It’s hard to remember sometimes that I actually have my own life, my own interests outside of sitting in hospitals and nursing homes—the activity that has dominated the last month for me. I had conferences with students this week and it felt good to get back to being a different sort of care provider. Maybe it’s just that I’m in a generous mood, but the professional and technical writing class I’ve had this semester has been one of the best of my career. People are engaged and involved for the most part, and have picked projects that have some relevance to their career paths. That always makes a difference. Although Krista has taught a unit for the past month so that I could tend to my mother, I still think of them as my class.

One thing that has really made this class click is the use of more technology—I used google docs for the first time with great success, and Krista has taught the instructions module using wikis. I am a firm believer in technology in the classroom, and this has been effective both as a way of presenting material and concepts, but also in just plain getting the job done. Being separated by several states has not made me lose touch with the class at all. It may have its dark side, but I really do think that technology is mostly good.

In the shower this morning, it dawned on me that at the core I really believe that technology has the ability to tell us more about the world. The danger, ultimately, though is losing sight of the world part of that equation. Fantasy has its uses, but in the end, reality is what matters.

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Misfires in Technical Communication

Is this a misfire or not? Most news stories seem to think so.

Disastrous results in political popularity polls have forced Sarkozy to radically change his public image. His luxury romantic getaways with Carla Bruni to the Egyptian pyramids and exotic Jordan have deeply damaged Sarkozy’s reputation among French voters. Confidence in the politician and his policies has fallen to 49 percent, and 63 percent disapprove of his very public show of his private life.

An even more bitter pill for Sarkozy to swallow, perhaps, is the fact that France’s prime minister, Francois Fillon, dubbed “Mister Nobody” for his bland political style, has surpassed him in popularity polls.

Too bad I didn’t discover this until after I had used the much older “Jelly belly” memo story the first day of class. However, I still think that the recent Gizmodogate controversy was perhaps the best example of shifting standards in proper behavior for communicating in public. I did find that in time to use it.

Sentence of the year

antichrist.jpg David Redfern/Retna LTD.

Dion is the Antichrist of the indie sensibility, an overemoting schmaltz-bot who has somehow managed to convert the ethos of Wal-Mart into sine waves and broadcast them, at kidney-rupturingly high volume, directly into our internal soulPods.

Sam Anderson

This is one of the finest sentences I’ve read this year. But embracing the bile, there are some fine theoretical points to be made:

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Becoming Authority

When I first taught first year writing in Arkansas, I took a cue from my literature background and required the students to write a bibliographic essay in order to establish the distinction between research and opinion. I expressly forbade offering excessive opinion about their sources; I wanted them to place the sources into some relationship with one another. The results were mixed. I got a lot of opinions.

I changed my approach just a bit this time. One of my grad instructors in Minnesota last year required an annotated bibliography and I was confused—I wrote a bibliographic essay instead, and was forced to revise it to fit the alternate form. It dawned on me that an annotated bibliography is a completely different animal that is noticeably easier to write than a bibliographic essay. No relationships are required; an annotated bibliography is simply a string of summaries. When we organize things, opinions seem to be the requisite glue to hold things together. I could more easily eliminate the opinions by eliminating the creative possibilities inherent in structure.

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Question Authority

I’ll be collecting the final portfolios for my first year writing class next Tuesday. I pretty much know what to expect, because I have held conferences and reviewed drafts from the 17 survivors (out of an initial class size of 24). It’s been a long time since I’ve taught first-year writing, and I did it differently this time. I think it worked out reasonably well. I taught it with an emphasis on visual rhetoric initially, but I did not allow that to constrain the student’s topic choices.

The results in most ways were predictable— no one chose to write about visual topics. Most wrote about the same old canned topics that first year students think it will be easiest to write about. However, they seemed to write about them in a much more inquisitive and rebellious fashion. Their analyses seemed deeper than usual, and I think that the structure of the class afforded that. Most wrote with an intensely critical eye toward the reliability of their sources. I’m going to try to write about the choices I made in teaching this class this time, with the hope that if I get to do it again I can improve. The class was a big divergence from ways I’ve done it before—I granted less freedom, asked for more output, and generally got it. There was less stumbling on the way to the goal of their final research papers.

