College Ready Writing Has Moved

Welcome to College Ready Writing, Version 1.0. I am no longer updating this space regularly, but please head over to Inside Higher Ed for Version 2.0 of my blog.

Please feel free to continue to browse these old posts and comment on them. I’ll be linking to posts here from time to time; the wonderful thing about the web is that the conversation can continue dynamically over time.
Thanks for clicking, reading, responding. 

Big News! CRW is Moving Up!

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (or who troll Inside Higher Ed carefully) already know that I am now an official part of their Blog U! College Ready Writing is the newest member. I’ve already (technically) been blogging for Inside Higher Ed as a contributor to the University of Venus, but now my blogging will be over at Inside Higher Ed full-time. I’ll still be writing for UVenus once a month, as well as contributing longer Views pieces (which I’ve recently started doing). 

I’d really, really, really like to thank all of you, my loyal readers for all of your support (and traffic!) over the past two years. It is because of you that I am able to take advantage of this opportunity to grow my audience, extend the conversation, and really participate more fully in the conversations taking place about higher education. The words won’t change (much), but the visibility will be more significant.
I’m still not sure about what I am going to do with this space. Obviously, I’ll keep the archives here, but I’m not sure if I’m going to do simultaneous updates. If you do “follow” this blog, please adjust your Reader/RSS feed/whatever system you use to keep track of all of the various blogs you follow. I hope that you’ll follow me over there and tell all of your friends. When I get back from my conference on Monday, I imagine I’ll do one last post with the link to IHE, front and center. 
Here is the text from my first post over at Inside Higher Ed, which I will link to the moment it goes live: 

To my regular readers, welcome to my new home here at Inside Higher Ed. I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of the blogging community here. I appreciate that Inside Higher Ed has been at the forefront of supporting academic bloggers and encouraging academics to write in ways that aren’t typically supported by traditional higher education. Blogging has been a liberating experience, and I’m curious to see what direction this new venue takes my writing. I doubt I’ll change much in terms of style or content, but one never knows.
(I’ve already edited this piece way more than any piece that’s gone up at the “old” site, so there you go.)
For those of you who are new to my regular blog (you may know me from here as one of the University of Venuswriters), I invite you to click over to the “old” (virtual) placeto check out some of the archives. I write about teaching, I write about writing, I write about balancing work/life, I write generally about higher education. I teach writing off the tenure-track at a rural state university. I study literature, translation, and a whole bunch of stuff in between. I am a mother of two and a wife of an academic (not in my discipline) who is on the tenure-track. I was born in Montreal, Canada, and I’ve lived and taught in two provinces and three states.
Being invited to blog here at Inside Higher Ed feels like approbation for a lot of work and writing. Almost two years ago, I was unemployed and miserable, and I took a chance and started to blog. Because I wasn’t in an academic position (and my family situation kept me from really looking for another), I was free to take chances with my writing and reach out and make connections that I wouldn’t have made otherwise. An answer to a CFP from the University of Venus put me in contact with Mary Churchill, to whom I owe a great deal, particularly in giving me to confidence to seek out this opportunity. I’ve connected to a community of academics (and former academics), none of whom I would have met had I not started blogging.
I kept blogging when I got my current teaching position. I’ve created, through my blog and Twitter, a Personal Learning Network (or PLN) that rivals any face-to-face professional development opportunity I’ve participated in. I find support and community, and I’ve been touched by the number of people who have reached out to thank me for a post on one topic or another, from practical classroom issues to personal admissions to irreverent observations. I’m looking forward to extending that reach and that community here at Inside Higher Ed.
So, welcome to this new space. I usually update three times a week, but this week is a bit of an exception as I am going to a conference and thus won’t be able to blog until I get back on Sunday (and if you’re in Toronto, tweet me or head over to Ryerson for the conference). 

I Write. A lot.

I blog here three times a week. I write about a paper a month for my academic career (either conference presentation or an article to be submitted to a journal/collection). I write the odd guest post or Views piece for Inside Higher Ed. I write a monthly piece for the University of Venus. I write emails. I comment on blogs, opinion pieces, and news stories. I write on Facebook and I Tweet. 

