A little over a year ago I designed a new project to use in my technical and business writing courses. The first iteration of this project was used in my Fall 2009 Technical Writing class at Purdue. The Rhetorical Analysis Project asks students to examine a Web 2.0 application and a corresponding forum. Students are asked to select a freely available Web 2.0 application that would serve as a writing tool that could be used in the workplace or university settings. Many of the tools available and chosen focused on project management and collaboration. The second requirement for selecting an application is the existence of a user-centered forum or discussion board specifically discussing the chosen application.
My decision to develop this assignment was based on two other projects assigned in my technical writing classes. These group assignments, the White Paper Project and User Documentation in Multimedia Project, also focused on a Web 2.0 application related to writing. So, the individual (as opposed to collaborative) rhetorical analysis project assisted students in selecting Web 2.o applications that could then be used as the focus of the next two projects. My rationale for creating the assignment was/is as follows:
by early selection of Web 2.0 tools and subsequent research into those tools students would be better informed about these applications and thus more likely to select robust and relevant applications to focus on in their next two projects
the common subject matter that already linked the white paper and user documentation projects would further emphasize the importance of research and writing that builds on previous work
by having three projects that each built on the knowledge gained in the previous assignments, students could not only gain a better understanding of their subject matter but would also be able to focus on honing their writing skills rather than starting new research each time
in continuing to build on earlier research, students could learn techniques and strategies for later stages of research
students would learn the important skills of rhetorical analysis by applying their analysis to less traditional forms of texts
by analyzing the discussion forums, students learn the value of user-generated content and how to use that content as sources of information about a topic and its varied audiences
discussion forum analysis both bolstered an understanding of audience, user needs, and the conventions of online asynchronous and network communications
analyzing the rhetorical situation and rhetorical elements of a software application: facilitates a more complex understanding of how rhetoric functions outside the classroom, demonstrates how techniques for rhetorical analysis can apply to varied situations andfthus, how they can be used in other decision making activies, and encourages a broader view of what constitutes writing in the age of digital media
The PowerPoint slide meant to demonstrate military strategy in Afghanistan wins my award for worst PowerPoint slide ever. And I’ve seen some pretty bad PowerPoint slides. This NY Times article provides an interesting discussion of it and contains the following, and might I say quite humorous quote, by General Stanley McChrystal: “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.” Here’s the slide:
Though the month is nearing its end, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge some of the amazing African-American thinkers and visionaries who have influenced my life. It’s unfortunate that we need to designate a month to ensure that topics that should be covered year long get mentioned. Many have argued this same point, including someone I greatly admire–bell hooks. An African-American feminist teacher, hooks has inspired me with her progressive pedagogy and her unfailing willingness to venture into waters that many scholars avoid, such as the topic of love. I had the great pleasure of meeting her at the 2004 NCTE convention in Indianapolis and the even greater pleasure of discussing how love is ignored as a scholarly and pedagogically relevant subject. Her work on feminism, pedagogy, racism, and diversity have nourished me in my academic career. Her consistent commitment to accessibility has not only proven inspirational but has encouraged me to maintain my own commitment to making academic work and theory accessible to those outside of academia. hooks’ works are consistently easy to read and understand, accessible to multiple audiences, even as they express complex ideas and theories. Unlike theorists who preach accessibility while writing jargon-laden articles and books, bell hooks practices the kind of accessibility that she preaches. She manages to convey complex ideas to a broad audience without sacrificing quality, something that I also try to accomplish in my work as a teacher and scholar.
Since I am particularly fond of student generated media, here is a short YouTube video created in honor of bell hooks. (Point #7 is particularly relevant to Black History Month.)
A recent talk that bell hooks gave at Burton Street Community Center and Peace Gardens in Asheville, NC is also on YouTube. In her talk, she discusses community, technology, gender, and race and reads from one of her children’s books Be Boy Buzz. She ends her talk with the following: “In Buddhism we talk about the fact that the earth is my witness. So, we are here today to witness together the need to build community on all levels, to remember that community is not one-dimensional, to remember that we can come together in many different fronts and be together and belong.”
In a discussion with The Media Education Foundation, hooks talks about how “popular culture is where the pedagogy is; it is where the learning is” revealing how her interest in analyzing pop culture arose out of her experiences in the classroom. Students had difficulty understanding concepts of difference and otherness and how these were relevant to their lives, but when discussed in the context of films or tv shows, the students were better able to grasp the concepts. Part one of her discussion is included below:
An additional point that I appreciate here is her insistence upon the importance of critical thinking for all people and how the ability to think critically is an important tool that can make a difference in the lives of everyone, regardless of their material wealth or class status.
