Fear and Self-Loathing in the Humanities


It’s good to see you. Take a seat. Oh, you’re already seated? Well, grab yourself a cup of tea. Make yourself comfortable.

Ever since DML, this blog has been sadly neglected. This was not for lack of things to write about. In fact, I have a folder of bookmarks full of exciting links I gathered over the past few weeks from SXSW Interactive, a new (and very fascinating) advertisement from the Guardian, and the buzz over Curator’s Code. Oh, and don’t even get me started about the chitter chatter circulating re: Mike Daisey’s falsified Foxconn tour. For those of you who haven’t listened to it already, it is absolutely worth your hour to check out the “Retracted” episode from This American Life all about the fact-checking process on Mr. Daisey’s story and, of course the “defense” from Daisey himself. This goes not only for those interested in technology, but anyone interested in issues of journalistic ethics and – well – what it means to capture an experience “truthfully.”

The great thing about writing about technology is it seems that there’s no lack of things to talk about. New stories arise every day. Gadgets are exciting! The development of new technologies (typically) means the cultivation of new ideas or at least the streamlining of old ones.

But I don’t think I’m going to talk about those things today. Those things will (likely) emerge in upcoming posts, ones that will appear shortly after this one, not after a long hiatus. After all, what good is reporting on news that ever-so-quickly becomes old news?

I think this post will end up being more reflective because I’ve hit the end of (yet another) quarter. Two quarters down and one to go for completing my first year in a PhD program. It’s surreal. I’m sure this will feel all the more surreal once I’ve actually completed this first year. By then, I have even more right to say, “Well, NOW I’m 1/5 of the way through this whole graduate school experience.”

But at 2/3 of the way through this first year, I’ve surprised myself with the number of apologies I’ve been compelled to make about my career choice. Why am I pursuing a PhD in English? I end up falling back on hackneyed lines:

I love to read! I love to write! I love to teach!

Heck, this is a great way to spend five years! The economy sucks right now, so why not go back to school?

Yet all of these reasons somehow sound like lies to me. They’re not. They’re abbreviations of the truth. Yet they’re stale and they somehow feel ridiculous to say aloud. Sometimes, I feel like telling people I’m pursuing a PhD in English is as remarkably dumb as telling people I’ll be an elephant trainer in the circus. And if I told people that, I’d probably get more positive response than a tight-lipped smile, raised eyebrows, and an “Oh, so what do you plan to do with THAT?” at the end.

Let me explain: I was at a family event this past weekend and it became starkly clear to me that no one knows understands how I spend my time and make a living. I was introduced to friends of family as a “teacher” or simply as a “writer,” but never as a student of English. Questions that followed included:

“So, do you like working with kids?”

“So, have you read any good books lately?”

I didn’t know how to answer these questions. Kids? Well, are college students “kids?” If so, aren’t I technically still a “kid,” only two years out of college? Am I simply a kid teaching kids?

And GOOD books? Well, I’ve read plenty of books. I read at least two books every week. Are they GOOD books? I don’t know; I thought about a lot of different things. Could I name you new favorite writers? Probably not. But, again, with the thinking. That’s how I spend most of my time. In my head. Thinking.

How do I explain the fact that I’ve chosen a career where my job is to think? I may have had final seminar papers to write (a primary reason why I haven’t written in here lately) but other than papers that one other person (my professor) will read, I’ve produced very little. Nothing, in fact. The other favorite question asked this weekend:

“So, when are you going to write a novel?”

I’m not producing a novel any time soon. This isn’t my job. But again, when one’s job is relegated to reading stuff, saying some smart things in a room with ten other people, grading undergraduate essays, and writing a little bit here and there, what does that mean precisely?

Well, here’s the short answer: I see this time as an investment. One way or the other, I’m investing in a future. Will that be a future in academia? Possibly. It doesn’t have to be. And I think that’s OK. I’d like to think I’m receiving some valuable training on how to be an organized thinker, how to communicate with others. These are likely skills I’d gain doing a lot of different kinds of things; I just so happen to be receiving this training while talking about things like literature and literacy.

