Archive for the ‘Community College issues’ Category

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Ready or Not?

posted: 3.2.12 by archived

The past few days my department has been debating via email a definition for the student ready for college-level writing. It’s part of the alphabet-soup of initiatives swirling these days around my campus (and education-circles generally): this one ties in to PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), feared by some community college folks as a possible threat to developmental education or as a way to focus the community college mission on “mere” vocational training.

In the past I haven’t paid much attention to such things. With one hundred students, I’m busy enough teaching composition without worrying about educational policy, and its politics seem beyond my understanding, or interest.  I’ve heard talk that high school teachers are dismayed how many of their students test into our developmental writing classes, yet I’ve seen the persistence of the five-paragraph essay form that I thought had been cast off as simplistic the time writers hit middle school. At the same time, the murmurings go, the real problem is that students spend too much time in developmental classes, and that the goal should be to shuffle them through as quickly as possible. A colleague suggests that part of the problem may be that the high school curriculum generally focuses on literature during junior and senior year, which may be at the expense of more explicit writing instruction. [read more]

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Chatting with Colleagues

posted: 12.9.11 by archived

As the daughter of a professor, I learned from my father about not only department politics and student complaints, but about the ritual of the faculty coffee hour, when colleagues left the isolation of their offices to gather in a room to drink a cup of coffee and chat. As a graduate student, I loved the conversations with fellow teaching assistants, encouraged by our shared office space, about the students we were teaching, the classes we were taking, or why fiction is to poetry as walking to the grocery store is to dancing. When I started teaching at a community college, I was dismayed by how infrequently those sorts of conversations take place.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the conversations I’ve had this semester with colleagues—how they best happen and how to make them happen more often. My concern is largely selfish: I deeply value how much the conversations energize my teaching. It’s a lot trickier, though, to think about how this sort of communication fits into the interplay between the intellectual freedom properly (in my view) granted to individual instructors and the desirability (maybe) of some level of consistency and standards department-wide. This is an especially crucial question in a department like mine, where about 80 percent of my colleagues are disenfranchised and largely invisible adjuncts. As someone who has recently jumped the fence from long-term adjunct to full-time faculty member, I understand how delicately one must approach the issue, but it does need to be approached. [read more]

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Why Settle for Google?

posted: 11.4.11 by archived

It’s research time in my comp classes, and I gave my usual spiel about where to find sources “beyond Google”: for the Web, meta-search engines and subject directories like the Internet Public Library; for books, the college’s electronic catalog and Amazon; and for journal articles, of course, the library’s research databases. I feel a particular pressure to sell the databases (more credible information with fewer hits to wade through, what’s not to love?). I tell students about the good old days of walking to school (ten miles barefoot in the snow, or course!) and having to use the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, hoping the journal I wanted was at my local library, taking notes from a bound periodical or worse, a microfilm machine. I tell them how lucky they are. They nod, clearly unimpressed, and when it’s their turn to start searching, despite the richness of sources available, they go straight to Google.

But here are some of the reasons I don’t care:

  • Google is the way most of us, student and professor alike, find information these days—and there’s an amazing amount of information to be found. Because so many of us rely so heavily on finding information via search engine, students do need to learn how to assess the credibility of that information. A number of tutorials available online can help with that.
  • I see the fear appear in my students’ eyes at the sight of a page of dense, scholarly text. There’s time for that, for those who will choose a more academic path. For most of my first-year students it’s challenge enough to summarize an article from Harper’s or the New Yorker or the New York Times. [read more]

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Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas, Teaching with Technology
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Thoughts on the “Paper” Load

posted: 10.13.11 by archived

It’s about a month into the semester, and as usual I’m starting to feel buried by the by the pile of essays that are waiting for my comments. It is the most essential part of my work, but oh-so-time-consuming as any two writing teachers, in conversation for more than thirty seconds, are sure to remind each other. Over the past week or so, I’ve talked to several colleagues about their practices, and it’s prompted me to reconsider how I’ve been handling the load, both of papers and of guilt for what I see as my chronic tardiness.

I see each student’s essay at least twice, in rough draft and final (i.e., to be graded) form. In the past I’ve had students set up individual blogs to post their rough drafts, so they receive both peer review and my feedback as comments to the post. This ensures global comments (appropriate for the way I’d like to see students approach revision), but these comments are not always easy for students to apply to the rethinking (and not just “correcting”) that I try to encourage. And on my end, the global comments take some time to formulate, compared to more immediate sentence-level scribbles. At final draft stage (which up until this semester has been in paper form for face-to-face classes and electronic files for distance learning), I provide, along with the requisite grade, closer comments on style and sentence-level issues; for issues of grammar I follow Richard Haswell’s minimal marking approach. [read more]

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Getting Acquainted

posted: 9.23.11 by archived

One semester I brought my juggling balls to the first class meeting. The theme of the course was education, and as a way to start talking about the learning process, I planned to teach a host of eager volunteers how to juggle. I was surprised by how reluctant so many of my students were even to try so strong were their self-consciousness and fear of embarrassment. Everybody drops balls when they’re learning, I drop ‘em all the time, you can’t worry about that, I said. I haven’t tried the juggling-initiation again, but I’ve remembered the lesson (or at least the one I took from it), the parallel with trying to teach writing: that first I’d need to cultivate a level of daring, a comfort with momentary failure, a safe climate for experimentation.

