There has been a good bit of discussion lately about the recent piece in CCC about revamping first year composition as an introduction to writing studies, but I’ve actually been thinking about another piece in the same issue takes up the question, What are English majors for? The question comes at a good time for me, as we’ve been working on the revision our undergraduate curriculum for the last year or so, and it’s time to concretize the plans.
Much of our curriuclum revision stems from the experience of asking graduating English majors what they thought of the program and having them list a number of disconnected classes—“I took Shakespeare, Af-Am literature, a poetry class, etc.” There is little coherency and no sense of a trajectory that one takes through the program. To give the program more of a narrative arc we want to implement two seminar courses, one at the sophomore level and the second at the senior level—the idea is to create on- and off-ramps to the curriculum, an introduction to the major and a capstone experience.
Clearly, though, revising a curriculum in any significant way requires more than adding a couple of courses. In “What are English Majors For?” Thomas P. Miller and Brenda Jackson ask departments to transition from literary studies to literacy studies, opening paths for departments to focus on education, creative non fiction, media and other areas more relevant to students’ lives and the contemporary communications landscape. This makes good sense, and I hope that some of the changes we implement can move in these directions. Of course, local context is everything and the “let’s turn English into Communication Studies” approach is
likely surely to be a non-starter here. In fact, one of my biggest concerns is that we will rearrange deck chairs and not do much to transform what it means to be an English major.
You can see some of the reshuffling in the goals behind the new curriculum. Roughly, we’re thinking students should
- develop a sense of the historicity of literary studies (old school),
- practice writing and revision of print essays and other forms of expression (new school),
- have in-depth exposure to several exemplary authors (old school),
- have a sense of major literary genres (with some emphasis on narrative and poetry) and a strong grasp of one or more specific genres (old school),
- understand a number of approaches to literary texts and representation (old and new school),
- understand the relationships between texts and historical and cultural situations (old and new school), and
- recognize aesthetic dimensions of works under study and identify connections between literature and their personal lives (old and new school).
Ideally, the on- and off-ramp courses would be developed around these goals. The tricky part in thinking through a revision, though, is figuring out what to do with the courses one takes in the middle of the English major. Right now, requirements essentially spread courses out chronologically and geographically, so students must take at least one pre sixteenth-century British literature course, one twentieth-century course, and so on. It looks like we will loosen some of these requirements but keep the general focus on time and place as an organizing principle. The challenge, then, is to layer over these requirements some additional criteria that can create a sense of narrative and coherency while opening avenues for pursuing the larger curricular goals and arriving at more significant transformations.
My response is to think about ways that tagging might possibly be used to reshape some of the offerings and the help students create connections within the array of courses that meet their needs. So, a course might be tagged British, Poetry, Theory, and Gender, to name some possibilities. The hope is that this might add more flexibility to the traditional ways of organizing the middle areas of the curriculum—not just time and place. Ultimately, though, I’d like the tags to do more in terms of transforming the curriculum. Faculty could extend their course designs by layering new categories over the existing, and admittedly constraining, containers. I’m imagining tags like Composition, Media, Education, Studio, and so on that would indicate different learning emphases and teaching models.
The challenge would be to limit the number of tags/categories so that a coherency can derive among related courses. What number of tags would allow connections to form among six or eight courses taken during a career? How many tags would be too many? What tags are essential for conserving the traditional values of an English major? What tags are likely to open avenues for transformation of the curriculum?
I'm thinking about ongoing and upcoming curriculum revision efforts in our department and thought I'd get started by putting the course descriptions of all of our Fall offerings into a tag cloud--the cloud includes terms that occur ar least eight times in the compile descriptions. Interesting that the most frequently occuring term by far is class, followed by course. Not surprising because many descriptions have a phrase like "This course. . . ." Still, illuminating in some ways that the thought process and engagement terms don't bubble to the top much. Discussion has some weight. Thankfully more than quizzes. Here is the tag cloud
Play the two audio samples, and then see if you can line them up with the two soundscapes in the image. Bonus points for making a second connection with teaching practices.
Sound Sample 1: Sound Sample 2:
To get a better feel for the actor-network adaptation assignment to which I’ve been subjecting the students in the summer school class I’m teaching, I spent a few minutes trying to put together my own flatland map of some social stuff on campus. I went with a free association approach, spotting a lot of people wearing sunglasses in the morning and using that item as a kind of anchor-point for my collection. The people and other items that made it on to the grid are what struck me as I continued to observe individuals wearing glasses. Laying everything out in the grid, and then trying to create the connections between them is helpful for spotting inconsistencies and relationships—e.g. some professors carry computer bags/briefcases while some carry backpacks.
