What Makes a College Education Valuable?

Over the weekend, I saw the documentary, Ivory Tower, and was prepared to be completely depressed.

Going in, I knew the documentary was about student loan debt; the trailer for the film revealed that the amount of student loan debt in the United States is now higher than credit card debt. This is a terrifying fact, of course, and one that has led news pundits, columnists, students, parents, and even scholars to ask, “Is a college education worth a lifetime of financial struggle?” What is the “value” of a college education?

As a college-educated, PhD-pursuing individual, I often recoil from questions like these. Of course a liberal arts education is valuable. Of course we’d all be better off if we had the kind of education that would make us effective communicators, critical thinkers, and stronger problem solvers. College is of course the place to do that. Where else do students have a safe and protected space to experiment with ideas and be in a community of supportive individuals who have devoted their lives to scholarly pursuits?

The more I think about my initial reactions, however, the more defensive I realize I can be. My bias is clear: I’ve invested my 20s in staying within an academic institution. I love the work I do and I want others to see the value that I think is to be gained from writing in a formal setting, in reading literature that’s challenging (and new), and learning how to read with an understanding of historical contexts, theoretical frameworks, and audience differences. I think school is a great place to do that because – well – that’s where I learned to do that. As a college student, I was lucky enough to have fantastic mentors.

I can still remember sitting in the office of one of my college mentors, crying after I was rejected from a fiction workshop I applied for. He was sympathetic without pandering to my needs; he offered to read my fiction for me the next time I applied for a workshop and later, even suggested that I try something new: poetry. Having a mentor to help guide my choices, to steer me in productive directions, and to help me move forward from failures was, in no hyperbolic terms, life-changing. I felt empowered by a mentor like this; I saw that I could change directions in my work and find new opportunities for success.

Throughout my college education, I was lucky enough to attend classes (at a large public research institution!) that frequently had fewer than twenty students enrolled. This might have been a result of the fact that I majored in English – a relatively small degree program – but it was within the context of those small seminars with faculty who I knew were invested in my education and writing that in many ways inspired me to go into academia. Of course, I can’t ignore the influence supervising a large writing center and conducting my own research had on my choices either, but the point is that I think the formal community I was a part of and the encouragement I received within that protected community gave me greater confidence in my skills and affirmed within me my interest (and I hope talent?) as an astute reader, writer, teacher, and researcher.

I think these kinds of institutions and structures are still important; where else can learning for the sake of learning be protected from diverging interests?

When I walked out of the theater, however, the thought that loomed for me was: “We need better college teaching.” I know that my college education wouldn’t have been nearly as valuable for me had it not been for the professors I had who were not only fantastic researchers, but were above all, mentors and educators. A student going into massive amounts of debt for their college education gets little out of the experience of sitting in a large lecture hall and passively absorbing a “sage on the stage’s” experience.

As a PhD student, I’ve received very little teacher training. Before I was a TA as a first-year graduate student, I attended one three-hour workshop on “teaching” that wound up mostly being about how to report student plagiarism and what to do if students get hostile or violent. While I’m glad I was prepared for an emergency situation, I learned very little about pedagogy until I took a writing pedagogy course in the last quarter of my first year. While that course was useful, I know that I could have used more training about classroom management, lesson planning, and mentoring from the day I stepped on to Davis’s campus. I was not totally unprepared to teach since I had received ample training as a writing center tutor and supervisor, but without that experience, I would have been completely lost.

Nothing can replace individualized education, and the whole reason we have institutions of higher learning is for people to connect, interact, and collaborate. Without that connection, there is no reason to fork up thousands of dollars. Sure, universities can offer networking opportunities and resources for professional development, but what I remember most from college are the small interactions I had and the opportunities to learn within smaller groups and  directly from faculty.

As someone who has designed and taught in hybrid (i.e. partially online) learning environments, I also see potential for capitalizing more on this technology and allowing students greater “flipped” learning experiences. But I think that this doesn’t replace good teacher training and opportunities for professors and professors-in-training to know what it takes to engage and motivate students to push themselves and their thinking even more. Working in groups and communicating is key no matter what profession students enter into, and college can be a place to cultivate those skills in a safe space.

With that said, these kinds of interactions are not for everyone, and I also think that high school students could receive greater guidance on whether college is even the right choice for them and their ambitions. Every student should have the right to an education, but every student should also be educated on whether higher education is right for them. Greater financial literacy and an understanding of the effects of loans and debts on a student would be incredibly valuable.

Scholars could be a part of this conversation to educate college students. Much of the “humanities crisis” has revolved around the question of articulating the worth of our studies. However, I think scholars from every discipline could do more to articulate in concrete terms what their studies provide and communicating the value of their work to a broader prospective audience. I’ll admit that I occasionally still struggle to articulate clearly and concretely why my work matters; this is something I hope to get better at in the years that follow.

So, I still don’t if a college education is worth financial burden for every single student. What I do know is that as educators, we can make a college education worthwhile for our students if we continue to value our students, their contributions, and their learning. The more respect we maintain for our students, the more we can work with them to help them grow and make their experience meaningful.

