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.