Resources for Teachers of Writing

Nedra ReynoldsNedra Reynolds is Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Rhode Island, where she works with writers at all levels of the undergraduate curriculum and emphasizes revision, rhetorical savvy, attribution, processes, and portfolios. She trains secondary education students and graduate teaching assistants to teach writing, and she directed the College Writing Program at URI from 2002-2008. She is the author of Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004) as well as Portfolio Keeping: A Guide for Students, and Portfolio Teaching: A Guide for Instructors (2nd editions, Bedford St. Martin’s 2006). She co-edits The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Writing (5th, 6th, and 7th editions). Her articles have appeared in Rhetoric Review, Journal of Advanced Composition, College Composition and Communication, Writing Program Administration, Pedagogy and a number of edited collections.

The Time Squeeze in the Teaching of Writing

posted: 4.16.14 by Nedra Reynolds

I find myself to be increasingly frustrated with how short semesters have become.  Where does the time go?  If writers need time, ownership, and response (Atwell), I can provide ownership and response, but I can’t give them much by way of time when so many cultural forces are conspiring to eat away at it. 

For whatever set of reasons, a single semester feels like less time than it used to. As time appears to speed up, our field has also expanded with new sub-specialties or areas of interest as our institutions have also layered on the expectations. Genre studies requires more time for learners than “the modes” did (am I right?); multimodal composing requires more time than using a pen and paper (at least it does for me!); and assessment mandates require more time than simply submitting grade sheets. Writing classes are teaching information literacy as well as civic engagement, document design as well as visual rhetoric, rhetorical appeals as well as transferable skills.

Somewhere within this crowded list, we need to find time to coach students on how to give constructive reviews to other writers, how to follow the documentation style of one or more fields, how to use effectively a number of tools or to navigate different online environments that support the work of writing.

Realistically, is there time for all that we are expecting from one writing class?  And despite a few exceptions, most colleges and universities are still expecting a single (usually required) course to prepare writers for a range of academic and public writing situations.  It. Can’t. Be. All. That.

All we can give student writers is practice. Practice might lead to a finished product, and it might not. I’d like for my students to be able to recognize the difference between something they have to finish (for a grade) and something they can choose to finish (for their growth as a writer).

I hope Bits readers will weigh in with suggestions (or objections), but I’m wondering if I could try a writing course that does NOT culminate in “finished” or final products. I’m wondering if we should return to the daily theme, for cryin’ out loud!

If I gave students prompts for each and every class meeting and gave them, say, 30 minutes out of 75 to write responses, that would provide them with about 15 hours of practice. From the writing I’m seeing this semester, and the poor attendance and the exhausted bodies in my classroom, those 15 hours of writing workouts–time that I know they are giving to their own writing–might be twice as much as they are able to carve out on their own.  Fifteen dedicated hours of time in the mental gym might be far more valuable to these time-stressed learners than the so-called freedom to “choose your own topic.” (The ancients aren’t a bad model, after all, and my more advanced rhetoric students love the progymnasmata.)

Years ago, the current-traditional emphasis on weekly themes–characterized mostly by correctness–became demonized because studies of professional writers illustrated that “real” writers just didn’t work that way. (I suspect, however, that a study of bloggers might suggest that model has changed.)  Professional writers depended upon revision and didn’t confuse revision with editing or edit prematurely; through time and process, they came to own their topics–and along the way, discover the genre appropriate for the topic. But what if that discovery process takes weeks and weeks?  That’s the crucial difference between professional writers and student writers:  the commodity of time.

In any case, my students are having trouble with writing academic arguments this semester—more than in semesters past, I think.  I suspect that the causes are multiple and complex, so in next month’s post, I will try to connect what new research is saying about our brains to implications for the teaching writing.

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Policies as Pedagogy?

posted: 2.26.14 by Nedra Reynolds

Since I’ve heard more than my share of grandmother excuses, I like what Traci Gardner had to say this week about her late work policy and how it’s going.  As I was reading her post, it struck me that we usually don’t see the making of a policy (so close to police) as either rhetorical or pedagogical work, but when the policies and guidelines we write (and revise, and revise again) enable our students’ best learning, I do think that they qualify as sound pedagogical practice.