My next step in conducting the assignment, then, was to think about possible labels for the linkages between items. One thing that’s nice about the Cmap program is the way it asks for a label for the links between bubbles. This lends itself perfectly to the kind of connection/translation thinking that I see as a key to the actor-network approach. I took the blank labels and tried to find an interpretive term that describes the link. One question I have regarding the ANT approach and interpretation is the timing of putting in these kinds of labels. At the risk of over-distilling, at some level I think what Latour is saying is as simple as “just withhold judgment.” So, adding a label like between the items feels premature and leads to stereotyping. Still, it feels like the next step in making sense of the observation is to assign some meaning to the connection. Maybe it would be best to leave these labels blank or fill them in slowly while gathering more information.
The real challenge, though, with the assignment we are working on is the requirement to select songs to serve the function of the label. I guess this means I have another step to go in the translation process, so the premature labeling of the links may not be a problem after all. I have no idea, however, whether using songs for these spaces will be doable or what it might lead to.
I thought I'd open the window and let people peer in while I try to figure out how to construct an assignment for a summer school class that just got up and running. The task is to figure out how to translate some of the ideas behind actor-network theory into an assignment for a first year writing class. I'm working very much without a net here, and the pace of summer school means I've rolled out the assignment before knowing exactly how it will play out or before having everything about it conceptualized.
If you look at the assignment so far, you'll see that I've tried to adapt a playlist assignment into something a bit more social and networky. The playlist assignments work well, but generally I try to make a direct substitute with a familiar form--instead of a profile essay, give me a playlist about the same figure. I've decided to use the same paradigm, select and contextualize songs instead of writing a paper. I don't see any reason why it shouldn't translate, but there are some challenges:
Challenge one: I just don't know what these actor-network accounts are supposed to look like. Having never created such an account or taught the process of making one. To get a better idea of what is involved, I made a map of what such an account might touch on in terms of concepts under study. This is taken from my partial understanding of ANT gleaned from Bruno Latour's Reassembling the Social. I've started with the assignment, compose an account of something social, and then tried to offer some strategies that might translate into methodologies for the write a social account assignment. Some of them are reasonably straightforward and, I think, can be translated into specifics through the assignment--something like take a group, and then look at controversies, how boundaries relate to the group, what anti-groups say about the group. It seems like with things/objects or matters of concerns/ideas the process can work as well. One bit of confusion I have, though, relates to the use of the term actor to designate individuals. I sometimes sense that Latour applies the label, actor, to all kinds of entitites--a microscope, a pamphlet, a concept could all be actors. At other times, though, it seems as if the term agent really applies more to these entities that participate in the actor-network. I don't think this confusion will cause huge problems for the assignment, but I note it to help think through the concepts.
Challenge two: The mediators/links. My understanding is that what an account would really trace is not the landscape of groups, actors, things, or ideas, but the connections between all of these entities. I added these mediating links to the map and you can see it is getting pretty messy. Not really a problem, but it makes me realize that the account assignment needs another layer that will take it beyond the typical comfort level of first year writing assignments. Instead of asking writers to describe a group or a set of objects that help define a group, the assignment needs to ask them to trace the relationships between the group and its objects. The question becomes what makes up these links and how can one write about them. Here's where the assignment is likely to either take off or crash. I've asked writers to use the song selections of the playlist to represent these links. The idea is to identify a song that performs the function of the link between the two entities. In this space between the entities we'll see how possible it is for music to play a descriptive role, to create an account.
I have some concerns with the assignment. The actor-network conceptualizations may be so messy that it just makes it hard to figure out what one is supposed to do in the assignment. The logistics of identifying the entities may be hard to sort out. I've tried to borrow some ethnography starting points--go to a place, look at a group, examine an artifact--hopefully these will get students up and running with observations that can help them identify entities and connections. I'm also unsure about identifying songs that fill in the gaps between the entities. It's hard enough to make a good playlist when trying to find songs to represent a person, asking the songs to capture a process of translation between entities may be too much.
I'm eager for suggestions for tweaks to the assignment and will post updates with adjustments and when the first playlists come in.
From a piece called “The Domain of Creativity” I take this quote, "Many creative individuals have pointed out that in their work the formulation of a problem is more important than its solution . . . yet when measuring creative thinking processes, psychologists usually rely on problem solution, rather than problem formulation, as an index of creativity" (Csikszentmihalyi 138).
It strikes me that the same can be said of the way a good deal of writing instruction is conducted in college. Consider the assign, respond, evaluate movement of most writing tasks. Instructor assigns problem, student responds with solution (essay), and then instructor assesses the essay based on the coherency and acceptability of the solution—write an essay in which you take a position. . . . analyze the rhetorical dimensions of a text. . . . report on findings. . . . etc. . . . etc. . . .
