Making Sense of the Transition to College

Big Fish Little Pond

“Big Fish Little Pond”

Making Sense of the Transition to College

Perhaps not surprisingly, it really matters what we ask students to write. As instructors, and support staff, one way we can help students with the transition to college is to encourage or even demand that students respond to specific prompts that focus their writing and subsequent thoughts on their transition experiences. A rough comparison of FRO 1000 and the SEEK Freshman Seminar blogs shows how different prompts supported students in different sense making processes. As Toby Fulwiler points out in a foundational WAC text, “writing makes thoughts visible and concrete and allows us to interact with and modify them”  (1983). It is this process of making thoughts visible and interacting with them that sense making happens.

As instructors we can use writing prompts to direct students to work through specific thoughts and challenges like the transition to college. For example, the Freshman Seminar directed students to interact with the following prompt:

Create a two-minute video, an eight-image slideshow, or a ten song musical playlist that represents who you think you are to your classmates. Embed your creation in a blog post and then write a post of no more than 500 words that explains how what you’ve created speaks to who you are.

The prompt encouraged students to reflect on the self, and the student responses – again not surprisingly – did just that. They worked through questions like “who am I” and “how do these songs or slides represent me”.

The first few sentences from one post convey a sentiment that a number of students’ communicated:

When initially given this assignment, I thought creating a blog post about myself would be easy. Though I was not necessarily happy about it, I thought it would not be a problem because, generally speaking, I like to believe that I have a decent grasp of who I am as an individual. However, as I sat down to select pictures and craft my slide show, I realized just how difficult it is to effectively convey who I am as an individual in only eight images.

In this excerpt the student articulated the struggles and the process of making sense that many of her peers engaged in as they composed written and pictorial representations of themselves. After the above introduction the student wrote about moving from Florida to New Jersey and “the impact this change had” on her life. Her final paragraph included a quote from Vonnegut and her explanation of the purpose of the quote:

I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” I included this because it accurately describes how I aspire to live my life — taking risks and engaging in new experiences, in order to continue to flourish as an individual.

The first FRO 1000 prompted students to look inward and make sense of their self and then present a narrative about themselves outward in concrete and visible text on their FRO 1000 blogs. It created an exercise of literally constructing a representation of self in Baruch’s digital space.

In contrast the prompt that the SEEK Freshman responded to directed them to reflect on the relationships they were developing in their first weeks at Baruch:

I invite you to tell a story about your first week of the fall semester at Baruch College.             Research has shown that during the first semester students often worry about whether or not professors and other students at their college will accept them, and how eventually students become comfortable there and find a family of people with whom they are close and feel they belong. Please describe how you have experienced your first week of the fall semester at Baruch College…

The prompt was adapted from a Walton and Cohen (2011) article published in Science that showed how writing about the transition to college helped freshman make the transition to college and subsequently improve their graduation rates and overall GPAs. In this excerpt from his first post Almightybrou (a pseudonym) reflected on his experience meeting new people at Baruch:

After we went to the library, we were just standing in the lobby with other people in our             class and we were all just having light conversations about our common interest, such as sports and intended majors. This was the case in most of our classes since the main concentration of all the professors was to have us do ice breakers. This helped us get familiar with each other and made conversations that much more easier. For me it was both an interesting and exciting week for me. Even though it has been such a short amount of time, i feel that it will only get better as we get used to the people we are around.

Almightybrou used this post to make sense of his relationships with the other students in his cohort. Writing about this experience was an opportunity for Almightybrou to interact with and make the experience visible and concrete.

A quick comparison of the FRO 1000 and the SEEK freshman posts provides a window into how different prompts direct students to write and subsequently make sense of themselves and their college context in distinct ways. The FRO 1000 prompt asked what – “represents who you think you are to your classmates” – directing students to make sense of their self. While the SEEK prompt directed students to think about their relationships with others and in light these relationships asked the students to reflect on how have they experienced their first week at Baruch? The differences in the prompts and subsequent student responses call attention to the ways that writing functions as a critical tool for making sense of the transition to college.

Deep learning in business education

I was introduced to the concept of deep learning a couple of years ago when I attended a Baruch faculty development workshop on effective teaching methodologies. Studies conducted by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) found that students in schools with deep learning reforms show boosted achievement in various assessments, as well as their enrollment and choices in higher education. Overall, benefits of deep learning are: higher test scores, more positive interpersonal and intrapersonal outcomes, higher rate of graduation, higher enrollment rate in higher education (AIR, 2014). So we see the benefits of implementing deep leaning regimes, but what is deep learning exactly? Can we implement it in our own classrooms? How?

I did some digging around and found a good definition: Deep learning (or deeper learning) is The combination of (1) a deeper understanding of core academic content, (2) the ability to apply that understanding to novel problems and situations, and (3) the development of a range of competencies, including people skills and self-control (AIR, 2014). Based on my experience in observing and teaching management classes at Baruch, I believe that experiential learning might be an effective way to induce deep learning.