How to Be an Undergraduate Again

Our instructor faced the class, arms crossed over his chest, stern face piercing us all into extraordinary guilt. Most of us had bombed the latest French quiz – a pop quiz, mind you –  and he adopted that distinct teacherly Not Pleased tone.

“I’m going to talk in English,” he says slowly. “Because this is serious.”

We get a stern talking-to on how we must study, on how this is French 21, guys, not French 1 or 2 or 3. This should be review. We have to study, don’t we get it?

I know what he’s doing because I’ve done this move before with my own students. It’s the Bad Cop move, one I only employ after a particularly dour night of grading, where every single student response seems to be utterly off, and ugly feelings start to sink in: “These students are so lazy!” “They don’t care about writing at all!” “Haven’t they done the reading?” “Why did they submit this at 3:00 A.M.?”

I can see these same ugly feelings on his face; for him, it seems ludicrous that we wouldn’t get these concepts. I get it. Hence, the Bad Cop comes out.

Now that I’m taking on the role of an undergraduate in his class, I’m quickly realizing that Bad Cop never ever works; it just turns all of us students into puddles of shame. Another student I’ve befriended who – bless her -studies much harder than I do for this class, turns to me and whispers, “I’m so scared.” Me too, my dear friend, me too. I’m not scared about the quiz outcome though (frankly, another part of this trick is to pull out the Bad Cop on low-stakes assignments, like quizzes, so that the high stakes ones don’t result in similar failure). What I’m scared of is knowing I might fall into the temptation to do the same thing. And I don’t like that.

First, a little bit of context: I’m taking an undergraduate French class right now because I’m required to do so. All English department graduate students need to demonstrate “proficiency” in two different foreign languages. Don’t get me started on the journey that got me to my little desk in a little dark classroom with the grimiest of chalk boards and weathered carpeted floors in all of UC Davis. All that you need to know is that I’ve got to take this French class in order to take my qualifying exams and write that, like, dissertation or whatever.

So, here I am: the only graduate student among a group of undergraduates being taught by other graduate students. I’ll occasionally get some knowing nods from the graduate student instructors; we’ve got a kind of solidarity going on where they recognize that I recognize all of the “student engagement” moves they’re trying. Work in small groups! Think pair share! Yep, got it. I went to the TA Training Orientation too.

I realize I sound a little embittered, but all of these rehashed undergraduate experiences – the shame of the failed pop quiz, the lost dignity after performing an impromptu skit, the swelling of pride when the instructor tells you you’ve done something right – have given me some new perspective on my own teaching and have helped me to appreciate what my own students go through all the more.

Simply, I forgot how stressful it is to be a college student in a college class environment. I forgot how many little assignments that are to keep track of every day. As a graduate student, one has to be a time management expert, but an undergraduate education is its own kind of time management training grounds. So, there’s a lot more I can say about what I’ve learned about teaching again, but here’s how I’ve survived being an undergraduate. Again:

  • Do homework every day right after class. As soon as class is over, I go straight to work on the homework while the ideas are fresh. OK, so, maybe I check my e-mail first, but then it’s homework time. It’s condensed and I get it done to have the rest of my day free for other work.
  • Chat with my classmates about the assignments. So, at first, I wanted to adopt this stand-offish “I’m older than all of you an I know what I’m doing” persona, but as soon as I got my ego in check and realized that I need to actually practice the collaborative learning I preach, I realized my classmates were awesome resources. Not to mention that they’re all fresh off the heels of AP French, so they all know a whole lot more than I do.
  • Flashcards, flashcards, flashcards. Language classes require a lot of memorization, so I’ve been whipping through flashcards, cutting them into fours, and carrying them with me everywhere I go. When I have a minute, I flip through them, keeping the knowledge as fresh as I can. I don’t know how any undergraduate in a language course could survive without these.
  • Participate like no one’s business. Again, I wanted to be too cool for school for a while, especially since I was such an eager beaver in my actual undergraduate years. But then I realized that it’s not that much fun not to participate; I get way more out of my experience by speaking up, even though I say something wrong 90% of the time. Being wrong and failing is learning.

I’m still collecting tips on how to do this better, though somehow, I realize that by the time I’ve got all of this figured out, I’ll be on to the next quarter, on to the next project, learning instead how to be – well – a graduate student. That’s still one I don’t have a checklist for.

 

Software University?

When I take notes on books I’m reading, I’ve got comments and sub-comments.

The comments are of the most mundane variety: I flag down quotes, make note of important moments, and process through key concepts. The typical stuff.

The sub-comments, however, are where things get juicy. This is where I throw my font into italics and write whatever I want: curse words, exclamations, lines of punctuation (think: “!!!!!”), and emoticons abound. It’s my own inner commentary, the liberating part of note-taking. If you don’t have your own running commentary on your own book notes, it’s a practice I highly recommend taking up. Since authors don’t, you know, typically pop out of the ether and explain things to you, the most you can do is talk back.

