The Remix of Professional Development and Classroom Experiences

The following is an excerpt from my promotion packet “Education and Growth Statement”:

The beauty of working in the community college environment is the breadth of exploration one can do within a discipline rather than working within a niche. In the course of a year, my various roles and teaching interests led to me a journalism conference, a developmental education conference, and a conference for writing program administrators (WPA). Instead of working within an academic silo, I am able to approach the same concerns and topics from multiple angles. For example, the Fake News era was addressed at both the journalism and WPA conference in different ways – one through the professional lens and one through the academic lens. Taken together I was able to develop a more holistic lesson in content curation and media literacy.

In the particular academic niche I explored for my dissertation, digital rhetoric and writing in new media environments, remix is an important concept. A simple example would be a meme, which adds a particular message with a previously unassociated image, such as feminist theory and Ryan Gosling movie clips. Separately, there are both great, but together they create a memorable message. As those of us who have studied composition know, everything we create is a remix of our past influences and experiences. What I like about this concept in relation to new media writing is that to be successful, it requires a degree of openness – an openness to let new ideas and influences reshape our perspectives and creations, an openness to let go of authorial intent and let our messages take on new paths with new collaborators.

The value of my doctoral studies is not simply contained within the pages of my dissertation. The value is all the unexpected ways the knowledge I have gained has reshaped the way I teach. One line of inquiry I explored was how the work of John Dewey can relate to new media writing. One of his concepts I focused heavily on was experiential learning. For those of us looking to help students move beyond limiting mindsets, experiences are much more persuasive than verbal arguments when it comes to expanding one’s viewpoint. This strand of my dissertation helped me reinvent a common Composition I essay, the I-Search Essay. My students now use research to design a plan of action for themselves and then go through the experience of enacting that plan. It also informed the way I teach the problem-solution essay to my Composition II students, which is in conjunction with online activism.

My goal when I design my classes is to create educative experiences. An experience is educative if it “arouses curiosity, strengthens initiative, and sets up desires and purposes that are sufficiently intense to carry a person over dead places in the future” (Dewey). To create such an experience, I must be open to changing my plans in order to suit my students and whatever current events may arise. Again, the concept of remix come to mind, as my expertise and course outcomes and objectives come into contact with a new audience. At the beginning of the semester and prior to every class, I make a plan. However, when I walk into the classroom, I am always prepared to have it be modified by my students. Whenever possible, I offer choices and collaborate with students about the direction we would like to take, whether it be for the day or for the next major assignment.

The added bonus is that when students have choices when it comes to the presentation of their assignment, the class can have a meaningful discussion about genres. In my Winter 2018 section of Composition I, I let my students choose between a traditional thesis-driven essay or a presentation for their final reflection. This allowed us to have a discussion of presentation slides versus paragraphs, which also gave us a new way to explore the concept of outlining.

After the semester ends, I get to reconceive my courses again – this time in light of the student feedback I have received. The journey to bring together my doctoral studies and my Delta classes has been a long one. What works conceptually does not always work practically. Also, what our online students can achieve at home with older computers and spotty Wi-fi is much different than what face-to-face university students can achieve in high-tech media labs. Finding the right level of technological difficulty and the right way to sell students on non-traditional assignments took some trial and error. In my Composition II sections, I found students have had the greatest level of buy-in when I tied the assignments to the Kiva Program. Twice I have been able to acquire a grant from Kiva U so that my students have been able to give $25 microloans. Having our online efforts tied to an established organization and being able to tangibly contribute to this organization increased my students’ level of engagement.

One of the key lessons I try to impart to my students is that all learning and all experiences are of value. We are building a network of connections in our mind, which enable us to better grasp and relate to a variety of people and materials. I am a better teacher for having read research essays on cross training, on artificial wombs, on the Palestinian conflict, on feminine products and third-world countries, etc. It is why it is hard to consider a time when I am not working and not growing as an educator, as everything has the potential to impact my class: pop culture, parenting, travel, etc.

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Last Post of the #CCCWrite Reflective Writing Club

Today is the last required post for the Online Network Reflective Writing Club:

  • Take some time to reflect back to the start of our Reflective Writing Club.
  • What were your objectives for this experience? Do you feel that you have achieved them?
  • Discuss any unexpected outcomes you have had as a result of the Reflective Writing Club.
  • Discuss any new or improved skills you’ve acquired through this blogging club and share how they will contribute to your work.

Is it strange that my favorite part of the Reflective Writing Club was the weekly deadline and expectations? I often say that I wish I were one of my own students, required to read, write, and reflect in a communal setting every week. For the past few weeks, I have gotten to be a writing student – brainstorming assigned prompts, reading examples for inspiration, and enjoying feedback. And like many a student, I often do not complete my work until I am under the pressure of a deadline.

My main objective was to write more and connect with more educators on Twitter, which I achieved. I really enjoyed how this club was facilitated, as it was structured and engaging enough to keep me motivated, yet it did not require an overwhelming commitment. It gave me a purposeful assignment each week and led me to follow some new inspiring instructors.

Going forward, I hope to use this activity as an example of an emerging form of professional development. As a community college faculty member, I do not have a large allowance for conferences, workshops, classes, and books. When I was finishing my dissertation, all my PDA went towards my doctoral credits. During this time, I could not travel to national and international conferences, but I could connect with educators around the world through Facebook and Twitter. Since then, I have become an advocate for these non-traditional means of professional development.

If anyone reading has suggestions for other writing or creative online education groups, please comment or message me on Twitter.

 

The Art of Unplugging #CCCWrite

As I prepare for Spring Break, it is the perfect time to think about “unplugging,” which is this week’s Reflective Writing Prompt.

Growing up, I was an untethered, solar charged being whose life naturally involved the outdoors, as I lived and worked on a farm close to the shore of Lake Huron. When I wasn’t outside, I was at the local library, enjoying the air-conditioning, the silence, and most of all, the books. My only connections to the communication network were the rotatory dial phone in our family’s kitchen and the five television channels the antenna picked up.

Now, I have multiple social media and email accounts, online courses, cable TV, Amazon Prime, a smartphone, an iPad, and two computers. I also, though, thanks to the presence of my children, have a strict screen schedule. The New York Times recently published an editorial claiming that the real digital divide is now between children who do and do not have regulated screen time use. My children have restricted and specific screen time usage; therefore, I have restricted and specific screen time usage as well.

In my composition I classes, I have my students take a 24-hour media blackout challenge, in preparation for a reflective essay on their relationship with technology. Each semester, I take the challenge as well. One the whole, we finds the days seem to last much longer and we are able to accomplish more without the presence of media. When it comes to psychological effects, students usually fall into two camps: those who feel intense anxiety and those who feel more relaxed without their smartphones. The most important discovery, though, is how ingrained media/network technology has become in our lives. I do not know how to plan and prepare a dinner without the Internet 🙂 It’s a great experiential learning experiment and self check.

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.

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.