In-Class Distractions Are Nothing New

Or, why you should allow your students to have their phones, laptops, and whatever else they want in class.
(This post originally appeared on So Educated.)

A student who is unengaged will find something better to do if they have technology in front of them or not. When I was in school, I wrote. I wrote notes to my friends, I wrote poetry, I wrote love letters to the object of my affection that I never gave them, I wrote short stories, I wrote anything and everything except what the teacher was saying. I had other friends who drew. Still others stared out the window and daydreamed.

We all clearly recognize that banning pens, pencils, and paper in the classroom isn’t a good idea (or, maybe it is – what if the students couldn’t do anything except sit and listen, or the teacher couldn’t just rely on the students to “take notes” in order to learn). And yet, just because a student is writing (or looks like they are writing) doesn’t mean they are paying attention. In the same way, just because the student doesn’t look like they’re taking notes doesn’t mean they aren’t paying attention.

Read this about Maria Klawe, the President of Harvey Mudd College in California:
If one walked by an all-day meeting in progress and just spotted Klawe, it might appear to be a class in watercolor painting. Only a closer room scan would reveal that Klawe is the lone paintbrush-in-hand participant. Besides any meeting notes, surrounding her are some brushes, paint tubes, a small mixing tray, and a watercolor block.
“I’m a better participant when I’m painting,” she contends. “I’m listening to everything but it keeps me quieter. Usually in a meeting I want to say something about everything. If I’m painting, it brings me down to a much more normal level.” Those who have been in both types of meetings with her have agreed. 
What if the student who doesn’t appear to be paying attention is actually listening more effectively because they are also doing something with their hands?

There is something to be said about quiet, intense focus on one single task. But is sitting in a classroom, listening to a lecture the best way to encourage this type of engagement in students? There has been a great deal of work done recently showing that cell phones can be a very effective tool in actively engaging students in the classroom, helping them stay focused. In the writing classes that I teach, it would be ideal (both financially and environmentally) for all of my students to have their laptops or netbooks in order to be able to immediately and actively edit their writing, share their work, and engage in research activities. And for me, the benefit of these devices in the classroom far outweigh the reality that the students will probably also be doing something else instead.

It’s the same reason I don’t ban pens and paper in my classroom, either.


Postscript: There are some legitimate arguments against laptops in the classroom (see here), but I think, especially as I read Cathy Davidson’s new book, that the trick is to actively engage students using their laptops. 


Time for a Change: Integrating Peer-Driven Learning

After a summer of research (four articles submitted, two book proposals ready to go), I’ve turned my attention back to preparing to teach. And this year, I’m finally putting my money where my mouth is; I’m making my 200-level Writing II class entirely peer-driven, student-driven, and crowdsourced (and by crowd, I mean the class). I’ve taken my inspiration from the great Cathy Davidson and we will spend the first four week of the course shaping the final thirteen. 

Why have I done this? I think my students are capable and should be encouraged to take ownership of their educations, as well as learn to work collectively. I also think that it’s about time that I learn, I mean really learn, what it is that they know and react accordingly, rather than assuming up front and correcting my teaching. 
Why I am only doing this in my 200-level class? Mostly because these are student who (in theory) have already learned the “basics” in their 100-level Freshman Writing class. I am hoping that the extra experience will help them feel more comfortable with the arrangement. I also hope that this means we can focus on what we are writing about versus how we are supposed to write about it.
If you would like to see my syllabus and offer comments, please do so below, rather than directly in the document. Please remember that this is a first draft of the document and I will be continually refining it and reworking it right up until the semester starts on the 19th. I hope to receive some good feedback here so that this class is as successful as possible.
I am also going to be using Cathy Davidson’s new book Now You See It, which is excellent (more detailed review to come) in my 100-level class, where the theme will “The Future.” After we read the book (which will take up about the first third to half of the semester), I will turn the class over to the students and we will read/watch/write works of their choosing based on the theme. At least, that’s the plan. 
I have to say, I am at once terrified and exhilarated. I am looking forward to the challenge and I am optimistic that this will work. But I am also terrified that it will fail horribly, either due to my inability to let go or my students’ unwillingness to break free of the way they have been conditioned to learn throughout their educations. I guess I have a little less than two week to chicken out and revert back to my usual dictatorial style. 
Please feel free to offer words of encouragement in either direction.

Where is the Intellectual and Creative Capital?

I know I’ve had two reposts this week, but I’m up to my eyeballs in my more “academic” writing and research. Next week, I’ll be back to my normal schedule. At least until school starts.

This post originally appeared on So Educated.

