Friday, December 09, 2005

Storm Funds

Three junior colleges and a university in Mississippi have received funds from money raised by former Presidents Bush and Clinton to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Pearl River and Mississippi Gulf Coast community colleges each received $750,000 — the maximum amount a two-year institution could receive — and Jones County Junior College received $400,000.

The University of Southern Mississippi received $1.5 million — the maximum available to four-year institutions. Officials from William Carey College — also a grant recipient — said they were unsure about the exact amount they would receive.

From The Clarion Ledger.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Post-Katrina Budgets

Things aren't looking good for the community colleges in South Mississippi.

Community colleges affected by Hurricane Katrina face a looming cash flow crisis that could result in personnel cuts as early as the spring, leaders of area two-year institutions said Wednesday.

“Six months out, am I going to be able to keep the lights on and pay salaries?” Pearl River Community College President William Lewis said during a meeting with the editorial board of the Hattiesburg American.

Monday, October 31, 2005


That's where we are right now in Hattiesburg, and that is what is considered excellent these days. A number of businesses are still closed, debris piles still line the streets, and it is still most unusual to see a roof without a tarp on it. Traffic is still jammed, hotels are still overbooked, and roads are still blocked to make way for bucket trucks and tractors. A steady stream of FEMA trailors is still flowing down I-59. The main topic of conversation at lunch is still, "Have you seen your adjustor yet?" Other popular topics include: "Have you been treating for mold?"; "Does it seem like there is more illness and death than normal lately?"; "Are you sleeping normally yet?"

Semi-normal. That's where we are.

That's good. School is moving right along. We've added five extra minutes to every class period to make up the two weeks missed. Somehow this seems to translate to less time to get things done because nobody can remember when exactly things are supposed to begin and end anymore. Nobody really cares. We are just getting through from one thing to the next and making the best of the time we have.

I am somewhat overloaded. Okay, make that extremely overloaded. Make that to-the-breaking-point overloaded. Make that it's-a-miracle-no one-has-been-hurt-yet overloaded.

One instructor never came back after the hurricane. In the divvying up of her classes, I ended up teaching seven sections this semester. Yes, that's one, two, three, four, five, six, SEVEN! I have two lits, four comps, and a development reading class. I've never taught developmental reading before, nor do I have any background in developmental teaching at all. I'll leave it to your imaginations how I'm managing a new prep in the midst of grading for seven sections.

Then there is SACS. We're up for accreditation review, and I've landed myself on something called a QEP committee. More on that later, but suffice it to say for now, it seems to be all about having lots of meetings and producing lots of paperwork, paperwork, paperwork. I'm thrilled to have been chosen.

But that's enough of that. We're making it here. Here's hoping next semester progresses to near-normal. :)

Friday, September 09, 2005


When I left school on Friday, August 26, I never dreamed it would be two weeks before I returned. I didn't even hear that the hurricane was headed toward us until Saturday, and even then I had no idea how big or bad it was. We've had so many near misses with hurricanes in the past year, that I really just thought of it as an irritation. Here we go again...missing another day or two of school to evacuate for nothing. I never once considered that this was "the one." Even if I had, I could not have conceived of what would happen. As our governor put it, we knew what "as bad as Camille" meant, and we knew how to prepare for that. We did not know what "worse than Camille" meant. I'm afraid many people died because of these two things: sheer burn out on preparing for hurricanes and using Camille as a measuring stick for the worst of the worst.

Now here we are in the middle of "worse than Camille," the nightmare we never even knew to fear. But things are getting better. Some people have power now. I don't, but I did see guys with chainsaws on my street yesterday, so I'm hopeful the way will be cleared to get the trucks in there soon. Disaster relief seems to be pouring in. Red Cross trucks are all over town. The National Guard is passing out supplies (and arresting looters and curfew breakers). The churches are packed with donations (and evacuees). A few more businesses open up every day, and all in all people are starting to look a little cleaner and a little less shell shocked.

We go back to school on Monday. I have heard that Pearl River Community College is going back on the 19th. I have also heard that Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College is going back to school soon. I don't honestly know how they will manage, but I think the thinking is that the best thing is a return to as much normalcy as possible for as many people as we have left to make that possible for.

We don't know what we are facing. We don't know how many of our students will be able to even get to school now. We don't know how many new students we might have who cannot go back to their homes farther south. The campus, however, looks great...considering. There has been damage to some of the buildings, mostly in the form of roof damage. I know that some of the library collections have been lost, but we don't have a full assessment of that yet. The glass and ceiling tiles have been picked up, and the trees have been cleared, and we're as ready as we can be to get back to business, though.

We had one full week of classes before the storm. I'm not even sure where to start in the starting over, but we should not be at a loss for things to write about.

Thanks for all of the support and concern during this time. I'll keep you posted on my campus and how we deal with Katrina's aftermath.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Here we go again

Looks like we might be starting another semester out by taking a hurricane break. Prayers and well wishes to those of you in Katrina's path.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

238 Eager Young Minds

I just made the mistake of tallying up the total number of students I have on my rosters this semester: 238. That's in six sections, so it comes out to an average of 39.6 students per section. Four are composition. The other two are literature. We are required to have six essay grades per semester. How many hours of grading does that add up to?

Never mind. I don't want to know.

I hope everyone is getting off to a good start. I actually expect to have a good semester. I just have to get a few panic attacks out of the way first.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


I realize it is old hat to comment on the year the incoming freshmen were born, but I get a little more unnerved by it every year. This year's freshmen would have been born in about 1987. Wow. I feel old and out of touch.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

New Player - An Introduction

I have just come aboard (pardon the Naval allusion - but that's me). My name is Brian. I've just begun a new position at a small 2-year college in south Georgia, Abraham Baldwin Ag. College. Previously, I taught in Nashville, TN, for 4 1/2 years. My area of specialty is medieval literature with an emphasis in Arthurian literature. Consequently, I teach a lot of composition. There's not much call for medievalists these days, certainly not in 2-year colleges. Despite that, I seem to fit a few historical and etymological snippets into each semester. It's interesting how students find it fascinating or mind-numbing. There's not much in between.

