Possible Sharon

I went to a meeting today. Yes, a meeting on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, on the day after a big family wedding, and right in the middle of my biggest grading crunch of the semester. I’m dedicated that way. I’m full of PD. I’m full of something anyway.

We talked about a number of things, but one of those things was the theory of possible selves. The idea is basically that productive people visualize multiple possible versions of themselves and work toward becoming the best (or at least the most realistically best) of those possibilities. They try to grow as human beings. They try to cultivate their strengths and avoid falling prey to bad situations or bad attitudes.

I like this idea. Maybe I will keep a “Possible Sharon” blog for 2011. That would probably be better than my “Contentment Diary” entries for 2010. Working toward self-improvement is an idea I can get behind. See, I’m already thinking of self-improvement in terms of writing a better blog. I think I’ve got it.

I also like this idea as a writing prompt for students. It might go something like this:

Write about three possible future versions of yourself–one undesirable, one expected, and one highly desirable. What are some things you can do to become the possible self you hope to be? What do you need to do to avoid becoming the possible self you do not want to be?

I’ve defended my right to be a grouch on this blog, but I actually do believe in positive self-actualization. I believe it is my job to make myself a better person and a happier person rather than waiting around for circumstances to make life better for me. What I don’t believe in is false cheerfulness, which I think we practice all-too-often in our efforts to be seen as glass half-full people. False cheerfulness means you don’t speak up when something really is wrong. It means you don’t always own up to your own mistakes.

I don’t want to be a preacher of false cheerfulness, but I do want to encourage my students to approach school and life as cycles of attainable goals to be worked toward. You’re right, I tell my students when they tell me they can’t write longer papers. You can’t sit down and write a longer paper. What you can do is to write a series of shorter chunks that all fit together into a longer paper. Attainable goals to be worked toward.

Possible selves writing could be a good way to help define those goals. I think I might try working this up as an assignment.

Meanwhile, I am also one of those teachers who believes that you don’t give assignments if you haven’t done them yourself. My mother the teacher taught me that. Of all the things she attempted to teach me that I could have listened to, I chose this. Perhaps I should put on my Possible Sharon list to remember and listen to more things my mother taught me.

I don’t know. I’ll think about that. What I do know is that I’ll have to break this down to make it manageable. If I look only at the big picture, I don’t have too much to say. What Sharon do I want to be in five years? The healthy, happy, successful, financially secure Sharon who contributes in meaningful ways to the people and the world around her, of course. Yes, of course, but what does that mean?

This could take some time. I think I will adopt it as a recurring blog theme. It may be that the Possible Sharon I need to write about is the one I will be next week, not next year or in the next five years. Attainable goals to work toward.

The Possible Sharon I hope to be next week is the one with all of her work caught up. I won’t even get into what the Undesirable Sharon of next week might be like.

Some Possible Sharons I’d like to see emerge in the next few months are The Sharon Who Has Become a Better Photographer and The Sharon Who Once Again Writes Poetry on a Regular Basis and The Sharon Who Gives of Her Time and Energy and Talents to Others and The Sharon Who Has a Really Cool Mostly Organic Garden Going and The Sharon Who Writes About Important and Interesting Things on Her Blog and The Sharon Who is Not an Embarrassment to Vegetarianism Because She Cooks Healthy and Delicious Meals and Has the Energy Levels and the Blog Pictures to Prove It and The Sharon Who Does Wonderful and Innovative Things in the Classroom and The Sharon Who Finishes Novel Chapters and Textbook Chapters Alike.

Maybe that’s enough to start. Once again, I find myself reluctant to express the worst possible outcomes on any of these variations of Sharon. What I do know is that they all basically require the same thing from me. They require me to be hitting on all cylinders, to be clicking along in a state of Flow.

Basically, if I want to be any of the things on my own most desirable list I need to recapture my sense of being able to handle all of my responsibilities without freaking out and without losing focus. They require me to think outside my own aches and pains and to be focused on future potential rather than on present problems. They require me to decrease my levels of anxiety and increase my feelings of well-being.

That’s fairly major. I can’t do it. Not if I’m trying to do all of it. I can only get up tomorrow and do what I can and what I must. Rinse and Repeat. By the end of the week maybe I’ll find a minute or two to ask myself what I’m doing to become Possible Sharon.