This TED video is powerful reminder of how one man with a vision can fundamentally change a school or school district. But it is also a sobering reminder of the importance intellectual and creative capital is in that change. How do we attract talented and motivated individuals to more rural and isolated areas? How can we improve rural education when there has been years of brain drain?
I think videos like the one I link to above are important to show otherwise urban (or suburban) bound professionals the potential of working in smaller, rural communities. There are opportunities for real, meaningful change. There is space to work, to create, to think. And there is untapped potential in the people who live there. And, cheaper real estate.
There is also the danger of being distrusted as an outside who will come in, try to change the world, get discouraged, then leave. The blogger, workprogesslife, writes about how she has been seen as an outsider in her small community as a urban transplant. Until my husband and I announced that we were buying a house nearby, we weren’t readily embraced by our neighbors. There is an attitude that people from outside of the community either aren’t in it for the long haul or are only there to impose their ideas and values.
But I also think there is more work to be done in teaching and training those people who do stay and who choose to get an education and go back to their small communities. I do not think that we, in higher education, do a good enough job preparing future teachers for the unique challenges that rural schools, communities, and students face. Why can’t we awaken the potential in these local future (and current) teachers in order to develop and nurture the talent that is already present, but untapped?
We have to be willing and open to working together in order to improve and inspire these rural communities, respecting their local culture but helping them thrive in 21st Century.

Urban Bias?

This post originally appeared on So Educated.

What do you think of when I say that I am currently living in rural Kentucky, in the Appalachian mountains, not far from West Virginia? Do you hear banjos and think of Deliverance? So you hear a thick Southern drawl? Do you picture mega-Churches and born-again Christians? Be honest. And when you hear that I am teaching students from this area, do you applaud my efforts or feel sorry for me?

One of the biggest hurdles that we have to overcome in order to improve rural schools is people’s attitude towards rural populations. Teaching underprivileged children in an urban environment is heroic, and you get to live in or near the big city. Moving out to the country, to the middle of nowhere, to teach a bunch of hicks? More of a punishment to most people.

Big cities offer a lot of advantages, I’m not going to lie. But one of the scariest things for parents and future parents who are thinking of moving to a rural area is that their kids will be going to the same school as everyone else. In urban areas, you usually don’t live in the underprivileged area where you are working, and you certainly don’t send your kids to school there. You live in the nicer neighborhood with the better schools. Out here, there’s one school. There is no better school district or area to escape to. The kids you teach are the same kids your kids will be going to school with.

This, of course, is a major issue when it comes to convincing people to move out to rural areas to help failing schools. Another obstacle is the idea that the rural areas aren’t worth the trouble. Making it in America used to mean conquering the frontier, but now it means conquering the big city. How many narratives do we read or see where the small-town, rural person moves to the big city in order to “make it.” Or, to put it differently, we believe in the phenomenon that the best and the brightest leave their rural homes for the larger centers, leaving behind…the dumbest and least motivated?

There are so many stereotypes of rural people that essentially excuse not doing more to help them and their education system. Why bother, right? They don’t value education, they’re not interested in a “better life,” and they are unwilling to learn what we want to teach them. You might try to say it in more politically correct terms, but think about your attitudes towards people who still live in small, rural towns and isolated farms, trailer parks and mobile homes.

I’m not saying it’s perfect out here; far from it. There is drug addiction, racial tension, crippling poverty, and a lack of resources to provide effective services, including education. But before you dismiss rural education reform, ask yourself if you really think urban kids are more deserving of a quality education than their rural counterparts.

Getting Sucked In or Putting Myself Out There?

I’ve written about this issue before; that I’m a Bad Female Academic for having administrative ambition, but also how it’s a difficult position to put myself in because I am not on the tenure-track, thus it doesn’t “count”, nor am I afforded the same protections. Nonetheless, and despite being warned, I volunteered to be an “Early College Mentor.” What does this mean? Well, our college offers early college credit courses in the high schools and I will be mentoring the teachers in the high schools who are teaching these classes. 