As for the Naval reference, that predates my medieval bent. I spent 12 1/2 years as an engineering officer in the U. S. Navy before I started teaching. Don't ask how a theatre arts BA got me a gig as an engineer. It has something to do with naval "wisdom." Anyway, I have a lot of naval-ese tucked into my method and my language.

I look forward to learning about composition best practices and sharing with everyone here. I am particularly interested in incorporating technology into the classroom. I am building a blog into my comp sections this coming semester, so I will share my wins and losses as we go. I have already learned from reading past postings and following a lot of embedded links. Thanks for that up front.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Summer Hiatus

I've been having a 3/4 vacation this summer. I'm teaching two classes, but it seems like I'm just barely in the office. I get to leave early in the day, and I have significantly reduced grading stacks. The time has also flown by with more of it spent on dodging hurricanes and visiting family than anything else.

I do, however, have one teaching thought to report. I've tried a kind of I-search sequence out on my summer day class. The continuity between assignments has been especially successful in the fast-paced five week course.

Comp II can be a pretty frustrating class to plan because the school wants a certain amount of uniformity between various sections and instructors. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, unless you happen to loathe the way the class is set up in the first place.

In short, I've found a compromise I've been very pleased with:

Paper 1: Narrative Essay, Research Proposal (3-5 pages, 10% of final grade)

Describe an event in your life that has made you want to know more about a topic. Explain why this would be a good topic for a formal research paper and how you could make a good argument out of it.

Paper 2: Argument Essay, Research Pre-Writing (2-4 pages, 10% of final grade)

State your current opinions about your chosen research topic. Defend your opinions with a combination of logical, ethical, and/or personal examples. Identify things you need to find out about your topic in order to validate your argument. Explain where you plan to look for this information.

Paper 3: Process Essay, Research Pre-Writing (3-5 pages, 15% of final grade)

Explain the process you have gone through to locate the information for your research paper as well as the process you have gone through to focus and organize your materials. Briefly summarize your best sources. Include rough drafts of your research paper outline and works cited page.

Paper 4: Definition Essay, Research Pre-Writing (2-4 pages, 15% of final grade)

Explain what plagiarism is, why it is important to understand it, and what steps you have taken to avoid it in your research paper. Include examples of paraphrases you will use in the research paper.

Paper 5: Argument Essay, Formal Research Paper (5-7 pages, 25% of final grade)

Take a position on your chosen topic and support it with evidence from credible sources. Include MLA documentation for all sources.

Paper 6: Cause and Effect Essay, Research Wrap-Up (2-4 pages, 15% of final grade)

Explain what you discovered while doing your research paper, how it influenced your opinions, and what actions or ideas you might change in the future as a result of doing the research.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

John Lovas

I was very sad today to learn of the death of John Lovas. John has been one of the handful of people I've encountered in my life who have truly known and taught what beauty is for. I believe that because he crossed my path, however briefly, I have changed my life.

The Swan

by Mary Oliver

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air -
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music - like the rain pelting the trees - like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds -
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Call for Papers

Call for Papers: Experimental Writing and Aesthetics
Abstract/Proposals by 15 November 2005
Southwest/Texas Popular & American Culture Associations 27th Annual Conference Albuquerque, NM, February 8-11, 2006

Panels now forming on topics related to Experimental Writing and Aesthetics in such areas as the aesthetics of experimental writing in any genre or in mutli-genre/multi-media works including digital and graphic compositions involving language, the poetics of performance of experimental compositions, critical studies of experimental writers, etc. Creative writers interested in the selective creative writing readings panel should contact Jerry Bradley, Creative Writing Readings Chair, via <> in the early fall. Scholars, teachers, professionals, writers not affiliated with academic institutions, and others interested in experimental writing are encouraged to participate. Graduate students are also particularly welcome with award opportunities for best graduate papers. If you wish to organize your own panel, I will be happy to facilitate your scheduling needs.

Send abstracts, papers, or proposals for panels with your email address by 15 November 2005: Hugh Tribbey, Experimental Writing and Aesthetics Chair

Conference Website: <> (updated regularly)

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Confession, Part II

I caved. I got a cell phone. Yikes!

In other news, I didn't really intend to go on an extended summer hiatus. It's just worked out that way. First came the post-semester crash. Then came the endless errands to be run both for myself and others. I've been busy, busy, busy, but not at all productive the past few weeks.

Now I'm about to take a couple of little trips, and I've used that as an excuse go ahead and get a cell phone like all the other girls and boys.

And as long as this is still a confession...I've been reading mostly "children's" books lately. I read Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. I read the Harry Potter books, and I'm really looking forward to the new one coming out soon. I don't have to turn in my lit degrees over that, do I? :)

Thursday, May 05, 2005


I don't have a cell phone. Nor do I have an iPod, TiVo, or one of those car lock key chain clicker things. In fact, my car has manual locks, and the last video game system I bought was a Game Boy. I mean a regular Game Boy, not even a Game Boy Advance.

I use the Blackboard grade book for my online students, but for my day students, I average grades by hand. I've tried spreadsheets and grade book software and have never found any of those things to actually save time. Thus, I prefer to do it by hand.

I know how to make a web page using a combination of Dream Weaver, Fireworks, and Photoshop, and if hard pressed I could probably figure out how to make my own cartoons. I just haven't figured out why I would feel pressed to do this yet.

I've been wondering lately if I have a resistance to technological change running counterpoint to my great love for experimenting with other kinds of technological change.