When I first started teaching, I was surprised how much care and thought went into something as simple as, say, an attendance policy. No matter how much we may want to restrict any or all absences, an instructor’s or program’s attendance policy cannot contradict what the college or university says about sanctioned events or religious observance. So in our case, a phrase near the end of our standard attendance policy (“Generally speaking”) tries to give room for exceptions–because policies are absolutely necessary but should also be flexible. Traci’s post illustrates that veteran teachers keep adjusting their policies for clarity and fairness and to maintain standards even when accidents and illness and tragedies and emergencies intervene with the work of the course.

For small, workshop-based classes that depend on collaboration–whether that’s partnered peer review or the small-group design of a brochure–attendance is crucial, and an attendance policy becomes one way to convey to students the kind of class they have joined and what the values and expectations are. For example, writing-intensive or workshop-style classes rarely have lecture notes or quizzes that can be reproduced or made up, so the attendance policy can emphasize or reinforce the goals and structure of the course, which may not be what some students expect.

Sometimes new or adjusted policies become necessary when the curriculum changes. For example, when our department made the shift to portfolio-based teaching and assessment several years ago, we didn’t anticipate one particular wrinkle:  in our plan to give students plenty of practice runs before opening night, so to speak, we lowered the weight of several projects to 5 or 10% of the final grade; we evaluated drafts for “process and potential” in keeping writers focused on a final portfolio. But some students figured maybe they would just skip doing one or two of those projects and take the zero–and still pass the course!  When we became aware of this line of thinking, we added two passages in the standard syllabus that indicate the necessity of submitting every project by the due date in order to pass the course.

Policy shifts are also necessary, of course, as technologies change and our dependence upon them increases. I’ll admit that I had a policy of no phones or electronic devices for a few semesters, and I have seen the policy statements of others that threaten to take phones away or kick students out of class for having them out. Stories circulate around the campus of instructors having all students turn off their phones and then place them on the teacher’s desk, out of reach.

These days, however, I use both my phone and a laptop in most of my classes, so I can hardly ban them!  This year my policy on “Courtesy and Civility” says this (among other things):  You may use your phone or other electronic device when invited to do so. DO NOT text or check social media sites during class. If you are caught texting, tweeting, Facebooking, shopping, or playing a game in class, you will be asked to leave and will be given an unexcused absence. While it may sound like I’m taking a tough stance, I haven’t yet asked anyone to leave, and I probably won’t.  I have remarked, “I see that phone,” to a student who was paying attention to a screen rather than to a class discussion, and I will continue to call them out for being distracted, or I will ask them to close screens when something or someone deserves our undivided attention.  I also suspect that my policy in the fall will have different language or a lighter tone.

Since policies are necessary, it helps if they can be flexible enough to reinforce our pedagogical goals.  Because writing policies requires a keen awareness of appropriateness, maybe we should ask students to write them along with us!  I know that some students sympathize with the “no phones” principle; I have heard some students say that it can be a relief for them to unplug.  They get tired of being “on” all the time, so they might welcome the chance to contribute to a course policy about electronics.  Any time that policies enhance opportunities for learning, they are worth writing well, revising regularly, and including others in the process.

[Photo by Farm 8 from Flickr]

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An Open House Instead

posted: 1.30.14 by Nedra Reynolds

Beginnings are important, including the kickoff to a new semester. Typically, as a new semester begins here, the 50+ instructors who teach WRT courses in our department all gather for a pre-semester meeting.  There is often ho-hum information to disseminate (“apply for your new parking permit” and the like), but we try to put that in a packet and use the time together to talk about teaching strategies or successes.  Last January, for example, we collected feedback about the final portfolios for our first-year writing classes and tried to sharpen a couple of learning outcomes; we also viewed a demonstration on how to manage online peer review.

It’s hugely rewarding to gather; I believe that more and more.  When Cheryl Glenn came to our Welcome Back meeting in the fall, the room was all abuzz, and that hum lasted for days.  I’m also mindful, however, that coming to campus involves a time and travel commitment that some of our instructors may find a bit burdensome.  The low wages our dedicated adjuncts earn do not include mileage allowances!  So I want the trip they make to be worthwhile.

