A Possible Rubric for Rehearsals

cropped rubric

I can get a little nutty for rubrics. They give me a sense of grounding in our hectic and complicated educational system. The CUNY system has over 269,000 degree-credit students. That’s more people than live in New York state’s next largest city. Baruch has over 17,500 students and more than 129 languages are spoken here.

The students come to us with different goals and different skill sets. As fellows, it can feel as though we play a highly ambiguous role in students’ learning. We generally have little influence on assignment design, yet we are charged with facilitating the students’ acquisition of necessary communication skills so that they learn more in completing their assignments.

Like Julia and Christine, I’ve been thinking about assessment even more than usual because of the Schwartz Institute’s self study. Conducting Business Policy workshops and rehearsals for five semesters has brought me to the point where I want to be able to give each student an assessment to take with them at the end of a session.

This semester I will be using a rehearsal worksheet during my Business Policy rehearsals. Even though I see the rehearsal as covering three main components (content, presentation skills, and visual aid design) I organized the chart bilaterally. I believe that mastery of content and delivery skills are deeply intertwined and that the reason many students stare at their notes rather than looking at their audience is that they fear they do not know the material well enough.

Please let me know what you think of the worksheet; if you have suggestions for a better layout or different categories of analysis. Feel free to use it and if you do, please let me know what you think!

Multiple Moles

In George Saunders’ 2012 short story “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” an overextended father warding off an encroaching psychotic break starts keeping a diary, addressed to the future. In one entry, he compares the Sisyphean task of parenting to a game of Whac-a-Mole:

Family life in our time sometimes seems like game of Whac-a-Mole, future reader. Future generations still have? Plastic mole emerges, you whack with hammer, he dies, falls, another emerges, you whack, kill? Sometimes seems that, as soon as one kid happy, another kid “pops up,” i.e., registers complaint, requiring parent to “whack” kid, i.e., address complaint.[1]

I am, I suspect, not the first person to feel just this way about the task of teaching first-year college students how to write, perhaps especially in the fall semester: the sense of an unceasing escalation of tasks, the breathtaking speed with which fifteen weeks evaporate, the impossibility of accounting for when and where the next mole will pop up. Within the time of any class period, too, there are these unforeseeable emergences, more questions than can ever be answered.

I have been thinking a lot about one piece of advice for how to manage such moles (perhaps less a piece of advice than a utopian ideal): Make Everything You Teach Multiply Motivated—i.e., whack more than one mole with every hammer.

Below, I sketch out how one very short text—a chapter from Walker Percy’s 1983 Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book—allowed me to address a lot of topics within the space of less than a full class period. (Click through for a pdf of the chapter—highly recommended.)

(To contextualize a bit: my students are beginning to draft essays about a text that they have been working with for about the last four weeks. The essay calls for them to assess the reliability of the primary text’s central claim against its own evidence—and to import other “secondary” texts that discuss a related idea, using those secondary texts as lenses for thinking about some implications of the primary text. My main focus for this class period was to get my students thinking about their respective primary texts in terms of the questions posed by those texts, and to consider how their secondary texts provide ways of responding to – or pushing back against – those questions.)

Here are some of the moles that the chapter allowed me to whack:

  1. It models a strong introduction.

The chapter, titled “The Fearful Self: Why the Self is So Afraid of Being Found Out,” begins:

A recent poll asked people what they feared most. A majority of respondents agreed in ranking one fear above all others, above fear of sickness, accidents, crime, war, even death. It is the fear of speaking before a group, stage fright.

Yet, in the conventional objective scientific view, man is an organism among other organisms and a man should therefore not be terrified to be surrounded by his own kind, other like organisms who are not merely not hostile but by the very nature of the occasion well disposed, and to open his mouth and speak in a language he has learned from his fellowmen. A wolf howling alone in a wolfpack doesn’t get stage fright.[2]

Two principles of introductions that my students recognized and were able to name were Percy’s engagement with his reader, and his setting up of a problem or question by “turning back against” a received way of thinking (i.e., It is reasonable to have stage fright, since it is the most common fear –> Is it reasonable to have stage fright?).

  1. It demystifies what we mean by “essay.”

Because my students are working on essays, I liked this chapter for the way it literalizes some of the essential moves of essayistic writing: after the two-paragraph introduction, Percy goes on to write a multiple-choice question and answers, and two thought experiments. These formats, which Percy borrows from the self-help genre he satirizes in Lost in the Cosmos, perform a kind of strategic oversimplification of the process of writing an essay: you begin with a question, and you test out many possible responses; or, you experiment with following your digressive thoughts in order to see where they eventually lead you.

Take a look at what he does with the multiple-choice question format/genre:

Question: What is so frightening to so many people about speaking to an audience?

(a) Is it because the ever-present chance of making a fool of oneself before one person is multiplied by the number of listeners, so that an audience of 50 persons is 50 times more terrifying than one? Is an audience of 50 million a million times more terrifying than 50?

(b) Is it because, since one person, friend or stranger, is often difficult to deal with, 50 people are 50 times more difficult?