The most enabling resource that I can offer as a critic or an intellectual professor is the capacity to think critically about our lives. I think thinking critically is at the heart of anybody transforming their life and I really believe that a person who thinks critically who, you know, may be extraordinarily disadvantaged materially can find ways to transform their lives that can be deeply and profoundly meaningful in the same way that someone who may be incredibly privileged materially and in crisis in their life may remain perpetually unable to resolve their life in any meaningful way if they don’t think critically.
In addition hooks speaks against this idea that certain students should only be taught what are considered “practical skills” that they can use to get a job and make money. She doesn’t claim that this is unimportant; she simply emphasizes the importance of critical thinking as a tool and the right to learn it. Having taught in the Ivy League and at open admissions universities, hooks notes that the distinction between the students at the two types of schools is mostly based on their perception of their future:
My students were equally brilliant when I taught in Harlem as when I taught at Yale or Oberlin, but that their senses of what the meaning of that brilliance was and what they could do with it, their sense of agency was profoundly different….They don’t have that imagination into a future of agency and as such I think many professors do not try to give them the gift of critical thinking. In a certain kind of patronizing way education just says all these people need is tools for survival, basic survival tools, like their degree so they can get a job and not in fact that we enhance their lives in the same way we’ve enhanced our lives by engaging in a certain kind of critical process.
The points that hooks makes here are some that I have struggled with myself. It’s crucial that we find the balance between equipping students with the skills that they expect to learn in order to find a job. The reality is that most students enter higher education with the objective of attaining a job, specifically one that is higher paying than the one they would get with a high school education. When I chose to go to college, while I certainly expected to get a job, my primary motivation was to learn knew things. I was lucky to have already been instilled with a belief in the importance of critical thinking and perhaps more importantly with the belief that it was my right to learn these things. (hooks mentions that Yale students feel entitled to that kind of learning in a way that her Harlem students do not.) I was also privileged enough that for me higher education was a given; I never doubted that I could and would go to college. Many of my students at Purdue have had similar experiences though it seems that most of them entered college with attaining a well-paying job as a primary objective. As educators we are faced with the challenge of meeting the wants and needs of our students as they perceive them and as we perceive them.
Ultimately, I believe that teaching critical thinking skills and the more “practical” on-the-job skills expected by our students are not incompatible goals. As educators we have the responsibility of providing students with the education that they want while maintaining our goals as teachers. Much of the challenge that arises here has much to do with not wanting to assume that we want to teach our students is more important than what they want to learn. The important point to recognize is that we have been educated and trained to know (or determine) what “global” tools that they need to learn the more specific or “local” tools. Teaching students how to think critically is a way of teaching them how to learn new things on their own. If we equip them with the global tools that they need in order to make learning a lifelong enterprise, we give them the gift of education and not just training. At the same time, if we are to successfully teach them the global tools, we must demonstrate how these tools can be translated into learning the skills that they seek. The important thing to recognize is that we can’t teach them all of the skills that they need for the workplace and the world, but we can help them learn the tools that they can use to continue to learn those skills beyond our classroom. The point that I am trying to make is that we cannot and should not choose critical thinking over workplace skills or vice-versa. Instead we should create curricula that enable the learning of both. It’s analogous to the way that we teach revision in writing. Students work from global concerns such as content, clarity, organization, etc. to more local concerns such as grammar, punctuation, and editing. A grammatically correct piece of writing is of little use if it is not clearly written, well-organized, and contains well-researched and carefully considered content. In the same way, skills are only effective if they are accompanied by an understanding of how the skills can be used and are learned.
When I saw this article in the New York Times, my first thought was: What about the kids who don’t have laptops? Happily, I discovered during the reading of the article that the school being discussed–Empire High School outside of Tucson– had started issuing laptops instead of textbooks in 2005. In other words, all students have laptops that enable them to take advantage of the available WiFi. Because the school serves many of the exurbs of Tucson students spend hundreds of hours on the bus each year (and we all know how long drives make us cranky). As a better illustration of why students spend so much time on the bus:
The Vail District, with 18 schools and 10,000 students, is sprawled across 425 square miles of subdivision, mesquite and mountain ridges southeast of Tucson.
School officials came up with the idea during their own long drives in which they took turns driving so that they could work on their laptops during the ride.
Karen Cator, director of education technologyat the federal Department of Education, said the buses were part of a wider effort to use technology to extend learning beyond classroom walls and the six-hour school day.
Apparently the result of the change has been largely positive. “Wi-Fi access has transformed what was often a boisterous bus ride into a rolling study hall, and behavioral problems have virtually disappeared.” And while not all students use their laptops for homework at all times (not so surprising), they are still occupied and, in my opinion, still learning how to use technology to behave in more constructive ways.