In professional development, just as in my teaching, I’m always looking for ways to mix things up, striking a balance between routine and variety.  I want to keep things lively and not always have a meeting where announcements are followed by a group task, followed by reporting out, followed by a demonstration of some new tool or technology, followed by Q & A.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but last week, we had an Open House instead, and it seems to have been a huge hit!

People dropped in for thirty minutes or two hours; they chatted and ate and sat in small groups here and there along our corridor and in our main office, faculty offices, production lab, and seminar room. A few brought their laptops and huddled together to talk about assignments.  Others simply roamed and chatted, and we all ate (and ate!) baked goods, followed by pizza.

We had our fabulous undergraduate lab monitors on hand to help them begin a new “basic competencies” course for our campus’ course management system (Sakai).  Rather than having everyone at their own (isolated) station, we invited them all to come and hang out together while they started the process.  The lack of a formal program might not always be the way to go for professional development, but our Open House was an option we will try again.  Happy Winter semester, everyone!

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Online Support Networks for Writers

posted: 11.15.13 by Nedra Reynolds

Leaves are flying off the trees, and darkness descends in the late afternoon, so it must be November.  A good month for NaNoWriMo!  Or maybe AcWriMo!  Which inspirational online support network is right for you?

Write-with-an-online-community movements have been growing apace and reaching out to a wider variety of writers.  NaNoWriMo is entering its 14th year and had 341,375 participants during 2012:  http://nanowrimo.org.  In its relatively brief history as a movement, it has expanded into both a youth-writers’ version and a “camp” in July.  With a presence on at least five popular social media sites, NaNoWriMo offers “online support, tracking tools, and a hard deadline.” There are several features on the site, including an online store (it’s a non-profit, after all), where corporate sponsors and donors are identified and thanked.  But by far, the most important feature for most participants will be the Forums.  I counted 59 different chat rooms for writers to join, ranging from genres (fanfiction, adventure, chick lit) to craft (plot doctoring) to age groups (teen writers or 50+ or “newbies”).

With its slogan of “The world needs your novel,” NaNoWriMo.org has been very busy already this month.  When I visited the site on November 1 at noon, 62,793 users were online.  Just 15 minutes later, the number had jumped to 106,535.  On November 3 in the afternoon, there were 185,742 users online. For those who are trying to produce an ambitious number of words (50,000 in one month) and figuring out plot, character, and pacing as they go (many of them probably first-time novelists), the ability to get advice or encouragement–without leaving the chair–is priceless.

In my experience as a part-time writer, writing requires a huge amount of production for a tiny amount of yield. I have shared with my students that for a 180-page dissertation, I wrote at least 280 more pages that never made it into the final version.  In fact, when I am writing almost anything that others will read, I write ABOUT IT first, and I keep adding to two files as I go:  one for readers, of course, but also one for me, the file that keeps me moving towards the goal of a finished piece for readers.  The “Writing About What I’m Writing” file is always much longer than the actual piece.  This is where NaNoWriMo can come in:  if you need to write about your writing in order to keep writing, the Forums seem like a perfect way to write about writing your novel before you get back to writing the novel.  These dozens of Forums–little Burkean parlors–are ideal for writers who may not have established a process or pattern, or who don’t have a writing group at the local library.  I also appreciate the amount of time that moderators of these forums put in, so that everyone feels welcome and encouraged.

This year, one of these forums on NaNoWriMo–interestingly, housed under “Rebels”–is aimed at those writers who are not working on novels, but instead, non-fiction projects like academic articles.  A new offshoot, AcWriMo shows that these writing marathons are not just for novels anymore.  Hosted by PhD2Published, AcWriMo has 6 basic rules and ambassadors to help.

Information about AcWriMo has made the rounds on Facebook and other social media sites where academic writers might be lurking, and it uses Twitter as the support network.  There’s a Google Docs sign-up sheet (called the Accountability Sheet), which has over 750 participants, and I was struck to see how many people who had signed up identified the pomodoro method to measure their commitment or keep track of their writing sessions.

