teaching College English for being such a diligent blogger). I learned a lot, was challenged and I think was able to pose some challenging questions in return, especially in regards to those of us off the tenure-track. I made new “friends,” got some new followers, and basically got over myself through the semi-anonymity of the web; you can’t see my blush online. 
Now, I want to meet all of these fabulous people I follow on Twitter or whose blogs I read. I want to have my own discussion group/panel (maybe about using social media to improve our teaching/creating PLN in higher education – #FYCchat plug!).  I want to go to Seattle next January and, for the first time, enjoy an MLA conference because I don’t feel intimidated or like I don’t belong. I’m sure I’ll still stick my foot in my mouth or ramble on too long with someone I’ve greatly admired from afar. But, hey, I’m looking forward to it now. 
So thank you MLA Convention for having Wi-Fi and to that handful of Tweeters and bloggers. You reached at least one person and convinced them to join the party next year. 

Good Web Week for Me!

I’ve been featured over on EDleadernews.com in their Higher Education section. To quote my brief introduction (that I had no hand in writing):


It isn’t very often that you stumble upon an academic writer whose style captivates wildly and whose content informs greatly.  Such is the case with Lee Skallerup of collegereadywriting.

I’m very flattered, obviously. My recent post over on The University of Venus, “The Tenure-Track Position: No Longer the Brass Ring,” has generated quite a lot of interest. Paired with “How Higher Ed Makes Most Things Meaningless,” I seem to have become a sort of role model, at least according to Jo Van Every, a career coach who works with people in higher education.* My career trajectory seems to prove her point that doing what you are passionate about pays off
You can bet I’m going to be blogging about that one.
I teach, I write, I blog, I learn. And I am humbled. Thanks everyone for your continuing support.

*At the request of Sean Cook, founder of Higheredcareercoach.com, I have changed the wording of Jo Van Every’s job description. 

Admissions Insanity

“But I did so well in high school. I never got lower than a [insert high grade here].”
High school is barely back in session and already the admissions frenzy for a select group of Juniors and Seniors has begun. I say select group because the statistics show that most students who attend college are at open admissions, non-selective colleges, not the highly-selective ones written about constantly.
For these select students, college admission counselors are offering advice, tutors are helping prep for the SAT/ACT, and parents are paying a personal admissions advisor direct their child through every step of the process: from extra-curricular activities to international volunteer work to the right number of AP courses. The goal, of course, is admission to the “perfect” school … But then what?
I look at this from the perspective of a college instructor completely removed from the process. I look at what lessons students learn from the admissions process, and how these shape their behavior in and approach to my Freshman Writing course.
Students seem to be concerned with two things: their grades and their test scores. If the sheer number of available test prep services are any indication, getting high grades in school do not necessarily translate into high test scores. Moreover, and from my experience, neither seem to predict student success in a basic writing course at the college level. Students learn to write one way for high school classes, another way for admissions essay, and yet another way to do well on their SAT/ACT. They learn each way of writing independently from the others, and are never shown how to transfer their skills from one style of writing to another.
Students seem to learn a small number of rote formulae and stock phrases to pad their essays, leading to high (enough) scores and grades, but few skills to write (and think) beyond those taught to them. And why should they? They do well on tests and get good grades. When students are first faced with an essay that doesn’t fall into one of the three categories mentioned above, however, they have no idea how to adapt. A student who has learned to master the five-paragraph essay (but little to nothing else) is ill-prepared to write anything longer than five paragraphs, let alone the five, ten, or twenty page essays required in college. 
While I understand parents’ and students’ desire to get into a “good” school, I want to remind them that getting in is only the first step. The student still has to take the classes once they get there. And more often than not, high school and standardized tests have left the student ill-prepared for the rigors of college. The process to get into college may be stressful, demanding, and challenging, but it is completely different than the one facing you once you get in and want to continue getting high grades (or just simply passing).
I might not have been the one who decided if you should get into college, but I do evaluate your writing to see if it is at an appropriate college level once you’re here. I just wish there wasn’t such a disconnect.  

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!

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.

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.