The problem is this does little to inspire creative thinking or engage students. Csikxzentmihalyi, citing Getzels, outlines an alternative model that places problem solving and problem discovering on a continuum:
The model describes intellectual activity as taking place on a continuum between two poles: presented problems at one end and discovered problems at the other. A presented problems is one that is clearly formulate, has an accepted method of solutions, and has a generally agreed-upon solution. A puzzle, for example, presents the problem of assembling the pieces so as to form a picture; how to do it and when the task is complete are clear to everyone. A person confronted by a presented problem needs only to apply the accepted methods until the desired solution is achieved.
At the other end of the continuum is a discovered problem. Here instead of a clearly formulated task there is only vague unease and dimly felt emotional or intellectual tension. Because the problem itself has yet to be defined, there can be no agreed-upon method for resolving the tension. For the same reason, one cannot even imagine in advance what a “solution” might be. (138-9)
I’m eager to latch onto the model as I contemplate how far I can possibly stray from assigning projects composed with the written word in first year writing classes. Layer over the continuum model of problem solving and discovery this quote from Kristen Pierce:
Before this assignment, I had never thought of representing a song with one picture. The idea seemed almost impossible until I saw how to do it on PhotoShop. This is another program I took home and just mess around on sometimes when I'm bored. I never thought I could get a bunch of random pictures with completely separate meanings and put them together in a way that represents what I personally want. Especially because I am far from being artistic, I thought this project would be impossible at first. However, while I was researching and experimenting with random pictures, I would stumble upon something I could make work. I really liked the freedom of the assignment; it let me experiment with different ideas until I finally got to what I wanted to do.
Kristen was responding to a collage assignment that asked students to represent a song visually. In terms of open-ended assignments, I suppose this one is not that flexible. It lays out the goals or the problem to be solved pretty clearly—represent a song visually. I think the reason students found themselves in discovery-oriented experiences is two-fold: First, they were not working with the familiar mode of alphabetic text. Regardless of how strict the assignment parameters might be, the switch to an alternative medium meant “unease” and “tension” that had to be resolved.
Second, the technical literacies required a good deal of problem discovery. Our approach is studio-based, whereby we open up the software and start making stuff; I offer help as we go and composers discover all kinds of hurdles as they figure out how to make the program do what they want. Working with more familiar media, even with the non-alphabetic assignment might not have had the same effect, as Jessica Stinger points out:
I am a collage-freak. I have collages all over my room at home, my dorm here, and on things like binders, notebooks, and assignment notepads. Although the playlist collage came second, it was this one that really showed me the possibility of computer generated collage. While it was immediately frustrating not being able to manually use scissors and glue, I loved the undo button (which is sadly not an option in real life) and the opacity tool. Being able to layer pictures brought more meaning to the collage. Two or more images on top of one another added depth in a new dimension as the two could work together, showing similarities or provide stark contrast.
The final point to be made, however, is that the productive problem discovery facilitated by such assignments extends itself into domain expertise and discoveries that we might normally associate with tried and true methodologies. Students don’t just discover problems with visual expression or software, but new insights into the subject areas in which they are working. Consider Joanna Bell’s collage interpretation of “The Race” by Sharon Olds:
I love the poem "The Race". It is so powerful and dark...yet it possesses a quality of anxiety and a hint of happiness. I wanted to portray the speaker's feelings of helplessness in my collage. I wanted to place a plane between the woman and her father...the connecting vehicle that allows the daughter to reach her father. The speaker's actions at the airport emphasize her anxiety of not being to see her father before he dies. The hand represents the father reaching out to his daughter. It was difficult to play with the lighting of this collage. Some of the images were very bright and "sunny" almost. Others were dark and dreary. I like the presence of this light vs. dark opposition in this collage.
It’s a great poem, and you can hear a version of Olds reading the poem online. The point is that through working with the visual medium and engaging the sometimes frustrating problems that crop up from the challenge, students discover new ways of expressing ideas. Again, Joanna says it best:
I especially like the concept of having images represent certain aspects of a character's (or poem's) presence in literature. It was difficult learning how to work the Serif program at first, but with any new system, I know that you have to slowly learn the ins and outs of the program. Learning how to mask images was quite challenging for me, but this tool ended up being my most valuable one. Working on the collages allowed me to express myself in a whole new way. Instead of simply writing down prominent characteristics of Julian of Norwich, I could mold together images that I believed represented her persona. Instead of dissecting "The Race" and discussing its poetic elements, I could place images on a canvas that helped me portray the speaker's struggle to reach her father before he passes away. I love how a collage can truly bring literature to life. I love how a collage does not set boundaries for interpretation. I think that the collages actually encourage differing views
Alex has posted some thoughts on the recent Computers and Writing Conference and others have also offered some reflections, so I thought I’d toss two pennies of my own into the hat. The first coin represents what to me makes the conference and the community worthwhile. I don’t think it is just nostalgia—C&W was the first conference I attended as a graduate student some thirteen years ago. There really is a tighter-knit group and a different dynamic at C&W than I have found at other conferences. I think this may stem from the original outlaw ethos of the group. It’s hard to recognize, now that technology is so ubiquitous in the field of Rhetoric and Composition, but it used to be the case that the technologists in writing studies were the oddballs and outcasts. From the word processor to hypertext to electronic communities to online spaces the history of the group involves a lot of work on the margins that were opened up by the technologies of the day. The main point, though, is how this status created a sense of cohesion and shared purpose within the group: “I come to C&W because I don’t have to define my terms—everyone speaks my language.”