I’m interested in the popularity of these movements and the ways in which they marshal social media and the web to offer encouragement, support, and tips for writers, whatever they’re working on and whatever their goals are.  What do you think, Bits readers, about why these movements are growing in popularity?  Are you participating in NaNoWriMo or AcWriMo?

[Photo Courtesy of National Novel Writing Month]

 

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Another Resource for Faculty: Book Reps

posted: 10.18.13 by Nedra Reynolds

In my own office on a campus where I’ve worked for 20+ years, I’ve met and talked with a number of “book reps,” which is by now a rather old-fashioned term.  Also, in all of my travels to talk about writing portfolios, I’ve met even more book reps:  they make many of the arrangements, pick me up at my hotel, transport me to the campus and the right room, and usually stay for my sessions, where it’s easy to tell that they have built relationships with the folks in the room. 

I tend to believe that the relationship between faculty and publishing reps should be deeper and more professional than “you are the seller and I am the buyer.”  Such an attitude makes faculty resistant to communicating with sales representatives and to helping them figure out what’s best for that program–even when what’s best for that program is a product from a different company.  So I want to suggest to faculty that a publisher’s reps are, possibly and ideally, a good resource for you and your teaching; at the same time, I want to suggest to reps how they might contribute to a positive working partnership.

First, for faculty:  Your rep may have a huge territory and probably represents products and services for several fields in the humanities as well as in the social sciences and natural sciences.  So they are really busy, too, and they have pressures on them that you probably don’t realize.  Given the squeeze on academic publishing in recent years, your rep is probably being asked to do more for less, as most of us are. Your rep attends annual meetings, where she is asked to learn about all the new materials. Most reps are asked to learn about their books and disciplines by reading prefaces and chapters of books, and some are even required to be “certified” on media products. True, your rep is not necessarily an “expert” in your field, but they are often very well educated and trained.  A good rep has been paying close attention to higher education for a number of years and will be able to ask you good questions about your learning objectives for a course and be able to tell you what faculty on other campuses are doing.  A good rep will have suggestions or offer solutions and will be willing to find out what they don’t know. Give them a chance to demonstrate what they can do for you or your students!

And for reps: Thanks for emailing beforehand to make an appointment if you know ahead of time that you’re going to be on my campus.  It’s okay if you drop in during my office hours unannounced, but in that case, I’m likely to be distracted when we meet. If you do drop in, thanks for asking if it’s a good time, or if you should come back in an hour or next week or next month.  I know your time is valuable, too, and I want to give you my full attention. And I appreciate it when you have obviously reviewed what courses we offer and who teaches them, and you know what textbooks or materials we already use.  If you took notes from our last meeting and have them available, all the better.

Faculty are keenly aware of the cost of textbooks as well as shipping.  So I might not be speaking for all of us, but I don’t really want unsolicited desk copies anymore.  Wait until we ask to see something or until you know we are searching for a new product.  Timing and opportunity are critical, and just-in-time information is more powerful than an abundance of it.  Similarly, if you want to demonstrate an online product, wait until it’s ready.  I know it’s very difficult to get permission to use actual student work, but if the demos could be populated with “pretend” students and their work, it is so much easier for faculty to judge how the program works in a real situation.  An unpopulated site cannot possibly represent how an actual class might use it.

Finally, if we are considering your product, we will be happy to share with you our criteria and how decisions are made.  If we don’t choose your product, it’s truly not personal and we make the best decision we can make for our program, students, and goals. Some committees or individuals might be happy to communicate with you what they chose and why—what features in particular cinched the deal—but the last thing that some faculty want to do is to re-hash the decision with you or try to explain why and how the choice was made.  In my experience, textbook or software selections are very hard work, often with fairly high stakes, and many of us are just glad when it’s over.  When a committee has worked hard for weeks, it’s frustrating to face the rep who can’t take no for an answer.

But most reps rock.  Truly.  And if faculty take advantage of their knowledge and training, and help them to understand the new directions in our fields, the relationship works for everyone.