The question is, why? 
I have often written about the “exploitation” of contingent labor in academia. And I am acutely aware of my own position, trying to make sure I don’t put myself in (or get sucked into) a position where I will either be taken advantage of or made a scapegoat out of (or both). But this mentorship role seems to me to be a relatively safe compromise. 
For one thing, I’m doing it for the money. The mentors are getting a significant amount of professional development money for every teacher we mentor. I can use the money on conferences, books, research trips, whatever. This is not an insignificant reward for me because I am an instructor and therefore don’t have the same level of support for these activities as those on the tenure-track or have tenure. 
I’m also doing it because I like the idea of mentoring teachers and creating a community. It’s one of the reasons I co-founded #FYCchat on Twitter. We should be more active in helping one another be better teachers, for ourselves and for our students. I really am hoping to facilitate a learning community for the teachers I will be mentoring using social media. I also hope to encourage (inspire?) these teachers to use social media in their teaching. 
Our university’s service area is largely (exclusively) rural and mostly poor. Many of these students come to our college underprepared and have a lot of difficulty completing a college degree. If I can help high school teachers better prepare students for college, then I think I am doing a great public service. These students are just as deserving of a good education as anyone else. This is a concrete way that I can help. 
And I look like a good university citizen. Hopefully not too good, however. I am only supposed to be mentoring five teachers, but it looks like I’ll have at least three times that many. I am also scheduled to teach five classes in the fall. Something has to give, so I am not afraid to stand my ground to make sure that my students don’t get short-changed, either. Or my family, for that matter, and my research. I’ve been warned by those who have participated in this program in a similar capacity in the past that the university is all too willing to keep pushing the number of responsibilities. I’ll push back. 
Or, I’ll just walk away. If I have to chose between a conference or my sanity and dignity, I know which one I will chose. 

Ed Tech Savvy?

This post originally appeared on So Educated.
I have a confession to make. I don’t know how to use a smartboard. I’ve had one in my classroom for the entire fall semester, and I never used it beyond as an overhead to show students things on the computer. When it comes to class discussions and (yes) lectures, I use good, old-fashioned chalk and blackboard. Or whiteboard, depending on the classroom.
I have no idea how to fix the rss feed for my blog. In fact, I only have a vague notion as to what an rss feed even is.  I don’t subscribe to any feed; I wouldn’t know how if I wanted to. I find out what’s going on or if there’s any new posts, once again, the old fashioned way: I visit their website. 
These luddite-lite confessions may come as a surprise from someone who blogs, encourages her students blog, is actively engaged on Twitter, and is generally open to new forms of technology that can be used to teach, do research, learn, and share knowledge and information. But in the race to stay technologically relevant and on the forefront, I often feel overwhelmed and overmatched. Between teaching, my own (traditional) research and writing, my family, my blogging, and my hobbies (I swear, I’m going to start swimming and reading science fiction again this semester), and, you know, sleeping and eating, I can’t keep up, let alone catch up on all the things I missed while trying my best to be a “traditional” academic.
I often admit this to my students when talking about the magic bullet that some claim education technology to be. How do we help and encourage educators at any level to learn, use, and embrace education technology? I’ve heard some complain that this is yet another education fad that will pass, so why bother learning it? Others wonder why they should bother when the skills they acquire will probably be outdated in six months. And still others, like me, have enough trouble staying up-to-date in their field, let along the ever-expanding field of how to teach my subject matter.
Before we accuse teachers of willfully staying in the dark ages and thus robbing our students of valuable skills and opportunities, we need to make sure that we have provided an environment for them where they can learn and grow their knowledge about educational technology. We also need to understand that every teacher is different, and thus will see different types of educational technology as useful with regards to their styles, goals, and students.
I don’t have any easy answers. We have a whole office at our university devoted to helping faculty use the technology (albeit mostly hardware and proprietary software) available to us. But most faculty don’t use those services.  How can we get teachers to a) take advantage of the professional development opportunities and b) integrate it into their courses?As one fellow higher ed blogger points out, one of the reasons faculty don’t learn about the technology available to them is that the format and content of the training methods (the workshop) just don’t work.
I think it comes down to really involving faculty and teachers in developing opportunities to learn about education technology and to be involved in the decision on what types of education technology the institution or school district purchases. If we can find a way to work together, faculty, staff, and administration, in order to make education technology meaningful and useful.

