Who is the Audience?

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Who is the Audience?

Earlier this semester a friend confided in me that he was having trouble writing, and I callously guffawed, “It’s just a blog post”. How those words haunt me now. I have experienced an inordinate amount of consternation, conflict and ultimately exasperation in my previous three attempts to compose this post. Each time I wrote about a page, and then decided that I couldn’t, wouldn’t or shouldn’t publish it on Cacophony. I felt like I was sinking into intellectual quicksand, the more I struggled, the deeper I sunk into a certainty that the writing I had spent an embarrassing amount of time on – literally hours – was for naught. As I sank lower and lower into the mire I began to ponder the thoughts and emotions that I felt were stopping me from blogging. I had set out to write a quick post about my research on blogging and I felt as though the very concepts that inspired me to conduct my research were the same forces that were making it difficult to write about this research. In brief, my work focuses on how the medium in which students compose expressive writing – on a blog as compared to in MS Word – interacts with their cognitive and emotional processes and the ways they write, and I am subsequently exploring how these differences can be measured, and ultimately making an argument for why these differences matter. After discarding the first draft of this post I chuckled at the thought that I couldn’t blog about my dissertation on blogging but hours later – still with nothing to show – I wasn’t laughing anymore.

First I attempted to write about my preliminary results.  stop#1

What I’m noticing is that over time the participants are using more evaluative language – meaning they were investing more meaning and effort into their work. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath poised to compose the next sentence. All of a sudden I was in front of my dissertation committee, a stern silverback professor hand on chin in the thinker pose questioned, “But in that blog post you wrote, you stated that evaluative devices would increase and now it seems that is not the case. Can you explain this?”

you suck porsche

I woke sweat drenched in a dark room, a red streak where my  face had pressed against the keyboard. No, no, I decided I  certainly couldn’t blog about my preliminary results.

Well, I thought, what if I write about my coding schema.stop#2

That seemed like a safe idea. I’d even begun describing it in cursory terms in my never to be published preliminary results. I again began banging away at the keyboard, this time describing the syntagmatic narrative-coding schema. But how could I describe this coding schema in a way that seemed relevant and meaningful to an audience not from my mini-niche discipline? How could I convince readers that the system I had spent hours fine-tuning with my adviser and research assistants was meaningful and worthwhile? Should I cite numerous theoretical and research articles in my blog post? If so, should I use APA, MLA or Chicago style and if Chicago would this be Chicago I or II? Even these questions seemed like they would bore readers to sleep. Furthermore, wouldn’t readers want to know at least what my preliminary results of this schema were? And I was still collecting data – what if some of my participants happened upon this post and then changed the way they were writing? No, oh no, I thought, this post on my coding schema would not do. Let me try something new.

Finally, I thought let me describe my methods.stop#3

Ah yes, I can just use some of what I’ve already written in my proposal and this will come easily. But of course it didn’t. The excerpts from my proposal were too dense and psychology specific. I decided to rewrite the methods with more accessible language. When I was nearly finished I realized what I had written was in fact better than my proposal and therefore could serve well as at least part of the method section for my final dissertation draft. And if I wanted to use it for my dissertation draft or perhaps for future publications than I had best not web-publish it. Why not a reader might wonder? As a psychology PhD candidate I’ve though a lot about whether to digitally publish my dissertation. What’s pushed me towards a traditional paper dissertation is the American Psychological Association guidelines, and subsequently any APA journals, that state a manuscript should not be more than 30% similar to work that is previously published. Without getting too far into the gritty details if I blogged my methods section it would make it difficult to use similar wording for future publications.

I’ve used this post to work through and make sense of my thoughts and emotions.

After writing about these fits and starts my audiences seem much less intimidating than when they were bottled up in my mind. In truth, unless I send them the link I don’t think my professors nor my participants will read this piece – and even then… Nor is it likely that whatever I wrote about my coding schema or methods would be identical to what I will write for future journal articles. One question is – does it matter that in “real life” these scenarios were unrealistic? In real life, I was wrestling with these thoughts and they were enough stop me from being able to or at least made me feel as though I couldn’t blog – which is sort of the same thing in the end. The power of these imagined audiences was literally paralyzing. Perhaps too, I was struggling to write about my dissertation because this work is so important to me, and I have yet to figure out how to distill the main points into a concise and accessible blog post. The struggle described in this post has likely moved me closer to being able to do just that.

