Managing Email (Yours & Others’)

Readers of Cac.ophony might want to check out either this Salon article, or two of the books it recommends. Scott Rosenberg has reviewed a few email etiquette guides as well as manuals for ‘managing’ ones Inbox.  He notes:

Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, By David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, [is] a slender, literate volume that is positioned as a Strunk and White for e-mail. Shipley edits the New York Times Op-Ed page, and Schwalbe is editor in chief of Hyperion Books.

Of the ‘manuals’ he mentions, the one whose approach sounded most useful to me was Mark Frauenfelder’s Rule the Web.  He describes it as “a miscellany of mostly free services, tools and tips for managing e-mail and blogs and feeds and photos and music and videos” and discloses that he contributed one paragraph (uncompensated).  He also said he learned at least six things from the book, which is not bad considering it’s his job.

It’s the Process, Silly!

A lightbulb went on in my head in the last couple of weeks. In May and June I have had the opportunity to work with students in the capstone course for the Healthcare MBA that Baruch sponsors with Mt. Sinai Hospitals. They were required in groups of three to develop and submit a business plan which they would then present to “juries” playing the role of venture capitalists, bank loan officers, or hospital board of directors. It was my job to videotape a dress rehearsal with them, offer my suggestions from the perspective of communication style, and then watch the videotape with them. I have done a very similar version of this with undergraduate senior-level Business Policy students for two years. It has always seemed like a useful process to me, and I have always been convinced that it benefited the students.

However, I think I made connections between my own academic work and the work with MBA students this spring and a few things clicked into place more clearly. I don’t know how long I’ve told students, “writing is a process.” (Imagine you are hearing that mantra from an annoying professor, battered at you in a sing-song-y voice.) But I think it sunk in a little further for me. After watching 11 groups of successful medical professionals present solid Powerpoint presentations, that nonetheless still needed revision, and watching them watch themselves on video, the light went on. Prior to this they had already submitted the paper versions of their business plans, and felt well prepared. But in addition to the videotape making clear the various nervous tics they had while speaking, or that they engaged the slide screen far more than they did the audience, it also helped them see the entire scope of their presentation, how well its various parts fit together, and where they needed to change the emphasis. They could clearly see if their argument needed bolstering with evidence in some areas, or increased clarity in others.

Watching them, I realized that the only way their presentations could make it to the ‘next level’ so to speak, was by going through this final review and revision process. Not only that, for these students especially, I was truly more of a coach and facilitator than anything else. It was a combination of my experience, their experience, the videocamera, and their own critical review of themselves, that really made the process worthwhile. I wouldn’t say they didn’t need me, but it was the process and the assemblage of them, me, the camera, and the review, that was essential.

A Spoonful of Sugar

This spring, the New York Times offers a series of blogs written by students graduating in the class of 2007: The Graduates, Eight College Seniors Face the Future. I actually haven’t read many, because facing what I assume will be the optimism of new graduates feels a bit unmanageable in the face of my own struggles to make it in the real world! :-) However, yesterday’s post by Juliet Moser addresses something we all attend to when working with students. The question of praise. She responds to an article in the Wall Street Journal “The Most Praised Generation Goes to Work.” I can’t read the WSJ article, since it is not free online and the internet is my sole source of news, but her discussion and readers’ comments to her blog are worth reading. Are students today more narcissistic? Do they demand more praise?

As a CUNY Writing Fellow, I recall learning a method for responding to student writing: First, tell the student what you see happening in their work, in a neutral fashion; second, comment on what they do well; and third, propose a question that will help the student make improvements in their work or think about it more deeply. I wonder, is this instruction to fellows (and faculty) at least partially aimed at offering positive critique that won’t damage students’ self-esteem or stir up their defenses? I actually do think it’s a useful technique for responding to student writing. Commenting on student presentations can be a bit more difficult though, because there are a lot of “no-no’s.” I find myself saying: “Don’t cross your legs, don’t hold your arms, don’t lean on the furniture,” along with other positive commands such as “Stand up straight, Project your voice, or Look at the audience!”