That attempt to make students feel at ease starts with my trying to learn their names as quickly as possible. Many online posts and articles, such as this one, give strategies for doing this. My own method is much simpler and, as I freely admit, stupid (but it works for me, I emphasize to my students, and takes only five or ten minutes). I start in one corner, asking a student his or her first name. After repeating that a few times, I go on to a second student, asking his or her first name, and then repeating the names of both students.  Proceeding in similar fashion, I add name by name to my collection, going back each time to repeat the growing list, amazing students with the fallibility of my memory, asking other students for help (What letter does her name begin with?). I jot down on my roster distinguishing features or locations in the classroom (next to Amanda, front R, like <the name of some ex-student or acquaintance of mine whom the student resembles>). In a deliberately lame attempt at humor, I tell students they can’t change seats, or clothing, for the next two weeks.

In addition to their names, I also collect some information the first day. I ask students to take out a sheet of paper and jot down their names; their major or goal here to the college; heir career goal, if they have one; what other college-level reading or writing classes they have taken; something about their experience, access, and attitudes towards technology; and any interests they would like to share that might give me suggestions about possible article topics or research areas. (Perhaps I should add a question about number of work hours per week?) [read more]

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Happy New Year!

posted: 9.12.11 by archived

That’s what my college president says to open our daylong meeting each September, with a Powerpoint slide of blaring party horns and dancing confetti. That sense of renewal and fresh determination, though, is often overshadowed by the frenzy and fatigue of the last-minute details of getting syllabi together and all of the other last-minute preparations (or is that only me?). Partly as a result of having this BITS post to write, I’m taking the time to put in writing some of those New Year resolutions, the things I thought about last April when I realized what I had not done as well as I could have during spring semester but need to remember and reflect on now.
Here’s my list:

  • I want to talk less in class so that students can write more. (See Mike Edward’s inspiring post on “Inverting the Classroom Model.”)
  • When I do talk, I want to address more explicitly the big-picture issues of what’s required for student success (attendance in class, time management, communication with professors). I will ask students for frequent self-assessments, keeping in mind one of my colleague’s claims that a combination greater than 20 hours work + 12 credits should ring warning bells. I will be more prompt in approaching students who seem to be at risk.
  • I’m teaching the first semester of FYC in several formats: two classes f2f; one class that meets one day in a computer lab and the next in a classroom; and one class hybrid, with the vast majority of work done online and only three f2f meetings. It may sound like a vague question, but I want to figure out what I want to know about technology in the composition classroom and then think about how I can go about finding the answers.
  • On a more practical level, I want to try out audio-commenting on rough drafts to see how students like it and whether it can make me more prompt at giving feedback.

I’ll report back on my results come December. How about you? Have you made any resolutions this new year? Please take a minute to jot them down in the comments, for surely writing them down will help them become true.

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Finding a Subject: Summer Edition

posted: 7.1.11 by archived

commonmulleinI’m not much of a photographer. I bought a digital camera four or five years ago, but I’ve used it infrequently, only on vacations really, to snap the Chicago skyline or the giant sequoias in Yosemite. Although the possibilities for photographs seem limitless (or maybe because the possibilities seem limitless), somehow little seems important enough to record.

Many of my students seem to be in the same position: knowing that they could write about anything but not feeling as if they have much of anything to say.

It was the constant presence of my iPhone on my hip and the cool photo apps I’ve been buying but not yet using that made me determined, a few days ago, to start taking pictures. With the photo-blogging of Lorianne DiSabato at Hoarded Ordinaries an inspiration and the summer-luxury of lots of free time, I decided to combine taking pictures with taking a walk.

creepingbellflowerI remembered suddenly the walks I had taken when my youngest daughter was a baby. After her nap I bundled her into her stroller and pushed her the two miles around the block. I would fill her fists with roadside wildflowers, trying to find as many colors and shapes as I could. At home I’d stash her in the baby seat with her favorite chewy-eared elephant rattle while I pulled out our guidebooks and tried to identify the already-wilting flowers: blue toadflax, jewelweed, bittersweet nightshade, so many fairytale names.