In any case, my most recent read was James J. O’Donnell’s Avatars of the Wordwhich is a pretty slim volume on the history and evolution of writing technologies. O’Donnell is a classicist by training and, perhaps most famously, taught the “first MOOC” on Augustine.

His book is remarkable for me because it offers a strange balance of nostalgia for large libraries filled with dusty stacks and an impulse to adapt the “digital world” and deem those same dusty libraries “dead” and obsolete. Authors like O’Donnell – especially in the mid-90s moment of, “hey, look, computers are not all HAL!” – tend to express this ambivalence. The weirdest moment, however, is this one:

“The image I like is that of the university as a suite of software, a front end, or what you see onscreen and interact with, to the world as a whole, chosen for its power, speed, functionality, ease of use, even for its user-friendliness. The professor turns into a kind of software icon – click on the professor and let him take you to the world that he knows” (157). 
 

So, a professor becomes the Clippy of the university? Click on the professor and he’ll guide you through your learning experience? This kind of metaphor turns the professor into a sort of bizarre escort into the university world, a packaged “guide.” Now I recognize that part of O’Donnell’s vision is a kind of historical artifact; he was speaking from a moment when online, hybrid, and MOOCs were a complete unknown. Yet I find it fun to chew on the metaphor a decade later and consider: would it be useful for the university to create a more “user-friendly interface?” What happens when learning becomes something treated at “interface value,” a glossy entree to the “professor’s world?” What does “the professor’s world” even look like in this vision of “the university as a suite of software?”

One might argue there’s a certain neoliberal, TED talk vision in this kind of statement too, a desire to make the university more like a WYSWYIG where the purposes of courses are transparent; there’s no self-assembly required to make sense of the work you’re doing. But I wonder how much we owe this transparency to our students. How much do we need to teach at interface value and what do we lose when we don’t have them assemble the parts on their own?

Make it New

I’m a little self-conscious about the title of this post, mostly because I don’t intend to talk Ezra Pound or Modernism here and in fact, I find both the poet and the movement a little tiresome. This is for a number of reasons, primary of which is the whiplash from reading dozens of Modernist texts for my preliminary exams.

That said, Ezra Pound’s famous expression “Make it New” is perfect in my mind. To me, “Making it New” is essential to surviving in graduate school.

Let me take a step back for a moment: like so many others, I’ve found my graduate school experience simultaneously gratifying, exhilarating, and disheartening. I’ve had moments of great confidence and empowerment and perhaps even more moments of self-doubt. I just recently erased the subtitle on my to-do list “Happenings of a Continued Adolescence.” Though it was initially written in jest, I realized I was re-enforcing my own self-loathing and insecurities and I just couldn’t have that.

Though I recognize that graduate school is necessary career training and apprenticing for a life in the academy (or, increasingly, in other kinds of professional institutions and research settings), I can’t help but shake the feeling much of the time that I’m doing college all over again, but with higher stakes and more responsibilities. It’s a lot like treading water, endlessly egg beating with only the potential outcome for the rescue ship to come in.

Yet I have to remind myself (frequently) that I’m very happy here, reading and writing, and though it may feel like I’m staying in one place much of the time, I am (very slowly and often imperceptibly) moving forward, building skills, and becoming a sharper thinker and communicator.

One way I remind myself of this is by reminding myself of what, indeed, makes me happy. In college, I kept a gratitude journal for a little while, trying to map what made me feel happy during a time where I felt very sad. So, even today, I look at what I’m grateful for: my flexible schedule, my time to read as many books (and whatever books) I want and reflect on those books, my ability to exercise on a regular basis, my proximity to a beautiful campus, and the opportunity to work with dynamic and motivated students. These reminders keep me pushing through.

That said, to really dig into and find joy in reading and writing, I’ve found that I truly also need novelty. Let me start by saying that, as a general rule, graduate students are rarely doing anything truly novel on their own. Rather, graduate students often (nervously) emulate advisers, hero theorists, and trendy trailblazers in the field.

Yet we need to feel like our work is new and discover what makes it new: that’s what builds scholarship.

For me, post-preliminary exam (and for those following at home: I passed), I’m revisiting a lot of old work and trying to make it new again. I’m not necessarily revising work or outputting much for others. Rather, I’m trying to make it new for myself. I’m trying to remind myself of why I’m in graduate school in the first place and why the topics I’m purportedly interested in (life writing, writing about technology, writing with technology) are even interesting to me at all. Then, I want to make my work new to others. But I’ve got to convince myself first.

Let me make one thing clear: I’ve never been unconvinced that my ideas are uninteresting. However, I’ve had many days recently when I’ve been reading books and have taken a pause to wonder: why am I interested in this? What is actually of interest here? What am I noticing that’s new? What am I noticing that’s exciting? I can usually think of something, come up with a million questions, and then never manage to reach one conclusion about them. Days often go from exhilaration about a new book or question to complete despair about whether there’s anything of value to say about anything. Do questions even matter anymore? Do books matter? AM I AN INTERESTING PERSON??