In the two years I have worked with students at BLSCI, I have started to think the Mary Poppins school of teaspoon-full-of-sugar-making-the-medecine-go-down, is not a bad pedagogical strategy. I find myself framing my comments to students in terms of what I know they are doing well, and how they can improve their presentation further. I think of my sister, training two new puppies, and how much positive reinforcement in the form of praise (and Cheerios) shapes their behavior. Some time ago, one of the most e-mailed articles from the Times was from the Modern Love section “What Shamu Taught Me About A Happy Marriage” by Amy Sutherland who, in studying animal trainers, learned a new technique for dealing with some of her husband’s behavioral quirks that irritated her most. She began to ignore his negative behavior and reward the positive. I would say there are things students need to be told not to do. But I wonder, are students today more sensitive to criticism? What about cross-cultural differences? In sum, what are good strategies for responding to student presentations today?

Is PowerPoint Evil?

Just recently, each of us at the Communication Institute has been granted a copy of Edward Tufte’s slim and visually appealing manifesto against PowerPoint, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within. [PowerPoint from here on out is referred to as PP.] I am about three-quarters of the way through this nifty subway read, and so far find it thought-provoking as anything. Although one of his main complaints is that PP dumbs down detailed and dense arguments, he himself does a nice job of making a pretty strong argument in thirty-one 8 1/2 X 11 pages. I am in the process of compiling my list of Agreements/Disagreements, and I promise not to publish them later here in bullet format.

It is particularly interesting to think about his argument in light of the work that those of us who support communication intensive Business Policy Courses do. We work with students who are required to incorporate a PP presentation into their final analysis of a company’s strategies, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats, and position in the industry. I expect to write more on how I think Tufte’s problems with the so-called ‘cognitive style’ of PP relate to our work with students. But in the meantime, check out these nifty links:

PowerPoint Remix

Learning to Love PowerPoint

PowerPoint Is Evil

Continuing the Visual Communication Conversation

Jim Drogan initiated a conversation here, and because my response is long and I think including some links would be helpful I’m posting rather than adding another comment. I enjoyed reading through your ideas on visual communication Professor Drogan. It encouraged me to read a little about pattern recognition in various places online, and to try and connect these thoughts with what we do at BLSCI.

My understanding of pattern recognition (which is pretty limited) is that it involves using statistical models to classify or categorize large amounts of information. I think the interesting thing about it is that the ‘meaning’ then comes from the pattern itself, not the individual pieces of information that are being communicated. Which seems like a useful way to deal with such massive amounts of information but also leads me to ask if we are then required to change our ideas of what effective communication is.

I think to some degree, yes. On the one hand, things like accuracy and clarity are still important. But effective visual communication probably can’t stop there, because more ‘affective’ qualities are what catch people’s attention amidst information overload. Of course, many times in our work with students, we are addressing pretty basic ways to improve communication. But many of them are still very affective and visual. Stand up straight, don’t swing your arm like that, use natural gestures. Or, don’t use yellow and red together in a Powerpoint slide–it hurts the viewers eyes! All these things serve to keep the audience’s attention.

If these more qualitative elements of communication have become increasingly important, I also think it suggests that talking about ethics is important. For instance, in your document, you use the image that BLSCI has incorporated into the invitation for the Symposium this Spring. When Mikhail first showed that image to us at the institute, we had a conversation about the fact that it was an image from the 1950s of all white men in suits standing around a desk. My first thought was ‘yikes!’ That is not particularly representative of the world these days, especially not Baruch and CUNY. But that was exactly his point, to use an image of ‘the old’ to raise the question of whether there might be “New Rules” and thus the need to debate “Convention and Change in Communication.”

When I Was A Kid…

…I didn’t realize my family was special for having one of the early Commodore 64 home computers. I also didn’t realize how fortunate I would later feel at having learned a little Basic (the programming language), and how to touch-type when I was eleven. But today’s kids–whoo! I’m envious.

As reported in the New York Times today, we now have Arts and Crafts for the Digital Age. The German Science Studies theorist Friedrich Kittler has argued that one of the problems with the way most people currently interface with technology is that it is entirely at the level of software. The average person knows very little about their computer’s hardware, and is possibly quite frightened by it. We tend to assume it’s very powerful, and easily damageable. But with the PicoCricket Kit, designed by Mitchell Resnick (assistant professor of learning research at the MIT Media Lab), any child who can afford this $250 toy can begin to interact with digital technologies as both hardware and software. They can learn to program the small computer that comes along with the pipe cleaners, the legos, the electric wiring, and the felt.

