This Week’s Lesson: Put Pedagogy First #CCCwrite

For this week in the Reflective Writing Club, we have been ask to reflect on a professional mistake that helped us grow. I have never ended a semester where I didn’t have a list of what I wanted to tweak or add to my lesson plans for the next round of classes. The fact that my job includes multiple clean slates and restarts is one my favorite aspects of it. It is designed for active reconstruction and growth. While I have certainly made mistakes, I do not have a dramatic tale of transformation or conflict to share on my blog. I do, however, have a recent lesson to share about the value we put into our own work.

For the past decade, small group conferences have been a key part of my face-to-face course structure. In lieu of a regular class session, I meet with groups of four students for an hour at a time. They take turns reading their essays and giving each other feedback. I listen and offer my feedback for each paper after all the students have spoken. It’s a good bonding experiences and something most positively mention at the end of the semester class feedback forms (I am learning not to call these “evaluations”).

This semester, thanks to a snowy Michigan winter, we lost a day of class and fell behind in our class schedule. Unlike previous semesters, I also could not schedule group meetings without cancelling a whole week of class. I decided to do an in-class peer workshop instead. Even though each group reviewed their essays using a carefully constructed checklist, the revisions they turned in after the workshop were the worst set of papers I had seen in a long time. I should have taken a week to conference my students, even if meant completing one less essay this semester.

I chose to write about this mistake because I was not sure how much of a difference my presence made in these groups. Did I interfere with the peer interactions? Could I simply replicate the questions I would ask and have a checklist to drive the workshop? It’s sad that I did not trust my pedagogical knowledge and teacher instinct and that I needed to see a bad stack of papers as proof of my value.

It’s nice to know that our time and presence can’t be easily replaced. Currently, in higher education, we have to fight to keep lower class capacities and to maintain the relationships we are able to develop with our students. We, the faculty at my institution, were recently asked, why we are not capable of teaching classes with more students. It was framed that if we were great instructors, we should have no problem teaching more students in our classes. Instructors at our neighboring schools teach classes with more students, why can’t we?

Great instructors fight for the ability to connect with our students, not increase our output. I made a mistake this week of prioritizing output over quality and now I am suffering through a stack of papers, most which will have to be revised and re-assessed. I’m writing about this moment so I will remember not to do this again.

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Decades of Play with Digital Technology #CCCWrite

This marks my third blog post for the Reflective Writing Club sponsored by the Online Network of Educators. The writing prompt asks us to reflect on the impact of digital technologies, specifically:

  • Compare your current professional experiences with your professional experiences at the beginning of your career.
  • Discuss how digital technologies have impacted what you do professionally and how you do it.
  • Has your professional identity shifted at all as a result of the emergence of digital technologies? What about who you interact with and how you interact with them?

Because I have so much to say about this topic, I am only focusing on the first bullet… And yes, I am starting at the very beginning of my journey with technology because how I learned is important to how I teach.

My relationship with computer technology began in the late 80s when my father brought home an IBM computer that weighed roughly the same as I did at the time. Instead of the vivid blue graphical interface of today’s Microsoft Windows (version 17 or whatever), our IBM ran through DOS prompt commands. At the age of 10, I was typing out elaborate lines of code to eek out line drawings and shapes that were reminiscent of Spirograph creations, and I loved every minute. My parents never reaped the rewards from the computer. Their technological prowess peaked with the VCR and even then their knowledge was limited. To this day, I am the one who programs their cell phones and accesses information from the Internet for them. My father, who operates high-tech farm machinery, cannot master home electronics.

Like few children of my generation, I had the opportunity to grow up with computers and, therefore, had a natural affinity for them. I bought my first computer before I bought my first car. I built my first website on this computer, discovered alternative music before Napster became illegal, typed the first of pages of the novel which would later become my master’s thesis in fiction writing, and kept in touch with friends via email (there was no Facebook at the time). A few years later, I would build my own computer from scratch with the help of some computer engineering friends.

The most important skill I learned from my technological endeavors is discovery through play. I became a graphic designer mostly through hands-on, trial and error training — much like those early days of writing code under a dos prompt. I remember the first week of my internship at a newspaper, trying to figure out the logic of QuarkXpress. In my interview, I said I could do page layouts, because the best professional advice I ever received was to always say “yes.” Luckily, years of trouble-shooting made me a bit of a software interface savant. Three years later I was the periodicals editor at a liberal arts college, overseeing all the publications and running my own freelance graphic design business on the side.

Even after I abandoned graphic design to become a graduate student in English, I still found value in my technical skills. As I moved from my master’s in fiction writing to my doctorate in rhetoric, I found myself continuously drawn to new media ecologies. I became fascinated by the cultural ramifications of search engine algorithms, the phenomenon of “going viral,” and the potential for online activism. These explorations of the relationship between composition, rhetoric, and technology are what gave me an edge when it came to job applications. It also led to the completion of my Ph.D.

