Friday, February 20, 2009

Back it up!

Oh, the multi-purpose phrasal verb. You take on so many interpretations.

As the students of the 109.02 class dive headlong into the first draft of their second papers--for which they are to read a blog/online article summarize it, and respond to it--I thought it was a good opportunity to discus the merits of the reverse outline.

Written after a draft of a paper is complete, a reverse outline is an attempt to describe the text that has been written, whereas a traditional outline, usually sketched before drafting, is typically an attempt to impose (prescribe) a structure and focus for the paper. When writing a reverse outline, an author writes down a few words that describe the topic of the paragraph. When the author discovers more or fewer than one paragraph topic, he may need to reconsider that paragraph. This also provides a wonderful opportunity to check a paper's organization between paragraphs (a popular understanding of the nebulous "paper flow").

Traditional outlines are written and assigned with the intent of helping the author collect his or her thoughts and organize them. Reverse outlines--well, they are written and assigned for just the same reason. Neither outline is essentially superior to the other; typically, their applicability to a writing task is dependent upon the author. Do you need to organize your thoughts before writing? Be traditional. Do you need to get your ideas out first before ordering them? A reverse outline is for you. Most experienced writers find time for conducting both outlines, even if just on scratch paper (like me), in the paper's margins (like me), or in their heads (like . . . well, you get it by now).

Remember the things to look out for when writing a reverse outline:

  1. Paragraphs that have more or less than one central topic.
  2. Paragraphs that do not work in transition to one another or in their place in the paper as a whole.
  3. Paragraphs that are not meeting the expectations of the assignments (for example, in this assignment, the readers would expect to see a summary of the original blog early on in the paper)
Long live the reverse outline! And while we're revering backward things, let's hear it for the moonwalk, Kriss Kross's clothes, and Cooper's Dream from Twin Peaks!

Perhaps next week we'll look at another meaning of "backing up," that of supporting our writing with examples, statistics, anecdotes, and the like.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Setting an Example, Yadda, Yadda, Yadda

The students in 109.02 are embroiled in the business of discovering meaty blog posts to summarize and respond to for their second essays. I thought, in the spirit of lifting the veil of what can be a challenging assignment, I would briefly model the sort of thing they will be pending the back half of the quarter working on. This may be my bet chance at a modeling gig, save for, perhaps, hand modeling a la George Costanza.

But really, who could compete with silky mitts such as these?

In "Student Blogging--What You Should Know," Sean Rahman of Michigan State University offers a series of tips for the nascent classroom blogger. Rahman notes that some college students will be asked by their teachers blog as part of their coursework, a pedagogical decision that Rahman sees as having many positive effects. Classroom blogs, he surmises, can offer opportunities for lateral learning, create additional means of communication between students and teachers, and "generally make writing more exciting for students." Stressing that classroom blogging is different from blogging in more informal contexts, Rahman lists a series of practical tips for the student blogger. Some of Rahman's suggestions range from urging the student to be aware of the opportunities and constraints of the technology (creating back-up files of all posts and allowing for computer mishaps are covered, for example), some deal with identity (blogging anonymously) and some with community (commenting on classmates' blogs).

Rahman's post trends toward the practical, and some of it could and does apply to using computers for any sort of composition; actually, if the students haven't been persuaded to budget for technical issue in their composing processes now, I doubt that this essay will inspire them to do so. The essay is hinting at being stronger when asking the reader to consider the importance of community in blogging, but Rahman again stays at a practical level, warning the student of half-hearted comments on others' blogs: comments such as "Try to put some "meat" into your post as well--many instructors won't give full credit for 'Me, too!' comments that don't contain any content" are important for students to read, but they shed no light for the student on just why thoughtful comments are integral to the communication found in blogs.

And perhaps this is my hang-up, that in fact the more theoretical sort of explanation is better left to another article. However, I really do think that Rahman misses an opportunity for real edification, having raised the specter of the importance of comments. Why settle for what amounts to a fleshed out checklist in an article that purports to offer students what they "should know" about blogging? Why not explain to them that this is a different genre of writing that has its own rules and context, different indeed from the essays students are normally assigned in class? Why not talk about the importance of design, images, and hyperlinks? I mean, besides their rhetorical value, aren't these part of the package that can cause blogging to be a type of writing that is "more exciting for students"?

Alas, space is apparently limited in Rahman's post, and thus it shall be here. Perhaps it was the author's goal to just provide some practical tips, so in fact, the title of the post is the only clear flaw. I wonder if I ask my students to create a similar list to Rahman's, what they might produce. Most likely, they will have written about a host of things neither me nor Rahman have considered. Yes, perhaps it's time for a little student-to-teacher learning.

NOT the sort of modeling either George or I should be attempting.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Goin' on a Holiday

Lately I've been doing a lot of thinking about the notion of academic Discourse (the capital "D" is intentional). I've been playing around with the concept of Discourse as "identity kit," as introduced in the work of James Paul Gee. Specifically, I'm interested in the notion of the dominant Discourse of the academy, that which I teach in my English classroom for seventy-eight minutes, three days a week, for ten weeks. Unless I my math has failed me--which as time marches, becomes a greater possibility--that totals thirty-nine hours of contact time in a quarter to acclimate a writer into academic Discourse. Granted, this is not accounting for the time students spend reading, writing, meeting with me, meeting with a Peer Writing Consultant at the Writer's Studio, but the general idea is that our time together strolling through scholastic Wonderland, with the hopes of granting students membership in "Academese" is limited. Of course, Writing Across the Curriculum movements were designed in part to offer more saturation in the Discourse, but for this post, that way lies digression.

What I'm really pondering is what I consider probably the biggest challenge to teaching English Composition (or, really, any course): negotiating the extent of how much students need to assume the value of a given Discourse. Gee states,

Discourses are inherently “ideological”. They crucially involve a set of values and viewpoints in terms of which one must speak and act, at least while being in the discourse; otherwise one doesn’t count as being in it.

In this claim is true, and in order to acquire a Discourse we must share its values to some extant, how do we "teach" our students to value the precepts of Standard Edited American English (SEAE)? It's a puzzler--one that causes my brain to itch from the inside.

I do think, however, that I might better understand the dilemma through popular culture. It is my panacea after all. So here's my state of mind--awash in text, looking for inlets to help students value (for the time they're in school) SEAE, trying to empower the same students by asking them to slightly corrupt SEAE, overtired for all the reading on literacy and classroom learning I'm currently doing--and I'm confronted with this commercial.

And here's the joy: the literacy of freestyle rap is equated with other forms of higher learning that these commercials have covered before, like having the knowledge to be able to deliver a baby. But I do wonder . . . he knows the language, our rapping marketing rep here, but isn't he missing the boat on values too? Isn't this, rather than a promotion of the knowledge gained by staying in a Holiday Inn Express, an indictment of how it takes more (time, effort) to acquire all that which is valued by the community?

I mean, c'mon, check out ol' boy's moves. Is that the robot I spy?