Maybe I do. Maybe not having a cell phone isn't at all about not wanting another bill. Maybe it's about not wanting to be plugged in 24/7. Maybe it's about not wanting to completely change my consciousness to digital ways of life. Maybe not having automatic locks is about a desire to retain things that are more tactile in nature in my daily routines. Maybe.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

One That Puzzles Me

My students often confuse the words "rather" and "whether." Even though I'm from this area, I can't hear in the local dialect why the two words would sound enough alike to be interchanged.

Does anyone else see this very often?

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Poetry Month

I love too many poems to pick just one, but in honor of Poetry Month and of grading my last research paper, I give you Robert Hass...


    All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

© 1987 Robert Hass

Monday, April 25, 2005

Stress and Grading

I've been fighting off a sore throat for a couple weeks (allergy season). I feel bad because I still haven't finished grading my research papers despite dragging home three boxes of them this weekend. The loose ends don't seem to be tying themselves. Gimme some of that Aunt Joanna's Sabbatackle. I really need it.

I've got no blogging mojo right now. I have to get caught up on grading before I can enjoy anything.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Being Ahead vs. Getting Ahead

Some things that Mike said have had me wondering how much of the trying to keep up with the techno-nerds is really worth it. How much will using the technology that we do have available pay off, and will the pay off be greater than the losses in terms of time and distractions from teaching what I'm really here to teach?

On the other hand, Jeff's comment, "It's not a question of the tools.
It's a question of how the tools shape the ways we communicate, whether or not we use those tools," has had me thinking that to at least a degree the technology is what I'm here to teach. Computer skills have become inseparable from writing skills in that the students have to know how to deliver the writing in order to make real use of it.

Yesterday, when my friend talked to her student about his grades, she said, "You keep charging around on white stallions, but what I told you to do was plow the mule." I feel like I've landed in a place with this blog where everyone is charging around on stallions, but I'm just here to plow the mule. Sometimes the posturing, theorizing, hoof-scratching, and snorting around stuff is useful to me. Sometimes it's not.

At any rate, Mike and Jeff are both right. We can no more afford to overwhelm our freshman writing classes with technology than we can to dismiss technology altogether.

I've been reading about community writing projects, and in the past few days I've been telling my colleagues about fifth grade classes doing PowerPoint presentations. I've been completely aghast at my own lack of ability to envision how to accomplish this in a college class. I kept repeating this to people on my campus, always ending with "There's no way I could do this here. Where would I get the equipment?" I told probably six or seven people who all agreed that it couldn't be done. The eighth person said, "I know where you can get a projector to borrow for a week or two on campus."

So sometimes it is our own defeatism that holds us back and nothing more. But we're still left with the question of how much it's worth it. That I simply don't know.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

For Lack of Time

I'll just say there's nothing wrong with being ahead.

I do have a question, though. Do you use things like podcasting and QuickTime videos in composition classes (or lit classes)? If so, how? Why?

Saturday, April 09, 2005


I must confess to being behind.

Collin is a trifle annoyed with an article from Inside Higher Education in which it is suggested that "Computer technology has swiftly become our key writing tool but it’s too easy to imagine everyone 'gets it.'" What really sets him off is the recommendation that Boolean logic can make for more sophisticated online research.

Collin's rant rebuttal:
Bottom line: it's not time to start thinking about technology. If you
haven't started yet, it's time to catch up. If you don't know how to put
together a QuickTime movie, you're behind. If you haven't futzed around with
sound tools, you're behind. If you're still thinking about how to do web pages,
you're behind. If you don't "get" blogs and wikis, you're behind. If you don't
think that the Grokster case has anything to do with you, you're behind. And I
could keep on going. There is nothing wrong with writing an essay, a view, a
site, whatever, addressing those who are (by now) late adopters, but why in the
world would exhortations to think critically about technology have any effect on
those people when they've been hearing the same song for years now?

This made me cringe...for several reasons. First, it brought out a good old-fashioned sense of self-doubt. I know there are many things I should know how to do and don't. I hate to think how many. Second, I've always had an aversion to the master lists, the master narratives, the tendencies to proclaim This is the story of what you must know and do and be. Stray from it at your peril.

But I'm not here to tar and feather Collin. I think he makes some good points, though I don't think the article he pounced on was actually written for the people who live and work in Collin's sphere. I think it served its purpose and that many people out there probably got good use out of it.

What I really want to talk about, however, is the technology gap. This is the way we define the haves and have nots these days. Who owns the technology? Who owns the knowledge of how to manipulate the technology? Who is plugged in and who is not? It's so vital for our students that we don't let them fall behind. They will live in a world even more defined by technology gaps than our own. And if they want to be one of the haves, they've got to own the techno-knowledge. Maybe it is master narrative making to say so, but it is also being realistic.

And that brings me to my own rant about reality and technology.

The computer in my office is running Windows 98. That's the year I got it. It will not be replaced this year or next year or the year after that. My school and my state are experiencing massive budget cuts. There just aren't the resources to keep the technology on campus up to date.

In addition to having an old computer with a small hard drive that is completely maxed out, I have no one to teach me technology. When I went to graduate school, we didn't even have computers much less training in how to use them. I had a Tandy that my father gave me when I was working on my master's thesis, and I used it and Norton Textra to write everything I did for my Ph.D. Up to that point I used a Smith Corona typewriter. Though we were beginning to get computer labs around campus while I was in school, they never really came into my consciousness. I never took or taught a class that used them.

In other words, whatever I do know I've taught myself by futzing around, as Collin calls it. But there are limits to what I can teach myself in that manner, and there are limits to the technology I can have access to even if I want to learn it.