Given this perspective, I still struggle with my compulsion to laugh nervously when someone asks me what I want to do with my future. I don’t like that I feel the need to backpedal and apologize for choices that I’ve (mindfully) made. This would not be an issue if I was a law school student or a medical school student. Without having to say a word, my accomplishments would be deemed impressive. But since I’m pursuing a higher degree in the humanities, I’m met with skepticism. This whips my ego into a tailspin; the inner former Honors student emerges indignant: “I’m making a GOOD choice that YOU simply don’t understand!”

Of course, it’s a good thing I don’t allow that inner former Honors student to emerge like the Ghost of Christmas Past too often because she says some awfully silly, immature things. However, whether I like it or not, she is still very much a part of me and very much a part that leads me to wonder, “Why do I pursue work that so few people understand?” If I care so much about communication, about clarity in prose and clarity in thought, why am I in a field that takes me a good five minutes to justify?

This does not mean that I regret my choice to attend graduate school by any means. I’ve been given a wonderful opportunity to work with bright, forward-thinking individuals in a major, public institution. My college experiences all indicated to me that the kind of work I’d do in academia would be work that would fulfill me, enrich me, and make me feel like I am contributing to something larger than myself.

Unfortunately, I often feel mired in recursive self-loathing/self-indulgent thinking. I want to remain open to questioning, open to seeing the bad for the bad and the good for the good in the field that I’m in. But I think that I also need to make sure that the bad I see in the work that I do is not influenced by  my fear of uncertainty or my fear of criticism.

Next quarter will be a time to remain open-minded, to pursue the work I love, and to be mindful of the fact that training (AKA graduate school) exists for a reason: to give me the space to ensure that I continue to make choices that will ultimately benefit both myself and others.

Functions and Conjunctions

I have a confession to make: computers scare me.

Admittedly, this is not ideal. I’m working towards graduate work in digital literacy/media studies. Yet if something goes wrong, I’m the first to call tech support, panicked. What am I thinking? And yes, I ask myself this all the time.

I’m likely ripe for a psychological diagnosis, but I think this anxiety is precisely what drives me to pursue this study: I know all too well that, as Bradley Dilger and Jeff Rice write in the intro toFrom A to <A>: Keywords of Markup, “the literate mind has extended to the markup mind” (xiv). Plus, as the discourse of computing and computer control becomes an increasingly big part of working culture (and popular culture), I recognize that (as Stuart Selber writes in Multiliteracies for a Digital Age) “one must effectively appropriate the language of a community in order to have a voice within it” (45).

So, yeah, this stuff is important. But that recognition doesn’t stop me from feeling utterly terrified.

Allow me to clarify: the kinds of things I can do on computers don’t scare me. Software is my friend. I love using my Word Processor. I love that I can make calculations easily with Excel (this will come in handy with tax season upon us!). Heck, I love using the Internet and I love the kind of cultural resources the Internet has wrought.

The point is, it’s the inner machinations of the computer that scare me. If there’s a window that pops up that’s anything out of the ordinary, I feel panicked. If something is frozen on my screen, I frantically hit CTRL ALT DEL in the hopes that if I just shut a troublesome program down, the problem will figure itself out. Is my computer running really slowly? Well, shoot, I’ll just shut it down, restart it, and let my heart beat as loud as a tom-tom until the windows welcome sound greets me again. Ah, it’s working! It’s working! Life is beautiful! I’ll never hurt you again, my dearest Shibi!

Anyway, what this all boils down to (I think) is my fear of losing control. This perhaps scares many of us (especially those of us in graduate school; our work is very much contingent on finding answers and organizing those answers). Yet when it comes to the computer, I fear this loss of control even more because I know how central this computer (this machine) is to so much of my life. Scary but true.

Mitigating the kinds of fear I have is exactly the reason that writers like Selber, Dilger, and Rice advocate for the development of functional literacy in the classroom. In short, my understanding of functional literacy (given the discussions we’ve had in our readings and in class) is the development of technical computing skills (and applying those skills in appropriate and confident ways). After all, developing functional literacy is empowering! Knowing how to do something is a powerful tool to – well – actually doing stuff and being a part of a larger community of other “do-ers.”

But the range of developing functionally literate skills seems expansive to me. Selber suggests that functionally literate students merely need to be aware of “those online activities considered to be customary in English courses at the post-secondary level,” (44) whereas Dilger and Rice suggest that “In the age of new media, there is no way to avoid markup. Markup is text. Markup is communication. Markup is writing” (xi).