Base on my understanding on this topic, deep learning can only take place when students are actively solving problems or answering questions that are important and interesting to them. In each class, the instructor should engage students in experiential learning by having them directly participate in activities such as simulated workplace scenarios (negotiating for salary increase, making firing/hiring decisions, choosing benefit packages for employees, etc.), case studies, small group discussion projects, and in-class debates. Through these activities, students are able to put themselves in real life situations that are closely related to their interests. While working through problems by using theories taught in lectures, students can reinforce their learning and gain a deeper understanding of how and why their newly acquired knowledge can be practically applied. Learning through a variety of experiences also creates a welcoming and engaging classroom atmosphere, which better addresses the diverse learning needs of Baruch’s student population. In addition, I believe that instructors should take advantage of the technological tools available to facilitate the delivery of knowledge. Doing so enables instructors to provide students with the opportunity to customize and design their own learning environment. Commonly seen methods include using movie clips, TED talks, business leader interviews, game show type quizzes and interactive online activities, which visually demonstrate management theories and stimulate students to think outside the box.

At the moment, from what I can gather, I sense that Baruch students do not always experience deep learning and most seem to view their business education as a mandatory path to acquire standard validation in preparation for the “real” world. It is not common for students to break away from the idea that simply memorizing and reproducing knowledge is doing themselves a disservice, they also need to be able to sought personal meaning by transforming information in terms of their own understanding, and in time, undergo rewarding personal transformation and development. As scholars and educators, I think we should do more to promote a culture of deep learning and make our teaching more impactful and meaningful.

Communication Intensive: What’s the Criteria?

A few weeks ago, I introduced myself to a class that I’m supporting this semester as Communication Fellow at BLSCI. I outlined the support services the Institute provides and specifically the support I will provide to students during rehearsals for their presentations. In the time I’ve worked as a fellow, I have never given an introduction and students did not have any questions. Not only did these students not have any questions, they also seemed reluctant to answer any of the questions I posed to them. I received engaged eyes, but no words to follow the expressions their eyes were emoting. I asked myself: how communication intensive is this course, if the students aren’t comfortable answering simple questions about their academic level or if they have anxiety giving oral presentations?

At BLSCI, we are in a self-reflective process right now, assessing the services we provide and what services we could potentially offer to students and faculty. With a new director at the helm, self-assessment is always key, to see which direction an organization needs to go. I wonder based on the silence I received from that one particular class of students if assessment needs to occur on deeper levels based on the curricula in each course. If most students prepare an oral presentation in courses designated as communication intensive, and they interface with BLSCI specifically for this one presentation, what other opportunities can be made available to students to cultivate communication skills inside and outside of the classroom? What spaces can be made available to students to develop their communication skills in addition to giving oral presentations?

As a doctoral candidate at the dissertation writing stage, the Career Services Center at The Graduate Center offers great workshops on professionalization skills such as developing an elevator pitch, crafting resumes for the non-academic market, and alternative career options. What if students at an undergraduate level looked at opportunities to participate in class as opportunities to cultivate their oral communication and professionalization skills? The silence I received from those students was a bit unnerving, mainly because many students think of professionalization and their academic education as two different realms that only converge during an internship and/or when they enter the labor market. Even at a business school like Baruch, students need help to recognize that these realms are not separate but actually work in tandem with each other. Even if the job they currently hold is not their intended career, cultivating good communications skills is key, and lays the foundation for grooming the elevator pitch for the career path one is truly passionate about. I guess in many ways, I do more than consult with students on oral presentations, I also provide them with tools for professionalization. In the future I will begin my introduction scripts with that.

What is a Freshman Seminar?

The Freshman Seminar here at Baruch has long been a mystery to me.  Although I’ve been a Freshman Learning Community leader twice, this has never afforded me much insight into the required but not credit-bearing class, taught by mostly non-faculty, that first-year students attend to learn about Things Freshmen Need To Know.  Entering college is a profound transition for many first-year students at Baruch, including those fresh from their senior prom and Regents exams, those who spent the last decade running their own small business, those whose educational experiences up to this point have been outside of the U.S., and everyone in between.  This semester I’m working on developing a communication-related enrichment workshop to be offered in conjunction with the Freshman Seminar program, which afforded me more knowledge about the program.  Taking a closer look at its structure piqued my interest in the larger freshman seminar movement around the country.

I wondered, what is a freshman seminar, and what is its purpose? What forms does it take at different kinds of colleges and universities? Who does it really well? A bit of research led me to this observation: the form that a freshman seminar program takes at a particular school can communicate a great deal about how the school views its primary institutional function.

The first thing I noticed was that while many universities use the term “freshman seminar,” they use it to designate quite different things. There are two main forms that the seminar takes (and yes, this is a generalization that surely overlooks much diversity).  At most “elite” (ranked as highly selective) private colleges whose websites I skimmed, the freshman seminar refers to a series of very small, highly focused courses designed and taught by faculty according to their specialized research interests. These courses are discussion based and often writing intensive, functioning as an opportunity for first-year students to experience the intimate and rigorous setting of an upper-level seminar at the start of their college career.  A few examples are the programs at Harvard, Princeton, and Bard.