I read recently about Duke University's iPod experiment in which they distributed an iPod to all incoming students in order to "facilitate the use of information technology in innovative ways within the classroom and across campus." I found that comforting. It made me feel like maybe I was okay and not so far behind after all if Duke University was struggling to figure out how to use technology in "innovative ways." And I know that it is these people and maybe not so much people like me that Collin is ranting about. If someone is teaching with all the resources afforded by a place like Duke or Syracuse or Hopkins and can't or won't figure out how to use technology in "innovative ways" without a bunch of free gadgets being passed out in the classroom, well, they deserve a good rant.

But the fact remains that more composition classes are taught in this country in places like Jones County Junior College than in places like The Johns Hopkins University. The everyday reality is that many of our teachers have neither the equipment nor the training to keep up. There is very little motivation to get on board new innovations if you don't even have a computer that will run the software, and if you know that no one will be available to provide technical support for you or your students should you decide to embark on a techno-adventure.

There will always be the technological capacity to do new things long before the necessary tools are widely available. There will always be a gap. There will always be a place for articles that are of no use to the advanced but of great help to the struggling.

My hope is that the big universities won't forget the rest of us. We need models that are realistic and encouraging if we are to remain even as little as five or ten years behind. We need people who will not simply sneer at us for having so little but who will help us figure out what we can learn on our own with limited resources. We need open communications. We have the technology now to make that possible. So what are we going to do with it?

Friday, April 08, 2005

For Profit Schools and Federal Funds

From CNN.

According to the Career College Association, they now constitute 38 percent of the 2,500 higher education institutions where students can spend federal aid, and enroll 1.8 million of 23 million U.S. college students.

And they are growing rapidly -- unlike cash-strapped community colleges struggling to accommodate increasing demand. For-profits claim that their model, sculpted in marketplace competition, works (65 percent earn a degree or certificate within six years, compared with 25 percent beginning at public two-year institutions, according to CCA). They also claim to serve a higher percentage of minority and low-income students.

"If our institutions are doing a better job, particularly working with at risk-students, why should our students be denied the benefits of these competitive grant programs?" said Nancy Broff, the CCA's general counsel.


Attracting more students equals "doing a better job"? Well, if nothing else that's a good PR line.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005


I'd like to go to the Cs next year in Chicago, but I've never been before, and I'd like to solicit a little advice. I see on the form that you can submit either a session proposal or an individual proposal. I'm curious about that. What do people usually do? Do you form your own panels before submitting, or do you just turn in individual proposals?

Also, what is this area cluster thing all about? You have to pick just one? Are there clusters in which a proposal is more likely to get accepted than others?

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

The Personal Continued

Mike at Vitia has been blogging up a storm on The Personal and Personal Writing: Theory and Method. Mike also points to a discussion on the personal by John Lovas which is very well thought-out.

Mike has too much to say for me to respond to it all, but I would like to zero in on the question of whether there is intrinsic value in personal writing for the sake of personal writing (as opposed to personal writing for the sake of making connections to other forms of academic writing).

I think I made a comment about gratuitous navel gazing in the previous discussion on personal writing. Now I think that comment was a little too flippant for what I really believe.

Yes, there is intrinsic value in most any form of writing for its own sake. If we didn't believe that, we wouldn't assign journals or other forms of informal writing.

In my lit classes, I usually start out with a talk about why we are reading what we read and what we are supposed to get from it. In this talk I mention a quote from Confucius:

Confucius said to his disciples, "Why do none of you study The Book of Songs? Studying The Book of Songs can enrich the imagination, enhance the powers of observation, smooth the relations among one's fellow men, and help master the art of satire. On one hand, the teachings presented in The Book of Songs can help one serve one's parents well; on the other hand, the knowledge and methods provided in The Book of Songs can help one serve one's lord well. Moreover, one can learn a lot of names of birds, beasts, plants, and trees."

Just as reading literature that is about personal human experience can "enrich the imagination, enhance the powers of observation" and so forth, so too can writing about personal human experience.

The point is that we as instructors need to be clear on what it is we want the students to learn from any assignment we give. And we need to be sure we get that message across to the student.

I often start the year in composition with a narrative paper. The assignment is usually to write about something that happened either to themselves or to someone close to them that taught them a lesson or changed their minds about an issue. They write a descriptive story that they can use to support a claim. In this assignment I want them to learn how to make a clear point with a narrative illustration, how to narrow the focus and timeframe to an appropriate level, how to pay close attention to detail, how to be aware of the audience and how the descriptions might affect the audience, and how to fine tune their writing in terms of style, clarity, tone, etc. It's not just about confessing their hang-ups or bemoaning the loss of their loved ones. It's about making connections between experience and opinion and learning to speak with authority on topics that matter to them. We also, by the way, talk about the difference in personal testimony as evidence and academic research as evidence. And we discuss examples of ways people use personal testimony to persuade in advertising and politics and religion and other such arenas.

By the time the students finish this assignment we've done a lot more as a class than simply personal writing for the sake of personal writing, and I do realize I'm veering away from the original question. But I just wanted to make the point that I have a whole set of objectives for this assignment, but if I don't tell the students these are the things they are supposed to learn from it, they are never going to know.

Then the question becomes will they still learn any of these things (focus, support for a claim, attention to detail, style, clarity, audience awareness) if I never tell them that's what they are supposed to be learning? I believe the answer is yes, but I believe the degree to which they learn these things will vary greatly from student to student, as it does for all assignments.

People can learn writing skills from any kind of writing they do. It isn't so much a matter of what kind of assignment they are doing as it is how much feedback they get and how much they are aware of what they are supposed to be learning. It's also a matter of how motivated they are to learn.

Ideally, we want students who think for themselves and learn something from the class that goes beyond a set of objectives. Still, we have to start somewhere, and the first step in making sure any kind of writing is beneficial to the student is being clear on what the assignment is supposed to teach. If we are wishy-washy and uncommitted to whether there is value in the assignment, the students probably aren't going to learn as much.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Vanity Blogging

I'd like to take this opportunity to link to myself. Is that vain or what?

