How and What Do We Keep (and What Do We Lose) in the Digital Age?

My grandmother used to clip and save everything; it wasn’t a successful reading session if she hadn’t marked off at least two pictures she wanted to eventually paint and clipped an article that she thought one of her daughters, grandchildren, or friends would be interested in reading. When I went away to university, I used to get letters from her that contained articles that mentioned my old high school, my old swim team, or future job possibilities, among other things. I always loved getting those letters. 

I also have very clear memories of my grandmother wanting to show me an article or picture she had found and being completely unable to find it among the piles and piles of magazines and newspapers. She was in no way “drowning” in her magazines and papers; she recycled out what she didn’t need or want every week. And once she had showed you what she wanted you to see, out it would go. But my grandmother used to get so frustrated when she knew exactly what she was looking for but could not for the life of her find it.

I wonder sometimes how my grandmother would be in this more digital age; would she be emailing me links, bookmarking page upon page in Delicious? Would she still get overwhelmed, even without the physically piles and pages, and lose what it is she is looking for? I’m not very good at bookmarking links, marking tweets as favorites, or starring emails; I tend to get overwhelmed and purge frequently. I also figure that if I need it, I can google it. And then, I, like my grandmother, couldn’t find an article I knew existed. I knew what site it from (, and I knew what it was about (the university of the future), but I didn’t have the right keywords in order to find it (kept searching university and future, rather than Academic things to come).

Thank goodness for Twitter.

An article about teaching students about how much the internet remember about them and the value of erasing parts of ourselves from the net got me thinking about how much is gained and lost, remembered and forgotten, in this digital age. I’ve worked with archives for my dissertation research, and the idea that these letters and manuscripts could be more readily and easily available both excites and dismays me. I’m excited because, hey, we all like easy access and dismays because I loved being able to hold the letters in my hand and read not just what I needed but also what was there. Having things easily indexed and searchable may be faster, but sometimes the joy is in the journey. What could be lost is something extraordinary that you weren’t necessarily looking for.

I also lament the potential loss of future archival materials because we no longer write physical letters; I know that gmail now archives EVERYTHING, but my old university email addresses did not; I’ve lost poems, important and meaningful letters, and fantastic conversations because I didn’t realize that my emails weren’t being automatically archived on the server. As I’ve already written about, I save everything I can when it comes to my informal writing; losing these emails actually bother me. I don’t think that they’ll be worth anything to any future scholar, but how many future subjects of interest’s letters have been lost because they didn’t realize that they messages weren’t automatically archived?

We also, for a time, have lost the ability to see the evolution of a piece of writing; unless you purposefully saved versions of the same draft, or the version with the feedback/Track Changes, then all we have left much of the time is the final version. Part of my research involved watching how a translation came to be, looking at various drafts, edits, and feedback the translator did and received. Google documents could allow us to watch a document be shaped and evolve, but unless we consciously save the steps, then the process will be lost.

Digitally, I’ve lost my wedding pictures when my husband’s computer’s hard drive was replaced without them first asking if he wanted a back-up of the old one. I lost all of my poetry from a period of five years because I accidentally left my diskette (yes, it was that long ago) behind in the computer lab; I don’t actually have a complete hard copy of them all, and, at the time, I didn’t have my own computer to back them up on. We have learned the hard way that ebooks can be taken away quite quickly and easily, making it hard to predict when our notes and annotations could be unceremoniously ripped from us.

Then again, I’ve had my “office” broken into when I was a PhD student (just before my final comprehensive exam) and all of my books stolen; pictures and documents can just as easily be lost in a fire, flood, or other disaster; and an irresponsible, careless, or oblivious person can just as easily throw out a physical letter as they could delete an email. My own research has gaping holes because a flood wiped out almost all of the personal papers of the author I was studying. And I also know first hand how fantastic it is to physically find something you might not have been looking for but because you had to search through everything.

As academics, whether you are a digital humanist or not, we need to pay attention and rethink how and what it is we keep and what might be lost.  

Key to College Success: Be Prepared for the Worst

I just finished a class lecture/discussion on being a successful college student with my developmental writers. So much of what I do with those students is related to providing them with the reading, writing, research, and critical thinking skills that they will need to get their degrees. But I know, having been an undergraduate student and an instructor for ten years, it is often the things that happen to us outside of the classroom that derail our best efforts.