So, the range here is: functional literacy could mean using a word processor (yay!) to learning how to use HTML markup (yay, but scary!).

To me, that range is ENORMOUS. I consider myself a fairly adept user of certain kinds of software and programs, but I’m forcing myself to learn coding and markup and, boy, it’s hard. I can’t imagine having to learn this kind of stuff in an English class. Granted, I’m a few weeks behind on my Code Year lesson (when you have fifty-five undergraduate papers in front of you to grade, a lecture to prepare, and class presentation questions to write, you know where your priorities go), but still. I think if I was told I had to edit a web text for a writing class, I would feel enormously alienated from the processes of writing I grew up with. Though I may be a “digital native,” there are some terrains that to me are still like the wild, wild west.

In any case, I’ve probably gone on too long, but I suppose my question with the development of functional literacy is this: how much will future students need to know? To what extent do computers need to be quasi-programmers to be able to be a part of “the conversation?”

Academic Literacy Summit 2012 Review

What do you get when you put a few hundred K-16 instructors, school administrators, UC Davis faculty, and graduate students all in one room?

This isn’t much of a riddle. The answer is (hopefully) obvious. What emerged from conversations between all of these folks across the education system at the UC Davis School of Education‘s Academic Literacy Summit was not only some great conversation, but also some innovative ideas for encouraging greater student engagement in learning. Hooray!

Perhaps what struck me the most was the surprising amount of overlapping concerns between educators and administrators across all different grade levels. For the most part, the bottom line with everyone that I met today was the desire to help students become not only better writers, but better thinkers.

Just a disclaimer:

Today was a very busy day, so I’m going to break down the highlights. I’ve separated my “reviews” of the day’s different events with different headings so that if you’re not interested in reading about one part of the Summit, it should be easy to scroll through and find the part that you are interested in (or, you know, forget about reading this whole thing and return to your riveting game of Angry Birds).

So, I’m struggling with where to even begin! But… we have to start somewhere so we may as well start with:

The Goals of the Conference 

I suppose I should have put two and two together and realized that since the title of the conference was “What is at the Core of Academic Literacy?” that a lot of the discussion of today’s conference would be about California’s decision to adopt the Common Core curriculum in public schools.

Before today, I knew absolutely nothing about the Common Core. According to the introductory presentation, the Common Core skills and knowledge “identify essential college and career ready skills and knowledge in reading, writing, speaking, and listening across the disciplines. Further, the Common Core aims to promote engagement in:

  • Comprehension of texts
  • Composition of texts
  • Discussion about ideas

Yeah, OK, we can buy all that, right?

I mean, I suppose these categorizations are broad and, admittedly, my understanding of the Common Core did not go far beyond the broadest, stated goals of the curriculum. With that said, a lot of the instructors at the conference today seemed concerned about the Common Core for it promotes not only more sophisticated learning, but also seems more dependent on standardized testing and reaching state goals.

To look on the bright side, it seems to me that any change in curriculum provides a fantastic opportunity for instructors to reconsider choices they make in the classroom and, indeed, a lot of today’s discussions centered around:

  • How do we continue to challenge students?
  • What can we expect students (at all levels) to be able to accomplish?
  • How can we, as instructors, promote learning strategies that’ll help concepts “stick?”

Of course, it’s all very easy and exciting for me to talk about educational theories for I’m not a full-time instructor. As a teaching assistant, I have a lot of freedom and flexibility with my students. I mean, I virtually have no restrictions on what I discuss with my students (I mean, aside from the fact that our conversations stay focused on the literature they read in class!). Plus, college students tend to be motivated and willing to learn new things (at least, for the most part!). I have to say that I admire secondary teachers even more after this conference today and their willingness to remain open-minded, even when they are shackled to administrative and state choices that they may not necessarily agree with.

What I wished the introduction talk had addressed was the Common Core’s engagement with technology. To what extent is the Common Core confronting technological literacies? This is a topic we only briefly touched on all day and one that continues to interest me (for – well – obvious reasons!).

With that said, an instructor who really showed the capabilities of multimodal technology happened to be the first keynote speaker…

Keynote Speaker #1: Jose Rivas 

Jose Rivas , an award-winning physics teacher at Lennox High School, exemplified the possibilities of engaging students in collaborative, reflective, and interactive learning. Not to mention, Mr. Rivas has a fantastic sense of humor and great energy!