And for those who argue that technology keeps people from enjoying the simple pleasures of the world, I leave you with this:
A ride through mountains on a drizzly afternoon can be unpredictable, even on the Internet Bus. Through the windows on the left, inky clouds suddenly parted above a ridge, revealing an arc of incandescent color.
“Dude, there’s a rainbow!” shouted Morghan Sonderer, a ninth grader.
A dozen students looked up from their laptops and cellphones, abandoning technology to stare in wonder at the eastern sky.
While researching the use of Facebook in the classroom (I’m trying to find a way to create a version of my profile that allows me to be friends with my students while limiting the information that they can see and allowing them to limit the information that I can see. Not finding a way without creating an entirely new profile) I ran across an article about clear violations of free speech with regards to students using social media. Am I talking about posting status updates in the classroom? The use of disruptive technologies? Nope. I’m talking about a coach who required a student to provide said coach with her Facebook account information (including password), reading her private messages, and then penalizing her for the use of inappropriate language in her messages. Wow, I guess if you’re under eighteen freedom of speech isn’t allowed, even in the private sphere. Read about it at Citizen Media Law Project.
In the Fall of 2006 I received an email, filtered down through the chain of departmental command, regarding my course website from the previous Spring. The email regarded a comment exchange between two students from my Technical Writing class. Now I make it a practice to at least skim all of my students’ comments. Early on in the semester I read them more carefully to ensure that students are “getting” the appropriate content, style, etc of blogging. Once I’m assured that they understand the basic principles, the 100+ comments a week don’t get the same careful attention. Nonetheless, I read to catch the flow of the commentary and the basic ideas behind their comments. I also use that time to choose blog entry “conversations” to promote to the front page for further discussion. Clearly it would be difficult for an obviously inappropriate comment to escape my notice. So, when I received this email I felt certain that there must have been some kind of mistake. However, navigating to the comment location I did indeed find three student comments disparaging a professor, a clearly inappropriate exchange for a Purdue course website. They were there; they had been posted; and I had missed them. And then I looked at the date. The comments had been posted several days after I had tallied and recorded comments for the semester. Why then, did my students post comments that, even if they were posted prior to the due date, would obviously not receive credit? What compelled them to air their grievances on what I considered to be my site? Most importantly (to me), why would they create a permanent record of their disdain? What could be gained by posting them and is there any consideration for what might be lost? Finally, whose site was it?
Last night at Starbucks two students sat down next to me and began to loudly complain to one another about the instructor whose class they were preparing for. The instructor’s name was mentioned on more than one occasion along with several expletives. Here we have the “old school” version of inappropriate student comments. I don’t mean that students should not express their opinions; I do, however, question the propriety (and prudence) of doing so in a public space. And it wasn’t as though they had forgotten my presence or that there were others within hearing. They turned from their conversation and addressed me with (roughly) the following comment: “I don’t want you to think that we’re awful people, but our instructor is terrible.” This was followed by the usual specific complaints that we’ve all received: too much work, etc. I wasn’t surprised by what they were saying; inappropriate conversations abound in public spaces (especially one cell phones, but I won’t get into that now). But in the public space of brick and mortar and fleshy bodies words disappear as they are uttered. Unless you are recording or transcribing, it’s difficult to repeat, much less remember over time, spoken comments. On the web we have no such restrictions; you are accountable for your words in a very different way. There is no “you must have misheard me” or “that’s not who I was talking about” to disassociate yourself from the spurious comments.
These are fairly benign anecdotes. The web has a sadly large number of hateful comments and folks aren’t usually too embarrassed to express the same sentiments in the world of flesh and brick-and-mortar. Still, benign or not, these posted comments are public (and to a large extent permanent) and they don’t just expose private information about the individual poster. They expose and make inaccurate claims about another. How do we ensure that kind of privacy? (Especially if we are using Blogger?) Is it our responsibility to monitor our students once they are no longer our students.
An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education today discusses a blog set up by two professors, Jason B. Jones, a professor at Central Connecticut State University, and George H. Williams, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina Upstate. The article includes an interview with Professor Jones. Their blog, ProfHacker, which includes posts from a variety of contributors, discusses the use of technology in higher education. The most significant aspect of this blog, in my opinion, is that it discusses more than the tools and their uses; the writers also discuss the relevance of these tools to pedagogical goals. Ultimately, the site provides links, reviews, and tutorials for using technology in higher education. As someone who integrates technology in the classroom and is careful to ensure that these technologies meet pedagogical goals rather than just fueling my excitement over new technologies, I believe this site will be a useful tool to those who already use technology in the classroom, helping them to keep up to date on new tools. Even more importantly I think this site is a good starting point for instructors less familiar with the integration of technology in the classroom. The tutorials and information provided by the site contributors provide a great introduction to the tools and ideas for successful integration. Kudos to ProfHacker!