And I’m not just talking about the simpler choices we make, like going to a party instead of studying. I’m talking about when you have no money and no food. Or if you or someone you care about gets really sick, hurt or depressed. Or if you find yourself with a stalker. Or your professor just isn’t really all that helpful and you can’t understand your math homework. Sometimes fate steps in and hands you challenges that are stressful, distracting, and can really negatively impact your studies. I assigned my students for homework to make themselves up a list of university, community, and virtual resources to have on hand in case the worst does happen.
Academically, there are any number of resources out there now to help you study and understand your work when you’re stuck. I’d like my students to come to me or to use the tutoring service provided by the college, but I also know that at 3 AM, when they finally get around to their work, I’m not available. Go online, find the sites that you think might help, and bookmark them in advance. Some suggestions include, Quick and Dirty Tips, and even Khan Academy on YouTube. Why wait until your panicked and stressed to Google for help; when you get your schedule, take an hour and do some quick research to find websites that might help you at 3 AM when no one else is around. 
Socially, it’s a trickier matter. There are almost always support or activity groups for whatever you might need or be interested in. And if there isn’t one, you can always start it yourself. I always find that if students have a good support group around them and des-tress in more healthy ways, they will be better students. Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding new and different friends, which can be hard. Knowing what is going on at the university and in the community you are in (obviously easier to do in a big city) can be a lifesaver. Read the student and local community newspaper; you’ll thank me.
Have the number and address for the on- and off-campus medical facilities. Know what services your school offers and don’t be afraid to use them. Also, don’t be afraid to get help for a friend. Nothing will ruin a semester more quickly than illness that goes untreated or a depression that goes unrecognized. Ask around; if students consistently complain about the services on-campus, head to the local hospital or clinic. If you don’t have health insurance, don’t let that stop you. But, plan ahead and see if you qualify for “free” healthcare. Know where their are free support groups run by community organizations or churches. Students are often too afraid, too ashamed, or too broke to get the mental and physical help they need. This can be devastating.
Finally, don’t go hungry. Find the local food back or church that does charity work. If you feel dishonest taking food from a food back, make a vow to pay them back when you have money or volunteer for them as thanks. It’s really hard to study and do well academically while you are hungry. But also find ways to make your dollar go further. Get all of the coupons you can and always ask if there is a discount for students. Find the “happy hour” when food can be up to half price. Find the sales at the local grocery stores. And learn to cook; once you can make your own food, the costs go down significantly. 
I know about all of these issues because I’ve lived them. I almost failed French because I didn’t get the help I needed. I watched one friend struggle with bi-polar disorder and another with severe depression, both ended up dropping out of school. Our social group did poorly those semesters, too, because we were worried and trying to help take care of them. I ate a jumbo box of instant rice for the last half of another semester that a friend gave me because I was broke. I also know that joining the school paper and getting involved in student government saved me from different stresses because I had a great group of people surrounding and supporting me. If not, I would have left school because of another student stalking me. 
I learned all of this as I went along and thankfully it didn’t derail my studies in any significant way. I know that so many of my students, especially those who are in my developmental classes, are already behind the 8-ball, so to speak, when it comes to the probability of getting their college degree. For me, it’s not just about the practical academic skills that will help them graduate; it’s about equipping them for anything life at university may throw at them, inside or outside of the classroom.

Growing The Readers You Want

But what kind of readers do we want?

It’s the beginning of the semester, and we professors/instructors of any and all ilk are always faced with the same challenge: getting our students to read. I addressed it a little bit in my previous post about homework, but at the end of the day, we can (eventually) get our students to write because of a big fat grade attached to it, but it’s really, really hard to get them to read. I went to a PD session this week that addressed this very concern. We were told the session was going to be about our State embracing the Common Core Standards, but instead we learned about “Growing the Readers You Want.”