At many other schools—trending in the direction of public and less “elite” institutions, although there are exceptions to this—the freshman seminar is a non-academic program for first-semester students that orients them to the institution’s resources, helps them navigate new challenges of college life, and integrates them into the larger social body of the school. Here are a few examples, from SUNY Stony Brook and New Jersey Institute of Technology.  The brief description of the Freshman Seminar at Baruch has more in common with this second group than with the first.

At first glance the two models may seem entirely different, but I think they attempt to do similar work from different angles. Both models share central aims of integration into a community. In the academic seminar model, the student is integrated into an intellectual community by developing a close working relationship with a professor and a small group of students bound by an interest in a particular set of questions or themes. In this model students often choose or even apply to particular seminars. This kind of seminar is meant to introduce freshmen to the intellectual work of college learning, in relation to a community of thinkers. In the orientation model, the student is integrated into a social community united by the process of managing new challenges and making use of the resources presented by the college institution. The emphasis is at least partially on professionalization and career planning.

Doug Brent’s article Reinventing WAC (Again): The First-Year Seminar and Academic Literacy draws a chronology in which the orientation model (what he calls the non-credit bearing “transition” model) preceded the newer “academic content seminar” model. He argues that such academic freshman seminar models resonate particularly with WAC (Writing Across the Curriculum) pedagogy, because they affirm the idea that learning how to learn, like learning how to write, happens when learners are deeply engaged in discipline-specific inquiry, not prior to the inquiry or in a vacuum where learning is considered in theory.

If the pattern I detect is accurate, why does the orientation model persist more often at public and less elite colleges, while the most elite colleges have adopted the academic model?  Can an academic content freshman seminar also sufficiently cover the kinds of skills that are covered in a not-for-credit orientation model seminar (and perhaps even do so better than the orientation model can)? What do these different models communicate to freshmen about their primary role as students?

Citation:

Brent, Doug. “Reinventing WAC (Again): The First-Year Seminar and Academic Literacy.” College Composition and Communication, 57, no. 2 (Dec. 2005): 253-76.

Trespassing Across the Curriculum or My Semester Abroad in a Land Without Idols

Exactly one week before classes were to begin this term, I was notified that the two sections of ENG 126, “Writing About Literature,” I was scheduled to teach at another CUNY campus had been cancelled due to under-enrollment. In that instant, my dream of a fall flush with dinners and drinks, theater and full-priced opera tickets, morphed into a nightmare of cold leftovers in the 6-hour long rush ticket line at the Met. But such is the life of an adjunct.

My prospective income and peace of mind were partly restored when The Department offered me a single section of WRIT 303, “Research and Writing in the Professional Programs,” as a replacement. I wasn’t much concerned about the migration from “writing about literature” to “writing in the professional programs,” which, at York College, include nursing, occupational and physical therapy, community health education, and a range of other health, social, and behavioral sciences fields. After all, I wasn’t always an English major: I have a BA Human Service Advocacy and an M.Ed. in Secondary Teacher Education. It’s been some time since I’ve worked in either field, but surely I could pick up APA citation style again. More important, I’ve spent the last two years as a CUNY Writing and Communication Fellow, immersed in the language and culture of WAC, WID, and CAC–those unhappy and ungraceful acronyms that name our field and proclaim our identity as citizens of the (academic) world, able to construct persuasive arguments in any discipline-specific language.

It took until the third week of classes for my serenity once again to be disturbed. It happened at the point in my syllabus where I confidently instruct my students in the art of introducing sources. Never, I commanded, drop a quote or paraphrase without identifying the author, title, and genre of the work you are citing: T.A.G. your citations! And that’s the minimum respect you owe to your sources; you might even add a little something about how influential (or controversial!) the work has been in your field. For example:

In the widely read [groundbreaking, ubiquitously cited, still controversial, etc.] first volume of his History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault argues that, while prior to the mid-nineteenth century “[t]he sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.” (Foucault, 1978)

I’ve used this same lesson (with different sources, depending on the course content) as long as I’ve taught college writing, and it’s what I do in my own writing as a Ph.D. student in English.

