Archive for the ‘Community College issues’ Category

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Change of Venue

posted: 5.6.11 by archived

At the college where I teach, computer labs are in scarce supply and are reserved, for the most part, for classes in computer science, graphic design, and other fields for which computers are an instructional necessity. For my composition classes I have been able to schedule two or three sessions per semester in an open computer lab, where I help students set up blogs and get them started on finding sources for whatever research project we’re doing that semester (which typically involves prodding them over and over from the Google home page into the library’s databases).

This coming semester, though, I will be participating in a pilot project in which one of my comp classes will meet in the computer lab once a week (for an hour and fifteen minutes). A great feature of this pilot program will be the chance to talk with some of my colleagues who will be participating. And the fact that this is a pilot will encourage (force) us to be more explicit about what we hope to accomplish and, later, to reflect on how it has worked out.

We hope that class time in a computer lab will help our students be more comfortable with technology (about 10 to 20 percent of my students have limited experience with even basic word processing) and more skillful with research. I’m working on articulating what else I hope my students will gain from this change of venue. And, of course, I must consider how this will change my approach in class and, more specifically, what activities we should undertake.

We’re beginning to collect resources and ideas. Do you have any suggestions about books, articles, or blogs that have offered practical suggestions about teaching writing in a computer lab? If you’ve taught in a computer lab, how have you adapted your curriculum? Are there any activities you’d recommend? Do you think your students have benefited from writing in a computer lab? If so, how? Advice, suggestions, and comments are welcome!

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Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas
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The Trauma Narrative

posted: 4.22.11 by archived

The Trauma Narrative is the title of a presentation I attended at a conference last week. That title set me thinking. It awakened the old issue of whether to assign personal writing in a freshman comp class, which made me nostalgic for some lively blog discussions from five or six years ago (at Mike Edward’s Vitia, for example, and Sharon Gerald’s Composition Southeast; my contribution from years past is here). But this presentation considered the issue in ways I had not, and raised some additional concerns as well.

I do typically assign a personal narrative as a first assignment, for some of the reasons Clancy Ratliff cites in her  comprehensive list. I do continue to struggle with how to move students beyond car accidents and dead grandmothers. But many of the most powerful essays I’ve received have resulted from some variation of the personal essay assignment. It can help students to find their voice on the page and to see the value of writing in their personal lives.

The panel discussion included both writing teachers and a college psychologist, whose presence served to remind us of the concerns we must face when designing assignments that invite students to write about traumatic experiences (cf. Virginia Tech and the Arizona shootings). From the teachers’ perspective, a key concern is how to respond to such narratives—how to separate one’s personal response to the difficulties in a student’s life from one’s professional judgments about the writing on the page. Beyond our own response as teacher, we also need to negotiate how (and whether) such material should be shared with the student’s peers and how to create a safe atmosphere for such sharing. The issue of safety issue is real, and it can be difficult indeed for a writing teacher to decide whether to report his or her concerns to a professional counselor. I came away with two maxims from the psychologist’s talk: “safety trumps confidentiality” and “resilience is the norm, not psychopathology.” [read more]

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Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas, Professional Conferences
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Learning to Question the Answers

posted: 4.15.11 by archived

We’re about a month from the end of the semester, and in the first-year composition world that means we’re deep into research paper time. I just got a batch of short research assignments back this week, and it has me thinking about how students use research sources.

I’m intrigued by the work that Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson are doing with the Citation Project to collect and analyze student use of sources. Their preliminary findings indicate that “Of the eighteen student research texts we studied, none included summary of a source, raising questions about the students’ critical reading practices. Instead of summary, which is highly valued in academic writing and is promoted in composition textbooks, the students paraphrased, copied from, or patchwrote from individual sentences in their sources.”

This is an enormous research project whose results will undoubtedly have many important, practical implications about how we can best teach research. But my concern right now is much simpler: why do my students have such trouble understanding the concept of in-text citation?

For the short group assignment, each student wrote one paragraph that had to include at least two sources. Despite (or because of?) my incessant chant that they must include in-text citations, approximately 80 percent of the rough drafts did not include parenthetical notation of any sort, and another 10 percent or so used a non-MLA format. So what’s going on?

Tentative explanations. Because of the complications of MLA guidelines, perhaps I put too much emphasis on citation form instead of fully explaining a citation’s purpose. The primary problem wasn’t that citations were formatted incorrectly but rather that they were totally absent. After thinking more about it, I wondered if perhaps the fundamental issue (and one I hadn’t articulated in quite this way or thought about enough) was students’ relationship to texts. [read more]

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Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas, Working with Sources
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Learning to Ask the Questions

posted: 4.1.11 by archived

Shopping at the mall with my daughter this week, I shuffled from rack to rack, fingering material and trying to look like I was enjoying myself. I stopped in front of a rack of pastel, short-sleeved shirts in a linen-like material. The sales price was a mere $5.99, which prompted me to look at the label at the back neckline: Made in Indonesia. I checked a half-dozen other racks and found India, China, Vietnam. Is it ethical to buy clothing without regard to where it is manufactured?, I asked myself. I wondered what percentage of clothing from this retailer was manufactured overseas, when this started, how this has impacted local economic conditions, and what remedies, if any, have been proposed.