I write. A lot. 
I got an email from a colleague, asking me how I manage to write so much. To me, it’s easy. I just do it. 
I’ve always been a prolific communicator. I can talk up a storm (my husband, after more than ten years together, still marvels at my ability to just keep talking). My years spent swimming was essentially one long opportunity for an internal narrative; I was writing in my head, constantly. I have boxes and boxes of writing from high school and college, mostly informal. I chose writing as my first profession because I love it. I think one of the reasons I became an academic was because being a professional writer (in my mind) wouldn’t let me write enough. The thought of writing a 200-300 page dissertation didn’t scare me; in fact, it was the most exciting part of my PhD. 
I used to keep an extensive diary. I used to have terrible insomnia, my mind continually racing, unable to relax. This was even after being up since 5 AM, swimming for a total of 5-6 hours, a full day of school, and some after-school activity, before swimming. Writing was one of the ways I could organize my thoughts, get them out of my head and on to paper. I would do it usually late at night when I should have been sleeping. Of course, that got difficult when I started sharing my life with someone. And, the insomnia went away after I had kids. I still have some nights where I can’t sleep, but not with the frequency or intensity as before. But, there was something missing. And what was missing was the writing. 
I still write to organize my thoughts, to get them out of my system. As much as my posts are often reflection, writing for an audience forces me to at least make some coherent sense of the multiple strains of thought running through my head. Take, for example, writing about teaching. I just really write what I am thinking about my class. It forces me to actually reflect on what’s going on, rather than spinning it endlessly in my head (or pretending that it never happened). While I don’t have to worry so much about it being “polished” I do at least want to make sure there is some cohesion to it. I’m a little ADD to be honest, which means I can get particularly obsessed with things (ironic, I know). Writing is a way for me to actually think it through (rather than simply obsess over it) and then once I hit publish, to let it go. It’s actually quite cathartic. 

Friday’s post, for example, on my supposed failures in one of my peer-driven classes. As soon as I posted it (in fact, by the time I had finished writing it), I knew that I was being too hard on myself, as many of the comments points out. But, if I hadn’t written the post, put what I was feeling down “on paper” I would have probably carried around the guilt and frustration. Now, I’m fine (a really great long weekend with my family really helped with that). Writing, for me, is about finding balance in my life. If I don’t write, I’m missing an important part of who I am and how I stay sane. It’s always been this way. 
I really hope it always will be. 

Peer-Driven or Paternalism? It’s all about the Process

My Basic Writers have turned in their narrative essays. And I am so thrilled with the results. While not perfect (and, really, what writing ever is?), the improvement was significant enough that they even noticed it when they compared their first draft(s) with their last draft. And, there were eight of them. 

Yes, that’s right, we did eight drafts of this essay. Eight steps, to be precise. I won’t go into all the gory details because inevitably I’ll make someone mad because I either skipped an essential step or had a step that is contrary to an essential pedagogical approach. Regardless (see how I just skated over that?), the students who took the process seriously wrote stellar essays. 
This is the sort of “disruption” I enjoy, showing students that they can, indeed, write an excellent essay if they just give themselves the chance and take advantage of the resources that are available to them. And this is where the idea of peer-driven learning butts up against my good, old-fashioned maternalistic (or paternalistic) teaching style. Would these students have done the drafts if I hadn’t essentially forced them to? They receive “homework” credit for doing the various drafts and taking the process seriously (not sure what the students who printed six copies of their essay and just labeled them the various draft names were thinking). 
But, they saw the results. They saw that they were able to write better essays, better than perhaps they thought they could. So, do I regret “forcing” them into the process? No. Do I wish there was a way where I didn’t have to coerce them into it? Yup. And I’m sure there is a way, but it’s hard, particularly with basic writers who often resent having to take a non-credit course to begin with. A non-credit course becomes the lowest priority on many of my students’ list, making it an upward battle for me as an instructor. 
So, I use force, because, damn it, I do know better. I know what they need to do to become better writers. I’m not sure what I can do with this disconnect, between peer-driven learning facilitator and paternalistic teacher. Other than maybe admit it and keep trying to be better. Or, throw it out to you.
What do I do? 

Turning Group Work into Collaboration

I was desperate to find a way *not* to blog about some very real drama that is hitting one of my Peer-Driven Learning classes. It’s amazing how one bad, poorly-prepared, attention-starved apple can spoil the whole bunch. And now the class has decided to break out into working groups, with the Bad Apple’s group suffering from a horrible case of regression. Unlike the other groups, where learning and discussion is taking place at a fast and furious pace, this group’s other members have regressed back into sullen, defensive silence, the kind that I’m met with in most ordinary classes when asked to participate or do anything at all. 

