Friday, May 25, 2007

Interviewing the Man Mirrored in the Computer Screen

For this week, I assigned the 109.02 class to write blogs based on truncated interviews like the ones found in Never Threaten to Eat Your Co-workers. While not part of the blogging elite after a mere nine weeks of publishing their thoughts online, the students can speak from some degree of experience, and—let's face it—have immersed themselves in the wonderful world of weblogs by writing, reading, linking, analyzing. I am asking my students to defend (or decry) the blog topics that they chose in week one, and I am asking them to ruminate on the past nine weeks of public journaling. Should be a hoot to read the replies. Following is my—very brief, for a change—response to the assignment.

Why did you choose to have the class read and write blogs for the quarter?

I feel that a lot of great expression and rhetoric can be found online, in increasingly specialized texts. For example, I was thrilled to recently discover a well-maintained blog on baseball cards, an interest in which I have never been able to shake from my starry-eyed youth. Blogs are fresh, organic texts that lend voice to those who may otherwise not be heard in public. Thus, I feel that they are wonderful texts for freshman writers, particularly those who have had some struggles with writing in the past. They give a chance to get real, instantaneous feedback from people who are not paid to read their writing. Plus, there is a lot of liberty for the topic and content of any individual post. By linking, students get an idea of the importance of using resources and synthesizing their thoughts with that of the resource. And hey, it’s been a blast.

How has blogging changed your life?

I’ll be extremely careful not to omit verbs when posting comments to other blogs.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Rhetorical Questions

In lieu of commenting on a classmate’s blog, for this week I’d like again for you to post a comment to my blog. This time, I’d like you to write a quick rhetorical analysis of one of the blogs that I asked you to look at for this week.

What is a rhetorical analysis, you ask? In brief terms, it’s an evaluation of a text’s diction, tone, assumed audience, and purpose. I’d like you to briefly comment upon one of the blogs I provided links to last week, considering these aspects of the blog to get an idea of the character—the driving ethos—behind the blog. To do so you should consider who the assumed audience of the blog is and what the overall thesis (purpose) of the blog is. Here are some questions to consider:

  • What topics does the blog address?
  • What is the substance of a standard post? Consider length, format (links, video, text), tone, and language, among other things.
  • What stance—if any—does the blog take?
  • What other blogs does this blog link to?

Remember that when imagining an audience for this blog, you must go push beyond notions of what the audience may favor reading. You should also consider how the posts assume the audience’s education, background, etc.

Write at least 100 words—chances are you’ll write much more. Since this is an in-class writing assignment, I’m not overly concerned that the posts be expertly organized; however, you might want to compose in Microsoft Word first and then copy your response and paste it into the comments section. Have fun deconstructing!

Friday, May 11, 2007

109.02 Students: The Blogs You Should Visit for Wednesday's Class Discussion

Please take a good look around the following blogs for class discussion on Wednesday. Glance at a few posts, check out the comments sections, get a feel for the point of the blog.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Things Students Should Know before Entering the College Composition Classroom

My friend Michelle Potter, who teaches English at Thornton Fractional North High School in Calumet City, Illinois, recently made a request of me: “Can you give me a short list of ‘things you wish your writing students knew before they entered your writing class’?” I have long enjoyed making lists—and have taken it to extremes: my brother, friends, and I used to write the occasional “Top 100 Professional Wrestlers” list in the late ‘80s—so that part of the request wasn’t going to be a problem. It was the “short” part that had me worried. I am a loquacious sort by nature, and, really, there’s no fun to a short list. Nonetheless, I’ll try to keep the list as painless and as informative a read as possible. I may even throw in a professional wrestling reference in somewhere.

1. In Order to Look Sharp, You Must Have a Point: I am so intent on impressing upon students the importance of having a main point—a specific, significant take on a subject, issue, experience—that I’m willing to result to poor puns. Nothing is so frustrating for a teacher whose class is bent on student expression and dialectic than the words “I don’t know.” There are certainly things students don’t know about composition, rhetoric, and communication (and it’s my job to help you grasp those concepts), and most of the time when a student tells me that she doesn’t know how she feels about a situation, I believe her. However, “I don’t know” offers no absolution. I believe that schooling exists in large part to challenge you to think about things you haven’t thought about before. In writing courses you are encouraged to think about things political, social, and cultural so that you may work on how to best respond to these exigent stimuli (that is to say, stuff that needs to be addressed). I’m not looking for the right answer, but I am looking you to dip your oars in the water and attempt to make some sense of things. Remember always that the root meaning of the word “essay” is “trial” or “attempt.”