The PD was given by a wonderful literacy professor from WKU, Dr. Pam Petty (please don’t judge her by her Geocities-looking website). WKU has done a fantastic job of creating a university-wide literacy program that is also available to professors looking to improve the reading skills of the students they teach, regardless of the subject matter. She painted us a depressing picture of what the true literacy levels of our students are (way too low) and asked us how we expected our students to read at college-level when they were barely reading at a high school level? But she also chastised us for allowing the students to “drive the bus” so to speak when it comes to developing our courses: slowly eliminating the need to read, or at least read anything challenging. 
We, she told us, needed to keep the challenging, college-level readings in our classes but help the students with their reading, giving them more guidance and direction in how they should read. She also reinforced the need to somehow hold the students accountable for the reading. We discussed various methods (guided reading forms with general and specific questions, visual keys, etc) and saw how one professor almost double his retention and passing rate for a large Intro to Psych class. 
I think it’s important for those of us who teach writing to keep these things in mind as we design and teach our courses. I tell my students much of the time: it’s not that you can’t write; it’s that you have nothing to write about, and that’s where active or critical reading skills come into play. Technically, we’re not supposed to teach reading skills in our developmental writing class; there is another class for developmental reading. But if I want my students to be able to write a college-level paper, I need them to be able to do college-level reading. I cannot and will not divorce the two. And most of the advice she gave to us were variations of exercises I already do with the students (but she also reminded me of the importance of letting go a little on the guidance by the end of the semester). 
So now I’m torn again about the readings I am going to require my students to do this semester in their 100-level class and even in my developmental writing course: pop culture and short op-ed essays are more interesting, relevant, and accessible, but do they suitably challenge my students? Am I doing them a disservice by asking them to read Fahrenheit 451 (I hate spelling that word) instead of 1984? Should I even be asking them to read fiction in a college writing (and reading) class? Is it fair to assign them to read a textbook “Everything is an Argument” when only one form of argument (and critical reading) is even acceptable in higher education? Have I, have we, allowed them to take the wheel of the bus?
I am so glad that I haven’t invested too much manual labor (as in typing and formatting) my syllabus for the upcoming semester; I would have junked it more than a few times now. I just got my student evaluations back from last semester; one of the comments that kept coming up was that I genuinely care about my students and that it shows in my teaching. I do genuinely care about my students, which is why I take forming my syllabus and selecting the readings so seriously. And why I am worried about pushing them to be their best and succeed in college. 

What “Text” Do You Teach?

This semester, I’m teaching Freshman Writing for the first time at my “new” institution; I’ve taught the class before at other places, but as anyone who has taught the “same” class at different schools knows, it’s never the same. New requirements, new textbook, new guidelines, and thus, a new class. I also know that I have a lot of students who took my Developmental English class with me signed up for the class, so I want to make sure I keep things fresh, so to speak, for them. I chose an entirely new and different textbook for my class (we have to choose one, out of an approved list of three); usually, I chose a textbook that has lots of readings and I focus on teaching the writing part. This time, I chose a textbook that exclusively focuses on the writing (and critically reading) part, but is light on texts provided as examples and for students to “practice” on. I selected Everything’s an Argument (searching for the link for this book, I just noticed that there is an edition with readings; that’s not the one we’re using, for whatever reason).

The idea was that this would provide me with more freedom to allow students to find their own readings, encouraging them to take ownership of their education, engaging them in critical research activities, and providing materials that they themselves are interested in. Or force me to do so. I will be looking for my own texts to provide for them, in order to make sure that they are being challenged in their work and in their thinking. I’m also thinking that their final assignment might be to critically “read” and critique the argument in anything of their choosing, reality TV, sports, a novel, the healthcare debate, a video game, whatever they want. This could be controversial.

The issue, for me, comes down to this: is a Freshman Writing class supposed to prepare students for college writing (and reading), or is it to prepare students more broadly for the challenges and reality they will be facing after they leave the university? If my only job is to prepare them for college writing, then asking the students to write about “texts” that aren’t written is a mistake; as many have already pointed out, the university is not the center for curricular innovation. We like our textbooks, we like our academic essays, and we don’t really like all of these trendy topics (like media studies or digital humanities) encroaching on our turf of the classic liberal arts. I’m, of course, not speaking for everyone, but for many, dare I say, most, I should be teaching “the classics” over Jersey Shore.

That’s an argument that holds a lot of power for me. I think that part of higher education is being exposed to (read: being forced to read and examine) texts that we probably would never have picked up on our own, and for today’s student, that usually means anything written over 20 years ago that doesn’t involve a vampire or wizard. I’m being glib, but how many students really enjoyed reading Shakespeare in high school or picked up a copy of Plato’s Republic for the fun of it? I know they’re out there, but they are not in my classes. If we, collectively, in higher education, don’t expose students to the wealth of knowledge and the richness of the written word, who will? It isn’t just requiring that the students read the works, it’s also providing them with the skills to be able to appreciate the work, engaging them in a way that makes the experience meaningful.