(I’ll be writing more about what each of the classes is doing on Monday, as well as how tomorrow goes, trying to mitigate the damage.)
No, this post is going to be about turning group work, something most of our students see as a burden or tedious, into a collaborative unit, which most see as a positive force for good in the world. It’s timely, as last week the #FYCchat was on exactly that, and much of what we talked about was how to create an environment conducive to collaboration, creation, and collective wisdom, instead of competitive units of who-did-more-than-whom. 
Coincidentally, last week’s episode of Project Runway featured a perfect case study on how group work doesn’t work and collaboration does. For those of you who don’t know, Project Runway is the brainchild of former supermodel Heidi Klum. She pits a group of designers against each other in weekly clothes-making challenges, eliminating one a week until the next-big-thing in fashion is declared the winner. The challenges can be ridiculous (clothes made out of materials found at a pet store!), and the drama…Oh, the drama. Sleep deprivation and other physical hardships often push designers to the brink, and the contestants are fighting for their creative and professional life. 
Last week’s episode, Off the Track, is no exception. If you don’t have an extra hour or so to spare to watch the episode (which is what I linked to above), you can read a pretty good recap here. Unlike most weeks, where the designers work as individuals, in Off the Track the designers are forced into teams of three and then expected to create a three-outfit cohesive line. Two groups in particular dissolve into complete and total chaos. One group gets completely wrapped up in drama, and while the team member  (Bert) certainly deserved their ire, the other two forget to actually design clothes and the trouble-maker creates the “best” garment. The other group, equally drama-filled (Him: You’re designs are dowdy. Her: TEARS), but the team leader sucked it up, said he was sorry, and she sucked it up and accepted it, they put their differences aside, ending up creating one of the winning dresses
(Personally, that dress is a big “Meh” for me, but compared to a lot of the other designs, it was the least offensive. I honestly think Heidi was rewarding the group that was able to work through, or at least get past, their differences.)
I really invite you to watch the full episode to see how the “group work” mentality can deteriorate and destroy the final product while trying to really collaborate can produce good results, in spite of conflict. The team that found a way to work together was rewarded. Another important lesson is that you can only control the work that you do within the collaborative setting. While certainly a trouble-maker who doesn’t play well with others, Bert still remembers that the purpose of the challenge is to create good clothes; the other two didn’t even seem to bother, focusing instead on complaining about how useless and difficult to work with Bert is. 
I don’t know why this realization about Project Runway has eased my mind; I still have to teach tomorrow and I still have to deal with the Bad Apple group. But at least now I have an external example to think about and refer to in order to work through the issue. A few hours ago, I was despondent. Now, I’m hopeful. I need to get my students to become the successful collaborators, not the petty group workers. 
Eat your heart out, Heidi!

Fall Burn Out: Uninspired Writing

I’m stuck. I don’t have writer’s block, but I am suffering from some pretty uninspiring writing. I volunteered to do a guest post on a pop-culture subject that I am (or at least I was) pretty excited about. And then, I sat down to write the thing. The words came, but once I got about three-quarters through, I stopped, re-read it, and hated it. It wasn’t bad; it was coherent, followed the rules of standard written English, and communicated what I had intended it to say. But it was so…boring. 

I don’t know what to do. It’s due tomorrow and I want to send them something. But I also would like them to accept guest posts from me again in the future. Will a boring (seriously, this thing is so dry) post be worse than no post at all? Or, should I just chuck it, start again, and send off whatever I come up with (which, I have to admit, will have to be better than what I’ve already written). But what if it isn’t? What if it’s worse?
The timing of this guest post couldn’t be worse. After a summer of writing, I am a week into classes starting, meaning I am absolutely exhausted. I had forgotten just how physically and mentally demanding teaching five classes (three preps) can be. Add to that the fact that I am trying to completely and radically reimagine one of my courses, well, it’s not the best time for inspiring prose, even about a subject that I am excited to be writing about on a platform I am thrilled to be (potentially) a part of. 
This is rare for me, the inability to write and write halfway decently. This summer, starting in May, I’ve written 43 posts for this site, 11 posts for Chasing Laferrière, 5 University of Venus posts, 3 academic essays, 2 book proposals (one of them based off of my dissertation, one on my next project), and…I think that’s it. This is the most writing I’ve done and longest sustained writing period I’ve had since I finished my dissertation days before my first-born showed up. So, maybe I should give myself a break if I’m a little burnt out. 
I have one more day this week of my peer-driven classes, and perhaps after I get that done, I’ll be able to take a deep breath and try to write this piece again. But, I don’t think I’ll be doing much writing this fall (save for here and for UVenus). And, you know what? I’m really, really ok with that. I think I’ve earned a little break.  