Callie Cat Review is just a little thing I started for my own enjoyment. I don't know how often I'll update it, and I don't have any particular rules for myself for what I consider blog-worthy. It will just be whatever I've read and am interested in writing about at the time, whether it is old or new or literary or fluff.

I would probably save myself a lot of trouble if I just picked one place to blog and put everything there, but I like my blogs to have a focus. So now I have a book blog. Just thought I'd mention.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Oral Histories

I have this problem with always thinking about stuff that can be done and then thinking that I have to do it. Now. It's no wonder I'm always behind on sleep and little pesky things like that.

So I've come up with an idea for an oral history project which just popped into my head a couple of days ago, and I already have a committee assembled to start working on it. What I want to do is to build on USM's project and focus only on retired teachers in Mississippi, mainly two-year college teachers and even more specifically from my own school. The goal is to build an archive of materials chronicling the history of education in Mississippi as remembered by the teachers. I'm thinking that we will do interviews with retired teachers, record the interviews on digital voice recorders, then transfer them to CDs and to some sort of online format. Then the human experience of the history of the school and the state will be preserved for future students and researchers to access. And, of course, I'll have yet another item of interest to blog about.

Call me a nerd, but I'm excited about the idea.

I'm also trying to formulate how I might transfer this kind of thing to the classroom. I'm considering doing a local history theme in a composition class and have the students do oral history interviews then write about them. I also thought they could use the original response paper to the interviews as a springboard for getting into a more focused research project and paper.

Another idea I had was to give them a choice of doing a photo essay on local history and writing in response to it.

Have any of you ever tried anything like this before? Any advice would be welcome.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Book Talk

Several people on my campus have decided to form a teaching-oriented book discussion group. I mean an actual face to face group. To start, we've ordered Writing Our Communities, Dave Winter and Sarah Robbins, eds.

Once we've read and discussed, I'll blog the results. I just thought I'd toss this out there now in case anyone else is interested in ordering it and participating in an online discussion. Or you could just save your money and wait to hear what we think. No spoilers, please, if you've already read it. :)

Monday, March 21, 2005

Regionalism Revisited

The conversation on "The Utah Bubble" is still brewing at Composition Mountain West. We may not have come to any real consensus, but we have raised some interesting questions. Nancy at Random Thoughts also made a good point: In this case, the problem doesn't seem to be so much a question of geographic area but rather of how homogeneous a place is. When everyone comes from the same background, has the same belief system, the same attitudes and approaches to life, it can be difficult to teach there - especially if you don't entirely share those ideals.

I'd like to follow up on that idea of homogeneity because I think it is a very significant issue that affects everything about the job from the way hiring is done to the level of academic freedom enjoyed to what actually works or doesn't work in the classroom. More on that later.

For now, I have a few observations that have crossed my mind during these regional discussions.

1. There is as big a gap between rural schools and urban schools as there is between community colleges and universities.
2. We tend to gauge the right and wrong of teaching methods and decisions based on our own experiences despite the fact that those experiences might be very different from someone who teaches in another school or in another region.
3. There is a lot to be gained from discussing our differences and really stopping to listen to the reasons behind those differences.

When I first started the job I have now, I went into real culture shock. I thought I knew Mississippi. I was born here. I grew up here. My family has been here for generations. But there were things I never knew about my own state until I started teaching here. And the shock of what the students were like was nothing compared to the shock of what everything else was like. Nothing about the textbooks, the policies, the class sizes, the schedules, the department dynamic or anything else was remotely like what I'd been trained to expect in graduate school. I was horrified, and I had very little professional autonomy for making my own decisions about how to teach or what to teach...or at least that's how it felt at the time. All I accomplished by resisting doing things the way they'd always been done, however, was to antagonize people and alienate myself. I had to learn how to fit in. There was nothing else for it.

I asked some people at the university what to do, but their only reactions were the same horror I felt. Then one day I saw Nell Ann Pickett, my English teacher from my community college days, at church, and I told her about how frustrated I was with the textbooks and the class sizes and all of the other things that were piling up on me. I expected more expressions of disgust, but what I got was the best advice anyone has ever given me: "Pick your battles."

Wherever you might teach, there will be budget crunches and department disagreements and administrative policies that will be hard to work around, but work around them you must. We do the best we can with what we have to work with. None of us has an ideal situation, and none of us can win every battle we take on. Some things are worth stirring up; some things are not. Some things can be conquered once they are stirred up; some things cannot. Sometimes more can be gained by stirring a little at a time over a long period of time than by making a big mess of things all at once.

I think understanding where the lines are takes being in a place long enough to make yourself at home. It isn't so easy to see them right away. More importantly, it isn't so easy to see why the lines are there in the first place or who benefits from the status quo.

To paraphrase a friend, "The differences between us are as deep as they are vague." It may take some time for any of us to really understand them.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Errors and Grading Standards

To what degree do you concentrate on grammar and mechanics in grading? Do you follow a rubric or a point system, or do you grade holistically? To you determine your own grading standards, or do you follow department guidelines? Are you confident that an A, B, or C in your class is the same quality as an A, B, or C in your colleagues' classes?

I ask these questions because I'm curious about how much range there is in academic autonomy among composition teachers in various states and schools. I'm also curious about how much consistency there is in grading standards.

My school has policies that regulate the number of assignments in all classes, not just in English classes. Comp 1 classes are supposed to have at least six graded essays. Comp 2 classes have 3 essays, a research paper, and a business writing unit that includes a resume, a letter of application, and a technical report. I've been there nine years, and I'm still trying to figure out how to fit all of that in. ;)

We also have grading guidelines for grammar. Major errors are supposed to count off 10 points each and minor errors 5 points each. Major errors are defined by the school as comma splices, subject/verb errors, sentence fragments and fused sentences.