I sensed something was amiss when students looked from the board to the reading and doubtfully back to me as they tried to reconcile what I was telling them to do with what they were reading. My sense was confirmed as I circulated around the room during the exercise and saw students writing things like

In a recent article in The Journal of Individual Psychology, “Cultural Competence: A Primer,” Len Sperry defines “cultural competence” as “the capacity to draw effectively upon cultural knowledge, awareness, sensitivity, and skillful action in order to relate appropriately to, and work effectively with, others from different cultural backgrounds.” (Sperry, 2012)

Too much information, I thought. What does it matter where it was published or even who wrote it beyond the perfunctory parenthetical citation of last name and year of publication. Why not simply write “Cultural competency can be defined as,” insert quotation, cite and be done with it? And, in fact, that’s what the articles I assigned were doing: “Culture can be defined as ‘the values, norms, and traditions that affect how individuals of a particular group perceive, think, interact, behave, and make judgments about their world’ (Chamberlain, 2005).” Does anyone jump to the reference list to find out just who this “Chamberlain” is? Or feel deprived that we aren’t even provided a page number so we can more fully contextualize the passage quoted? I didn’t.

And yet, as an expatriate English person abroad in the social sciences, I miss the intimacy with which the Humanities engages with sources. We’re taught that writing with secondary sources is like entering a conversation (a cocktail party, even!), listening to the other speakers, and jumping in confidently with our own “intervention.” Writers in the social sciences can sometimes seem to treat sources like faceless statisticians without even first names. Citation in literary theory and criticism, on the other hand, often looks like idol worship–or else the smashing of those idols. In any case, the work is frequently as much about the sources cited as it is about the common object of writer and source. Think of the the complex and fraught legacy of Michel Foucault, whom I quoted above, in the field of queer studies. Simply to cite him, parenthetically, without discussion, without even the courtesy of a first name, in a work of literary criticism would be akin to seating him at a back table with the second cousins. That’s no way to host a party.

Principles of Persuasion

At the end of each semester, I always wrap up my management 3120 and 3300 class with a couple of lectures on negotiation and persuasion. Students learn about various techniques of negotiation in the business setting as well as practice using persuasion practically in their day to day lives (one of my students’ favorite topics is when and how to ask for a raise). More importantly, becoming familiar with the fundamental principles of persuasion contribute to communicating more effectively overall.

My task this year as a WAC fellow is to support business policy 5100 students with their final oral presentations by providing advice and individualized feedback. Public speaking is a difficult art to master, but if we narrow it down, successful presentations in the business field share a common element – presenters incorporate persuasion principles! Most of the presentation in business classes put students in a position where they role play as a consulting group to provide recommendations to companies and advise top managers in terms of future strategy and decisions. Students must convince their audience that they are able to accurately predict future outcomes and they are a trustworthy source of information. Two presentations with the same quality of content can have drastically different outcomes in terms of effectiveness, where the difference often lies in the choice of words, team member cohesiveness, and nuances in message delivery. Hence, I believe that students should be introduced to negotiation and persuasion techniques when they prepare their oral assignment.

I gathered a short list of key concepts (adapted from Robert Cialdini’s principles of influence) that I want to go over with the students in order to help them with (1) working with other students in a team and (2) deliver their presentation effectively and convincingly. Hopefully it will be helpful to them not only for their project, but also for other experiences where they have to work with others and present ideas.

  1. Reciprocity

The principle of reciprocity states that people feel obliged to offer concessions to others if similar discounts have been offered to them. This is because people are uncomfortable with feeling indebted to others. I have seen many groups fall apart near the end of the semester because many students do not know how to get their teammates to work together. Using the idea of reciprocity, the team leader or the team members who are more proactive should divide up the work early on, make small sacrifices/concessions first, and then pressure other team members to complete their own tasks.

  1. Consistency

According to this principle, people want to stay consistent in their opinions, especially if they have shown interest in an idea and become committed to the idea early on. Student presenters should hook their audience with information that everyone can relate to at the beginning of the presentation to capture people’s attention, then ask related questions and interact with the audience throughout the presentation to keep everyone interested and engaged. Important pieces of information and main ideas should be stressed and repeated several times throughout the presentation.

  1. Mimetic imitation and social norm

This principle is based on people’s tendency to yield to group pressures and conform to the norm. When working with teammates, team leaders should pressure everyone to agree face to face on a strict deadline to establish a productive norm within the group. During the presentation, students can improve their persuasiveness by introducing real life examples involving well-known companies and events that match their decisions, which will help to convince the audience that the presenters’ recommendations are commonly used by others.

  1. Liking

We are more likely to be influenced by people we like. Likability can be built based on a wide range of things such as similarity in interest, compliments, or personality. Student groups are more likely to be functional if team members first get to know each other and develop a more authentic interpersonal relationship with each other before they have to do work together. If students in a group like each other, the team will work together more smoothly and the presentation will demonstrate better chemistry between members.

  1. Authority and legitimacy

People feel a sense of obligation to listen to people in positions of authority (eg. Pharmaceutical advertisers use doctors to promote their products). There are a few things students can do to improve their appearance of authority:

  1. Wear business attire
  2. Introduce team members as colleagues in a made up consulting firm
  3. Get rid of filler phrases and choose words carefully
  4. Make eye contact, speak loud/clear, and use hand gestures/body language
  5. If possible, bring up relevant prior experiences

Swamp Problems

But how will you look for something when you don’t in the least know what it is? How on earth are you going to set up something you don’t know as the object of your search? To put it another way, even if you come right up against it, how will you know that what you have found is the thing you didn’t know?