The Vex Robot, from InnovationFirst (a robotics company) and Radioshack, is also mentioned. The article quotes a vice-president at InnovationFirst, “Talk to the average high school students, they are a lot smarter…They like open-ended problems, and a lot like to take the tools that are available to solve open-ended problems.” Not mentioned in the article is technoartist Natalie Jeremijenko, who has worked with high school and university students to reprogram robotic dogs made by Sony. These newly ‘feral dogs,’ so named for their street-smart capabilities, are able to sniff out toxic waste such as dry cleaning solvents and paint thinner. Robots… the next critical thinking tool?

When I was a kid, my mother bought my sister and I Erector Sets, in the hopes that we would become engineers. Maybe I’ll just have to save up for the PicoCricket Kit.

Considering Pedablogy 6.0

The first student post is up on the course blog in Writing for the Social Sciences at CWE. It has taken a bit of negotiating, pushing, help logging in, and we’ve survived two potential difficulties.

The first was due to my own inexperience with blogs. We spent half of one class session together in the computer lab, because CWE’s wireless signal does not quite make it to my classroom in the far corner. Fortunately the CWE tech person there is very accommodating (and a Baruch graduate!) and let us take over the room. In our jammed in session there, I showed students how to navigate the ‘administer’ side of the blog. As we went through that process, I found that a student in the class had used the same login that I had, and in trying to change hers, I deleted mine. Thus I was locked out of the blog for a day or so. Fortuitously, all students had administrative access, so someone then invited me to join as a member. Good grief!

The second issue required more dialogue between myself and the class, and a short period of informal writing to boot. After looking at the sign-up sheet, I discovered that of the ‘blogger’ openings, all but one were taken by male students. Further, all the ‘commenter’ spots were filled by females students. This was especially bothersome because the ratio of male-female students in the class is the exact inverse of those blogging spaces. Our first reading for the semester had been Adrienne Rich’s “Awakening the Dead: Writing as ReVision, in which she talks about her own struggle to awaken as a writer, amidst the patriarchal culture of male writers and writing. When I brought my concerns with the schedule to the students’ attention, most were hesitant to connect the problem to gender. Some said they just felt more comfortable commenting rather than blogging. Others pointed to scheduling issues, or that someone had already taken the topic they wanted. Really, only two students (one female and one male) were willing to say that they thought gender played a role in how the schedule had ‘ended up.’ First we discussed, then they wrote, then I asked them what they thought Adrienne Rich would have to say, and then I sent around a new schedule that was more clearly organized with more informative topical explanations. The result was a schedule with which I was much happier. And, I’m happy to report…

The first blog by a student was posted this week! It’s exciting to see her reflection on Renato Rosaldo’s “Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage” and his use of the term ritual, to see a student voice on a public site. I’m thrilled to have students entering the blogosphere.

Considering Pedablogy 5.0

This week at CWE, I am setting up a blogging schedule with my students. I thought I would just post the framework I am using, and my discussion of it with them in the form of a writing assignment. I have learned that most of the students are education majors, in particular elementary education. When I say most, I mean like 85% of the 24 students who came the first night. Some are excited about being part of a blog, others seem to think it’s fun, fancy, and maybe a bit too faddish. So in writing the assignment, I have tried to link it up to the larger goal of learning to write for the social sciences. Many students also have no experience with blogging at all, and so I am using this as an opportunity to talk about genre.

Blog Schedule

We learn something about genre when we we distinguish between a blog “post” and a blog “comment.” Genre refers to a specific form, format, or style a piece of writing takes. There are so many different genres of writing. Technological change seems to highlight these for us, and new technologies form new genres. Traditional genres you are familiar with might be the short story, the persuasive essay, a business letter, or a letter from teachers to parents. If you think about it, each of these has its own specific style. In a blog, “posts” tend to differ from “comments,” A post is often a very brief essay or journal entry that addresses a news article, a movie the writer has seen, or an event in their personal life. Its audience varies from being quite wide and unknown to a select group of friends or fellow bloggers. Comments have a more limited audience—they are often a brief note to the author of the post sharing related experience, information, or disagreement. Noticing these distinctions in blog writing will help us when it comes time to write longer essays and a final paper. For these assignments also, we will need to consider genre and audience.