If we really follow all of these guidelines, that leaves very little room for actually teaching them how to write. On the other hand, the students struggle with grammar, and since we do not have a writing center, they have to get instruction on grammar in the classroom.

I'm not sure there is a good answer to how to deal with all of this and really get down to teaching writing, but I would like to know how other schools handle these issues.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Blogging as Creative Nonfiction

Creative nonfiction is one of those genres that is as self-apparent as it is difficult to pin down. It encompasses so many diverse styles and forms that many of its practitioners don't care to wear the label. Blogging, likewise, is so easy to define that the people who do it seem obsessed with continued attempts to explain what it is they do and why. Thus, to say that blogging is creative nonfiction is as much stating the obvious as it is courting trouble.

However, I've been flipping through a book called The Fourth Genre, a collection of essays on essay writing put together by Robert L. Root, Jr. and Michael Steinberg, and I'm intrigued by the connections. My copy of the book is the 2nd edition, and it looks like there is a 3rd edition out now, so this has been sitting around my office longer than I realized, but I'll roll with it anyway. (To the Longman book rep that gave me this book, I'd sure love to see the new edition, wink, wink.)

Some snippets:

From the introduction, Root and Steinberg--

The most pronounced common elements of creative nonfiction are personal presence, self-discovery and self-exploration, veracity, flexibility of form, and literary approaches to nonfiction. (xxiv)

Including this personal voice in cultural criticism surrenders some of the authority--or the pretense of authority--generally found in academic writing, but substitutes for it the authority of apparent candor or personal honesty. (xxv)

The great challenge of memoir writing is knowing how much we remember is reliable and accepting the likelihood that we are "inventing the truth." (xxvii)

From Nancy Sommers, "I Stand Here Writing"--

If I could teach my students one lesson about writing it would be to see themselves as sources, as places from which ideas originate, to see themselves as Emerson's transparent eyeball, all that they have read and experienced--the dictionaries of their lives--circulating through them. I want them to learn how sources thicken, complicate, enlarge writing, but I want them to know too how it is always the writer's voice, vision, and argument that create the new source. (181)

Being personal, I want to show my students, does not mean being autobiographical. Being academic does not mean being remote, distant, imponderable. Being personal means bringing their judgments and interpretation to bear on what they read and write, learning that they never leave themselves behind even when they write academic essays. (182)

From Rebecca Blevins Faery, "On the Possibilities of the Essay: A Meditation"--

The essay has, then, the potential for being at least an inroad, if not indeed an attack, on monumental discourse because as a form it negotiates the split between public discourse--formal, ordered, impersonal, knowing, with pretensions to universality and fixity, and private utterance--tentative, personal, questing, provisional. (249)

Carl Klaus has aptly termed the essay an "antigenre, a rogue form of writing in the universe of discourse." I would elaborate only to observe that he essay can be, has been, rogue or heretical not only in form but in effect. As "antigenre," it has the capacity to work against, even to undo, the presumptions that have structured western discourse. (249)

From Marianna Torgovnick, "Experimental Critical Writing"--

But when critics want to be read, and especially when they want to be read by a large audience, they have to court their readers. And the courtship begins when the critic begins to think of himself or herself as a writer as well, a process that for me, as for some other critics of my generation, means writing as a person with feelings, histories, and desires--as well as information and knowledge. (368)

From Bret Lott, "Toward a Definition of Creative Nonfiction"--

For self, however at the center of what you are writing or however tangential, must inform the heart of the tale you are telling. It is indeed self that is the creative element of creative nonfiction. (311)

I have many more little snippets marked to think about, but I'll stop here for now. The way I see it, no matter what the style or agenda, blogs are a way of organizing the world through a personal filter. We all experience information overload in one form or another, and blogs give us a way to distill down to smaller chunks of information that are suited to our reduced attention spans and busy lives in a technological age. They are usually comprised of a series of short, ad libbed essays that are quite personal in nature. And sustaining these personal chronicles requires the creation of a persona that is both the self and the created voice that we choose to make public.

For academic bloggers, I think what the blog offers is a venue in which to be academic without the pressure of having to produce at the "publishable" level. I know I have very little time for working on real academic articles, but that doesn't turn off the interest in academic ideas nor does it negate the desire to express a response to those ideas. Like Poe's definition of the short story as something that could be read in one sitting, the blog posting is something that can be composed in one sitting. The popularity of academic blogging I think lies in that aspect more than any other. It's a way of applying what we know to what we do. It's also a way of sharing that connection with others via an act that easily fits into our busy lifestyles. As such, personal honesty, as Root and Steinberg have said about creative nonfiction, provides the real authority in what we do.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Regional Difference

I've been thinking about teaching and regional issues since Scott brought up the challenge of discussing these issues at CMW. At first I thought of dialect matters. When I taught in Oklahoma, for example, I had a lot of students who used "are" and "our" interchangeably. That doesn't happen much in Mississippi even among the poorer students. But really dialect isn't what I want to talk about right now.

Scott brought up Red State values, and that is something I'm interested in discussing. There is a certain level of distrust of academia in the community. I grew up in Mississippi, and I remember when I was in college at USM, a friend of the family asked me if I was being careful what I learned there. He said people who went to college came away with strange airs and weird ideas, and sometimes they even lost their religion. I was being warned not to be too receptive to college or to new or different ideas. Evidently, the warning didn't take because I just kept going on and on to school beyond all reason.

We have a large number of first generation college students in the school where I teach, and I know that being taught a distrust of "those liberal professors" in the home is only one the many factors that comes bundled in that package. My first year on the job, I was asked by a school administrator if it was true that I was teaching my students about false gods. He said, "You've got to be careful what you have them read." It took me a minute to realize the false gods that had been protested were Zeus and Athena and that someone had taken Homer's Odyssey as a threat to her religion. I just said "Yes, sir" at the time. I still teach the Greeks, but now I make sure to mention that none of us are expected to convert.