—Meno to Socrates

In the “Paradoxes and Predicaments in Learning to Design” chapter of Donald Schön’s Educating the Reflective Practitioner, a text that I will be reading and thinking about with my students in upcoming weeks, Schön evokes the perplexity that many of us confront at the beginning of learning a new skill or discourse. Feeling that we are missing some essential key, we attempt to quell our mounting anxiety by faking the external signs of competence, even as it begins to dawn on us that we are so far afield that we do not even know where to begin looking for the missing key (do not, perhaps, even know that it is a key we are seeking at all and not, rather, a steel file, or calcium carbonate, or a rose-flavored macaron). Schön focuses on the particular pedagogical situation of the architectural design studio, a locus of the design student’s “experience of mystery and confusion,” where, one student observes, “What we have here is a very Kafkaesque situation where you really don’t know where you are, and you have no basis for evaluation. You hang on the inflection of the tone of voice in your crit to discover if something is really wrong.” Hanging on the inflection, the design student (who has not yet learned to “think architecturally”) can sense – viscerally, intuitively – the discrepancy between her performance and the studio master’s expectations, even before she has the conceptual tools to name or describe the particular nature of that gap.

Schön connects the design student’s “predicament” to the paradox described by Plato’s Meno, the “general paradox attendant on the teaching and learning of any really new competence or understanding; for the student seeks to learn things whose meaning and importance she cannot grasp ahead of time.” The student knows that she is failing to see something, yet without seeing what it is she’s missing, how can she begin to look for it? Complicating the design student’s situation even further, the studio master cannot tell her what she needs to know, cannot give her in advance a description of the idea that she needs to attain. In learning to design, it seems, certain “essential ‘covert things’ … can never be explained; either the student gets them in the doing, or he does not get them at all.”

The subtle distinction between “getting it” and “not getting it” points to a kind of irreducible remainder in the practice of learning to design, something greater than the sum of the tasks that the student performs and the studio master’s input on the results of those tasks. The studio master “cannot explain these things with any hope of being understood, at least at the outset, because they can be grapsed only through the experience of actual designing.” Even the experience of actual designing is no guarantee of learning; it remains mysterious (a question of “divine dispensation,” in Plato’s terms) when and if these “covert things” will eventually take root for the student. For even if the student is “able to give a plausible verbal description of designing—to intellectualize about it—he [may] still be unable to meet the requirement that he demonstrate an understanding of designing in the doing.” The only evidence that the student has at last learned to “think architecturally” seems, finally, to issue from within, to be embodied within the student’s practice; it seems, paradoxically, not to have been transmitted from the studio master at all. This question of whether knowledge derives ultimately from the teacher or from the student returns us to another Socratic hypothesis: that “the nature of the process by which we may ‘look for what we don’t know’ … is, in its essence, a process of recollection; the learner ‘spontaneously recovers knowledge that is in him but forgotten.’”

The situation that Schön describes applies aptly to the task my students at NYU’s Polytechnic School of Engineering are now facing as they begin drafting their first essay, an entity that many (perhaps all?) of them might still perceive as one of those “covert things.” Like Schön’s studio master, I have offered guidance that may appear, for now, enigmatic, in that I cannot tell them what shape their eventual essay must take, or prescribe the process by which they will write it. I have told them that their essay must host an idea – something that, unlike a thesis, cannot be constructed according to a plan or formula in which words slide into place like the parts of an Ikea chair. I offer them no assembly manual for this thing that we call an idea; we will know it when we see it. Essentially I am asking them now to do something that I have not taught them how to do, asking them in the doing to work their way out of the perplexity I have been complicit in making.

Like the design tasks that Schön describes, the work that students in writing classes undertake requires that they formulate “the problem of [the] problem.” Rather than present our students with problem solving tasks, we ask that they themselves crreate or select or enact problems. Unlike the perfect AP English exam essay with its sleek topic sentences, the essay that I have asked my students to write may well be “unteachable” – unteachable unless, following Carl Rogers, we “[reframe] teaching in a way that gives central importance to [the teacher’s] own role as a learner.” Schön turns to the controversial remarks that Rogers delivered to a group of Harvard faculty in 1952 in order to think about the role of the teacher in light of the radical destabilization provoked by the Meno. If the student can only ever learn through doing, what does the teacher do? For Schön, Rogers’s performance of “uncertainties and convictions” before the Harvard faculty strategically “elicit[ed] self-discovery in others, first by modeling for others, as a learner, the open expression of his own deepest reflections.” Only by enacting the “paradoxical teacher who does not teach” – who invites or provokes rather than instructs – can the teacher begin to put students to work.