I want my students to start asking questions like that—real questions that they need research to answer.

I think about such questions each time research-paper time rolls around: how can I stimulate students’ sense of curiosity? If they had that first spark of a question they cared about, I could help them to refine it, to find credible information, to formulate a position, or at least to clarify the competing claims. But once we move beyond the personal essay, they settle so easily on the same tired topics of abortion, death penalty, or the drinking age. They want to spool out the argument they’ve already heard, read, and written, laced with a few facts plucked from short articles they found from a Google search.  Instead, I want students to start with questions they hadn’t considered before, something new and quirky they hadn’t noticed or some long-held assumption they want to challenge. [read more]

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Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas, Research
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One Size Does Not Fit All

posted: 3.18.11 by archived

It doesn’t take long (a week’s worth of teaching, or an hour’s job interview) to realize that one key issue at a community college, underlying its mission of accessibility and affordability, is diversity. In many ways both across the campus and in the classroom, diversity can create a rich, exciting atmosphere: students of various ages and ethnic and economic backgrounds come together to learn from each other’s different experiences and challenge each other’s viewpoints. But diversity also presents tremendous challenges for teachers to design courses that address the other sorts of diversity we face: dizzying differences in levels of academic preparation, reading ability, intellectual curiosity, interests, and (maybe most significantly) goals.

With my grass-is-always-greener sensibility, I imagine it must be simpler in other disciplines—in history, say, where there’s a well-defined list of facts students are expected to know, or in math where there’s a core set of skills students must possess. Learning is not so objective and quantifiable in a writing classroom, despite the general consensus of our syllabi that students emerge able to produce focused, developed, and coherent writing that shows awareness of audience, purpose, and genre and adheres at least roughly to the conventions of Standard Written English. But how do we accomplish that when some of our students want to be massage therapists or chefs or firefighters and others hope to transfer to four-year colleges to study chemistry or philosophy or accounting?

I began thinking about these perennial issues after chatting last week with a colleague about the difficulty of matching student abilities and needs to instructor style and approach. I feel fortunate to work at a college whose support for intellectual freedom allows me to design my own course, subject to constraints of the course description, but this results in such a wide variety of different course designs that (in)consistency between sections (in terms of both student experience and instructor assessment, among other factors) becomes something to consider. In addition, the “adjunct situation” (well-documented elsewhere; they make up about 80 percent of the faculty in our department) makes communication a challenge. [read more]

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Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas
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Talking in Class

posted: 3.11.11 by archived

I started blogging seven or eight years ago as a way to engage in professional conversation. I was new to teaching, twenty years out of graduate school and eager to find someone to talk to—but I soon realized how difficult that would be with the hectic and conflicting schedules of the 5-5 teaching loads of full-time faculty and the multiple teaching gigs of my fellow adjuncts. Though blogging does help me to feel connected professionally, there’s nothing quite so invigorating as sitting down at a table of colleagues to talk teaching. That’s what I had a chance to do yesterday, at a Reflective Practice session with five other teachers where I raised one of the issues I’ve been struggling with lately: how do I get my Writing about Literature students to talk to each other?

My colleagues offered these suggestions for use in the classroom:

  • Try a fishbowl, where a group of 5–7 students sit in the middle and carry on a discussion while the rest of the class watches, taking notes as they await their turn to “sub in.” (I had heard about this method for use in high school classrooms, but hadn’t thought to apply it to my own class; note to myself to read up on active learning strategies!)
  • Throw out an offbeat question that connects characters to students’ real lives (which character would make the best friend?), or try what-if or what-next questions.
  • Ask students to prepare a visual that connects to a story or poem; a colleague reported that in a unit on suspense she asks students to construct a representation of their Evil Twin.
  • Many teachers said that they’d had the most success with small-group discussions (centered on a group of questions provided by the instructor or a poem to present to the class; several mentioned using groups to generate questions for whole-class discussion or writing assignments). Students seem more relaxed in groups, leading to greater participation overall, but teachers stressed the importance of either formally assigned roles within the group process or the requirement that everyone participate in the report-back-to-class portion (if that happens orally). [read more]

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Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas
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Keep It Simple, Stupid

posted: 2.25.11 by archived

That was the message from my class when I tried to implement my grand scheme of turning the “simple” personal essay assignment into a collaborative Anthology project. We had already visited a computer lab where students set up individual blogs in order to post rough drafts and journal-type reflections, and we had figured out (haltingly) how to get students access to a Google docs space for sharing anthology ideas, but when I tried to introduce MS Word’s commenting feature as a way for them to share drafts to help each other proofread, their eyes started to roll back in their heads. One brave soul voiced her objections, and others soon chimed in. It took me about thirty seconds to acknowledge that they were right.

I believe there are several potential causative factors for this technology revolt:  my attempts this semester to introduce more collaboration to my composition classes; my teaching schedule, which includes both f2f and online classes; and my own excitement about exploring different technology tools (an interest not necessarily shared by my students).