This spiral is not impossible to recover from, but it’s one that also leads to the larger, looming purpose of making work new again: writing a dissertation.

I mean, here’s the thing. I don’t know how to write a dissertation. If a dissertation walked up to me, looked me in the eyes, and said “Cheerio!”, I don’t think I’d recognize it.

This shouldn’t be news to me. But it is.

I hadn’t put it together until recently that I’m at the scary-exciting moment of figuring out how to interpret a new genre of writing. This is something I haven’t had to do in a long time and I’m now facing the questions I have to tell my own writing students to face all of the time: what’s the purpose of this writing? Who’s the audience? What are the constraints? What’s your exigence for writing?

So, what have I been doing to a.) make my ideas feel new again and b.) tackle an unfamiliar genre?

Well, in addition to reading, I’ve been revisiting writing I know how to do. I started penning a short story for the first time in forever, I’ve been drafting up some short articles that I can (hopefully) submit to GradHacker. In other words, I’ve been trying to rediscover what I like not just about reading, but also about writing in the first place. Why do I care so much about writing? Why is knowing how to write – and knowing how to write well – something that endlessly fascinates me? Perhaps more importantly, why do I still think I’m a “good” writer and how can I continue to validate and enjoy my own practice?

These are questions that scare me because they require deep introspection, an opportunity to consider my values and my everyday practices. At the same time, this is a rare opportunity, one that I know will be important to all of the choices I make in the future. I hope that making it new is a practice that will soon feel very practiced and very – well – old.

First Thoughts from #4C13

Las Vegas casinos, with their long hallways, patterned carpets, and mirrored walls, are designed to disorient. Last week, I stayed at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, NV attending the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) and found myself moving in circles, tracing and re-tracing my steps to discover where I needed to go. With no windows, no clocks, and poorly-placed signs, I felt completely transported to a world beyond the one I had left behind. That or all of the extra air pumped through the casino’s vents to chase out the lingering cigarette smell all made me just feel a little… off. I was not “off” in the sense that I couldn’t concentrate; I was off in the sense that I imagined all of the world was interested in college writing and communication, that all I had to worry about was the state of the field, the state of writing education in the United States, and the state of – well – getting all of the free food from publishing parties that I could handle.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized the casino is something of an apt metaphor for my progress in my PhD program. I’m not exactly moving in circles, but I often feel like it. But sometimes, when I feel the most lost, I find myself in exactly the place I want to be or find myself in a totally unexpected, but often very desirable, place. At the conference, I realized I couldn’t become frustrated with the venue because there was nothing I could do to change it. Similarly, I think I need to “let go” of some of my desires to control my progress in the PhD program and trust in myself to find the right path.

CCCC was a pretty low-pressure conference for me. I only presented a “work in progress” at a panel called the Research Network Forum and, after that, I had the three remaining conference days to explore whatever I wanted, to dabble in a variety of ideas. Part of me hoped this conference would give me more direction, would focus the thoughts I’ve been cultivating and inspire me to pursue a particular course.

That… didn’t happen.

What did happen was an expanded awareness of what I could do. The possibilities seem to have grown larger for me. One of my primary insecurities as a PhD student has been my “dual citizenship” status in both English and University Writing Program departments, a status rife with conflict. Yet I saw at CCCC that there were participants who were positioned in a variety of departments for a variety of purposes pursuing such a broad range of scholarship across disciplines. In other words, I’m increasingly realizing how much segmentation into disciplinary silos is a sham; while I’ll need to be able to “package” myself to one of these departments if I go on the academic job market, I’m coming to realize how much more important the skills I cultivate will be for my identity as a scholar/educator.

It’s a cliche, but it’s one worth stating: what matters most is what I DO with the gift I’ve been given of serving in the academy. OK, so much of the time, pursuing a job that is highly labor-intensive and low-paying does not exactly seem like a gift, but I see my time as a graduate student in academia as a special time to do – well – exactly what I want to do. I see this as a time to enjoy a flexible career founded upon intellectual and personal exploration. I also see this as a special time to be a young person helping other young students become stronger writers and to feel invested in their college education. Call me an idealist, but I hope this perception will serve me well as I continue through my graduate career and embark upon whatever career greets me after this is over.

what CCCC showed me is that if I can market myself, market my skills, and put those skills into action in very public, very visible places, I’m set to do whatever I want to do. And that is, indeed, empowering.

With that said, I somehow wound up attending a number of very pessimistic panels at CCCC ones that inspired me about as much as they sobered me to the realities of a teaching career in the United States. It’s a tough world out there, especially in our current climate of high-stakes testing and outcomes-based learning, and I want to enter this field with eyes wide open, knowing exactly what challenges I will face as a PhD, as a humanist, and as – well – a career woman. As a graduate student, I’m told not think a lot about my teaching, but given the jobs available for students in the humanities, I can’t help but see my teaching identity as inextricably tied to my research identity. I know this is not true for every graduate student, but I know that for me, I wouldn’t be a scholar if it wasn’t for my dual role as an educator. The negotiation between constantly learning and constantly teaching remains all the more compelling to me after attending CCCC.