This is where I think pop culture can come into play. The “classics” are always concerned about human behavior, for better or for worse; pop culture just seems to exaggerate those arguments writ large. For example, when talking about manly nihilism, we discussed both Nietzsche and Fight Club. If we want to talk about social mobility and empty materialism, then why not talk about The Death of Ivan Illyich as well as our current obsession with game shows and give-aways? Afraid of run-away technology? So have authors as far back as Rousseau, but most “recent” examples can be found in dystopian fiction. These are just a few examples, and I’m sure you probably have better ones (please, share, that’s what the comments are for).

And to say that the works and authors who are generally understood as being a part of the Canon didn’t concern themselves with base interests or popular culture, then what were they writing about when they critiqued religion and religious practices, the popular playwrites, poets, and musicians of the time, or the morality of the population in general? What is popular has certainly changed, but our need to analyze and understand it has not.

I think critical thinking is critical thinking. I think that students are too passive in their consumption of all media: written, visual, aural, etc. It used to be that only those who were in a position of power or affluence could afford to engage in such activities. No more. If we can get students to critically “read” the texts they usually only consume for enjoyment and entertainment, then we can also get them thinking critically about their discipline, their education, and whatever it is we have asked them to read/consume for school. If they can write a well-organized, well-thought out, well-researched, clearly argued essay about reality TV, then I think it’s safe to say that we’ve done our job of preparing them for college writing and beyond.

(For a great example of critically “reading” a show, check out “Should We Watch ‘Bridalplasty’?” I love how the author shines the light back onto the viewer; the show is really informative about what it says about society, but we have to be willing to go an extra, self-critical step)

What To Do With All These Books?

We just moved, and as always, the process involved coming face to face with the amount of books I have. They look impressive on the shelves, less so in a never-ending stack of boxes. And in boxes they will remain for the time being because our main bookshelf disintegrated in the move. I’m left wondering, what am I, finally, going to do with all those books?

My husband and I are book “collectors.” We both love having books related to our academic interests as well as books we just like (or, admittedly, should like). My PhD in comparative literature contributed a great number of “classics” to our library which we will never part with. My eclectic teaching history has added to the list of books we own and might not have otherwise. And then there are the piles of science-fiction and fantasy books that are left over from our “youth.” None of those books will ever be parted with, either. Most of my husband’s books are in his office at work.

No, the books I am thinking of parting with are a part of my collection of Canadian literature. A long, long time ago, I was a Canadianist. I taught a year-long intro course in Canadian literature. My dissertation and research interests were in Canadian literature (they still are, but it’s not really all that marketable, so now I call it postcolonial). I am also a bit of a completist, and thus when I found affordable (cheap) Can Lit, I gobbled them up. Now, I have shelves and shelves of obscure Canadian literature (and Canadian literary theory/criticism) that I am pretty sure I will never read or use again.

A study was published just this year showing that the more books that are in the home, the more academically successful a child will be. I’m not tremendously concerned that our children won’t be exposed to books (the number of boxes of their books we had to move was astounding), but I do wonder: is it the quantity or quality of the books that will make the biggest differences? I don’t mean quality in terms of the books being “great” literature or “trash”; growing up, our house was filled with trashy romances read by my mother and pulpy science fiction and horror books read by my father. It was the act of my parents reading them that had the greatest impression on me. I devoured books of my own choosing and felt free to read whatever I wanted to, in part because my parents read what they enjoyed.

And that’s the problem. I own all of these books that I probably will never read. They sit on the shelf in near-pristine condition, spines unbroken, pages almost immaculate, out of obligation. When one of the kids comes up to me to ask, “what’s this book about?” I won’t be able to tell them. There is no connection between myself and the book. We gladly lug all of our old CDs with us, in part because we want our kids to pick them up, look at them, play with them, play them, and ask us about them (this was when I knew I was marrying the right man; when I asked why we weren’t just getting rid of them, my husband said exactly that). The music has meaning to us, or at least had meaning to us. Many of my books hold no meaning to me.

So, over the protestations of my husband, who believes that no book deserves to be discarded, I will be purging books from my library. This will (please, please, please) be our last move for a long time, which means that the books will be unpacked and left on the shelf. But that’s not what I want for my books. I want books that will be pulled down, read, and hold meaning for the reader. Don’t worry; I won’t throw them out. I’ll donate them to a library somewhere, if there is still a library that cares about Canadian literature out there. Either that, or my rural, southern US state college will become proud and confused owners of a very significant collection of Canadian literature.

If anyone has any other ideas, I’ll gladly donate my books to a place where they can do the most good.

Brief Review of “Higher Education?”