More Thoughts on Coaching, the Humanities, and More Things We Can’t Measure

If you read this blog regularly, you know I used to swim and coach swimming. I received news the other day that one of the swimmers I coached in the past got a head coaching job. This past year, a girl I used to coach (when she was, like, 6) qualified for the the World Championships. I felt a tiny little bit a pride in seeing these two swimmers succeed in swimming. Here are two very, very successful swimmers in two different areas of the sport.

But, looking at it, that’s two swimmers out of, how many? A couple of hundred? By that measure, I’ve been an absolutely horrid failure as a coach. I guess no less of a failure than I was as a swimmer; I’ve never came anywhere close to making Nationals, let alone a national team. My parent and I spent thousands of dollars on training, equipment, swim camps, and trips to swim meets. I don’t even want to count the number of hours I spent in the pool, at the gym, in the weight room, training. For what? To what end? And all the time I spent on pool deck as a coach, breaking down video, planning workouts, organizing swim meets, and holding swimmers hands through nerves and disappointment. 
These two swimmers are not the only swimmers I take pride; I am friends with many of my former swimmers on Facebook, and they are all successful people in their own right. They almost all do something other than swimming, although some have gone on to become lifeguards and coaches themselves before embarking on their chosen career. Many of them still swim, for fun, or run, or cycle, or play soccer, or some other form of physical activity. I’d like to think that their success is, in part, because of my influence as a coach. 
I feel pretty confident in this assumption because despite my “failure” as a swimmer, I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. I learned so much more than just how to swim from one end to the pool to the other over and over as fast and efficiently as possible. I learned how to be a part of a team. How to deal with failure. How to persevere. How even the smallest success can be overwhelmingly satisfying. How important health and fitness are to my well-being. These are lesson that will stay with me the rest of my life, that I can call on when I need them. 
While I teach writing, which is possibly the most practical and necessary of skills in this information age, my “training” (ugh, I hate that word) is in comparative literature, often seen as one of the most superfluous and decadent of majors. I don’t miss the days of going to undergrad recruiting fairs and answering indignant parents when they ask, “What can you do with a degree in comparative literature?” While I never appreciated the question, “Are you going to the Olympics?” when I revealed I was a swimmer, I was never asked, what are you going to do with that? The (gag) return on investment on my years of swimming is negligible if you use any sort of objective metric (my best times, success of the swimmers I’ve coached). But no one expects those sorts of returns. So why are we so resistant to seeing the biggest picture of the value of the humanities?
The skills and experiences I had studying literature will also stay with me, regardless of my career. There are books that have literally changed my life, and books that have also literally saved it. In the same way that I can go to a pool, throw on a pair of goggles, dive in, and immediately feel better, I can pick up a book and have the same experience. My life is richer for having swam and for having studied the humanities. But only I have to explain and justify one of them. 

“Why High School Sucks”

This post originally appeared at So Educated.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am talking about education reform with my advanced writing students at the rural state college I teach at. At the beginning of the semester, while going over the syllabus, when I mentioned that we would be talking about education reform, I felt the air go out of the room, saw eyes glazing over, and realized I was quickly losing my class on the first day. What was I going to do? Rebrand the section of the course. We were going to talk about why high school sucks (academically), and what could be done about it.

When we came to the unit on education, I started with a free write asking them the first part of that question, reminding them to focus on the academic parts of their high school experience. And, if their high school didn’t suck academically, explain why. Most of my students wrote more in that free write than the entire semester thus far put together. I received spontaneous and passionate reflections on their experiences, many filled with anger, frustration, and regret.

A few themes emerged from their work. The curriculum was too easy and too repetitive, not to mention irrelevant. Teachers weren’t demanding enough of the students and inconsistent in how they distributed grades. For example, if you were on the football team, you got good grades regardless. Teachers didn’t know their material or weren’t engaging (human tape recorders, as one student put it). Students were taught to the test and nothing else. In other words, the students were forced to memorize, but never shown how to contextualize or apply the information. There was too little choice, too few opportunities for students to learn about what they were interested in. And, most significantly, they arrived at college wholly unprepared and ill-equipped academically.

Over and over, I read the words “pointless,” “a joke,” and “boring.” Many of my students probably only realized this once they reached college. Looking back now, they remember most fondly those teachers who pushed them to be their best, and not just on a standardized test.  Out of the forty or so students I had answer this question, only three came back with positive experiences. Each of them had gone to private or magnate school with high academic expectations and excellent teachers. Each one of them also attended school in or near an urban area.