I decided to do the same thing with my iPhone and take pictures of each new wildflower I found as I walked. It was an easy start, to look for color in the midst of green, but I felt the pleasure of the hunt as I found each new specimen. As I walked and snapped, I thought of other possibilities I might have chosen or might choose in the future: types of berries or oak leaves, the yard aesthetics of my neighbors, the tensions revealed by cow in the foreground and looming McMansion still in its Tyvek sheath in the distance. [read more]

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The Collaborative Writing Sprint: Product and Process

posted: 6.17.11 by archived

If you’re interested in having your students write for the Web, first look at the Writing Spaces Web Writing Style Guide, which came out earlier this month as part of the Writing Spaces open textbook project. The style guide covers writing with social media tools (blogs, wikis, Twitter), including rhetorical, ethical, and design considerations, and it’s aimed particularly at college writing students. Like all of the material in the Writing Spaces project, its Creative-Commons licensing allows it to be freely distributed (with attribution) for noncommercial purposes.

I first learned about the style guide when I read its CFP a few months ago, and it was the process that intrigued me as much as the potential usefulness of the final product in my classes. It was a collaborative process begun in Google Docs as an outline (open to changes midstream) to which anyone interested could contribute; this part of the process was termed the writing sprint, and the encouraging guidelines suggested that contributors write fast: “Write and edit what you want. Got a better metaphor from what is already written? Change it. Feel like you can adjust the style better to be more student-friendly? Want to significantly revise a section or add a new section? Want to reorganize the text?  Do it. Just write and rewrite.”

So I did. After reading through what had been written, I found a few places where I thought I could add some information: on building an audience for blogs, on the differences between blogs and wikis, and on blog conventions for crediting sources. I was interested to see that even with my experience as a blogger I did have initial anxiety to overcome, the sort of psychological barriers I often face as a writer but compounded by the public (though anonymous) nature of my potential contribution. I felt a wave of empathy for many of the bright students I’ve had who just couldn’t start writing. I’ve started to talk about that resistance more in my classes, but I still need to do more to understand it and help students overcome it. [read more]

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The Semiannual Plagiarism Outbreak

posted: 6.3.11 by archived

I’d estimate that at least 90 percent of the incidents of plagiarism I’ve found have occurred in the last few weeks of the semester, when more involved assignments (in some incarnation, the universally dreaded Research Paper), increased student stress, and time pressures seem to make conditions ripe for copying others’ work. (I wrote about this issue several years ago, but each new case makes me revisit my approach.) At an instructional technology meeting this week one of my colleagues said that what we need is some form of plagiarism detection software.  I’ve resisted that, preferring instead to focus on trying to plagiarism-proof assignments (as much as I can).

I teach both first- and second-semester composition at a college where the first semester = research paper and the second semester = writing about literature. The two differ when it comes to plagiarism-related issues, both in the students’ levels of intention and the methods they use. (I’ll set aside cases of blatant use of essay mills and other wholesale appropriation of complete texts, which are relatively simpler to handle). The research writing cases often involve copying paragraph-sized chunks of expository material from sources (something more egregious than the patch-writing the Citation Project identifies), while in my experience, plagiarism for lit-comp writing often involves weaving together reader feedback from various book-related social networking sites (e.g., Amazon.com reviews or goodreads.com).

Here are some of the approaches I’ve tried:

  • To introduce the research process, I’ve started with a short assignment, a paragraph that requires two or three sources. I ask students to post links to online articles (or provide photocopies of database articles) with material highlighted so that I can easily check their skills at paraphrase, summary, and quotation. This exercise helps to identify students who, despite my endless harping on the use of sources, still have real misunderstandings about what constitutes an acceptable paraphrase. (Exercises on paraphrasing are helpful as well.) [read more]

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Thoughts on Vocabulary (with Questions)

posted: 5.20.11 by archived

Scary stories. Last week a colleague of mine reported in passing that few of her students knew the meaning the word “concise,” which particularly struck her because that’s a word often used in writing instruction. She mentioned also that when she asked students about key vocabulary in assigned reading, she found that few students looked up even those words they didn’t know but were necessary to a basic understanding of an article’s claim or an author’s premises. It’s not a foreign idea to me—that many students have more limited vocabularies than I would have hoped–, but I had not thought deeply enough about how this impacts what they understand of their reading and, more importantly, what I should do as an instructor to address this.

How can my students read a college-level textbook if they don’t know words like “concise”?

Reading and writing. Beyond their self-disclosures about how little some of them read, I can see it in my students’ writing, some of whose misspellings make clear they have not seen the word in print. (With our trusted colleagues we share our private collections of such mistakes, with a tinge of shame ourselves—the one that sticks with me is a student’s “self of steam” that took me a minute to recognize as “self esteem.”)

Because it’s possible to write effectively with simple words, in a writing class we may not emphasize or even acknowledge the importance of students’ developing their vocabularies. For me, this is in part because it’s hard to respond to students who try to use vocabulary they haven’t quite mastered, to address the seemingly contradictory aims of a mature style and a natural voice. [read more]

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