How Universities Are Like Newspapers

This post originally appeared on So Educated.
I was on the phone with a reporter who was trying to track down my brother for a story the other day. Nothing bad; she was a Montreal reporter looking to talk to fans who had made the trip to Edmonton for the Grey Cup (the Canadian Super Bowl). At the end of our conversation, she thanked me for all of my help and wished that all of her leads were as helpful as I was. I am sympathetic, I said, I originally wanted to be a journalist. Really, she asked, what did you end up doing? I’m a professor, I answered. She laughed, saying, “that sounds like a much better idea.”
Sigh. Not really, unfortunately.
When I started out as an undergraduate, the Internet was still in it’s infancy. But the newspaper industry was already losing money, shedding full-time writers, and increasingly relying on freelance reporters and wire stories. At least, it was in a shrinking English market in Montreal, a city in a predominantly French province. My program was ahead of it’s time, offering classes in web publishing, such as it was at the time. But the idea of getting into a dying industry wasn’t very appealing to me. I have a few friends who have “made it” as journalists, but they work in really isolated locations and often do so much more than writing stories; they are editors, formatters, and web designers.
So I choose to enter a field where I, too, will be paid little while I pay my dues, in an industry that is under heavy fire and on the brink of, perhaps, dying. There are fewer and fewer full-time positions, and the people in those positions are being asked to perform increasing duties within the institution. If you are lucky enough to get a full-time positions, it is often, once again, in a small, isolated location. The biggest difference? Instead of starting my career as a fresh-faced 23-year-old with a brand-new BA, I am starting it ten years and many tens of thousands of dollars of extra debt later.
In both industries, the wild Web is radically changing how we do our jobs and deliver our content. We are both increasingly using low paid (or free) labor who are more than willing to undervalue themselves in the name of exposure or experience. Newspapers, and thus aspiring journalists, are about ten years ahead of universities in term of their downward trajectory. If universities, and aspiring professors, want to know what things are going to look like in another decade? Look at newspapers, for better or for worse.
(I’m not sure how the resiliency and durability of magazines fit into this little analogy. The highly specialized liberal arts college?)
Journalism schools and aspiring journalists have had to adapt. PhD programs will have to adapt as well. There is a new hashtag making the rounds on Twitter, #NewPhD, in the hopes of fostering a exactly that, new types of PhDs to meet the demands (or lack thereof) of the new university and economy. Just as journalism students quickly realized that they wouldn’t make a living working for a newspaper, so too are we realizing that we will not make a living as a university professor, as we have historically understood it. So what will we do?
Some of us, like me, will move to the middle of nowhere in order to be able to work as a professor (ok, full time instructor, but it’s still better than adjuncting). Others, however, will re-imagine what it means to be successful in or out of higher education. And we all need to fight to play a role in whatever form higher education takes in the future.

The Academic Essay: Twitter has ruined me

I finished the article I was working on, the one I had put aside because I had missed the deadline. Turns out I  was able to submit the paper late. So I’ve been trying to drag the article out of my brain, kicking and screaming for the past four days. I’ve been thinking and reading and researching and outlining the paper for a few months now, but the writing this time around has been the most difficult part. Much more difficult than I am used to. And part of the reason is Twitter.

Part of the reason I had so much trouble is because I could expand, in fact my brain actively resisted and rebelled against expanding, a fairly simply concept (history has been unkind and unfair to Black women) into 2-5 pages of theoretical whatever that I know I need to have to make it an acceptable academic essay. It was so hard. Why, my brain kept insisting, do we have to do this? Why? Is anyone really going to argue with you on this point? I didn’t realize that was my problem until I tweeted that I was having a problem. I thought it was because I was having trouble dealing with the non-linear structure of the narrative. Nope, I was able to tweet out exactly what each part should be and in what order. The problem was I was more comfortable tweeting it out in 140 characters than expanding it to 20-25 pages.

I’m pretty sure Mark Bauerlein would point to this and say “I told you so,” along with a number of other luddites (my husband included). But I have to ask the question, is this really a bad thing? I mean, sure, it’s terrible for my career because you don’t get tenure based on tweets. But looking at the larger picture, is this not an example of thinking differently about how we share our research? Why is the research paper the gold standard? Reducing years of research to a handful of tweets might be a bit extreme, but I really wish sometimes that there were other outlets for my research that were recognized by academia. Outlets that were more accessible and more reasonable in their demands.

I think, however, that Bauerlein might agree with me that the explosion of research publications has made it almost impossible to “keep up” and write a reasonable five pages as an intro or theoretical grounding for your essay. It has lead to the use of a small handful of theorists in everyone’s work, lest we appear we know what we’re talking about (I’m writing on postcolonialism, I quote Spivak). Part of my difficulty also came from the fact that I was completely unsure I had done enough “research” for the opening section, but I knew I knew enough for Twitter. I couldn’t get into the writing because I could give up on the researching and reading.

We keep putting more and research out there and keep demanding more and more research still. It’s beginning to get inhuman. Maybe at the end of the day, that’s what my brain was railing against.

Being a More Efficient, Productive Academic II: Thinking About References

I talked in a recent post about adapting our writing for not just different audiences, but different modes and mediums of communicating our research and thinking. What this means, however, is that we as academics need to start re-evaluating how and what we use as sources. In other words, what is acceptable to use as sources and how do we integrate them into our work? 