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Affective Education (2)

I’m teaching excerpts from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as the opening text in my freshmen comp class this time around. I’ve had a love/hate relationship going with that book for a long time, and one of the points I wanted to raise in class was that not everyone agrees about the relative merits of this sort of approach to documentary. I put up a series of clips edited from To Render A Life (interviews from a variety of people describing how they reacted to the book) in the online class shell. Reactions from reasonably smart people —including Jonathan Yardley of the NY Times, who announced that the book was “horribly overwritten” and that he “just didn’t get what Agee was up to.” As my mentor R. Paul Yoder used to say, “sometimes confusion is the appropriate response.” But one of my favorite moments is Robert Coles preaching the gospel of Agee:

How can we really understand other people, we ask one another. Can the rich ever understand the poor? How does one cut through the impasse of a possession, of something that’s printed, and reach across to you in some way that makes us part of one another’s lives. How does one render a life so that you don’t just take it as a book?

Tomorrow, we’ll be focusing on Agee’s text. I started out with reactions to the text, both the reverent ones, and the ones that view it as horrendously narcissistic. I also dealt with the complex structure of the text, composed more like a series of songs or an opera than a book clearly about three tenant families. We’ll look at it as a book tomorrow. Then Thursday, I want to introduce the larger issue raised by Agee (and Coles)— how can we make it real. This issue is nicely taken up in an MLA formatted research paper (the skill I’m supposed to teach) by Natalie Friedman, “How to Make Your Students Cry: Lessons in Atrocity, Pedagogy, and Heightened Emotion.”

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An Afternoon at the Improv

Things got off to a rough start today. I had dutifully prepared my syllabus and a 45 slide keynote presentation to work from, and made the last minute checks of the roster and room assignments last night about midnight. When I got to the room at 1pm today, there were a lot of students waiting for a different class; I started setting up, nonplused.

Then the other teacher arrived. I checked the room assignments, and mine had been changed—to a non-existent room torn down over the summer. I assumed, then, that I had been reassigned to the mystery computer lab I hadn’t bothered to locate/visit yet. I stationed some of the students from my upcoming class outside the door of the room, and climbed the flights in search of the new room. Found it, and by some miracle most of the students had located it too. I then ran back up the stairs to collect the rest of them and get started.

The room was like a long hallway. I really had to shout to reach the end of it. Computers, yes—but the projector wasn’t hooked up, and there was no screen. Even if it had been working, the back row would have needed binoculars to see it. I fiddled for about two or three minutes, sweating profusely in the 90 degree room, and then just shut down all the hardware and improvised. I had planned a 25 minute film, an interviewing activity, and covering the syllabus. I accomplished everything but the film, though I am still hoarse from the unintended monologue. People seemed to like it okay. Next time, I’d prefer to do my act without the wrangling or the sweating.

Shopping Lists

Further thoughts on the Trimbur Carnival.

I teach with lists, not shopping lists, but rather lists in general as a means of understanding the difference between form and content. Unlike Trimbur’s “student-centered” approach of simply directing the students to a text and asking them what they think, my exercise is carefully framed. I don’t explore “how to write a list.” I explore how to avoid writing a list.

First framing question: “How many people in this classroom read the telephone book for fun?” Then, I open discussion of the reasons why/methods for using a directory list such as a phone book. The ultimate resolution is generally to agree that lists are useful if you know what you are looking for, and much less so if you are looking for stimulation—though sometimes they make an effective brainstorming tool. The arc (on the first day of class) is to work towards interviewing a classmate and then reporting the findings in an “introduction memo” which the rest of the class might find interesting. Using lists as a gateway allows me to get them to not just spit out a boring set of facts in a form that follows a typical questionnaire—to look more deeply for patterns, motifs, and organizing strategies to introduce a person without being boring.

During the second class, the students swap papers and read memos totally unrelated to them. They read another person’s introduction of a third person. We try to examine just how the piece of writing has been composed and make judgements on how effective this particular effort to avoid presenting a list has been.

Later, during the unit on composing instructions, we discuss the parameters for effective lists, such as chunking instruction groups together and optimizing their length. Visual elements are involved as well: How should a list be placed on a page so that people can follow it effectively? At no time have I had a student complain about the simplicity or relevance of lists (grocery or otherwise) in a class in technical communication, because my forays into lists are always carefully framed. But this is of course, a special case of “writing studies”.” I really liked Jenny’s brainstorming on just what “writing studies” might do:

– emphasize an historical understanding of how certain genres, expectations, and literacy customs came to form in the ways that they have

– help students to understand the connections between cultural ideology and literacy (the English-only debates, for example)

– provide a knowledge of developing media and the cultural changes that such media are creating (think Web 2.0)

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