I could go into a lot of details on what I saw and what I did, but I urge you to check out the reviews put out by Kairos every year on CCCC instead. I’ll be contributing reviews to that collection, so as soon as there’s a link available to the reviews, I’ll be sure to post that here.

In the meantime, I’m anticipating a Spring Break full of family, friends, and much more reflection.

Teaching Diary Day 2: Writing about Writing about Writing

She had the “OK, I get it” gaze. One of my students – I’ll call her “Abby” – sat in the back of the classroom and she just had that look: the set jaw, the arms crossed, the eyes just a little glazed. She got it. She got this “steps of the writing process” lecture. She’s heard it all before. Whether she realized it or not, a score of experiences were reflected in those glazed eyes, all of those bad high school lectures describing these very stages that never helped her and were, in fact, something of a waste of time. I didn’t see this look on anyone else’s face, but I experienced a moment of silent panic the moment I recognized hers. Was this useless for everyone?

I think I’m still figuring out how to be an instructor and not a tutor. I don’t get nervous lecturing (in fact, speaking in front of large groups has never particularly bothered me; I think I’ve lost my concern with dignity long, long ago), but I’m sensitive to my control over the discussion. My training has been in maintaining constant dialogue, in building individual rapport with students and creating an equitable relationship. But the truth is that once I’m in front of the room as the primary instructor, the relationship is no longer equitable. I am not their peer; I am their instructor. I am not a dictator, but I can’t attempt to be everyone’s friend either.

I think my desire to maintain this balance, to be more like a peer and less like an instructor is what made me feel uncomfortable with Abby’s somewhat wearied expression. But perhaps more important than my feeling of discomfort (for I’ll get over this with time) is my impulse to question the efficacy of our course’s approach to content.

Here’s the tricky thing about first-year composition: the content of this class varies significantly from campus to campus. In fact, the content of first-year composition is one of the biggest contentions in the field of writing studies. This is primarily because writing studies have not traditionally been grounded in any one academic discipline. Of course, literature has frequently been the disciplinary focus for writing courses (for reasons that go all the way back to the 19th century), but the trend in the mid-twentieth century has been to push away from the teaching of literature and towards the teaching of a variety of texts from different genres.

For better or for worse, “a variety of texts from different genres” means a myriad of different things to the writing program administrators in charge of first-year composition program development.

UC Davis’s UWP 1 courses use an approach called “writing about writing,” most famously explicated by Downs and Wardle. In theory, I love the writing about writing approach; it makes sense for students to take a writing class where they learn about what it means to be writers. After all, isn’t writing itself an emerging discipline? Why should we treat writing simply as a kind of technical skill when, in fact, the study of writing is a discipline with an increasingly robust scholarly presence?

Yet I felt our discussion going in circles on Wednesday. I gave a mercifully brief presentation on the four major stages of the writing process: invention, outlining, drafting, and revising and, in UWP 1, we give these stages cute names: the “madman” stage, the “architect” stage, etc. The students seemed to like the idea of the names; in discussing which stages they spend the most time completing, they repeated those names back.

But we seemed to keep winding up at nebulous answers: “I like to write in this way first, so I can write better in the long run.” “I think that if I outline sufficiently, I will be a better writer.” Perhaps it’s helpful for students to express these things. After all, most of them probably don’t think much at all about their writing practice. But… isn’t this all very obvious?

I felt like I was some part of a riddle: how do I get these students to pin down and identify what makes good writing?

Once we have some substantial readings to discuss, this problem may be alleviated. But I am a little disturbed by the fact that most students seem to have a very limited vocabulary for how to talk about their work.

Of course, I shouldn’t expect them to have this vocabulary. High school English classes are literature classes; they don’t think metacognitively about their process. They’re told they need to write clearly and thoughtfully and analytically, but somewhere along the lines, no one explained to them what those terms meant.

In fact, I’m not sure I learned what those terms meant until I started working at a writing center and had to read writing pedagogy as part of my training. As someone naturally inclined to writing, formulating “clear” insights came pretty naturally to me. Of course, I still had to revise (nothing comes out perfectly the first time through), but I had a knack for handling abstract thought and could just… do it.

So OK, maybe I shouldn’t be quite so critical. We’ve had two days of class. As a whole, the group is charming and delightful, task-oriented and hard-working. The trick to staying mindful of my pedagogy is to avoid negativity; there’s no point in being judgmental until I’ve seen their writing.

 

Teaching Diary, Day 1: Early Birds and Eager Beavers

I glanced at the clock: 7:50 A.M. Everyone’s here? Now?

I teach UWP 1, freshman composition, in a computer lab this quarter and behind every monitor sat a student waiting to begin class. They were all ten minutes early at the already inhumane (at least by typical college student standard hours) morning hour. Even as a student, I don’t think I ever had a class where there weren’t at least one or two late stragglers.