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In Praise of Paper

posted: 9.18.13 by Nedra Reynolds

For a few years now, the start of the semester has signaled a time to try a new tool or a different technology.  To inaugurate a new term, I have adopted new-to-me options on Sakai, have ordered software packages from publishing companies, or have experimented with apps and Web 2.0 sites to engage students.  I have tried a number of online peer review tools, as I’ve written about before here on Bits.

I have also tried, besides Sakai, two or three other course management systems and, within those, have appreciated functions ranging from assignments to bulletin boards, reminders or announcements, as well as the gradebook features.  I cannot imagine ever teaching again without a laptop or iPad:  to project slides, show video clips, or share something from a webpage. I adore Evernote™ and any system that syncs across my various devices.  When I bought a Kindle™ in 2008, I received a message thanking me for being an “early adopter,” and I spent a couple of years reading only digital books, delighting in the immediacy of the downloads and in the convenience for travel.  This is all just to say that I’m no Luddite.  In fact, I can’t imagine how any professional, especially in higher education, could avoid or resist all of the technologies that are now embedded into our daily working lives.

But as this semester begins, my new/old tool is paper.  Pen and paper.  More often.  Writing by hand, using strokes instead of clicks and taps.  Reading real books, the kind with spines and ink.  And using lots of post-it notes!  In different colors!

In all-digital, all-the-time experience, there was something missing for me; I missed the smell of pages and the sound of turning them.  I did not seem to enacting literacy or making anything.  There’s a physical connection between bodies and the wood pulp or metal or plastic that makes up the (old-fashioned) tools of writing–one that digital production cannot mimic or replace.  Sometimes my brain just needs the slower pace of a pen on paper or the feel of turning pages to absorb the meaning.

And this move has been prompted in part by my students, who usually ask for paper!  Whenever I poll them–“do you want the syllabus as a handout?”–the overwhelming response is YES.  They like getting the assignments on paper, and I still (occasionally) collect in-class writing on pages with messy spiral edges.

I do not think digital natives have embraced electronic environments the way some educators assume they have.  While they are at home with social media and games, my guess is that they prefer textbooks and syllabi and assignments in a tangible, tactile form–and I completely understand how learners might feel more in command of material when they have a highlighter in their hands and pages to turn.

So to kick off Fall 2013, I did some consumer-driven online research (of course!) and then treated myself to some new notebooks, highly recommended by paper aficionados.  (I didn’t buy any new pens because I have at least 49 of them around the house anyway—not to mention all those at the office and in the car and hiding in backpacks).  But for the first time in some years, I am writing more with a pen and paper, and all of my reading for pleasure recently has been magazines that come in the mail or books that I purchased at an independent neighborhood bookstore.

I will still get excited to see an app that promises to make my teaching life “easier” or keep me more organized, but I still love paper.

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Revisiting Reflection: Take 2 on Defining Reflective Writing

posted: 8.14.13 by Nedra Reynolds

As I prepare for a couple of professional development workshops coming up soon, I’m revisiting a question that has been bugging me for years:  what exactly do we mean by reflective writing?  I’ve taken one stab at this thorny question in a previous post, but I don’t think I got very far with it.

By now, most of us take reflective learning and reflective teaching for granted. Donald Schon and Kathleen Yancey and many others have convinced composition instructors to build teaching practices on the foundation of reflection.  While I feel pretty confident about my ability to reflect, I have less confidence about what my expectations are when I ask others to reflect (in writing).  As I face a room full of earnest teachers interested in incorporating more reflection into the classes they teach, how will I respond when someone (inevitably) says, “What exactly do you mean by reflective writing?”

Hmmm.  Maybe I’ll say, “Good question”!  And then I’ll try to distinguish between reflection (as an act or as a habit of mind) and reflective writing, which is . . . what exactly?  That’s where I’m stuck.  I have plenty of questions of my own:  “How do we recognize reflective writing when we see it?  If students ask about expectations for their reflective writing, what do our rubrics say?  How do we describe exemplary, competent, or `still developing’ examples of reflective writing?”