When Jose first asserted that we were going to learn some physics, I’ll admit it: I was scared. My memory of high school physics was an hour-a-week confusion-fest; I had to work with a tutor throughout the year that I took physics, perpetually confused about the formulae we learned and how they applied to that crazy physical world. To be honest, I think my experience in physics as a high school freshman was a large reason why math and science courses intimidated me so much later on.

However, if I had studied with an instructor like Mr. Rivas, I’m sure I would feel differently today.

Not only was his extensive integration of video as a learning tool impressive and effective, but also his insistence on engaging students in the reflection and reasoning processes. For the hour that Mr. Rivas gave his lesson, he explained very little to us; rather, we were able to discover the reasoning behind Newton’s first law based on observation and practice alone.

For example, Mr. Rivas showed us the following video:

From there, we were asked to write down what we think this video may show us about the effect of a force upon a mass.

Cool stuff, right?

These kinds of connections are, I think, particularly helpful for students who see what they learn in a textbook as something very abstract and distanced from their everyday lives.

Breakout Session #1: Audience Analysis: What Should We Be Asking of Student Writers? 

This breakout session was led by University of Nevada, Reno professor and writing center director, Bill Macauley. This session particularly interested me given my background in writing center work AND my interest in college student writers.

I think the most productive part of our conversation was the discussion of how to prioritize “higher order” and “lower order” concerns in academic writing.

For those unfamiliar, higher order concerns include:

  • Critical thinking
  • Thesis/focus
  • Organization
  • Audience awareness

Lower order concerns, on the other hand, include:

  • Memorization and practical rules
  • Sentence structure
  • Sentence variety
  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Spelling

It is commonly known that writing center pedagogy is insistent on prioritizing higher order concerns over lower order concerns. As a former writing tutor, I remember my initial surprise when trained NOT to discuss grammar with students: isn’t grammar essential to clear thinking?

By the end of our breakout session, we ended up answering that question with: “Well, yes and no.”

Bill’s perspective was that an awareness of grammar grows out of the development of strong ideas in writing. Perhaps because of my experience working in a writing center and seeing how mechanical problems seem rooted in unclear thinking, I tend to agree with Bill. However, as a T.A. for upper-division English students, I still see a surprising number of mechanical errors in the work of students who are (purportedly) some of the university’s strongest writers. Arguably, strong mechanical skills, too, are CRUCIAL to professionalization in the world outside of academia.

So, I went into this breakout with the very strong belief in the value of putting higher order concerns first and, while I still believe that’s true, I thought our discussion engaged in a useful debate about our assumptions in writing education.

Keynote Speaker #2: Luciana de Oliveira

A UC Davis alum, Luciana presented some of her most recent research on the language expressed in the rubric of the Common Core curriculum.

As someone with a love of language and rubric, I appreciated the detail with which Luciana paid to the semantics of the Common Core. Indeed, she made a strong point for the value in exposing students to academic discourse through – well – engaging them in academic discourse from a young age!

Curiously, Luciana’s presentation was perhaps the only moment throughout that day that felt more like a research presentation than an interactive classroom experience. I thought that was an important shift in maintaining the diversity of the summit’s scope.

With that said, I found myself struggling to comprehend the entire scope of her project and I think I may have appreciated it even more had I been able to read her notes or look at her PowerPoint presentation more carefully. Luciana seemed like an enthusiastic, detail-oriented scholar; it would be great to devote greater attention to the details of her project.

Breakout Session #2: “You CAN Have it All: Academic Literacy, Critical Thinking, and Student Engagement through the Common Core” 

San Juan High School English teacher Nicole Kukral led a break-out session that reminded me a lot of Jose’s in terms of its structure and presentation. Like Jose, Nicole modeled an effective critical reading activity that she uses with her high school students.

As a student still learning the best ways to engage students in a literary text and help them to read for important rhetorical cues, I thought Nicole’s strategies were immensely helpful.