When we talk about school choice, what is forgotten are the large numbers of students for whom the only choice is the local school that serves the entire county or region. The teachers often attended the school themselves, left for a few years to get a teaching degree, then returned home. Because of the decreasing number of students, lack of resources, and lack of expertise, these schools can’t offer students very many academically challenging courses or optional courses. Some of these schools are in areas where there isn’t even high-speed Internet access. When talking about education technology, one of my students pointed to a preschool teacher using a CD player that she had recently seen. For some, the CD player and VCR are the only education technology available.

None of what my students said will sound particularly groundbreaking or revealing to those seeking to reform and transform the way we educate students. The challenge becomes how to solve these problems in rural areas. How do we offer these students choices and variety, or ensure that they have excellent teachers? How can we relate and contextualize the curriculum to the world around them, both preparing them for college but also relating it to the only reality they know? If these schools are ultimately “punished” through No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, where are the students going to go?

Many have already (rightly) criticized the film Waiting for Superman along with the image it presents (one hero to swoop in and save us all). For rural students and schools, it is even more telling: Superman left the farm to go and save the city. For these students and schools, the message seems to be clear: you are on your own. 

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.

On Deadlines: I’m as bad as my students

I had a deadline yesterday. It was a call for submissions that I came across a few months ago, on otherness and historical fiction. I immediately thought of The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson. It is a book that has following me around for a while now, and this would be the perfect opportunity to finally try and figure out what is going on. I was thinking about how Hopkinson was re-writing or re-inserting the histories of Black women into History. It was due yesterday.

And, I didn’t get it done. I debated asking for an extension, but at the end of the day (actually, it was half-way through the day) I realized that taking the weekend wouldn’t even help this paper be as good as it needed to be. I had almost ten pages and was barely a third of the way through what I wanted to say. The ideas and analysis were finally starting to come together, but it wouldn’t get done on time. So, I gave up, went grocery shopping, and decided that I would take the few days before leaving for Montreal to finish it up.

I’m almost always like this when it comes to submitting papers and answering CFPs: last possible minute, and usually asking for an extension. I’ve talked about deadlines before when it comes to undergraduates, and we know all about how desperately undergraduates plead with us for extensions. Why can’t our students get organized and get their work in on time, we lament. Well, why can’t most of the academics I know do the same?

One of the biggest differences between when our students ask for more time and when we as academics ask for more time is that academics tend to actually use the time to make the paper better. One of the other differences, of course, are the stakes. Most of the time, academics are submitting their work voluntarily; we choose where and what we want to submit, apply for, or participate in. Undergrads choose to come to school, but they don’t choose their deadlines and assignments. One might argue about the stakes as well: which of the two groups face the higher stakes? Undergrads fear failure, lower GPAs, and everything that comes with it. Academics face not meeting tenure requirements. I don’t, but that’s a different story.

I guess, for me, I don’t have the pressure on me. I’m not being graded, I’m not up for tenure, and I know that even though I’ve missed this deadline, I can finish the essay and submit it elsewhere. Now, if this was a book manuscript, it would be entirely different; I was late once with my book manuscript and then had to wait three extra years for its publication. In this case, the stakes are higher if only because other people are dependent on my ability to complete my work on time. That not only makes their jobs more difficult if I’m late, but also could impact my ability to get published in the future (do publishers talk amongst themselves about academics who are incapable of meeting deadlines, naming names?).

But I am also all to aware of all of the pressures academics face, all of the demands on their time, each one professing that it is THE most important deadlines. Between students who expect their work handed back to them instantaneously and administrators who keep coming up with new and bizarre reports and measures that need to be filed and reported yesterday, the pit-falls for professors on the tenure-track are perilous. Even off the tenure-track, I find myself pushing my writing down the list of priorities because other “more important” deadlines keep popping up.

But, I am also a procrastinator par excellence. This isn’t to say that I’m not working; on the contrary, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I am going to write before finally sitting down to write it. But I wait until the last possible minute to start actually writing. Actually, I find that I am starting to write a few seconds past the last possible minute now. I am still learning how it takes me to write something now. You’d think that after an MA and a PhD, a long(ish) list of articles, a book, and a number of book reviews, I’d know how long it takes me to write. But, apparently, I don’t.

As I said in the title, I’m as bad as my students.