For the most part, outright conflicts over community values versus academic values are few and far between. But there is a definite undercurrent and an awareness that you have to respect where the students are coming from and not be antagonistic toward even the silliest of their objections if you are to survive as a teacher here. Once we had a student photocopy Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" from the lit book, highlight every curse word in it, and take it to the dean's office to show what we were making her read. Again, we got a warning to "be careful." I kept right on teaching the story, but from then on every time I taught it, I started with the question, "Why do you think there are so many curse words in this story?"

But this is just one issue, and it's really not something that I concern myself with on a day to day basis. It might mean my approach to issues like the one Scott brought up concerning textbooks would be quite different from someone living and teaching in another region. I wouldn't fight the fight over a comp reader. I'm too busy trying to save Zeus. From my experience, taking up the banner of academic freedom to argue a cause is only worth it if academic integrity has truly been compromised. If I can get the same job done in a way that does not cause conflict, I will take the path of least resistance.

Does that mean that I'm limiting myself or limiting my students? Maybe. Maybe not. I do think the trust that I gain from the students is more tangible and more valuable than anything I may have lost by not going with my original plan, however.

I have a list of things related to regionalism I'd like to talk about, but I think this is enough for one post. I'll be very interested in continuing this discussion and hope to see others post on this as well.

Monday, March 07, 2005

We Got Blogged!

Thanks to Community College English for welcoming us into the blogosphere. This is the site, more than any other, that inspired Composition Southeast. I hope we develop an ongoing relationship between the two blogs and create a kind of pedagogical synergy by feeding off of each other's ideas.

Also, my enthusiasm for creating teaching-oriented blogs appears to be catching. My friend Scott has also linked to us with a magnificent proposal to create a series of regional composition blogs. He is starting one called Composition Mountain West and encourages others to follow suit. Anyone who lives in Utah or the surrounding states and is interested in blogging with the Mountain West comp teachers please let us know.

The whole sequence of events that has led to Composition Southeast and Composition Mountain West is a perfect example of how blogging works. I first got interested in blogging after stumbling across Scott's blog and then from there his wife Shelley's blog. I went to Ph.D. school with them once upon a time but had lost touch. Then one day I clicked a link somewhere, and there I was, catching up on their lives and professional activities. Before that day, I had heard about blogging but hadn't really thought much about it. From then on, I was hooked.

I began to actively seek out academic blogs, and I thought more and more about what I could do professionally with blogging. I've tried several experiments, but what I knew I wanted to do more than anything was to talk about teaching with other teachers. I became a great fan of Community College English because it was closer than anything else I'd seen to the kind of blog I thought could directly benefit my own teaching. I was tempted many times to request to join, but I was still working out in my own mind what it was I wanted to accomplish by blogging. I also felt a little alienated from some of the discussions I read there. I wondered what a person teaching in a rural school in South Mississippi could contribute to a dialogue between people who taught in urban areas in far off states. Then I started looking around at my colleagues and at people I met at state or regional conferences, and I realized there are a lot of people who feel the same way.

And so we have the birth of Composition Southeast. My hope is to give a voice to the concerns of people teaching in the places close to my heart, in my own little corner of the world. My hope is that we can find ways to articulate some of the gaps we see between the textbooks, theories and NCTE resolutions and the realities we work around on a day to day basis. I believe, if done right, this could be one of the more important purposes a blog could accomplish. In traditional publication circles, information has been disseminated from the big universities down to the small colleges. What's been missing in the chain is a good way for information to cycle back from the small colleges to the big universities...or from small colleges to other small colleges.

That is where blogging can make a real difference. That is why we should all get behind the idea of regional composition blogs and encourage as many people as possible to participate.

Thanks again to Scott and to Community College English for helping us get off to such a good start here. May there be many more interesting exchanges to come.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Personal Essays

Jeanne pointed out a discussion that took place in November at Vitia regarding personal essays in freshman classes. I have to admit to have gotten quite a kick out it. It sounds so much like the conversations I had as a graduate student. In those days I needed a theory for everything I did, and if I didn't understand the theory, I was uncomfortable with the validity of the practice. These days I tend to work from the opposite direction. I do what works and figure out how to explain it later.

But I digress.

Regarding personal essays, I think the gang over at the Vitia discussion are pretty smart people with pretty smart ideas, but they've failed to address the obvious.

From Clancy...

~Here’s the deal: Although I strongly encourage students to bring personal experience into their research papers when applicable, I don’t assign personal essays. I have before, when I taught at Tennessee and again at Roane State Community College, but in my current program, they want a lot of consistency across sections of FYC, so the course is designed in a pretty specific way (see “Genres"). So I can relate to you, Mike, when you point out the “institutional pressures” informing your views. However, my resistance to the personal essay goes back to high school. When I was a student, I never saw being required to write a personal essay as “a way of asking a student to take an initial stake in the writing that the course asks them to do, and towards seeing the personal essay as something accessible and open.” I already had a stake in the writing, and to be perfectly honest, God. I . Hated. Writing. Personal. Essays. for two main reasons: First, I felt that writing such an essay was a purposeless activity, really just done as a kind of minstrel show for the teacher with (as I perceived it at the time) an inappropriate, voyeuristic desire to pry into my personal life.

First, I'm struck with the irony of using an extremely personal form of academic writing in order to question the legitimacy of personal academic writing. Clancy, like anyone would, backs up her distrust of the personal essay with a personal example: "When I was in school..." Why does she do this? Because it is effective, of course. Because it adds authority to what she has to say. Because it gives the theoretical discussion a human quality that makes it more understandable and more believable.

Personal writing has a power like no other. When politicians campaign for office, they bring along regular folk to stand up and give testimony to what their policies have done for the regular folk. When pharmaceutical companies advertise drugs, they have actors play the parts of regular folk to give testimony to the miracles those drugs can work. When composition teachers go to conferences to tout their theories, they use personal examples from their own students and their own experiences to reinforce their reasonings.