Basically, when Nicole assigns her students an essay or a story to read, she has them read it several times through and, with each read, asks them to pay attention to different aspects of the reading:

  1. Look for main ideas/primary arguments.
  2. Underline moments in the text that express these main ideas and justify why.
  3. Pick one line in the text that reflects the big idea.
  4. Pay attention to HOW the writer develops his/her main idea (i.e. through the use of particular images, other rhetorical devices)

I can imagine so many students finding this step-by-step approach helpful. Reading is typically so overwhelming for students, so developing these kinds of meticulous practices early seems key.

Phew, perhaps I’ll revise this entry once I have a little more distance from this productive day at the conference! I feel like there’s so much more to say, and yet, not enough space in which to say it all (without boring all of you to tears!).

However, before I wrap this up, I must say that my continual engagement in “live tweeting” about the conference was an immensely helpful exercise for me! The other members of the UWP 270 class all contributed to a stream of live tweets about the conference throughout the day and I found that as I composed each tweet, I was engaged much more actively in the process of considering what material I thought most important. Indeed, composing tweets helped me to synthesize and reflect on the material I was learning in a way that I’m not sure I would have done otherwise. This was a very pleasant surprise and convinces me of the power in using Twitter (and perhaps other social networking sites) as potential learning tools.

I feel very lucky that I had the opportunity to attend today’s summit and know that this is just the beginning of further engagement in these kinds of conversations!

Dear Diary

I have always been somewhat of a sporadic “diary writer.” Family and friends used to gift me with blank notebooks when they learned that I enjoyed writing, yet I would only write a few entries here and there in each new blank book I received. For whatever reason, I was not compelled to write to myself, unmotivated to write down my thoughts simply for me.

I’ve only begun thinking about journals and journaling again as I’m reading Anita Loos’ novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for the class that I’m TAing this quarter. And yes, I, too, did not realize that the Marilyn Monroe film was actually based upon a novel!

The novel, as it turns out, is written is written in a simple epistolary form as “the illuminating diary of a professional lady.” Lorelei, our purported “authoress,” claims she’s a woman with “brains,” but she has no patience for books and little interest in the world outside of commerce. She feigns interest in art, but immediately demands a shopping trip after an exhausting day at the museum.

In any case, the novel is a wry satire of materialist American culture, but I think what struck me most was the fact that a novel like this one would not entirely be relevant with a modern rewriting. Sure, there are abundant stories and films about gold-digging, attractive women like Lorelei, but it seems to me that the “book as diary” has become outmoded.

After all, who keeps a diary anymore when blogs are such a prevalent part of our cultural consciousness?

Of course, at its core, there is one distinct difference between a diary and a blog: one is private while the other is public. However, it seems that many blog writers are unafraid to compose private thoughts in a public space and, indeed, seem to receive a lot of positive reinforcement and feedback to do so via comments and post sharing.

Of course, it is wise as a blog writer to gauge what’s appropriate to share in a public space (and what would protect our identity and whatnot), but I know that when I write personal thoughts online, there’s something that feels remarkably accepting about it. When I write here, for example, I don’t fear judgment even though I know that someone other than me is going to read this entry.

Interestingly enough, when I wrote privately, I am perhaps more self-conscious of my writing than I am now, for when I write to only myself, I am aware that my own judging self may return to those words years later and wonder why I was so foolish/selfish. I think there was a part of me that was sometimes afraid of facing my innermost thoughts; devoting them to paper made them real.

For better or for worse, writing in a public space has liberated me from some of these anxieties. Of course, I’m not necessarily writing my “inner-most” thoughts here, but I am getting some thoughts on paper, making that effort to express myself in some tangible way. After all, as Lorelei writes, “a girl with brains ought to do something else with them besides think.” It may be frightening to commit any thoughts to writing, especially ones that are personal, but I think an online space has made that process easier, perhaps because of the very fact that it is public and that I am aware of a readership that (in theory) cares a little bit about what I might say.

Code Year, Lesson 2 Part 1

I have a distinct memory of the first day of French 1 in college. I walked in confident that I would succeed. After all, I had been a successful Spanish student in high school; French was a romance language, ergo it wouldn’t be that different. Right?

Well, I quickly realized that in college language classes, you actually learn the language. My instructor, Alison, opened the first day of class speaking to us – a group that presumably had no prior French knowledge –  primarily in French. It was a clear dive into the deep end. My, how this was different than high school Spanish class!