Patricia of Next Door says her new motto is “It will all work out” or “Because I am always working on making it work out, it will all work out.” Maybe so. Maybe if I rinse and repeat enough days of trying really hard everything will work out for me too. Right now I think my motto should be more in the manner of the Hitchhiker’s Guide: Don’t Panic.

This might just be the path to recovered flow and thus the path to Possible Sharon. Get up. Do what you have to do. Don’t panic. Rinse and repeat. It will all work out.

The Blog as Collage

Dinty Moore posted this quote from John Edgar Wideman: “All non-fiction moves in the direction of collage.”

That made me think of the collage essay assignment I saw once from John Walter. It also made me think of Jeff Rice saying that he likes to assign longer essays and then break them down into components that students work on piece by piece–a collage of sorts.

Thinking of John and Jeff and Dinty and John Edgar made me think two things: (1) I’ve been meaning to write a collage, but I can’t seem to get around to it; (2) Hey, maybe I’ve been writing collages all along. Maybe that’s what a blog is.

This set me to thinking that I might like to make a concerted effort toward collage writing in the form of an article series. My first thought was to assign myself a topic that I would explore for at least one full week, writing a new entry on it each day until I have a true collage that wanders around and about an issue or a theme from multiple angles. I thought maybe I’ll do that this week since I’ve just written two articles in a row on gay rights, and I plan to write more.

At that point I remembered I have a job other than blogging. I may have to save that kind of assignment for another week or another life. There’s nothing to say it can’t take six months to complete an article sequence or collage, though. In fact, there’s nothing to say it ever has to be truly complete. But maybe I do need to be more aware of how I organize my categories and such so that people do see topic collages when they click on a particular label. Maybe not. Maybe I can find another way entirely of thinking about that.

Which leads me to the idea that if blog writing is essentially collage writing, it is also essentially experimental writing. It is a place to explore.

That takes me back to Jeff’s idea that length requirements for student writing are about giving the students enough room to explore their ideas. This probably means something about how I can use blog assignments more effectively in the classroom. I’m going to mull that over and get back to you on it.

For now, if you see me harping on a theme over here, don’t be too worried about my level of obsession. I may just be working through an assignment I’ve given myself. I may just be working up a collage.

Jeff mentioned 2000 word essays for college composition students. I wrote more than that in my first two entries and felt I had only just begun to talk about my topic. My students would see a 2000 word minimum as harsh. That’s because students come to us as inexperienced writers. They wouldn’t be in the class if they weren’t.

I have 20 years of writing fairly steadily behind me. I’m going to set my starting point for writing my way through a topic I really want to explore at 10,000 words. Really, if I want to be scholarly about it, I should go a good bit higher. I’m not talking about scholarship, though. I’m talking about a sequence of blog sketches.

I’ve read that 10,000 steps per day is the minimum a person should take for general health. That number shoots up to about 18,000 steps per day for additional goals like weight loss and competitive levels of fitness.

Those numbers are arbitrary with more anecdotal evidence behind them than scientific evidence, but I think I will steal them anyway for my concept of what I might be able to do with the blog as collage and what I think it means for the writer to be an explorer of ideas.

10,000 words per topic (regardless of the number of entries it takes to get there) will be my starting point for general writerly health and maintenance. 18,000 words per topic will be my benchmark for the entry point into more competitive writerly fitness levels.

I may or may not let you know how that turns out. I may or may not follow through on even counting my words. It just sounds good to think about it right now, and that’s what my blog is here for.

Education is not a commodity

This video is great. There is a whole series of them that keep showing up on my friends’ blogs. This is the only one I’ve found time to watch so far, but I’m looking forward to the rest. I’ll probably post them as I get to them, but in the meantime if you are curious you can go over to Alex Reid’s blog to peruse through the post where I found this.

Millsaps College has had billboards around and about for the past few years that say, “Education is not a commodity.” Every time I see one I think, “Yeah, right.” Millsaps might actually be one of the best places in this state to get a true introduction to academic inquiry as something beyond a simple commodity, but that doesn’t come cheap. It also has one of the highest tuitions in the state. Everything is a commodity, even idealism.

But the point is, as this video asserts, education is not at its best when it operates on an industrial, assembly line model. Our attempts at standardizing what people ought to know often do end up diminishing what they do know or what they are capable of doing with what they know.