I’m a firm believer that reflection does not have to involve writing.  I think that people can be thoughtful, contemplative, and analytical about their own choices, learning, or behaviors without an act of writing–or before, after, and during an act of writing.  Reflection might take place internally–in our minds and hearts–or in talking with others, or in the form of a poem, a video, or a drawing.

A quick survey of some of the composition textbooks on my shelf, all published quite recently, says that reflection is classified as a genre, but it is also treated under narrative.  The advice for students about writing a reflection includes using details, “telling a story,” making a point, and/or having a voice.  From this all-too-limited survey, which might suggest a need for further digging, I suspect that reflective writing–examples of reflection that are written–have evolved almost exclusively from or within a literary tradition or as part of the expressivist tendencies in our discipline.  But are these the only ways to write reflectively?  How can reflective writing be described or classified outside of or beyond narrative?  Other way of asking this might be, is narrative the only way to engage in reflective writing?

We want students to tangle with contradictions (teach the conflicts!), so maybe it would be productive to ask for narrative reflection in writing classes that have emphasized argument, academic discourse, scientific writing, technical writing, and/or multi-modal texts. But then again, helping students to do their best work in writing reflectively might mean that an assignment or rubric should “match up” with the forms of writing the class has focused on.  If you replace details with evidence, for example, reflective writing can be categorized as argument, where students need to support a claim.  Engineering majors are going to grasp the assignment more quickly if you call it “analysis” rather than reflection, and students who have practiced the scientific method will appreciate that they should dig into the data in order to make connections between their learning and the work of the class.

The importance of reflection in the teaching of writing, particularly in portfolio-based courses, is indisputable.  But there is still considerable work to be done, in my view, to define reflective writing.  I’ll keep thinking!

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Off to Production: Portfolio Teaching Third Edition

posted: 7.19.13 by Nedra Reynolds

I’m pleased to report that the third edition of Portfolio Teaching: A Guide for Instructors is in production and will be available in November.  A new resource for portfolio teachers and advisors, PT 3e targets those who are guiding portfolio keepers in all types of learning situations.

My co-author Elizabeth Davis of the University of Georgia has made significant contributions to this new edition based on her experience coordinating an interdisciplinary writing certificate program and her work with the Inter/National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio ResearchWe have truly enjoyed working together on this project and can’t wait to hear what Bits readers and others think about this new edition.

What remains at the heart of Portfolio Teaching is the emphasis on choice, variety, and reflection, the three-legged foundation of portfolio practice.  However, we tried to recognize the (expanding) role of portfolios within programs that are not writing-intensive and within assessment cultures that vary.  We tried to address how to support portfolio production across a range of disciplines or in non-academic settings.  Internship supervisors and experiential learning mentors, for example, need to help support portfolio keepers, too.

When I wrote the first edition, in the late 1990s, I mostly shared my experience as a classroom teacher using portfolios in composition classes to emphasize the rhetorical situation of assessment and to give students time to develop their work before it was evaluated.  Over the last dozen years or more, teacher-graded classroom portfolios–especially of the paper variety–have been “upgraded” to involve learning outside of the classroom as well as design and navigation.  It’s still an exciting time for portfolios!

While this edition still has chapters on portfolios in writing courses, there are also new chapters on capstone courses, internships, and portfolios for professional development and lifelong learning.  We assume that more and more portfolio teachers–in the broadest sense–are part of an assessment coalition that struggles with best practices, including the design of rubrics and ways to incorporate reflection.  New features include a case study of one portfolio keeper in a technical communication course and a set of FAQs that most users will find valuable.  The annotated bibliography is full of new resources that track the trends in electronic portfolios for multiple purposes.  Please ask your book rep for a desk copy this fall, and let Elizabeth and I know what you think!

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Concept Maps as Heuristic

posted: 6.19.13 by Nedra Reynolds

The best resources for writing teachers are students themselves, and learning from my students is my favorite part of teaching. I got the idea to assign concept maps to my undergraduate students after one of my graduate students developed one for his dissertation; we both realized what a huge impact the map had on his thinking process as well on as my reading experience and the reading experiences of his other committee members. 

