teaching: June 2005 Archives

The EdTech gamble

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[via Clancy] New Kid on the Hallway has a dead-on critique of Patrick Allitt's literally "old school" rant about educational technology, and it's both thorough and wicked enough that I have little to add.

Except to note something that's occurred to me no less than three times over the past day or so. Partly it's what I was thinking about the LA Times, but it's popped up in a few other contexts as well. It's unbelievably presumptuous of me to name it after myself, especially since I'm sure that there are plenty of smarter people out there who have thought and said it before me, but oh well:

Collin's Wager: Technology is golden only insofar as you're willing to risk it being garbage.

In terms of Allitt's description,

Throughout the class the students took notes on the computers, creating a ceaseless keyboard clatter and making it difficult for anyone to hear the teacher's voice. Worse, as they faced their screens they looked away from the professor and away from one another.

First of all, it's remarkably short-sighted to stock a computer classroom with loud keyboards, but oh well. More importantly, it's easy for me to imagine some of those students really benefitting from having the computers handy. Imagine being able to take notes with concept map software, being able to dump links and/or graphics into the map, etc.

But the rewards of those possibilities are bought with the risk that those same students will IM, check their emails, surf for fun, etc. That's the gamble you take. And it's almost beyond belief to me that someone who's the "director of the Center for Teaching and Curriculum" would argue that, rather than making the teachers there aware of this gamble, we should just dump the technology. His little fantasy (complete with Mark Trail exclamation point!)--

How much better the class would have been with no more than a blackboard and a few sheets of paper! Note taking would have been silent; students would have talked to the teacher and each other, would have concentrated on the substance rather than the technology, and would have had more time -- not less -- to devote to their work. Best of all, a warm atmosphere of collective endeavor would have displaced the anonymity and chill that the machines created.

--is an expression of his desire for the illusion of control that such a classroom entails. As though students don't doodle, zone out, pass notes, gaze longingly out the window, etc. But in the old school classroom, teachers don't have to compete with these activities because they don't have to acknowledge that they're going on. After all, no endless keyboard clatter! No burnt out bulbs on the projector or flaky remote controls! IM only happens In the Margins of student notes! And so on!

I don't know. Maybe I'm just tired of people who seem to think that it's possible to wait out the problems, who think that if something doesn't work perfectly, it doesn't work period. I know that there are good reasons for feeling that way (the tyranny of bubble sheet evals, anyone?), and I know that there are plenty of people who can't afford to lose the wager, but Allitt and others like him need to understand that "the most important issues in education have not [indeed] changed." Reading and writing well are still important, granted, but they're important in different ways, different media, and different milieu than they were even ten years ago, and all the wishing in the world won't make it otherwise.

Did I say "little to add"? That is all.

Stand and Deliver

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Thanks everyone for the kind words about the Kairos award...

Today was presentation day in my graduate class, which meant that all of the students showed off the concept maps that I asked them to complete as part of the reqs for the course, as explained a few weeks back. Not to gush or anything, but I was really happy with the results. Derek used Flickr to port his map, so you can take a look at one example, and I'll link to others if and when they show up online.

One of the things that I hadn't really anticipated was the degree to which the maps would vary depending on where in their projects each of the students was. I should have figured on this, because it makes perfect sense that the assignment could be used to accomplish different things depending on context, but it was still a smack-me-in-the-forehead moment for me. Some of the maps were fairly well-defined because they were drawing on a bounded set of texts, and the mappers were using the project to define/determine patterns among their sources. The more open-ended maps tended to emerge from projects that weren't perhaps as far along, and so they functioned in a more exploratory fashion, helping the mapper(s) locate the various scholarly conversations (and their own positions within it). Neither type is necessarily good or bad--I thought that they were, to a person, appropriate given the stage of the mapper's research and writing. And so the range of maps corresponded, I'm guessing, to the range of essays that we'll be reading and workshopping over the next three class sessions.

Anyhow, I'm happy enough with this assignment that I'll probably adapt it for the course that I'm teaching in the fall, which is our "Intro to the Field" course for our incoming cohort of graduate students. This may be me projecting my optimism a little, but I feel like this assignment really helped each student develop a better sense of their project and where it might enter into academic conversations. If I use it this fall, it'll be a more exploratory kind of assignment, but I'm convinced that it's worthwhile...

All of Malaysia was agog

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I'm teaching a course right now, a graduate seminar on genre theory and academic writing, which I haven't really blogged at all, partly for a lack of time and partly because Derek and Mike are doing a nice job of it as far as I'm concerned. Anyhow, about the course: in large part, it was offered in response to some concern on the parts of our students (and I'm paraphrasing roughly here) that they weren't receiving enough attention in our curriculum as writers, as emerging professionals who were expected to be writing publishable prose in a matter of a few years. I'm a big fan of programmatic support for writing at the graduate level (I'm also supervising a writers' group for our dissertators this summer), and so I offered to teach this course partly as a publication workshop.