2. “All Right, Mr. Boczkowski, I'm Ready for My Close-up” or Narrow Your Focus: One way to make sure you have a point is by following a principal rule of the board game Risk: don’t try to cover too much territory in one fell swoop. Chances are there are books—or at least long scholarly articles—written about the topic you chose. Trying to cover a book’s worth of material in three to five pages will get you a D quicker than you can say “You sunk my battleship!” (Sorry, but there are no comparable pat phrases shouted out in games of Risk.) However, unlike the hubris that thwarts the overextended Risk player, most students keep their focuses broad because they feel they can’t flesh out a narrow topic. Trust me on the crazy composition economics of this one; it’s easier to write more about less.

3. What’s Good for the Goose is Good for the Pilcrow: I tend to think of paragraphs to be like the little minions of the Snow Miser and Heat Miser in the holiday special A Year without a Santa Claus: mini-versions of the bigger unit (whether an essay or a weather god),The Heat Miser and his little paragraphs and at the bigger unit’s service. This is not a perfect metaphor, as the little minions would need to assemble in Voltron-like fashion to compose the larger body, and let’s face it; that would just be ridiculous. But back to paragraphs, it’s important to remember that each paragraph is trying to prove its own main point. Whereas on an essay level this point is the essay’s thesis, at the paragraph level, these points take the form of topic sentences. And sometimes little Claymation dudes with flaming hair. Whatever—if you have either more than one main point or none whatsoever in your paragraphs, you should consider revising. Or at least laying off the Rankin-Bass specials for a while.

4. T.S. Eliot Was No Wuss: A respected poet, Eliot has written many influential works. However, he wasn’t above being influenced himself; he sought the advice of fellow poet Ezra Pound on much of his writing. Getting help is not a sign of weakness. In fact, I find students who come to me to discuss their essays or who take advantage of their school’s tutoring services to be attentive practitioners of writing. It keeps their prose from becoming, ahem, a vast wasteland.

5. Whether or Not You Like It, You’re a Writer: You write papers for class, blogs, e-mails, and lyrics about tragically unrequited teenage love (I’ll show you my journal if you show me yours). Face it: you’re a writer. As a writer, it is your duty to pay attention to your strengths and weaknesses. I can individualize my comments to you sooner in the term if you alert me to what you’ve done well and what you’ve struggled with in the past. So pay attention to what teachers are telling you now, and work at the areas that need it. This is true for the individual essay level too. When handing in a draft, send along comments describing things you want me to look for. You’ll be surprised how often you’re right about the paper’s stronger and weaker areas.

6. Nodding Your Head Doth Not Participation Make: I understand that not everyone is the extroverted type. And no one (except maybe the instructor) likes the class know-it-all who just has to answer every question. But you wanna know the best way to cut down on the chatter from the class know-it-all? It’s to make some meaningful chatter of your own. If you’re the shy, silently-simmering-in-your-brilliant-juices type, fret not: simply note a couple things you may say to contribute to the class discussion (mark passages from the classroom text that caught your eye) before you come to class and share your ideas early, before your thunder is stolen from you-know-who. I want to hear everyone’s voice in class in roundtable fashion, not just a dialogue with the intensely caffeinated smarty-pants.

7. Be an Active Reader; Heck, Be a Full-Contact Reader: Engage in classroom texts with questions, suppositions, and opinions. Challenge the text; hold the author’s observations and experiences up to your own. Scrutinize the logic. Look for deeper meaning. Write your responses in the margins. Trust me; the bookstore will never give you close to what you paid for the book. Don’t just read the printed word actively, but apply it to all media. Apply it to events and landscapes. Engage in textual play, but be safe: always wear your thinking cap.

8. I Know When You Haven’t Been Active: Here’s a neat trick: Student A fails to do the reading, so during class discussion he waits until Student B makes a comment about the text and then latches on to the last thing she said, commenting on how “he can relate” with the issue the subject of the text is experiencing “because one time. . . .” And he’s off. He finishes, smug in the belief that he has earned his participation credit for the day. Hmm, did I say “neat trick”? Because what I meant to say was “lame maneuver.” The fact is that I can tell that Student A hasn’t done the reading, despite his attempts at synergy. How can I tell? Cuz I’m Santa Claus. Well, really, it’s just an old trick, just like, say, slumping down in your seat and averting your gaze to try to avoid getting called on. I do appreciate when students relate the text to their own life, but only when they establish that they know what the heck the text was about first.