(Side note: I had pretty strong Spanish education in high school, but we spent quite a bit of class time gathered in a circle singing songs by Juanes and Rebelde. So, you know. Not super rigorous.)

Anyway, this is perhaps a circuitous way of getting into my main point about programming, which is that I feel like with Code Year, I’ve similarly dived into the deep end. Unlike with French, however, I’m fighting not only the battle to learn quickly, but also the battle to overcome my anxieties about technology. I’ll admit that I’m a computer user more inclined to call tech support when something goes wrong than to take the time to trouble shoot myself. I figure that “an expert” must know more than me, right?

The glory of the digital age (And yes, I realize this is hyperbolic. Humor me) is that we CAN have control over our digital lives. I may not be “math-brained,” but I CAN learn to program. I have faith in this. It is just a doggone, difficult task.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I have to say that part of what inspired this “can-do” attitude was a short video I watched earlier today from educator Stephen Chew aimed towards helping undergraduate students develop better study habits (i.e. DON’T MULTITASK; NO ONE DOES IT WELL). The video itself is admittedly a little cheesy, but he stated something in his video that struck a chord with me: many students don’t succeed in his classes because they assert they’re “just not good” at something.

This is something I’ve told myself so many times over: “I’m just not good at math.” “I just can’t visualize [insert any image/shape here].”

“I just can’t do it.”

There is some truth to the concern that some students can’t learn as quickly as others can in different subjects. But I’m coming to believe (increasingly) that we really ARE capable of doing anything if we just take the time. It’s doing things that feel uncomfortable to us that is the real push. I don’t think it’s much of a generalization to say that we’re all predisposed to avoiding uncomfortable feelings; that feeling of failure and incompetence is perhaps one of the most uncomfortable for me (this is, unfortunately, a common syndrome of living a life primarily validated by academic achievement).

Phew, with ALL OF THAT SAID:

I’m pretty frustrated by the programming. I can’t give up now because I know how important it is for me to learn. But dang it. It’s really hard for me.

For those who care about the technical stuff:

I completed the lesson Functions in Javascript this week. From what I understand, functions are basically blocks of “reusable code.” It’s a code that you store that gives your program a certain command to repeat over and over again (so that you don’t have to write in the same commands repeatedly).

See, so far, so good. I’m all into this efficiency thing. I like to color coordinate files and write to-do lists, so the idea of something like a function very much speaks to my organizing soul.

As these Code Year lessons tend to go, it started quite well. I must say that I felt incredibly proud of myself when I created my very first function!

"You never forget your first function"

Simple, yes, but still mine all mine! I made the console spit out my name! Winning!

Of course, the lesson grew increasingly complicated. As with learning any foreign language, learning a programming language requires you to integrate what you learned from lessons prior (crazy, right?)

So, within functions you must also store variables. Defining and storing variables allows you to work with the numbers/words/items that will be important for your function (and therefore your program) to – well – function!

So, I didn’t capture an image that spit out the console log text, but basically this activity required me to run the code to see what the function “greet” spit into the console log. As you can see, because the variable “greeting” is was typed into the console log, the variable’s text (“Ahoy”) appeared in the console log.

So far, so good? Yep, so was I.

Here’s where things get tricky:

Inside a function, certain values can get “returned.” To clarify, in all of the examples I’ve shown, the functions are just outputting information without receiving any input. The return tool is necessary to use if a particular value is inputted into a function.

Here’s an example:

The value “x” has been inputted into the function and two different functions are created: one that simple returns the value inputted and another returns the value inputted, squared.

Again, I think we’re still following, right?

Remember those tricky if/while loops I discussed in Lesson 1? They’re baaaaack:

So, here, we’re basically just complicating the function further: this program will determine whether to spit out “The statement is true” or “isn’t true” based on the conditions established within the function.

What was tricky to me about this was figuring out how to define the conditions within the function. How do I use the correct syntax to break down the conditions? What’s the clearest/easiest way to do that?

Obviously, I’m still learning and I’m still working through a lesson on establishing parameters within functions, too. But… here’s where I left off!

I find myself reading and re-reading directions to make sure I understood, but now that I’m synthesizing what I’ve learned, it feels simpler than when I was learning it. I guess this shows I understand what I’m doing? Maybe?