(e) Is it because you know that what you present to the world is a persona, a mask, that it is a very fragile disguise, that God alone knows what is underneath since you clearly do not, perhaps nothing less than the self itself, and that if the persona fails, what is revealed is unspeakable (literally, because you can’t speak it), like what was revealed when the Phantom of the Opera had his mask ripped off, a no-face, a vacancy, a hole which is much worse than the ugliest face—so frightening, in fact, that you remember, as a child, crawling under the seat in the movie?

Only by going through the process of “testing” multiple answers to his initial question is Percy able to arrive, in option (e), at what seems to be his central idea. (I also admire the way the multiple-choice format implies that its answers are always somehow congruent, whereas Percy reveals in his answers the essentially incongruous “turn” his thinking has taken.)

  1. It lends itself well to imitation.

Before showing them this chapter, I had asked my students to write out a question that they were still reckoning with in the primary text they are writing their own essays about. After we read Percy’s chapter aloud as a class, I asked them to write out several multiple choice answers to the initial question they had written down, and to retain the question form in their mutliple choice answers—in other words, to use Percy’s form as a springboard for thinking further about their own questions and ideas.

  1. It demonstrates the work that a good title accomplishes.

The title of the chapter (“The Fearful Self: Why the Self is so Afraid of Being Found Out”) seems straightforward enough for a chapter that is, ostensibly, about the fear of public speaking. Yet, by the time we reach the middle of the chapter (see multiple choice response “e” above), it becomes clear that the title in fact refers to the idea that Percy is developing implicitly: that when we speak before an audience, we are less afraid of others, and more afraid of our own selves.

  1. It enacts thinking as play.

The chapter continues,

Thought Experiment: If you are a shy person, which of the following situations is the most terrifying to you? Which is the least terrifying?

In the first, you are a mid-echelon executive in the sales division of a large company in which you are both successful and well liked. You are scheduled to deliver a speech at the annual banquet, an honor. You have months to prepare.

In the second, you are the character Richard Hannay in Hitchcock’s The Thirty-nine Steps. Pursued down a street by his enemies, he ducks into a doorway which happens to be a stage door and finds himself on a stage at a political rally where he is mistaken for the guest speaker and introduced. He has not the faintest idea what he is supposed to talk about.

In the third, the world’s population has been destroyed by nuclear wars. Only you have survived. The earth is invaded by extraterrestrial beings. They capture you and haul you up before a large tribunal and make it known to you that you must give an account of yourself, what you are dong here, why you should be spared, etc.

Explain your choice.

This section again reinforces a principle of essayistic writing: that the reader needs to think with you, to follow a train of thought. It also demonstrates a principle that could be transported to other kinds of academic writing: that effective argument need not be, necessarily, pugilistic; it can also be playful.

  1. It introduced the term “thought experiment” into our shared discourse.
  1. It foreshadowed a theme that will, undoubtedly, become prominent in an upcoming class, when I ask my students to read parts of their finished essays aloud in front of their classmates.

Of course, I could list an equal number of things that this text did not accomplish for our class, moles that went by the wayside. (Percy’s screwball humor, sadly, did not resonate with everyone.) But the text did, at least, for this particular moment in the semester, alleviate some of the pressure of trying to Do Everything, and I fully intend to keep asking my students, ad nauseum, to think beyond answers (a) and (b); to remind them that, until they’ve arrived all the way at answer (e), there is further work to be done.

[1] George Saunders, “The Semplica-Girl Diaires.” The New Yorker. October 15, 2012.

[2] Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1983.

Developing a Debate Rubric for Management 3800

Participating in BLSCI’s self study has led me to think more about assessment, especially as it relates to my work as a Writing Across the Curriculum Fellow in the institute. WAC pedagogy emphasizes assignment design that is based on outcomes for learning, thus assessment is key to determining whether those goals are being met. It occurred to me that the Management 3800 students I coach have little sense of the learning outcomes they are meant to achieve by engaging in an in-class debate. What key communication skills are they supposed to learn and demonstrate? In the practice sessions I have held with student groups, their concern isn’t whether they have developed the necessary skills, but whether I (as a proxy for the professor) think they are doing what he wants in order to receive an A on the assignment. Perhaps this lack of clarity occurs because the professor I am working with doesn’t use and distribute a rubric for the assignment. In this post, I expand upon my earlier discussion about incorporating WAC principles into the courses I am supporting this semester by considering how developing a rubric for the debate assignment would help both the students and myself as their coach achieve our respective outcome goals.

Although the professor distributes a document at the beginning of the semester that outlines his thoughts about debating and thus implies what he is looking for in the students’ performance, (to my knowledge) they are not directly informed in advance about the criteria he will be using to evaluate their skills. His post-debate feedback for individual students covers aspects of both content and delivery. He comments on the following elements of the debate (in this order): dress, voice, ability to express ideas, presentation, preparation, rebuttal, closing statements, and overall effect. It is unclear whether any of these elements are prioritized in his evaluation of the student’s performance. Nor is it quite clear how a category like “presentation” differs from “ability to express ideas” or “overall effect” in the skills that are being assessed. By what standard is something like “preparation” being determined?

