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.
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 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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.