When it comes to reflecting on my professional experience with technology, there really is no then versus now, as much as there is a layering of literacy. While we have many more apps and programs today, these apps much more graphical and user friendly. Plus, most come with Youtube tutorials. I really value those early years where I needed to figure out the inner workings and logic of a program on my own. In my New Media Writing class, I refer to Henry Jenkins’ proposed new media literacies, which includes the concept of play: “the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving.” I do not teach specific pieces of technology as much as approaches to using technology.

As an academic, what I have gained over the years is a deeper understanding of how the medium and tool shapes the message. As we move into multimodal digital composition, technology becomes a co-author of our productions. We build webpages with templates. We make presentations with a set selection of designs and features. Technology determines where we can publish, which determines how large our audience will be. This is all endlessly fascinating to me.

I look forward to continuing to build my relationship with technology, as I continue to build my professional network. This is currently what is new to me. Networking, offline or on, does not come naturally to me.

#CCCWrite on the Value of Conferences

This is my second blog post for the Reflective Writing Club sponsored by the Online Network of Educators. The writing prompt asks us to reflect on our experiences attending conferences.

Conferences, for me, have always been the ultimate niche experience for whatever professional role or academic interest I am embracing at the moment. The first conferences I attended were specifically designed for alumni magazine editors, set in glamorous hotels in cities such as New Orleans and Montreal. One of my favorite keynote addresses was at one of these conferences when Susan Orlean shared her immersive approach to storytelling. This was shortly after the release of movie Adaptation, which was based on her book The Orchid Thief. Since that moment, I have been sold on conferences.

Now, as a community college professor, conferences are not just for inspiration, but opportunities to be a scholar and have the types of conversations I had in graduate school. With a 30-credit contract and a promotion process that values service and teaching, academic research is not a priority. We live in the world of practical application, caught in an endless cycle of grading, meetings, and emails, and do not get much space for ideas and theories. It’s difficult to find the time to blog, let alone write full research articles. The closest I am able to get with the demands of work and parenthood is conferences.

When I was five months pregnant, I presented at my first big conference, Computers and Writing. The presentation was based on one of my graduate seminar papers, “Ubuntu and the Open Source Movement: Decolonizing Interfaces.” I achieved my peak of academic coolness at this moment. Nowadays, I try to blend the high theory of my doctoral studies with what is happening in my classrooms, creating presentations on online service learning and supporting multiple literacies in writing centers. As an attendee, I gravitate towards sessions that offer both sources to explore and assignments/lessons to try.

While I enjoy the traditional conference setting, I also enjoy the conference-like experiences I am getting online through MOOCs, such CLMOOC, Twitter Chats, and this networked blogging experience. In many ways this feels like an open panel at a conference, where each of us takes turns speaking about our particular experience on a topic, and viewers who choose to “walk in the room” can listen and chime in when they have something to add to the conversation. I look forward to any comments you would like to share on this topic.

Education for Discovery, not Vocation #CCCWrite

Today is the start of my latest educational online group endeavor, the Reflective Writing Club sponsored by the Online Network of Educators. The opening writing prompt is “What do you know now that you wish you had know then?”

“Identify a time in your past and think critically about differences between then and now. How have you changed? What do you know now that you wish you had known then about yourself, your profession, other people, technology, or life in general?”

This was a challenge as I believe many lessons in life require refreshing, as we slide off course into the uncomfortably silent classrooms, stand in front of the cupboard engaged in mindless munchies, perform the perfectionist procrastination (see this blog post as Exhibit A), and live the harried life of the overcommitted. However, I was able to look back at my young self and recognize that I have learned a thing or two about life, in particular about the role of education.

When I remember my early 20s, I see myself in my unflattering office khakis, staring at a screen, waiting for the next task or email during the endless 8 a.m. to 5 p.m shift. I had done everything that was expected of me: pursued a career-oriented path, worked every internship I could find, paid off my college loans six months after graduation, and obtained a public relations position with a good salary and benefits. I was miserable and bored. Instead of creating a life that fit me, I fit myself into the life I thought I was supposed to have. I developed ulcers —stressed by the series of bland days that stretched in front of me and by the many cups of coffee I drank.

If I could go back to my undergraduate years, I would tell myself to slow down and appreciate the opportunities for discovery. A straight path is the quickest way to the reach the wrong destination. It’s a hard mentality to embrace, though, as a first-generation college student. College is seen as necessary step to a financially secure future, not a place to find oneself. At the community college, we are now putting students on guided pathways because excess credits are a waste of time and money. Who can afford to explore?

Last week, I sat with our Admissions staff to discuss all the wonderful opportunities and programs we offer through our English discipline. They listened politely and seemed appropriately impressed at times; however, at the end, they still wanted to direct students to a specific career with a comforting salary. I heard how students come to them and share how they love to take pictures and how they reply that this is a hobby, not a career. Excuse me, what? I was that student. I loved to write and I was made to shape that love into one particular job title, which ultimately was not the right one for me.

The best decision I made was to go back to graduate school, not to invest in a career, but to invest in myself. Even though it was not my intention, through exploring my passions, I found my true vocation. After a year of classes, I left my office job and entered the classroom. I now live the life that fits me and am no longer plagued by ulcers, though I still love coffee.