These reflections are inspired in part by a professional development meeting that took place last Friday for the faculty who work as consultants for NYU’s Writing Center, where that center’s director, William Morgan, opened the morning’s conversation through another passage from Schön, in which the writer describes what he calls “the swamp of important problems and non-rigorous inquiry.” Placing Schön’s “swamp” in conversation with L. S. Vygotsky’s concept of “the zone of proximal development,” we talked about the different kinds of confusion that writing entails: the productive kind that leads, after a period of necessary struggle, to insight, and the non-productive kind, the kind where students remain “stuck” in the relative safety of rote ways of thinking rather than attempt the often frightening task of descending into the swamp. We discussed, too, the many different words that exist for the various topological obstacles that we encounter as we attempt to chart new courses (metaphorical and actual) through unknown terrains: swamp, marsh, sinkhole, quagmire, quicksand.

As writing teachers, we face yet another paradox: we find ourselves constructing these bogs and bayous (the “swampy lowland[s where] messy, confusing problems defy technical solution”) even as we also try to guide our students out of the mud and towards the clarity of expression they ultimately need.

Another source of inspiration for these remarks is Kristina’s post below. The “make it work” principle she discusses in the context of Tim Gunn’s marvelous catch phrase seems to point to another kind of engagement with the mysterious space of designing:

Within the particular situation of designers in a workroom, or students in a classroom, “make it work” signifies a practice. This practice can’t be reduced to a simple game of winners and losers. Because its objectives are not about a ranking or a grade, the practice of “making it work” is really about exercising problem-solving, resourcefulness, and experimentation.

Telling the designers on Project Runway to “make it work,” Gunn models a way that we, as teachers, can put the space of the classroom to work, emphasizing “the problem of the problem” that can only be seized through practice. Telling the designer (or the writer) to “make it work” communicates to her “that she is expected to learn, by doing, both what designing [or writing] is, and how to do it,” and that ultimately “she is the essential self-educator” (Schön). Envisioning the writing classroom (or the writing center cubicle) as a studio space – a “work-room,” more than a classroom – entails launching not only our students but also ourselves “on a process which is both fascinating and at times a little frightening,” as Rogers put it; for “[i]t seems to mean letting my experience carry me on, in a direction which appears to be forward, toward that [which] I can but dimly define, as I try to understand at least the current meaning of that experience. The sensation is that of floating with a complex stream of experience, with the fascinating possibility of trying to comprehend its ever-changing reality.” Like my students, I do not yet know where we are headed; I only know that it’s working.

1 Donald A Schön, Educating the Reflective Practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.

Applying Writing Across the Curriculum Principles in Management 3800 Courses

Riffing off Josh’s thoughts about Challenges in Writing Across the Curriculum at CUNY, I want to consider whether WAC can be meaningfully implemented even though fellows have, as Josh puts it, “wildly different experiences.” His characterization of the WAC programs at CUNY is spot-on. Over drinks this past weekend, I discussed assignments with some friends who are also beginning their fellowships and we discovered just how much they diverge across the colleges (I know, that’s some riveting bar talk). While the divergence speaks to the unique program needs at the different colleges, this inconsistency is at odds with the monolithic way WAC was presented during this summer’s orientation for new fellows. So I thought I would use this space to work through how standard WAC principles might apply to my particularly non-traditional assignment coaching Management 3800 students on the delivery of their in-class debates.

Initially, it was a bit bewildering to me to be a Writing Fellow whose work doesn’t directly relate to writing. Dare I say that I failed to see how my role coaching oral presentations could possibly have anything to do with the approaches to assignment design that I spent two days evaluating and preparing to put into action during the WAC orientation. However, having met with the professor whose courses I am supporting and gotten a sense of his thoughts about debating and what he is looking for, I now see how implementing WAC practices could help his students meet these expectations. To this end, I generated the following ideas that integrate WAC principles into aspects of the debate assignment:

WAC Principle: Scaffolding

Debating well requires various skills related to effective communication, like “the ability to subordinate ideas,” “the ability to think and speak in outline terms” and “the ability to adapt” (I am borrowing this language from a document the professor distributes to the students at the beginning of the semester). Because students must develop these related but different skills, it makes sense to scaffold, or break the larger, high-stakes assignment into a number of lower-stakes, skill-specific activities. Last week I visited the classes to introduce myself and there was a palpable fear among many of the students about the prospect of debating in front of their peers. For these students, the stakes, indeed, are high. Scaffolding the assignment to enable progressive mastery of the skills needed to debate well would likely help alleviate their anxiety and build their confidence. In coaching sessions, I then could ask students struggling with a particular aspect of communication to recall the skill-building activity from class.

WAC Principle: Reflective Exercises

Related to the above, assigning metacognitive activities that ask students to reflect upon their own reasoning process could support the development of communication skills. For instance, exercises might prompt students to ask themselves why they thought it made sense to present their points in this order versus any other, or why they thought this was the most convincing evidence to present here to support an assertion versus evidence that might be held in reserve. This kind of reflective strategy can help students internalize—rather than memorize—their debates, enabling them to adapt more readily in the moment. Metacognitive reflection also emphasizes that a successful debate is “a process not just a product”—a WAC slogan that was repeatedly thrown around during those two days of orientation.