There is also something very real about imagined audiences. And the commonality between my three false starts was my struggles with these audiences and the very real – though perhaps difficult to exactly define – audience of Cacophony readers. I was struggling to imagine Cacophony’s audience and therefore I was having trouble framing my argument in concise and accessible language. And what do those words really mean? Concise and accessible to whom? Business faculty, communications specialists (I’m not even sure what that means), psychologists, educators, linguists? I should admit I’m new to Cacophony this semester and though I did browse through some previous posts – it was by no means an exhaustive search – so maybe this has been answered. And maybe I’m feeling a bit of what Sarah Ruth Jacobs described on this blog in 2011 as The Academic Crisis of Audience. But enough caveats here’s my question to you reader: who is the audience for this blog?

Think! Think and wonder. Wonder and think.

Think! Think and wonder.
Wonder and think.

Blogging to Learn: Teaching with WordPress

Should instructors incorporate blogging into their courses? Does it have any demonstrable value for learning?

This past semester, I integrated a WordPress blog into my section of Introduction to Writing about Literature at Hunter College. The goal: give students the opportunity to write for a wider audience that includes not only myself, but also their peers in the class (I made the blog private, viewable by course members only). I feel that writing in a (semi-)public forum, as well as reading classmates’ posts, can help to improve the caliber of each student’s work. Blogging allows students to work through ideas and practice thinking about literature in the ways I expect to see in formal paper assignments. I encourage students to write in their own voice (meaning they can be casual) as long as they are expressing themselves clearly. Many of the assignments aim to motivate students by offering them the opportunity to be creative and share a part of themselves with their classmates, something that often doesn’t happen under the time constraints of our regular class period.

In this post, I reflect upon the value of course blogs by considering the ways that the blogging assignments I give draw upon the principles I have learned as a Writing Across the Curriculum Fellow at Baruch and the pedagogical practices under discussion this semester at BLSCI staff meetings.

Scaffolding and Peer Review
Early in the semester, prior to starting work on the first paper (which is a thematic analysis), I give students the following blogging assignment. First, I have them identify a major theme in what we have read of Shakespeare’s play, Measure for Measure, so far and use textual evidence to explain why it is significant. A week later, I put the students in pairs and have them comment upon their partner’s previous post and extend upon it by discussing how the theme develops as the plot thickens, or locating another instance of the theme in the play and providing analysis. This set of blogging assignments functions as scaffolding to develop the skills they will apply in peer-review workshops which we hold as part of the writing process for each paper. Because this assignment familiarizes students with how to provide feedback about another’s claim and make suggestions for extending that claim, they are better prepared to constructively engage with their partner’s draft during the first peer workshop.

Writing to Learn, Creative Writing to Learn
For one blogging assignment during our unit on poetry, I have my students write their own version of Jamaica Kincaid’s poem, “Girl.” This assignment serves to reinforce the skills of poetry analysis I impart in the classroom as we dissect texts because I ask students to reflect upon the interaction of form and content while using poetic techniques to compose their piece. The female students in the class draw upon their unique experiences of being a ‘girl’ and consider how the form of their poems might look similar to or different from that of Kincaid given the disparity in content. The male students explore what a ‘boy’ version of Kincaid’s poem would be like and whether the form and content would be altered radically due to a different gendered experience. The activity takes the WAC principle of writing to learn and applies it as creative writing to learn. While traditional writing to learn exercises are a valuable pedagogical tool for developing skills, students often aren’t motivated by them and consider the exercises to be just another prosaic chore in composition. When writing to learn becomes creative writing to learn, a surprising thing can happen: not only are learning goals met, but students demonstrate inspired thinking in and through the process.

Creating to Learn, Performances of Understanding
For an extra credit assignment, I ask my students to draw a picture, create a collage, pick or perform a song, etc. that is representative of a particular character in a novel we read together, Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. The character, a web-footed hermaphrodite, defies realist narrative conventions and takes shape through metaphor and allusion rather than literal description. With this in mind, I have my students consider how they might render this character based on lines from the text such as, “Being with her was like pressing your eye to a particularly vivid kaleidoscope.” Or, how they would depict her as a representation of a certain kind of passion. The goal is for students to transfer a skill we have been honing all semester, that is, critical engagement with figurative language in texts and apply it to a creation of their own. Essentially, I want them to execute the kind of performances of understanding, or demonstrating learning by ‘doing’ in another context, we have been discussing in recent BLSCI staff meetings. The results of this exercise are beyond anything I expected. Several students posted stunning original drawings, along with a few sentences explaining their idea. Here’s one example:

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Another (a music production major) even performed a song that he wrote using descriptions of the novel’s setting as a metaphor for the character in question and for passion itself. Talk about performative learning!