I love the example of divergent thinking here. I have told people before that I have never met a four-year-old who wasn’t a creative genius. Everyone is born with a kind of individual genius that is taught out of most of us in school.

Teaching divergent thinking and creative genius out of people works out okay, we might argue, in an industrialized, cookie cutter economy.

I wonder if we’ll ever have one of those again.

What we aren't talking about when we aren't talking about pedagogy

I’ve been interested in Jeff Rice’s posts this week in which he critiques some Rutgers videos on their composition program. What strikes me most is just the sad fact that the two-year colleges in my area, not just mine but others as well, are not even in this conversation. Jeff is contributing to a national conversation about what college composition is, about what it ought to be, and we’re not part of that conversation.

Maybe we have our own conversations, but we’re not part of the one the one that takes place as the scholarly field of composition.

I read Jeff’s first post where he pointed out that Rutgers requires 5 papers all 5 pages in length for its expository writing course. I groaned when I read that. It didn’t surprise me because it’s not that far off from what the closest university to me does, but it still made me groan. We just adopted a policy of 5 papers all 2 pages in length.

And then Jeff has to make me groan again because he says that he likes to assign papers that are longer than 5 pages.

I groan because I agree. Fewer but longer papers make more pedagogical sense. They teach students more about how to write. That is they teach more if your goals are the goals of college composition as defined by the scholarly field of composition, or at least the certain segments of that field that I like best. That is how to develop and sustain ideas, engage in effective rhetorical strategies, and develop a compelling voice…or something along those lines.

When we aren’t talking about composition pedagogy in those terms, we end up approaching it as a class in organization and grammar. And when I say we, in this case, I think I mean a lot of two-year schools in my area.

We operate in isolation from the national conversation. At least we as a collective do. I personally try to stick my nose into every conversation I can find, though I don’t always get around to as many as I would like.

Most composition classes in this country are taught by people who don’t have degrees in composition. They have English degrees but not composition degrees. That’s why universities hire composition directors who do have composition degrees to design and direct writing programs. Two-year colleges don’t always have that luxury. In fact, I’d say it’s pretty common to have no one with a composition degree in the program at all, and to have no writing program director at all. And two-year colleges teach composition to a lot more people than universities do.

And so we are teaching a lot of students while not talking about composition theory or composition research or comparative analysis of composition programs in major universities. That pains me, but I don’t know what I can do about it.

Bravo to you, Jeff. I enjoyed your discussions. I wish I could jump in and say, hey, I think I’ll do that, but I have my own constraints. While we don’t have anyone with a degree in composition designing a program for us, and while we don’t have anyone with a degree in composition on our faculty at all, we do have expectations of uniformity from class to class. I might get a wild hair from time to time to assign a six page paper, but I just can’t do it. Not to mention that I’d never grade it all if I did because I’m teaching over 200 students right now.

But when I read a blog post like that and I feel this nagging longing to be more like Jeff Rice in my approach to composition, I remember something that I read on another blog once. I think it was Clancy Ratliff’s, but I wouldn’t absolutely guarantee that. Anyway, the idea was that if the students and the teachers are trying hard enough, the students can learn something valuable about writing from just about any approach. I do take heart in that, and I do believe it. I believe I see all around me a lot of teachers working very hard and a lot of students benefiting from it.

We’re the working class of the academic world–the two-year college, and more particularly the small, rural two-year college in the state with the highest illiteracy rates in the country. It’s a dream of mine that loads could be lightened somehow so that there would be time enough in a semester to talk with people in my own area and in my own circumstances about what we mean when we say composition, but there just isn’t, and that has to be a tenable fact of my reality. It just does.

I have made it so, largely I suppose, by reading blogs and pretending I am talking back to them.

For the love of the iPad

I’ve been asked to give a 45 minute talk next week on the iPad in education. I have about 30 seconds worth of stuff to say on that, so it occurs to me that I might need to devote some time today to thinking about it.

I’ve been reading some of Steven Krause’s posts about the iPad. He has good links and good points to make. That’s helpful, but I’m still not sure what to say. I think maybe I’ll just plug the iPad into a projector and spend 45 minutes saying, “Oh lookie here…pretty stuff.”