I just got the book Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids-And What We Can Do About It by journalist Claudia Dreifus and former professor Andrew Hacker. In a nutshell, I highly recommend the book to anyone who cares about higher education – especially people who are not directly involved in it (like, professors). I think administrators should be forced to read this book, although I worry it will lead to the formation of another layer of bureaucracy to more closely study and then implement what the book calls for (more on that later). Parents and high school students need to read this book, from all walks of life, from those who aspire to Harvard or those who will be going to community college because that is all they can afford. And we should all be horrified by many of the truth about higher education this book exposes. 

What is written in the book is nothing new. I’ve written on a number of the topics the authors deal with here on this blog, as has The Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, New Faculty Majority, AAUP, etc. The strength of this book is that it is found all in one place, in one (more or less) cohesive narrative. It is a popular book, so if you’re looking for an academic book, filled with the usual trappings, then look elsewhere. This is not a criticism. There is enough research and number-crunching to give the book the right amount of heft and credibility. Perhaps the most convincing aspect of the statistics/numbers presented is that they are all publicly available, if you’re willing to dig around a little on universities’ websites. 

I do think the authors miss some important arguments, rush through others, and present an inconsistent picture at times of the university experience. Over the course of this week, I want to write some of my own thoughts and reactions to the their book. I hope that others will read it and engage in the same kind of debates, with the authors and with each other. The future of higher ed demands it.

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.

Reading “Great Books”: Ultimate Pattern Recognition

Another wonderful blog that I have been introduced to, Emergent By Design, has begun exploring “Essential Skills for 21st Century Survival” and the first is pattern recognition. While shaped as a way to innovate and/or solve scientific problems, it starts with that part of the brain that loves, craves, narratives. We want to make sense of the world, and we do so through stories. Ancient myths were a way to explain the world, the seemingly randomness of the mysterious universe around us. And we kept looking, kept modifying the narrative, and it turned into science. But at the end of the day, it started with stories.

I have two very young children. My daughter is deep into the “why” period. Most days, I try to explain why things happen from a very rational, scientific place (why does the sun go down, why does it rain, why do I need to sleep, why is the dog barking, etc). But it has to be told to her in the form of a story, of a narrative. The sun is a character in the play called the solar system. It behaves in a certain way for certain reasons, and it travels to the other side of the world, so they can have the sun, too. Some days it’s enough. Other days, she counters me and says, no, I think the sun is tired and goes to sleep.
When it comes to understanding the patterns of human behavior, this has to be modified. Why is she sad? Why is he mean? Why is he scary? She is learning that all humans behave differently, react differently to the same conditions (when I cry, some of my friends give me hugs, others laugh, others run away and hide). Each reaction is the result of a story. And we can predict once we understand these stories. But where do we get different stories, how can we expose ourselves to the multiplicities of patterns formed all over the world.
Another blog, discussing “What’s so Great About Great Books,” posits the problem that these so-called great books are not repositories of Truth as many would claim, but instead confuse the reader with conflicting and conflicted perspectives. I say, yes! That is the point! Out of the chaos, is there not some connective tissue, some pattern that students should learn to identify. A comment on the article states that the best students in freshman writing have often been exposed to Great Books. Well, of course they are. They have been forced to confront different and challenging perspectives, ideas, narratives, emotions, reactions, solutions. And they will either change their own narratives or reinforce them. Either way, the student has looked at patterns within the literature and come up with a way to make sense of them.
A comment on the first article mentioned in this post laments that for most people, their ability or inability to change their narrative, to see (or accept) other patterns is due to a lack of “black swans” (literary device!) jarring them out of their stupor. What better way than literature to provide black swans for everyone to see, discuss and discover? Another comment mentions “The Hobbit” and other books where there is a quest. We are all questing and books can help us get to where we’re going, make us better.
When I taught the required Intro to Lit course that many students dread, I always told them that this was an opportunity to expand their thinking, their ideas. Even if you are going to be a scientist, literature was the way to take you from simply following directions in an experiment to being able to apply the knowledge and come up with new ideas. Exercising that part of the brain that thinks creatively, symbolically, metaphorically, narratively. That part of the brain that sees different kinds of patterns.
In order to encourage pre-literacy skills, we are told as parents to make sure we make reading active (instead of passive). Ask “What do you think happens next? Why? Etc…” Somewhere we stop doing that. Somewhere, we no longer exercise that part of the brain, forgetting to read, forgetting what reading brings. We start to see patterns, bigger and better patterns. These “old” books still have a lot to teach us.