9. The Lyrics from the Grammar Rock Shorts: A sure way to ferret out a Word Nerd (someone who really enjoys writing or the teaching of writing) is to start singing “Conjunction Junction” or “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly. Get Your Adverbs Here” and encourage the suspected W.N. to finish the lyrics. If he or she gets through the chorus and starts into the first verse, you’ve probably got a Word Nerd on your hands (mind you, this works best on people currently in their thirties). Now I’m not out to convert the cool or the blissfully uninitiated to my chosen lifestyle, and I’m not arguing that because you are able to sing all the way through “Unpack Your Adjectives,” you’ll never misplace a modifier. But I DO need you to come in with a working knowledge of the basic parts of speech so that you can best understand the comments I leave in your drafts’ margins. When I write “noun,” you should understand it to mean “a person, place or thing.” And if you immediately afterward hear an upbeat, folk-stylized “doo doo doo doo doo,” all the better.

10. Don’t Sell Back Your Handbook: Yes, it’s an intimidating collection of composition and grammar convention, and, yes, its heft can lead you to believe that you’ll get a pretty penny for it at thee bookstore (see item #7). But within that book are the—often-arbitrary—answers to the greatest riddles of drafting, usage, documentation, and style. If the handbook is a map to good writing, then I am your sherpa. Maybe the payoff isn’t always the top of the mountain or the mines of King Solomon, but at the very least, together, referencing the map, we should be able to direct your paper to some treat-promising destination, perhaps the essay equivalent of a Dairy Queen. And who doesn’t like soft-serve?

11. When Aiming for Good Research Writing, Be Sure to Turn on Your Cite: Another crummy pun, influenced by the hunting culture in which I find myself immersed here in Central Ohio, but it is really important to give proper credit for the concepts you are sharing in the paper. A lot of plagiarism—most that I have encountered—is done unknowingly. Nonetheless, you should strive to understand what constitutes plagiarism and what does not as soon as possible. Unsure? Come talk to me or a writing tutor. And while I may be willing to differentiate between intentional and unintentional plagiarism, there are probably instructors at the school who won’t bother with such distinctions. If you think the worst punishment you can get for proven plagiarism is being put in a twelve-step program where you are forced to give credit for any outside influence in every significant moment in your life (“Thanks, Coach Kostner, for teaching me sex education in my seventh-grade health class”), think again: plagiarism can be grounds for suspension or even expulsion (usually after a second proven offense).

12. Writing for College Does Not Necessarily Mean Writing More Words: Sure, the papers get longer and you’ll learn some new terms. You’ll probably even be encouraged to combine shorter sentences to embed clauses, which often makes for strong, sophisticated writing. However, teachers usually laud grace and economy in writing, and oftentimes lengthening words (for example, nominalizing verbs) and sentences (adding words for no apparent reason, writing in passive voice) will work against these concepts. I call such attempts to sound more hoity-toity “college speak.” Sentences like “The suggestion that in actuality they should be released from class was made by the students” tend to make my brain melt. Instead, try something like the following: “The students suggested that the teacher release them from class.” If you’re worried about word count, add concrete detail I can sink my teeth into, not the quicksand of abstraction, into which I, teeth and all, would sink.

13. You Must Sample from the Smorgasbord of Language: Railing against abstractions aside, I don’t want to discourage any attempt to write beyond your comfort zone, not at all. In fact, I want you try on new words like they were Skechers, seeing how they fit and what kind of reaction they get. Try using a new word in conversation each week. When writing, experiment with alternate styles of punctuation (it is college, after all). Look for examples of symbolism on your commute to class. Create an appropriate metaphor for the cafeteria’s blue plate special. Move beyond the cliché. Okay, I’m going to stop before this begins to sound like one of those “life is swell” feel-good books you get as a birthday gift from people who don’t like you enough to figure out what you really want.

14. I Don’t Get My Jollies Giving an F Grade: I have met the occasional instructor who I felt was a little too eager to exact revenge on a student, but even these cases were often specific to an individual student (who had somehow become a particular thorn in the instructor’s side), and I’m happy to say that many of these folk are getting up in years and going the way of the dodo. Honestly, most teachers I know fret slightly over failing students (unless the students make it easy, like by never showing up—which reminds me: be sure to show up) or at least meet the prospect of failing a student with solemnThe always-dancing Koko B. Ware and his 'pet' Frankie evaluative resignation.  Please note that I don’t really “give you” an F in my class; you earn it. But, boy, I much prefer when students earn As and Bs. And when I give copious high grades, I have been known to dance The Bird like the flamboyant World Wrestling Federation grappler Koko B. Ware. (It took until the last item, but I snuck a wrestling reference in there!)