But it's a graduate seminar as well, and let's just say that I have strong opinions about the importance of providing instruction in both declarative and procedural knowledge in our graduate courses. And so, I decided to start the course with some reading in genre theory. It's a solid mix of readings, I think, and we're making a turn from more theoretical perspectives to some of the work in our field that brings genre theory to bear upon academic writing. For tomorrow, the class is reading a chapter (and the postscript) from Berkenkotter and Huckin's Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication, the book whose chapter on CCCC proposals I swear by. We're reading a different chapter, though, the one about "Nate," the first-year PhD student whom B&H followed through his first year at Carnegie Mellon, and whose essays are analyzed in no small detail over the course of the chapter.

Anyhow, this chapter has got me thinking. In their conclusions, B&H discuss Nate's tendency to do extracurricular writing, more informal writing alongside the academic assignments he completed:

In Nate's case, it appears that the kind of advanced literacy associated with learning a field of knowledge, or with entering a discipline or vocation, hinged on the learner's ability to integrate subject matter knowledge with a knowledge of situationally appropriate linguistic and rhetorical conventions. Nate appears to have developed the former from reading and coursework more readily than the latter. His use of informal writing as a learning tool seems to have served him well in the former respect, but it may have slowed his progress as an academic writer....Although informal expressive writing appears to help writers explore new ideas, it also may deter them from expressing these ideas in the highly explicit, cohesive, hierarchical style expected in formal expository prose (141-2).

This really sent my wheels spinning, because it's potentially the best argument I've heard, even though it's obviously not pointed in that direction, against encouraging graduate students to keep weblogs. There are certainly other reasons as well, I suppose, but they tend to be anecdotal (that person got fired! what if i do too?) rather than grounded in any sort of semi-objective evaluation.

And I'm fully aware that this isn't exactly an airtight argument, either. B&H have been critiqued from a range of positions, not the least of which is the fact that CMU faculty at the time probably defined things like register and formality in pretty strict fashion. And that suggests that formal academic prose and writing on a weblog need not be as diametrically opposed as B&H's presentation of Nate's two styles of writing.

The implication here is that Nate may have sacrificed some procedural facility (how to write appropriately) in the interests of his declarative knowledge (what he was writing about), and for me, that's a pretty important question, one that lies at the heart (or should, imho) of a graduate curriculum. It's interesting (to me, at least) to think about the sum total of degree requirements and to interrogate the ratio between declarative and procedural knowledges. I wouldn't want to overgeneralize, but I suspect, for example, that most programs list requirements in specific areas of declarative knowledge (composition pedagogy, classical rhetoric, e.g.) than they do procedural ones (how to build a webpage, e.g.). Research courses are one exception to this, but foreign language requirements? Not so much.

And this leads me to thinking about where blogging lies on that spectrum. Were someone to transpose B&H to blogging, they'd still have to grant the potential for blogging to assist a student with assimilating declarative knowledge. But I think I'd be tempted to make the case for blogging on procedural grounds as well. Rather than arguing (as I think we probably could) that academic register in our field has become more informal, I'd go in the other direction and argue something like what Jay Parini writes in his Chronicle piece "The Considerable Satisfaction of 2 Pages a Day."

It's something that I've harped on for a few years now: it's hard to write every day, but it's also the surest path to success as an academic writer, and I say that as someone who's only ever been capable of intermittent bursts of daily writing. The problem with most graduate curricula, from the standpoint of training our students as writers, is that they treat writing according to the thresholds of deadlines, and up until the dissertation, it's possible for students to wait and wait and read and wait, until a few days before something is due, and then crank it out. We even invest that strategy with higher stakes when it comes to comprehensive examinations. And then that strategy, reinforced and encouraged throughout 3-4 years of a program, fails utterly and completely when it comes to the capstone of the PhD, the dissertation.

I don't know that I'd go so far as to say that bloggers write better dissertations, but I do think that there's a case to be made that weblogs can provide an opportunity for daily writing, an opportunity that will serve a blogger well when it comes to a larger project. Keeping a weblog may help students develop the kind of procedural knowledge that receives so little attention in the formal venues of academia. I think of the last-ish paragraph of Parini's article:

Having a grand idea, and setting up to accomplish something in a grand way, has always been, for me, a hopeless notion. I once had a good friend, a poetry editor and teacher, who always hoped to write a novel. One day the first sentence of the novel swam into his head: "All of Malaysia was agog." He didn't know why Malaysians were agog, or even where on earth Malaysia was. But he applied for a grant, got it, and set himself up in a foreign country with a huge sheaf of paper and a typewriter. He typed with reverence the great first sentence. He waited. He waited for much of a year, but nothing ever came.

If he'd been blogging, he would have just saved it as a draft, and on day 2, started another post that was completely unrelated. Or not. It's harder to learn how to do that than people think, and so I wonder if B&H unfairly discount the "outside" writing that Nate ends up doing. Do I even need to add the parallel sentence here, about discounting blogging? Probably not.



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