True, I had heard tell that UCD undergraduates tend to be compliant and motivated. But I hadn’t expected this. I had somehow assumed that those enrolled in 8:00 A.M. classes did so of necessity alone, begrudgingly enrolling in a last open section. Yet everyone seemed sufficiently awake, too, with no desperate desires for coffee-sneaking, no complaints about exhaustion.

This was a stark difference from teaching an English class discussion section at 8:00 A.M. On a good day last quarter, only half of my enrolled class would show up and even the present students arrived bleary-eyed and full of fatigued excuses. Then again, I taught senior English majors last quarter, disillusioned and practiced in the art of truancy. Today, I had a room of freshmen and sophomores (and one rather bored-looking third-year probably stuck here after regretting not completing this requirement as a freshman). For some, this was their first college class. Ever.

But what I think impacted my experience most was not the students’ background, but my changed role from a T.A. to an instructor. Facing a room full of students as the instructor – not professorial support – showed me how much students’ expectations can shape the classroom experience.

Let me get one thing straight: students were very respectful to me as a T.A. However, a majority of students viewed attending discussion sections as a kind of “optional” help. The stakes are much higher for this class. For many, this is their shot at passing one of their major college requirements. The material I share with them is what matters to them. As a T.A., I could talk all I wanted about how I thought they could prepare for the test; it didn’t make much of a difference unless the professor corroborated that advice. As an instructor, on the other hand, I’ve already seen students cling to my words. I mentioned briefly that we’d focus in this class on audience awareness; lo and behold, in their first reflective writing exercises on course expectations, the majority of them wrote about audience awareness.

They… listened. They saw class time as something valuable.

OK, maybe not everything. But my awareness of my classroom as audience has changed significantly. Knowing what my students expect (roughly speaking) and seeing their attitudes (for a few hours, anyway) gives me a much better sense of how to organize days for them in the future, how to tailor my own style to their needs.

Sure, I won’t please everyone, but just as different writing genres themselves must be tweaked for different audiences, so must my teaching (as… I’m coming to understand it, anyway). I’m still hesitant to call myself a “teacher” in many ways. I think I still view myself as something more like a guide (a facilitator even, to hearken back to my former job as a “peer learning facilitato”). But I think part of this new quarter, too, will be overcoming that discomfort, accepting this role as a leader and embracing the opportunity to affect change.

For one of my students’ first assignments today they had to write a little bit about their past writing experiences. I expected to read a lot of disgruntled responses, a lot of complaints about high school English class and the difficulties of mastering grammar (a universal concern that somehow transcends issues like clarity, purpose, and organization). Yet I was pleasantly surprised to read that many students professed an interest in – nay, an enthusiasm! – for writing, but a frustration with the writing done in classrooms. I found this fascinating; how else have they developed their writing outside of class? In what other ways have they been writing prolifically? Is this interest in writing some product of growing up in a digital age, writing all the time? Obviously, relegating this answer to digital literacy would be really fascinating to me, but it could be any number of influences I suppose.

I’m going to do my best to maintain a regular chronicle of my teaching experiences this quarter. After all, I’m only a first-time teacher once. But even I, as my students have professed, struggle to put thoughts to words occasionally. Writing is messy. I’ll be reminded of that constantly this quarter. In fact, this is perhaps something I’ll mention to them: writing is always struggle. But it’s from that struggle that an ability to share and empathize and appreciate emerges.

Life in the Cube

For the first time in my life, I have a punch card.

That’s right: my hours inside an office are tracked.

Punch in. Punch out. Present. Absent. Working. Not working.

Shifting from a life of complete flexibility and fluidity to one with rules and set hours is jarring. But this kind of experience – a life where work is at work and coming home means actually being at home and no longer thinking about work – is something I’ve always kind of longed to experience. It’s funny; there’s a part of me that had this glorified vision of what it would mean to work an office. I’ve perhaps seen one too many films where nicely-dressed women in crisply-pressed suits flounce into desk chairs, receive incredible praise for writing memos and reports, and then earning oodles of cash at the end of the day. I somehow imagined that I could be this kind of “career woman,” one with professionalism, grace, and intelligence!

Of course, I chose a life of academia, one where I don’t ever wear crisply-pressed suits (and if I did, I’d likely garner more than a few strange looks) and one where my professionalism is not reflected through the ways I interact with my co-workers, but through the intellectual labor that I produce. So, to have this opportunity to live another life, to be another “Jenae” who negotiates office politics, who sits at a cubicle, and who does work that is not concerned with literacy, literature, or abstract theories, is one that’s important for me (if for no other reason than to dispel myself of that office life myth).

As it turns out, working in an office is kind of like working anywhere else, except that you don’t get to see too much sunshine during the day (though I have scouted out a prime lunch spot overlooking a canyon). Oh, and you’re also in front of computers a lot. That’s hard. But my tolerance for screens has improved, so that’s a plus?