WAC Principle: Develop a Voice

Students who have a strong voice for their opinions are better able to communicate with confidence and thus convincingly engage in a debate. Using VOCAT as a tool for students to orally engage with current issues related to their coursework would help them develop a voice. Or, setting up a course blog where students express their ideas and respond to their classmates can give them a chance to exercise their voices in a lower-stakes setting which simulates the exchange of opinions in a debate.

Currently, in the Management 3800 classes with which I am working, the debate assignment is not scaffolded in the ways I describe here. While I discussed these ideas (rather gingerly) with the professor, I do not feel particularly empowered as a WAC fellow to encourage him to adapt his assignment design. My role is to support the students in meeting the oral challenges of the assignment as it stands (it seems this is the institutional precedent for how fellows are to work with Management 3800 courses). There are obvious obstacles to accommodating scaffolding in the course, including a.) the way the debates are spread out over the semester (with the first debate occurring only a month in) and b.) the likely reluctance professors would feel toward revamping their course structure.

The size of the class is also something to consider. During a past semester, the professor I am working with had a particularly small class so that students gave two debates rather than one. I asked him to reflect upon whether he saw a difference in the performance when students were debating twice and he gave a resounding yes. His exact words were, “the learning process from the first to the second debate was incredible.” But with twenty-eight regularly enrolled in the course, he can only fit each student into one debate a semester. In this light, the case for scaffolding in Management 3800 becomes even stronger.

Ethnographic vs. Journalistic Communication

I’m presently wrapping up a summer-long dissertation research trip in Colombia, where I’ve been looking into the history of a type of socially conscious music called canción social (“social song”). One of my main research activities has been collecting oral histories from musicians who were most active during the 1970s and 1980s. I’ve done about two dozen long-form interviews in Spanish over the last three months, so issues around communication have been on my mind a lot lately.

The main thing I’ve been grappling with as I refine my interviewing technique is the difference between what I’ll very simplistically call ethnographic interviewing—the kind championed in fields like  anthropology and ethnomusicology (my discipline) that is aimed at comprehensively describing some aspect of a culture—and a more journalistic type of interviewing. As I started accumulating more and more illuminating testimonies that will undoubtedly prove invaluable to my written dissertation, I began to lament not having put more thought into recording my interviews in a high-quality format that I could use to create audio or video documentaries that could be of interest to non-academic audiences.

The first and perhaps greatest obstacle standing in the way of my making broadcast-quality interview recordings is my utter lack of training. I am now firmly convinced that ethnomusicology graduate programs must include courses on audio and video recording techniques. But beyond the practical matter of training, there are other factors that influence the interview process for academic ethnographers. I’ve often justified my informal recording approach (i.e. plopping my phone somewhere in the vicinity of the speaker and pressing record on the native voice recorder) to myself with the notion that my interviewees would communicate differently with me—in other words, provide me with less of the rich information us ethnographers prize—if I had to envelope them in recording gear, not to mention putting them in front of a camera. I try to impart an informal, conversational tone in my interviews, which sometimes last for several hours, and I think that feel would be lost if I had to spend a bunch of time setting up and testing equipment and instructing people to be conscious of speaking into a microphone. (Catherine’s post last semester touched on how people’s behavior changes in front of a documentarian’s video camera.) Furthermore, many of my interviews veer on to somewhat politically sensitive topics, and I’m quite certain some of the people I talk with would be far less candid if the machinery that records their every word dominated the physical space around them. Finally, if one is planning to present the actual audio from interview recordings in a public forum, it is important to try to obtain clean snippets of speech by not interrupting the interviewee or interjecting with the short affirmative responses that we normally use in every day dialog, and this might contribute further to formalizing the interview.

The other problem I face in obtaining publishable audio is that interviewees I’ve never met in person before often request to meet me in public spaces, usually cafés, which usually have lots of background noise. While I often hold follow-up interviews with my interlocutors in more amenable spaces, I sometimes have only one chance with important figures, and I prefer—and am compelled by the ethics guidelines governing research with “human subjects”—to let people I’m meeting for the first time choose the location to ensure their comfort and convenience.

Needless to say, there are ways to foster an informal interview setting while still recording high-quality material. A friend who studied audio recording suggested using a lapel microphone, which is fairly unobtrusive to the interviewee, can be hooked up to an inconspicuous handheld recorder (or even a smartphone), and doesn’t necessarily pick up lots of background noise. Budget permitting, I might try this set up in future research, though I’ll probably continue to communicate with my consultants in the “ethnographic” mode to which I’ve grown accustomed.

Composition Across the Curriculum

Due to our many discussions about Communication Across the Curriculum and multimodal composing at the Schwartz Institute, I became interested in the idea of Composition Across the Curriculum. In particular, I wanted to think through the pedagogy of using writing, speech, and video in the same classroom. What is similar and what is different for students and instructors when it comes to these different technologies of expression?