This whole experience has once again raised a host of questions about how I can best use technology with my particular community college students. (For now, I won’t try to define how “community college” impacts the technology issue except to say that the very diversity of the CC student population is the most significant complicating factor.) Here are some of my questions:

How much? Several of my students expressed nostalgia for the system they were accustomed to from their high school English classes: papers passed back and forth between student and teacher in a private way, teachers marking mistakes, students correcting them. I’m not going to do that in my classes. Just as I insist that my students turn in word-processed essays, I require blogs as a way to make student writing public. Is that my electronic line in the sand? Is it a reasonable one? Can I ask that much? Should I require more? [read more]

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Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas, Writing Process
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Lit for Comp

posted: 2.11.11 by archived

This semester, for the first time in several years, I am teaching a section of second-semester composition, which at my college is titled Writing about Literature. Its course description sits uneasily between comp and lit:

Students read and respond to diverse literary texts while continuing to build on the critical thinking and writing skills developed in ENG 101. This course provides a foundation for the study of literary genres, including poetry, drama, the novel, and the short story. Students apply literary terminology and theory and use evidence to support their responses through a variety of writing assignments. In so doing, they make connections between their lives and the world.

I won’t address the appropriateness of this as second-semester comp class, since that battle has been fought already (at least locally), but I have practical concerns about exactly what literature to assign in the course.

Many of my colleagues use standard anthologies, with their familiar selections of short fiction, poetry, and drama (Updike’s “A & P,” Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles”). I understand the pedagogical goals: to introduce students to some time-tested (or rather English-classroom-tested) literature and to teach the skills that compose careful reading. These anthologies also have the convenience of providing in one volume both familiar texts and an introduction to literary terminology and theory (cf. course description). And I was particularly struck by a colleague’s recounting of how thrilled one of her students was to hear mention in “the outside world” of some Robert Frost poem they had studied in class.

I have my misgivings about this approach, though. Take, for example, Faulkner’s  “A Rose for Emily.” I’ve had several recent conversations with students befuddled about that particular short  story. I spoke to them in vague terms about reading carefully and making note of things they didn’t understand. I did not, however, point them in the direction of all the available online help: 243 essays from alone.  Even if students don’t give in to plagiarism temptation, the situation is uncomfortably close to the ethical concerns of enticement. How many students who know of such resources will resist the temptation to at least look? Maybe that doesn’t matter. Is it so different from literary scholars reading the criticism of others? [read more]

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Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas
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Personal Essay as Anthology

posted: 2.4.11 by archived

Despite the backlash against expressivism that sees personal writing as narcissistic, I still begin my first-semester composition classes with the personal essay in one form or another. I have many reasons for doing so, especially at a community college where a too-hasty rush towards academic writing seems inappropriate for the more than 50 percent of my students who will not transfer to four-year institutions.

I want my students to at least start with material that they care about, material over which they have some authority, even—or especially—if they still need to discover that they do indeed have the authority to speak about their own lives. I’d like them to start with material that facilitates their development of a natural voice. Finally, in personal writing I think they have a greater chance of seeing that writing can be not (just) drudgery but also discovery, as new realizations about their own lives pop mysteriously onto the page or screen.

I’ve written in the past, though, about problems I’ve had with the personal essay assignment. I want students to move beyond the notion that “it’s interesting because it happened to me!” I tell them that to interest the reader they need to connect their own particular experience to something more universal, to set their reader to remembering or questioning something that happened in his or her own life. I’d like them to start to see their writing as entering, in some small way, into a conversation of other writers about such human concerns as family ties and moral dilemmas. [read more]

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Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas
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Chatting with Students

posted: 1.28.11 by archived

I’m teaching three online (or mostly online) classes this semester, so I’ve been spending more time than usual thinking about technology. As I get my classes organized, I’m trying to keep in mind the advice of a colleague: course design is not just schedules and assignments but the structures put in place for me to communicate with students and for them to communicate with each other.

I had a lightbulb moment a couple of weeks ago that has stuck with me. In a hybrid class I’ve been teaching comprised of a small group of developmental writers, students had been having problems understanding the assignments I’d posted online. I had thought the assignments were simple—paragraphs in some of the usual development patterns—but students’ paragraphs didn’t seem to match the assigned pattern. It was only in our weekly face-to-face (f2f) meeting, when they could try out sample topic sentences and I could give immediate feedback, that one exclaimed, “Oh, now I get it. It’s so much easier to understand when we can talk it out this way.”

It was difficult for me to know what had been the source(s) of their misunderstanding. Was my assignment unclear, with insufficient examples or explanation? Were students reading too hastily? Were student learning styles more auditory than visual? Whatever the issues, it was clear to me that, especially in my fully online classes, I need to experiment with both audio and video communication as well as synchronous sorts of communication.

I had already been inspired by Jay Dolmage’s Bits post on video-responding to student writing, which I plan to try out this semester, but I’m thinking of other ways to use audio and video as well. [read more]

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Categories: Classroom Challenges and Solutions, Community College issues, Holly Pappas
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