My main thought after that is that it’s about a year too soon to be able to really say what the iPad can do for the classroom because the applications that we’ll all be most likely to find useful are still being developed. This thing only come out in April, and no one knew what it would look like until it arrived.

That said, maybe I have a thought or three…30 seconds worth of them if I’m lucky.

1. Instant access. The web has developed into an instant access machine, and the iPad only highlights the desire we’ve all developed to acquire our information and entertainment via the microwave method as opposed to the slow cooker method. I can get books, movies, music, audio books, and games all in an instant just by touching a spot on the screen. That’s addictive, and it is, I think, the way our students will expect their courses to be delivered–not just with Burger King’s “have it your way” offer, but we drive by their houses and don’t keep them waiting while we fumble around rolling our windows down.

2. Device synchronization. It’s not about the iPad instead of a laptop or the iPad instead of a smart phone. It’s about the iPad in addition to those other devices. It’s not about figuring out how we can do the same things differently on a different device. It’s about figuring how we can do new things on a different device. It’s also about figuring how to make what we’re already doing workable in a cross platform world. Already, I have had to figure out how to sync my work when I do some of it at home, some of it in the office, and some of it in the library. Now I’ll be figuring out how to do some of it, not just from another computer, but from another type of computer altogether.

3. Mobile access. Yes, this is just a reiteration of #1 and #2. Devices like iPads and smart phones mean that we need to make anything we deliver electronically to students accessible through mobile technologies. That doesn’t mean we’re replacing the lab computers for these pocket gadgets. It just means that the students are going to want to have full access to their course materials whether they are in the school lab, on their home laptops, or standing in line at Walmart, holding an iPhone. It’s a fast food nation.

4. Use the tools, Luke. Use the tools. No one teacher has to invent new ways to deliver content to the iPad, nor do they have to wait for textbook companies to sell them products made for iPad. Plenty of free online tools have already figured this out. WordPress, the software that powers this blog, for example, is very mobile friendly, and the site Scribd is my favorite new place to post class content because it offers easy document publishing as well as multiple download formats.

So there’s my 30 seconds on the iPad. More later if I think up another few seconds worth of stuff to say.

Textbook Cost Legislation

A friend sent this link today about a proposed bill to regulate textbook costs for college students:

Lawmakers push for open online textbooks

I’m not sure the bill actually does have anything to do with open online textbooks. That seems more of an afterthought proposed as a possible solution by the author of the article rather than by the authors of the bill. Not that I’ve read the bill to know, but this is my impression.

It looks like what the legislation is trying to prevent is what was described to me in a meeting yesterday (or was it the day before?) as an “every student pays” plan. Basically, when you have technology bundled with a book, and the technology part is sold as an access code, every student has to buy the books new, and every student has to buy either from the campus bookstore or directly from the publisher. There can’t be any book sharing among friends and there can’t be any shopping around Amazon and EBay for cheaper deals. Every student has to pay for a new book every semester because the technology components will only work with those access codes, and the access codes will only be good for one semester.

My committee was told by a textbook company yesterday (or the day before) that if we have an “every student pays” plan, the company can cut us a deal to lower the costs to the student.

I’m not sure how I feel about that. I’m not sure they really are going to lower costs enough to offset the choices the students lose in an “every student pays” deal.

If it were up to me, I’d say bring on the free online books. I’m working on a free online book myself, and that seems to me to be the only option that clearly represents any real savings to the student.

On the other hand, the textbook companies are not the bad guys here. They are doing their jobs. They have products to sell, and they are attempting to sell them in the best ways they know how. They can also provide more sophisticated products than free online texts because they have budgets to work with.

They also aren’t the people calling the shots on college campuses. Long before I ever heard of an ebook or a bundled book or a free book, people around me were arguing about the ethics of the campus bookstore monopoly and what that meant in terms of costs to students. Colleges have fancy football stadiums to pay for. Something has to be the cash cow. And in times of steady cuts on state budgets, no one wants to see a loss of revenue from any venue on campus.

So the cost of textbooks has reached astronomical proportions. I think the figure I heard yesterday (or at least this one day this week) for my own campus is that on average students are spending 2/3s the cost of tuition on textbooks. By the time you add in lab fees and miscellaneous what-nots, the cost of going to school is probably double the cost of tuition…the price people think they are going to be paying.