None of these instances constitute real scientific evidence, and it certainly behooves us to recognize that. But the fact is personal testimony has a real life currency that scientific evidence does not. It resonates in people's memories. It engages their emotions. It entices them into the arena in which they might become a willing audience to the more scientific or theoretical.

The point is personal writing is academic writing. It permeates almost all realms of academia, and bloggers, of all people, should know that. The power of the blog lies precisely in the personal. People who are building their careers on a kind of discourse that depends entirely upon a blurring of the professional and the personal should be able to see how that same discourse can benefit their students.

The ability to speak with authority in a manner that blends the personal and the theoretical is the rhetoric of power and privilege. It is the kind of writing and speaking our students will most likely need to know when they leave school. We would be remiss not to teach it.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Two-Year College Teacher-Scholar

I found this report on the blog of someone who posts as jocalo both on his own site and on the Community College English site.

This appears to be an NCTE committee report, and I found it quite interesting. Some of the salient points:

~At two-year colleges, good teaching matters most, but this committee views scholarship as a prerequisite and a co-requisite for good teaching--because teachers’ scholarship legitimizes their expertise, informs their classroom practice, and provides their students with models for intellectual inquiry.

~The conventional view of research and scholarship holds that the former involves the discovery of new knowledge while the latter amounts to a familiarity with, and understanding of, what is already known. Research institutions have historically assumed that faculty would engage in both activities: making new knowledge and keeping up to date with advances in their particular areas of expertise But is it realistic to assume that faculty at community colleges will have the time and skills to engage in conventional academic research?

~Finally, community colleges have had little success in recognizing the work of faculty outside the classroom.

The report goes on to discuss the types of scholarship currently coming out of community colleges. I was, in fact, amazed to find out that the poet Bruce Weigl teaches at a community college. He could certainly have his pick of jobs, and I always find it heartwarming to hear these stories of people who are choosing community colleges for whatever reasons when they could be at the most prestigious universities.

I thought this was a good opportunity for talking about what our roles and responsibilities are as scholars in two-year colleges. Sometimes I have such a hard time keeping up with the grading load that I can't imagine how I could add more pressure to what I'm already doing.

But I will say that I've had more fun working on the blog research than almost anything I've ever done. When you get excited about learning something, it spills into your teaching in very distinct, though perhaps indefinable ways.

I don't believe any of us would argue the point that it is our obligation as teachers to remain current in our fields and to learn as much as we can about the writing and the literature that we teach. But my question is to what degree should two-year college teachers feel obligated to make a contribution to their fields?

I have my own opinions on this, but I will hold off a little bit on launching into a diatribe. Anyone else?

Friday, March 04, 2005

Why We Do This

Last night I walked into my classroom and found my students debating whether Oedipus had done anything of his own free will or if it had all been fate. They had started the debate themselves, on their own, with no prompting. They fired a couple of questions at me before I could even get the door shut behind me. Then they launched into a discussion of whether epics or tragedies are more interesting and how all these Greeks classics keep showing up in our pop culture with movies like Minority Report still questioning the conflict between free will and fate.

One student said that she had printed out a piece I posted to their discussion board about "Why We Love Epics" and given it to the librarian at her son's school. This librarian has banned Harry Potter books, and the student wanted to point out to her that those books are epics like the classic epics and that they have many, many references to Greek mythology in them. She used what she got from my class to argue her case that the books she wanted her son to read were educational.

The room was alive with mental energy and genuine interest in learning. This is the kind of day that makes you remember why you do it.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The Red Pen

This is a discussion we had on another blog--now lost forever due to "The Great Ebloggy Crash of '04." It turned out to be one of the most active discussions we had. It seems writing utensils are close to the hearts of English teachers.

Anyway, what kind of pen, pencil, whatever do you use to comment on student papers? How extensively do you comment and/or mark errors? Why? Why not?

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Blogs and Assessment

Clancy at Kairosnews has a good discussion about assessment and student blogs.

Writing Exercises

I'm bogged down in research right now, so I don't know that I'll have time to try any creative exercises in the foreseeable future, but I always like to collect them.

One idea I've had good success with for character development is to have the students take the Myers Brigg personality test...not as themselves but as characters they are trying to create. They then use the personality profile generated by the test as a reference in writing a character sketch.

On our campus the Career Resource Center offers the test. There are also a number of personality tests available online.

The students always enjoy doing this and maybe become a little too interested in personality types, but it does help them brainstorm characters.

Monday, February 28, 2005

Blog instead of Blackboard

I am most excited about using blog instead of the Discussion Board on Blackboard, which I find tedious and time consuming. I was really amazed at how quickly I was able to set up an account and start blogging. I really despise all the clicking and waiting on Blackboard. Frankly, I use the discussion boards, but I do not read them as much as I would like because I do not have time to click, read, and respond to everyone. With blogging, I can view them all at once and reply to several postings at one time. Thanks for presenting this session!

Sunday, February 27, 2005


I had a good time at TYCA. My only disappointment was that Morgan Freeman couldn't stay longer, but I'm willing to console myself with the fact that he was able to show up at all.

I'm excited that so many people expressed an interest in blogging. I've become something of a blog crusader, and I hope we can really get an active, viable discussion group going on this blog. Then we won't have to wait a whole year before we hear from people from other schools and other states. We can gossip and trade teaching ideas and laugh at each other's jokes and generally get some personal and professional enjoyment out of knowing each other any day of the week.

Because we've all just come back from TYCA, I think the thing to do is to start out by talking about TYCA. Which sessions did you attend? What did you get the most out of? What do you plan to use from what you learned at the conference?

Sunday, February 20, 2005


Welcome to Composition Southeast, a blog for writing teachers.