Below is an interview with documentary filmmaker Sascha Just, who teaches film production and public speaking in Baruch’s Department of Communication Studies. Her short doc Ambassadors – The Native Jazz Quartet at Work has been screened at the American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs, CA, the The Queens World Film Festival, where it was nominated for best short doc, and at Woman with A Movie Camera.

sascha

1. What kind of assignments do the film production students create?

The students have four assignments. The first one is a dialogue scene. They form groups and pick a scene. We then film the scenes in class and they edit them in the library computer lab.

For the second assignment, they go out and film a chase scene. Two or three people chase each other. It’s a very fun assignment, creative, somewhat adventurous. More than anything, it teaches how to compose a shot and how to create continuity. –How to build a story. We are dealing with structure based on logic. –Basic film language. At this point, most of them could handle [the editing software] Final Cut and all scenes turned out extremely well.

The third project was a fundraiser/kickstarter video for their final project, which was a short documentary. I figured this is a business school and I want to teach them the reality of filmmaking. It’s expensive. A short fundraiser forces you to focus on the essence of your project. The final assignment was 10-minute documentaries.

2. What kinds of writing do the students do during the semester? How does the writing prepare the students for filming or help them reflect on what they created?

For the chase scene, students drew storyboards to ensure that the shot order would be effective, economic, and logical. For the documentary project, they wrote a production plan: a premise of the project and description of what they were going to shoot, where and when. It helps tighten the production, schedule the shoots, plan interviews, and overall tailor production decisions to support the main idea of the film.

The students write a film analysis paper and an exam.  Both written assignments ask students to demonstrate their understanding of film language. This means on the one hand that they use the correct terminology and can communicate with other filmmakers. On the other, it means that they grasp the meanings a sequence of shots can express. For example, why does the filmmaker choose to shoot this scene with close ups? What did she try to convey?

3. Do you see any strong connections between structuring a speech and structuring a doc? –In terms of clarity of perspective, editing (knowing what to put in, take out, when and how to present information), etc.?

Doc films in particular work with reality but they are no more realistic than so-called fiction films. No matter how accurately researched, they always play with reality. The same can be said about speeches and academic papers. I guess, altogether I question the possibility of representing reality.

However, I believe in putting great effort into creating a structure built on logic. That turns out to be one of the most challenging aspects of filmmaking and public speaking. The questions of “does this scene belong here or there, why does it feel right to place this scene here and not there” preoccupy me a lot. It’s a constant negotiation between the style or aesthetics I am trying to create and the content/information I am trying to communicate. Again, the same as with speeches or academic papers.

AMBASSADORS is a very simple story without real dramatic climax, but was nonetheless difficult to structure. The musicians noticed it – I used the songs as a structure. I personally do not like to work with voice overs, but there are many great films that do (REEL INJUNS, a must see). I am trying to keep my own voice out of it as much as possible, because a) I am more interested in what the characters have to say and b) I feel that my viewpoint comes through a lot anyhow, simply because I select, interview, structure etc.

4. Any thoughts on the communication that happens between the documentarian and the subject and between instructor and student? If the same, how so? If different, in what ways?

I hadn’t thought of it before, but I think there are parallels between interviewing and q & a with students. Both require attentive and engaged listening. Waiting till the person is finished. Prompting further thoughts with short follow-up questions. Phrasing questions short and clear. Neither students nor interviewee should spend too much time trying to figure out what it is I am asking, right?

Both students and interview subjects respond much more willingly if they sense that I care. Once I cried in an interview, because what the person (an older, very unhappy Indian) told me was heartbreaking. It turned out to be one of the most meaningful and informative interviews I have ever conducted. So much for neutrality.

We never are objective anyhow, so why would I try that in such heightened situations like an interview or the classroom? It becomes dishonest.

5. Do you have any thoughts about how people’s behavior changes in front of the camera (particularly in this digital smart phone age)? –I ask this particularly in the context of Baruch where we use the technique of taping students and doing an immediate playback so they can experience their vocal and bodily delivery habits as an audience member would.

Even very confident people who believe that they forget about the camera are on some level aware of it. In my opinion, they perform for the camera. Not necessarily a problem. Without the camera, they would perform for the teacher, class, or interviewer. Performing is so often defined as negative = fake. But ultimately it means that students or interviewees pull themselves together, focus, try to make a good impression, and eliminate distracting stories or habits to the best of their ability.

Sascha Just was born and raised in Berlin, Germany and is a doctoral candidate in the CUNY Graduate Center’s Theatre Department. Her dissertation is about the cinematic representation of New Orleans performance cultures. Just’s in-process documentary film Heirs is a music-driven portrait of New Orleans composed of three artists’ journeys into the city’s past: drummer/vibraphonist Jason Marsalis, Mardi Gras Indian Chief Darryl Montana, and theater artist Lisa D’Amour.