I feel that students would be better supported if fellows worked with faculty to develop a standard rubric that accounts for the overall skills the debate assignment aims to develop. During the coaching session the fellow could go over the rubric with students so they have a better sense of what they are meant to gain from the assignment based on how the professor will be evaluating their presentation. The fellow could even make written comments in each area/grid of the rubric so that students leave the session with something concrete to work on (rather than a vague sense of needing to improve based on our verbal feedback). While fellows are meant to consult on the delivery—not the content—of presentations, the rubric would certainly cover both elements and, in practice, I have found that students who come to my sessions want (and need) help with both. I challenged myself to imagine what a debate rubric would look like and admittedly had some difficulty because the assignment requires many skills and seems to aim for a number of different but related learning outcomes. Nonetheless, the rubric might include elements like coverage of the topic, organization of ideas, persuasiveness in the use of evidence, extemporaneous speaking skills, communication clarity, self-presentation, etc. Although it would take work on the part of both faculty and fellows, creating a debate rubric is a feasible goal because it doesn’t require any changes to the assignment or course design (unlike, say, scaffolding).

Finally, reading Christine’s thoughts about assessment criteria for the communication intensive course she supports (her post doesn’t identify the specific course) prompted me to consider how the communication goals of the debate assignment in Management 3800 relate to, as well as differ from, other oral presentation assignments Baruch students are given. If there are overlapping goals for the various oral presentations students complete in their courses, how might we synthesize design and assessment across the assignments to support these outcomes? Alternately, what is unique about debating as a way of thinking and communicating that might be significant for designing an outcome-based assessment in Management 3800?

Communication on the Streets: Three Examples

As someone who rides a bike pretty much everywhere I go in the city, I get to witness all the ways that the people who use our streets communicate with each other. Getting from A to B on New York’s busy thoroughfares is sort of like a square dance in which you’re constantly moving from one partner to another; a successful performance requires that you not only execute the choreography with each partner precisely and synchronously, but that you also contribute to the group’s pattern of movement around the dance floor by flowing easily from one position to the next. And as with a square dance, navigating the streets safely on foot, by bike, in an automobile, or on any of the other crazy things that one sees on the roads today requires constant visual and aural communication between all participants. Pending the findings from a scientific study on how communication between cyclists and motor vehicle drivers works, allow me to unscientifically highlight three of the communicative modes that dominate NYC’s traffic tango:

  1. The Middle Finger

Ok, so I’m most familiar with this gesture when it emanates from my own hand (and often that of other cyclists), usually directed at a car driver who I feel has pulled a jerk move. Flipping the bird is a form of visual communication, and its counterpart in the pedestrian world is the WTF look, a contorted face accompanied by shoulders and hands raised with palms open in disbelief at the jerk move the driver or cyclist who violated their right of way just pulled. I’ve seen motorists give the one finger salute or pump a fist, but it’s generally harder to communicate visually with them. In fact, even though the main rationale provided for laws prohibiting substantial window tinting in New York seems to be safety for cops,I think tinted windows are a huge hazard primarily because they inhibit that most basic form of visual communication—eye contact—between drivers and all the other road users whose safety depends on it.

  1. The Honk

Don’t expect to see these anymore.

Last year, the NYC Transportation Department took down all of the “Don’t Honk” signs in the city. The removal of the signage, which also advertised the fine for unnecessary honking ($350), was NOT prompted by a change in law, but rather by “an effort to declutter the streets of often ignored signs.”  Like others, I was saddened to know that we’ve resigned ourselves to accept this form of aural communication as a regular part of our streetscape. The way I see it, honking in any scenario besides a potentially dangerous situation is a violent act. When directed at cyclists and pedestrians, it is an aggressive statement of a driver’s greater power to which those non-motorized travelers have little possibility of responding in kind. Of course, cyclists and pedestrians often do respond and engage in plenty of aural communication of their own on the streets. Here we enter the more specific realm of verbal communication, which consists largely of venomous insults about other people’s inability to follow the utopian etiquette for street use that each of us has devised in our heads. What is it about being on the streets that makes us so nasty to each other?

  1. The Wave

Another mode of visual communication, this one comes in many varieties. There’s the one where a driver oh so graciously gives a pedestrian at a crosswalk a hurried wave motioning for them to cross, even when they already have the right of way, though in rare instances it is altruistic. And then there’s the wave of “thanks.” This gesture expresses gratitude to other folks for yielding to them, whether or not traffic norms dictated he or she do so. I am consciously trying to foster this approach more often, hoping that positive reinforcement for good driving behavior will help change habits. During a road trip across the country years ago, a friend clued me in to a similar visual cue in the trucking world: At night, when one big rig is passing another, the driver being overtaken will flash their high beams when it is safe for the passing vehicle to pull back in to the right lane. The trucker who has just passed will then tap the brake lights twice (or briefly turn on the hazard lights) to say “thanks.” I got to engage with this lingo a few times and it felt good to be friendly on the roads! Let’s hope that the path to “ending traffic deaths and injuries on our streets,” the goal of NYC’s new Vision Zero plan, makes us all more civil communicators.

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?


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