In spite of the fact that this internship is very much a way for me to do some career exploration, a week on this job has inevitably informed my academic interests. My mind can’t help but veer to digital literacy concerns!

Help documentation, as it turns out, is still something very much rooted in a logic of the print age: I spent two of my four days on the job simply combing through pre-existing help information in the form of “QuickStart” guides (which are basically step-by-step directions for how to complete certain functions within the software this company sells), “TechNotes” (which tend to give suggestions for “efficient workflow” processes using said software), and more traditional online “Help” supplements (remember Clippy? Like that, but not as invasive).

The company has tried implementing some Online Tutorials, too, which are Flash-powered slideshows with moving screenshots of different functions in the software, but even these cater to a logic that seems somehow incongruous with an experience working on a computer. All of these help guides suggest that there is one very particular way to go about completing certain tasks and using this software.

Now, again, as a newb on the job, perhaps I’m making a certain amount of unfair assumptions: indeed, it may be true that these kinds of linear, step-by-step manuals are the best way to teach people how to use software. However, given the fact that I’ve been so invested in pedagogy for the past… several years, I cannot help but scoff at the idea that this kind of passive learning could be effective.

Let me get this straight: the manuals are incredibly well-written and detailed. They contain so much valuable information for a new user. But is a user who relies upon this kind of help actually going to learn the ins and outs of the software? It seems to me that tinkering, toying, and getting your hands dirty in the process is the only way to truly – well – LEARN.

But how does one really learn tasks that are almost entirely reliant upon memorization and experience? After all, I’m used to helping people learn about writing, a nebulous process enveloped primarily in critical thinking and analytic skills. Using software like the one I’ve been learning does not require critical thinking per se; it just requires a little bit of logic (“So, when you press the ExamType button, you see codes for different exam types. Who knew?”) and some memorization.

I’ve been tasked with making a particular “modality” (i.e. mammography functions) within the software my company represents more “interactive.” I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that means (without suggesting the extreme intervention of a programmer to make me something awesome). Thus far, much of my time has been spent simply trying to use the pre-existing help myself to learn how to use this software. And you know what? I’ve actually found that a balance between the linear help and my non-linear playing has been the most useful for me. What has really helped me to learn this software is both reading, playing with the program, and re-purposing the information myself from taking notes to categorizing the software functions to imagining myself in different user roles using the program.

The only role I can’t seem to escape is one of a “digital native;” I’m unafraid to press buttons, to see what certain links do and do not do. I can imagine that many of the people using this software (i.e. radiologists transferring from print records to electronic) may not feel the same way. This, however, is the audience I have to remember as I consider re-purposing this work.

As I continue to punch in and punch out each day for the following five weeks, I’m hoping I’ll experience increasing clarity about how to best spend that time punched in, and keep myself even more “punched in” to thinking in an entirely new way.

New Quarter Technology Goals!

I had the enormous pleasure of spending the past week (i.e. my spring break) in San Diego and Los Angeles, taking plenty of time away from the computer and gazing at beaches (and even seals!)

Alas, a new quarter has begun and I’m back to reality and gazing instead at that familiar soft glow of the computer screen.

Each quarter, I like to take some time to reflect and consider what I could improve upon both as an instructor and as a student. To be honest, most of these goals have more to do with my personal development in the tech world than it does with my role as an instructor. This imbalance in goal-making is somewhat out of necessity; as a T.A., I don’t have a lot of flexibility about the use of learning management systems or implementing particular technological requirements. My role is primarily one of support. I don’t say this to devalue my role as a T.A.; rather, I have a feeling that I’ll be more interested in setting more pedagogically-based goals once I have full rein over my own classroom!

TL;DR? Mostly professional goals here, not pedagogical goals. Here we go:

1. Continue work with Code Year 

I know, I know. This blog was supposed to be a space to work through my programming lessons. It’s been about six weeks (!!) since I’ve even opened the page for Codeacademy. In order to make the coding work less onerous, I think I just need to set smaller goals for myself. Earlier this year, I intended to finish a lesson at a time and not take a break until I finished each lesson. Alas, each lesson probably takes anywhere between 3-4 hours to complete, which, as a graduate student, is a significant amount of time to be spending at the computer doing work that is not grading, reading, or writing. With that said, I need to assure myself that it’s OK if I only complete one activity in a lesson per day! As long as I’m DOING the work and maintaining the programming vocabulary, I’ll be in good shape. Besides, I’d like to take advantage of some of the social networking integration and share my progress on Facebook to receive some digital pats on the back. No shame.

2. Port this blog to my own domain 

For my UWP 270 class last quarter, our final assignment was to create a webtext. I purchased a domain name for that project, but would like to use it as my website for all of my professional work (including this blog!). I loved the flexibility of WordPress’s software (as opposed to what’s available for use as part of their free domain) and would appreciate the ability to edit the CSS on this blog and tweak the design more to my liking.