So there you are, Michelle. Or, Mrs. Potter, for when your students read this. There is a list of 14 things I’d like my students to know before they set foot in my college composition class. There still is plenty for us to cover in the courses themselves. I’m sure there is more sage advice that colleagues of mine could offer, or perhaps some may suggest amendments to an item or two listed here. I’ll find out by inviting them to share. I also am going to ask my students from my current class to weigh in with something they wish they knew before they started taking college English courses. I am hopeful that we can perhaps create a first-year writer Survivor’s Guide of some sort, although I would be fearful that if we succeeded, it would get published and mass-produced. And then my grandma would give it to me as a birthday present.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Six Butterflies Flap their Wings in Newark. . .

. . . and you get a dirt devil on one plane of the blogosphere.

Not to get all Glenda Goodhug on the situation—as I believe in the potential of learning from discord and dissension—but I hope that cooler heads will prevail from this point forward.

I want to thank all of those who have joined in on the conversation sparked by what I incorrectly assumed was an innocuous classroom task on Wednesday. I also want to thank Matthew Baldwin from Defective Yeti for managing the surprise attack of compliments and solicitations for blog advice. I didn’t consider that so many students would choose the same blog to comment upon. Nor did I assume that their comments would resemble one another’s and a template of “blog-whoring” (thank you, Dorothy, for the term) besides. We now have a perfect backdrop for our discussion about rules and constraints specific to the genre of blogging, and I’ll get to use the term “discourse community with the advantage of having a real, meaty example to demonstrate the concept. I will certainly encourage more fervently that future classes make their comments more substantial and that they wipe their grammatical feet at the door before entering such a well-kept den of blogging. Live and learn.

For the most part, as a teacher of English composition, I understand blanching at poor observation of grammatical rules, and I think that the lesson the 109.02 students will learn—I hope—is that care should be practiced in all writing acts, for fear of turning others off with our syntactic halitosis. However, it has been my experience that some folk in online communities use debasing a poster's grammar to suffice for rebuttal of the ideas proffered in the post (not necessarily true here). I also find the impulse of pointing out grammatical errors on online communication to be quite bullying in most cases—an attempt to kick virtual sand in the faces of the 98-word weaklings. (Mind you, I’m not accusing those who are posting on Genuine Drafting of this aim; the ensuing dialogue may be a “sizing-up” measure, but there’s no need to involve Charles Atlas). And while I enjoyed spazmatic’s analogy,
However, typing like "wow ur post was awesome comecheck mine out" is the rough equivalent of walking into a restaurant wearing nought but your birthday suit, placing your feet on the table, and then flagging down a waiter with armpit flatulence. Okay, I exaggerate, but it's still rude and a great way to make people stop caring.

the difference is that for the crude diner to stop being offensive to those around him, he need only don a sweat suit, pull his feet down, and get his hand out of his musical armpit. For those who have yet to navigate with great success the choppy seas of Strunk & White, the task is far more time-consuming and arduous. Most of us who have had the privilege of being exposed from the start to “proper” construction take for granted the commitment and, really, immersion in writing and reading needed to master the handbook’s rules. So tired have I become of hearing coprolites bemoan improper usage as if the offender had just torched their Diagnosis: Murder DVD collection. For those of us who have long forgotten, I’m happy to assert it with tongue planted firmly in my cheek here: WRITING GOOD AIN’T EASY.

If it were, I’d be out of a job.

It smacks as elitist, I think, to deride one’s grammar without offering any advice or explanation (I’m sorry to say that there are examples of this in the comment trail on Defective Yeti). I, the flippin’ composition instructor, honestly am flabbergasted by the impulse to call out someone’s usage. And I would like to add, speaking to Dorothy’s and April’s thought-provoking comments about Netspeak, that from what I’ve seen, the comments my students left here are emblematic of comments we often see on MySpace or Facebook, where no one seems to be overly concerned with proper usage. I am keenly interested in how communication in these venues will affect our grammar in other texts we write—although I believe the significant difference between the students’ comments on DY and the entries in the students’ own blogs suggests that there is an awareness of genre, or at least of being graded.

The best we, the neophyte bloggers of the 109.02 class, can offer is to say that we are working on it—and boy are we ever. I’ve been as pleased as Punch with the effort these students—many of whom plan to write as little as possible for their careers—have put into all aspects of this class (a lot of reading and writing to complete in 10 weeks, although maybe not as much as in a 600-level course). There was a little less effort in these particular comments, some of it attributable to my lack of detailed direction of what exactly it was I wanted. The truth here, I believe, is that more time and care in the crafting of the original comments probably would have circumvented much of the chatter that followed.

But, oh, think of the learning opportunity we all would have missed.