Singing the Second Wave

Over the past few years, the Second Wave has had a second coming. Feminist performance scholar Jill Dolan delivered a gorgeous meditation on women’s music of the 1970s at Cornell’s “Resoundingly Queer” Conference in the spring of 2012, and later published an essay version in the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism. As she remembers it,

“1970s lesbian feminist cultural and political activism [was] vital, lustful, intellectually acute, and more culturally diverse than it’s been described during the last twenty or twenty-five years of US academic and activist discourse.”

Sara Warner’s Acts of Gaiety (2013) looks back at 60s and 70s feminist activism, arguing that it was at once playful and deeply politically engaged performance. Last spring, The New Statesman did a series called “Rereading the Second Wave,” in which authors evaluate critical feminist texts from a millennial vantage point. My own research demonstrates how today’s queer and feminist experimental performance embodies feminist theories of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, making them over into a politics I call “post-wave pop feminism.”

I don’t remember the exact origin of the project—I suppose the seeds were sown when we wrote and recorded “Back to the Land,” a satirical analysis of Brooklyn’s glorification of co-ops, communing with nature, and DIY aesthetics, which lesbian feminists advocated decades ago. Soon after, my band mates and I started working on covers of music from the women’s movement. To our surprise, we discovered that much of the material has a spirit similar to that of our own songs. We are a queer folk band that sings catchy, funny songs about living and loving in New York City. Though 70s lesbian feminists have the reputation of being humorless, the lesbian feminist music of the era is fabulous: often funny and irreverent, sometimes angry, always inspiring. As we conducted research at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, watched documentaries, and dug deeper into the catalog of womyn’s music, we realized that just a song or two would not do. We decided to give the work the consideration it deserves and develop an evening-length exploration of the songs of the Second Wave.

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The result is “Womyn, Wimmin, Wymin,” a piece of practice as research, embodiment as scholarship. As we thought (and fought) about which songs to include in the performance, we encountered some politics that, from our millennial perspective, are problematic. The assumption of women’s universal experience, the transphobia of some of the musicians, the use of slave imagery to describe women’s condition, for instance, all make us uncomfortable. But we decided not to censor the songs and to let the performance embody the divisions in the movement and the tensions between our position and those of the women we channel. We were dismayed to find out that Alix Dobkin maintains an anti-trans stance, so we follow her classic “Every Woman Can Be a Lesbian” with the hilarious “Ballad of the Oklahoma Women’s Liberation Front” by Beth Elliott, a transwoman who was excluded from women’s music festivals because of her identity. With such juxtapositions, we hope we capture the multivocality of a movement that is often depicted as monolithic.

Every time we sing through these songs, I am struck by both how radical and how relevant they are. I sing Maxine Feldman’s “Angry Atthis,” a dark ballad about her frustration at having to hide her lesbian identity. The minor key expresses her sadness, and the way the melody rises throughout signals her growing rage. Feldman was a groundbreaker; she wrote the song months before the Stonewall riots of 1969. It is hard to imagine today, but she was banned from performance venues and kicked out of college for being a lesbian. In “The Battle Hymn of Women,” Meredith Tax calls out a society that “said the only work for women is to clean, and type, and file”—a sentiment that resonates less today after the strides made by Women’s Liberation activists like her. We all initially balked at the lyrics to Holly Near’s rousing “Fight Back,” which assumes a universal female subject, erasing differences between women. “Women all around the world, every color, religion, and age,” she sings, “one thing we got in common, we can all be battered and raped.” But the song offers what could be a contemporary critique of our culture of sexual violence, and a powerful message of resistance. She begins, “For as long as I can remember, a lady don’t go out alone at night,” before launching into the chorus, which proclaims, “We’ve got to fight back in large numbers . . . Together we can make a safe home.” We open the show with the stunning a cappella “Ella’s Song” by Sweet Honey in the Rock. The song starts with the heartbreaking lyric:

“Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons.”

In the wake of Ferguson, the chorus—“We who believe in freedom cannot rest. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes”—feels all too apt.

The process of creating the performance piece has provided me with new perspectives on my critical work. Singing the songs of the Second Wave makes visceral the political stakes of the period. Re-making this music, we mark the distance between the dreams of 1970s lesbian feminism and the realities of today. We honor what was achieved, acknowledge the long way we have come, and map out how far we still have to go.

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 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.