Therefore, I need to take the time to figure out how to move the content from my project to another space and link this blog to my own domain name. I’m sure I’ll just need to tinker around to figure this out, but if anyone has any advice on this, I’d greatly appreciate it!

3. Keep up with technology news 

Everyone has their regular rotation of web browsing, I believe. My “regular rotation” primarily includes e-mail, UC Davis’s learning management site, Facebook, Twitter, and a few choice blogs. I’d like to integrate more technology news sites into my rotation, however, to keep myself current on issues that may be relevant to my research and pedagogy later. My short list of sites to start browsing more regularly are the Huffington Post’s Technology page and TechCrunch. Any other suggestions?

4. Maintain theoretical/thematic connections between seemingly unrelated coursework and digital literacy concerns 

OK, this may sound like an obtuse goal, but hear me out. As an English student, it is occasionally difficult to explain the intersections between digital literacy education, educational technology, and the study of literature. The connections are clearly there; digital literacy is shaping the ways in which literature is read. How could it not? However, as much of my coursework will primarily include engagement in critical theory and – well – fiction, I’d like to work towards creating final projects that more closely link my interests, so that I continue to develop my interests in the lens that interests me. I feel pretty confident at this point that I want my research to be ultimately very engaged with digitality in some way; I just don’t know how exactly yet. This is my job as a student now!

5. Keep this blog current! 

Not to get super meta or anything, but I think it’s crucial that I maintain my presence here in order to continue engagement with current digital literacy concerns. I’m somewhat notorious for starting blogs and abandoning them, contributing to the Internet’s considerable amount of cyberjunk and noise. I’d rather not throw more garbage to the ether. It takes discipline to maintain a writing schedule every day, but I intend to post something at least once a week, even if it’s just a link to an article I find or a quick reflection on something I learned in class that’s relevant to the intersections between technology and the humanities.

Cheers! To a new quarter!

Extra! Extra! On Rhetorical Newspaper Analyses

Have I mentioned here before that I work an additional job as a freelance (ghost) editor for a college and career counselor?

Well, I’m mentioning it now and for one reason in particular: the ubiquitous “newspaper rhetoric” assignment.

You know the one: choose three newspaper articles and analyze whether they “effectively” convey their purpose or not. (Something that follows these kinds of standards).

I’ve always had some trouble accepting this assignment and it primarily hinges upon the word, “effective.” Effective to whom? Effective for what? Effective to what ends? This seems to be a key piece missing in the explication of the assignment.

Anyway, as a freelance (ghost) editor, I basically revise whatever my boss sends me to revise. I’m completely invisible to the student; I make line edits in Microsoft Word, send those line edits and documents back to my boss, and he sends my line edits to the students. I don’t think the students know where these magical edits come from. I don’t think these students care.

All of that background aside, I’ve seen a surprising number of these newspaper rhetoric essays recently and, indeed, students seem to respond to them in roughly the same way, citing “objectivity” and “clarity” as signs of “effectiveness.”

Yet interestingly, they often choose newspaper articles that are neither “objective” nor particularly “clear.” Indeed, it seems that in every rhetoric assignment I’ve read thus far, students have been drawn to assessing articles composed as blogs rather than true-to-form “articles.”

My hunch is that students are not choosing blogs because they enjoy reading them; I imagine the student sits in front of the computer, opens the browser, goes to Google, types in the name of a current event, and voila! Blogs from major newspapers emerge as top hits. Students then go on to assume that these blogs serve the same function as “articles.” Boom, assignment completed.

To me, this is a fascinating phenomena for a few reasons:

1. Blogs are appearing as more frequent hits in search engines.

2. The tone of blogs are seemingly indistinct from those of news stories that high school students and college freshmen are familiar with.

3. On major newspaper websites, blog content seems privileged over regularly circulating news content.

Now, point1 gets us into a discussion of search engine optimization and other stuff I don’t really feel like thinking about. But points 2 and 3? Now those, to me, are worth discussing.

I don’t find it particularly troublesome that blogs themselves are privileged as news content. Indeed, we could get abstract here and assert, “What is objectivity, anyway?”

What troubles me is – well – students’ seeming lack of awareness over the ability to distinguish between these two genres. I could be assuming too much about these students; perhaps they DO recognize the blog is a blog (and not an article), but do not have the motivation to keep digging through the Internet to find an article and figure a blog will fulfill the assignment. Either way, apathy is at play. Isn’t that a touch distressing?

I think the solution to this problem comes with greater critical awareness of what it means to use a search engine, of what it means to find different kinds of articles and, perhaps most importantly, what it means to search carefully and discriminatingly.

Perhaps the most important question I have is: where should this kind of work be done? To me, if instructors are giving out these kinds of assignments, it should probably be done in the writing classroom. But, of course, how do high school teachers, for example, balance these kinds of concerns with those of curricular standards? I imagine that these kinds of rhetoric assignments are part of a common curriculum; how do teachers adapt? How do administrators adapt to make sure students are developing healthy browsing habits?