Concept maps are time-consuming to develop but fascinating to unpack, and it’s become one of my favorite assignments for classes that read and discuss theory or big ideas.  The process of creating them—even if they aren’t graded—is worth the class time because students need to make so many decisions (content as well as presentation) and most importantly, dive into the relationships between or among ideas—relationships of different degrees or depth.  Representing those relationships to readers or viewers becomes a terrific exercise in visual rhetoric.

Here’s the concept map that Matthew Ortoleva created and introduced to readers in his 2010 dissertation–and what I shared with my WRT 490 students to get them started on their own concept maps:

 

 

What I appreciate about Matt’s document is that it conveys a lot in one page (and just over 100 words).  It means something more or different, of course, for those who are also reading the (multiple!) accompanying pages, but even as stand-alone, the main ideas of the project come through.

Students dissected this map together:  what do the rectangles mean, the broken lines, the lines without arrows?  Why are there different fonts, both in size and style?  Most importantly, what does this visual accomplish when it is part of a lengthy document characterized mostly by words?  What work does this visual representation do and how?

When we started the concept map project in my 400-level rhetoric class, we had read and discussed eight scholarly articles on audience, and their job was to create (in groups of 4 or 5) a concept map that their fellow students could use to study for the final exam. I expected these maps to be their study guides and a record of what they had learned or figured out about audience, but my delightful discovery was the concept maps became a powerful heuristic.  Rather than a reference, the concept maps allowed students to make discoveries and connections they wouldn’t have made without this task.

I distributed poster-sized sheets of paper for them to use once they were ready, but I was surprised by how much they invested in making them and how interesting some of their discussions were, like if they should include a legend or how they might use a dominant metaphor.  (And as a footnote, I was also struck by how much they relied upon pencils and pens and papers to make these maps, not a single group choosing to create it with electronic tools.)

Here’s just one of the concept maps that resulted:

In the two classes where I’ve tried concept maps, the variety has been amazing, confirming for me that there are many paths through the same material, and all of them are interesting.

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Criminal Commentary

posted: 5.16.13 by Nedra Reynolds

If there were such a thing as pedagogical malpractice, I would be filing charges against an instructor (not one I supervise) who sent me a sample of the student writing produced in her courses.  Her motive was to share with some leaders on our campus what she considers to be “the horrible state of students’ writing today” and to share what she’s up against as someone who gives and evaluates writing assignments.

I couldn’t possibly be shocked by the students’ writing–not because I have “seen it all before” (as she assumes in her cover note), but because her markings have completely obliterated the original prose.

I do realize that not everyone who is hired to teach (writing) has the advantages of training, support, or professional development.  I am privileged to have been surrounded by colleagues who take teaching so seriously and who are dedicated to best practices informed by research that only a few people have the resources to conduct.  I’m well aware, too, of the conditions under which some instructors work:  pitiful wages and long hours and isolation from a community of scholars.  Most instructors do a superb job under tough circumstances.

But seeing what this instructor is doing to her students–in the name of teaching writing–makes me sick.  Her markings say, of course, more about HER than they do about students today.  Still, I worry.  To me, this is scary stuff in a time when we are trying to increase retention and support students who come to college from different communities, with diverse languages.

I get like this–distressed about how little progress we seem to have made despite leaps and bounds of change in the political status of rhetoric and composition studies.  (See, for example, this column from 2011:  http://blogs.bedfordstmartins.com/bits/research/the-long-slow-revolution-or-what%E2%80%99s-taking-so-long/nreynolds/

When I think that Nancy Sommers “Responding to Student Writing” is now 31 years old, I wonder how far we have come in getting the message out about, for example, contradictory feedback, where students can’t tell if they are supposed to “do more research” or fix the verb tenses.  Sure, composition studies has endowed professorships and more journals, but how well have we communicated to all instructors of writing that over-commentary is not only a waste of time but also can be a form of intellectual assault?

Should I dismiss this as the work of a psycho?  Are these samples extraordinary in your experience, Bits readers?  What can we do on our campuses to reach out to instructors who lack training and to students who are “victims” of this kind of treatment?

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