Nobody likes that. Two-year colleges especially are supposed to represent democratic access to education. Open doors. Low costs. And to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson “a somewhat convenient drive from home.”

Bring on the free books, I say.

But I still want the cookie trays from the textbook companies. I still want to see the textbook companies sinking money into research and development of new and innovative products. I still want the vendor sponsors at academic conferences keeping the costs down for me.

There aren’t easy answers, and I don’t know that legislation against bundled textbooks is going to solve anything. The “every student pays” plan doesn’t sit well with me, but at the same time I recognize that we’re all going through some major changes right now, and that the textbook companies are experimenting with new business models for the sake of their own survival.

Still, it’s refreshing to see so much interest in cutting the cost to the student. Somebody needs to be working on that. Somebody needs to be working real hard on that.

Maybe even on some days and in some ways that somebody will be me. Or you. Maybe it will be you. It can’t hurt if it is me or you.

Day 1: Back-to-School Prompts for Teachers

Don’t ask me why. I don’t know why exactly. But this morning I posted on my Journally Facebook page that I would be posting writing prompts for teachers for the next couple of weeks…unless, of course, I decide to quit before that time.

Today’s prompt is “This year, I declare myself free to…”

Here’s my own response:

This year, I declare myself free to relax, to meet stress on my own terms. I’ve been taking on too much stress for too long. I’ve been saying yes to extra work when I should have said no. I’ve been too worried about…well, everything.

I’m ready to cut back now, to practice unrepentant dreaming in the classroom and out. I’m ready to take risks and to shake things up, but only in the context of doing what I think is right for the students.

I’m ready to be a pioneer of my own sense of hope for the future, but not a slave to everyone else’s expectations.

I’m ready to write more with my students and less for committees.

I’m ready to just strip life down to what matters. In the case of the classroom, I think that is simply doing what it takes to get through to people, student-by-student.

Nothing else.

Nothing else at all.

Open Books

Voice in the Age of the Web

The intended audience for this is students, mainly my students in ENG 1123 (Composition II). I’ve decided to to Scribd because that gives the students more versatility in how they might access it than posting it directly into Blackboard would. I can embed it into Blackboard the same way I’ve embedded it into this blog post, and they can choose to either read online or download. They can also choose to download to a variety of devices.

So that’s that.

This is one of my answers to my college president’s mandate to switch over to the iPad. Scribd works very well with the iPad. The embeds like this don’t work so well on the iPad. In fact, they don’t work at all because they are Flash based. If you just click the link to go to Scribd, though, you move into html5 territory, and it all starts working like a charm.

And with a pdf document like this one, you can choose from Scribd to download into iBooks which gives you the reading experience designed specifically for the iPad.

It’s a plan I can live with. I’m going to start building, I think, a good bit of course content to share in this way.

This particular piece was supposed to be a rough draft of a textbook chapter. As a chapter, it was not yet complete. But as a class handout, it will do the job well enough.

I’ve had this ambition to write my own textbook for a few years, but it never seems to quite work out. I don’t have the time to see it through, for one. If I haven’t mentioned it before, I’m pretty horrifically over-extended. I’ve looked for other people to partner with me, but those who have been willing and able have also been stretched for time.

I also have this thing about not wanting to make any money off my own students, and this gets a little tricky with textbook publishing discussions because my students come from all over the state. There isn’t a way to sell it to the people most likely to buy it without me facing the dilemma of whether I am asking my students to purchase something for which I get the money.

I tried to come up a plan for publishing it and donating the funds to an organization, but that quickly became extremely frustrating because other people were making decisions about how it would be handled without consulting me first.

Meanwhile I get word that the president of my school wants us all to go to ebooks. The quickest, easiest answer I have for that is to make my own.

This is probably more than you need to know, probably far more than you need to know, but there it is. I’ll be posting a number of things in the next few weeks that are incomplete as textbook chapters but fine and dandy for class handouts. They are for my own students, but anyone is welcome to share.

Shovels, Seeds, and Miracles: A Photo Essay

This is my experiment in a slide-style photo essay. I created this in Keynote (the Mac’s answer to PowerPoint) and uploaded it to SlideShare.

You may see this same essay in several other formats before I’m finished. I’m just considering possible ways to make something like this work as an assignment.