The nature of technology-related work has also shaped the community. There is a good deal of informal teaching, hand-holding, knowledge-sharing involved in learning to use technologies—witness the view/borrow source phenomenon of the early Web and of programming languages, FAQ collections, message forums. The knowledge-sharing/borrowing approach to tech learning, I think, carries over to the Computers and Writing conference. In some ways it colors the general attitudes of the participants; schooled in the technical training way, they bring these sensibilities to the conference. The conference also maintains a lot of the show-and-tell approach to scholarship that has been bled out of the more formalized and abstracted field of rhetoric and composition. People theorize, but they also share through example more frequently with less fear of being seen as un-intellectual.
There is also the wonderful fact that Computers and Writing is in many ways lead by its youth. From Daedalus to Kairos to today’s Web 2.0 many of the best developments in the field have been driven by junior faculty and especially by graduate students. Obviously these groups have been supported by more senior people and institutions, but there are (or have been) more opportunities for people new to the community to have a real shaping influence on the field. This dynamic is felt at the conference as well. When the community gets together it’s common to see a senior person under the tutelage of a young scholar who happens to know more about the subject than anyone else. And, conversely, lots of presentations feature young scholars showcasing their work and actually getting feedback from the field.
Alex asks what the conference might look like in twenty years and also reflects on the status of the field in the context of rhetoric and composition, so let me toss out my second penny as a partial response. I’m discouraged, honestly, by the way technology has been integrated into the larger field of rhetoric and composition. Some of this might just be a sense of loss that comes from no longer being as easily labeled as innovative or unique. I think, though, that this inability to be readily tagged reflects a larger trend that is disheartening. The trend is the professionalization (read academic gentrification and abstraction) of knowledge work. We’ve seen this in the larger field of rhetoric and composition as evidenced by publications in the major journals—see Fulkerson's and Trimbur’s ruminations on the field.
In rhetoric and composition things must be cited, lit-reviewed, and filtered through the usual venues to be given credence and welcomed into the field. My sense is that the computers and writing community used to be given more of a pass when it came to this requirement. In the early 90s as the Web was exploding, people would allow that the creation of a class Web site with student-generated online compositions was innovative. Again, the outlaw nature of computers and writing was helpful. The work was fringe enough that people outside of computers and writing might not bother to try to academicize it. They might not exactly embrace it, but they wouldn’t also try to add the controlling layer of intellectual abstraction that goes with traditional scholaship.
This may just be my own wishful thinking, but I believe there used to be more options for just concentrating on the learning and the teaching in computers and writing. Outlaw makers would make stuff. The rhetoric and composition community let the making happen, even acknowledged and valorized it in some ways by agreeing to leave it alone. Now I think it’s a lot harder to pitch the argument that one is doing quality work in computers and writing because one is making new things, creating heretofore unimagined opportunities for learning and writing. That is fine to do, still, but no longer enough to count as knowledge production in a field more tightly wound within the larger rhetoric and composition community.
Maybe the misty time I’m imagining when that kind of simple making did seem like legitimate work never really existed. I believe it may have, though, and I worry that it no longer does.
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My paper for the Computers and Writing Conference this weekend. It will be the first time I've actually written up a formal paper to deliver at the conference in thirteen years.
I'm trying to get a better sense of the emotional registers related to music, so I'm enjoying this book. I'm really trying to get a feel for how brain studies might connect with the ineffable flow that bubbles up when writing or grooving on music, but this quotation jumped out and moved my thinking more toward writing instruction and textbook composition. I guess I'll just blockquote it up here.
The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert— in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or twenty hours a week, of practice over ten years. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people don’t seem to get anywhere when they practice, and why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery. (Levitin, Daniel J. This is Your Brain On Music : The Science of a Human Obsession).
First, I'm really doubting that I'm even close to the necessary 10,000 hour threshold, so that's worrysome--it's not like I've been keeping track. Second, I'm really pushing a low-bridge approach to teaching with technology lately. I'm big on the idea that people can just jump in and get started if you keep the stakes low enough. I guess for now I'll think about what might be gained by not aiming for mastery, but instead looking for engagement.