As I was working on adapting some of my blog posts into a longer piece of a more “formal” publication. In my blog posts, I link to other blog posts (written by experts), press releases (from legitimate faculty organizations in higher education), and news stories. I started feeling nervous once I actually started to transfer links into footnotes. Are these sources good enough? Should I be hitting the databases or Google Scholar to essentially pad my essay with more legitimate sources?
Truth be told, I don’t have time. Between my “actual” research and writing, my blogging, my teaching, and my life (yes, I have one of those, too; my family insists on it), I just don’t have time to become a true “expert” in all of the fields that I write about. Again, this is the danger and argued shortcoming of being a “generalist” but I wonder if that’s really fair. I never claimed to be an expert, and through careful online research, I’m able to find what I need to inform my arguments and make my point. 
I’m not saying that this essay (if published) should necessarily count towards tenure (not that I’m on the tenure-track), but it does show that I’m engaging in larger discussion about the field and the profession. But, again, as we change how we share our research and thinking, we are going to be forced to really figure out how to integrate these new sources into our own work. And so on and so forth. I keep thinking back to a student’s essay that linked to a number of digital recordings of old blues songs that informed her argument about the book we read. It only worked if I could click on the links she provided. She conceived her paper to be read while listening to the pieces. Except I required that it be handed in as a hard copy. 
These are questions I am starting to ask myself as I conceive not only my own research and writing, but assignments for my students. We still prioritize the journal article and the research monograph, but for my students, that isn’t the case. And, really, am I any different? I read journal articles because I believe that is where the best thinking is. I don’t necessarily think that this is going to be true for much longer. If we teach our students to think critically and more broadly about what they use, then why do we necessarily always lead our students to the conclusion that peer-reviewed journal articles are best? 
I’m interested in knowing what readers thing: where are “references” going in the future?

Being a More Efficient, Productive Academic while Thinking Differently About What We Produce

There has been a lot of discussion, as we gear up for conference season and meeting our summer research/writing goals, about how to be more efficient or productive. Digiwonk asks if it is, indeed, ok to reuse and recycle your work in higher education. In response, Jo Van Every writes that recycling is, in fact, a wonderful thing, especially if you keep your audience in mind (hmmm…that sounds suspiciously like advice I’ve given my undergrads…). Digiwonk continues with her great advice by showing how much you can accomplish with just 30 minutes of (really focused) time


But much of the focus on adapting or recycling is based off of more traditional means of communicating our research: changing the conference presentation into an article, public lecture, book chapter, etc… This, unfortunately, doesn’t help me very much, as I no longer write my conference presentation. Yes, that’s right, I don’t try to cram everything I have to say into 8-10 pages for a 20 minutes presentation. I have an idea of what I want to say, some speaking notes, a few important quotes written down, and that’s it. While these presentations are intended to eventually become an article, it’s not as easy to convert a few notes and quotes as it is a more polished conference presentation. But this again has to do with audience; I’m thinking of them sitting through my presentation, not of me later trying to hack out an article.

But I also think that focusing on primarily adapting our conference presentations (or seminar papers or carving up our dissertations or Master’s thesis for articles) doesn’t encompass the rich and varied nature of what many academics produce and write today.  For example, I just adapted some of my blog posts for a call for submissions on the state of higher education today. The tone clearly called for a style that was less formal and more conversational, making it an easy (or easier) transition. Again, this may work against me and reflect my (destructive) generalist tendencies, but I’ve worked hard on these blog posts and I’m still old-school, so I get a kick out of seeing my writing in print. 

But it goes beyond that. Failed grant applications become the basis for the next grant application which becomes a book proposal. Abstracts that weren’t accepted become the basis for the next project or a place to hold ideas. Today I submitted a book proposal for that project. It was remarkably similar to the “research narrative” I submitted to earn my summer research fellowship. But again, this isn’t old news. And it still relies on old/traditional means of sharing our work and research.


Websites and blogs become incubators and collective spaces for working through problems and ideas. As I work through my Dany Laferrière project, I record my progress and process on my (other) blog. I’m not sure what it will turn into, but I know that it allows me to record my thoughts, observations, and stray ideas as they happen, but it also serves as a way to share not just my research, but the process behind the production of my final project. Maybe it stems from my dissertation research, dealing not only with archival research, but the creative process and collaborative forces participating therein that I am aware of how mysterious the process of creating a piece of work appears to be. But I am also aware of how enriched the process becomes the more people who are involved. 


Why not have a blog that reflects our process, our progress, and our questions as it relates to our academic work? Why must we keep thinking in terms of the seminary/presentation/paper/monograph? Check out Sample Reality’s post examining the same ideas: It’s about sharing.