Please sign up for either one post or two comments.

Ideas for posts— (Posts must be two and half to three(3) full paragraphs. One paragraph equals 5 to 6 sentences.) Include a provocative quote from the reading and your reflection on the quote. Argue with a position the author takes. Provide us with a personal experience you’ve had that is connected to the reading.

Ideas for comments— (One full paragraph.) Comments may contain agreements or disagreement, and explanation. They may connect to other sections of the text that you think support the original post.

Considering Pedablogy 4.0

In some of my last-minute preparations before “Writing for the Social Sciences” begins Monday evening at CWE, I am now Googling the phrase ‘student blogs’ and ‘course blogs.’ Somehow Editor Kate seemed to read my last blog as saying I would be doing a course blog…when I in fact said the opposite. Kate! Was that some kind of reverse psychology? It may have worked.

After having looked more carefully at the text I’m using (Ways of Reading), and thinking that I will probably require at least one single-spaced page of writing for students per week, and in remembering WAC advice to demand drafts drafts drafts, I thought, now this could provide nice material for blogs. And for student directed conversation. I’m going to try it. Why not? So forget what I said in my last post. There will be a course blog. Just one blog I think though, that everyone will have access to if my relatively low-tech self can manage that.

So my plan for the first assignment using the blog will be that students will post with initial thoughts for their upcoming writing assignment, or with responses to their first reading of the required essays. They will have the option to post their own comments, or to respond to someone else’s. I do not plan to grade this other than as a checkmark sort of thing.
Here is some of what I’ve come across through Google…

Using Blogs to Teach Philosophy“, Academic Commons at The Center for Teaching and Learning, Wabash College

Internet & Society Course, Northwestern University

COMM 3344: Games for the web (Interactive multimedia) Spring 2005, Trinity University

Creating a Writing Course Utilizing Class and Student Blogs, Ritsumeikan University, Tokyo, Japan

And, last from my cautious self, an article from the Student Life publication at Washington University in St. Louis on the question of security risks and student blogs. :-)

Considering Pedablogy 3.0

Now that I have (quite happily) amassed a few replies and even a pingback (!) here, I’d like to respond briefly. As I continue to think blogging in a course through, I have sort of quickly come to two conclusions–one, having a Course Blog in the way that Kate describes it sounds like a lot of fun.

In an email response awhile back, a faculty member at CWE told me she thinks that with blogging students take/have/hold more ownership than in simply responding to a professor’s comment in a Blackboard discussion, and that for this reason blogs can be quite productive. Kate and Mikhail both make this point, that blogs privilege the author.

Students having ownership is important to me, but also requires negotiating and some shaping at times. And I think this would be true in using a blog. Jim’s initial comments also sort of echo some of my hesitations to immediately begin using blog-writing in a course. If I’m new to it using the technology, perhaps a course like Writing in the Social Sciences is not the place i want to first try it, because already there are genres of writing that students need to learn well. Summary, analysis, critique and extensions. That for this first time teaching it anway, it could be me biting off more than I can chew. (Which i am quite good at doing.)

So my first thought being, this sounds cool and fun and potentially productive, my second thought immediately following is let’s dip our feet into the water and try the reading thing first. Blog reading. Kate suggests having students engage with the world through reading and responding to blogs.

(I like this idea, and as a side note, I also think it blows the high-stakes/low-stakes distinction out of the water. Let’s say I decide not to grade their responses: low-stakes. Blogging has a semi-public element to it, an audience in the ‘beyond:’ higher-stakes. I began having issues with the low-stakes/high-stakes distinction midway through my Writing Fellowship. It doesn’t surprise me that in using technology more now as a Communication Fellow, a case would appear in which this framework does not seem entirely useful or accurate.)

So let me be clear about the first conclusion to which I have come. There will not be a course blog in Writing for the Social Sciences at CWE. However, there will be a component involving reading content related blogs and responding to those. Hopefully, I can help shape students’ responses by asking that they incorporate some of the types of writing skills we learn in the course into their blog comments. And again, I wonder, how can I find good blogs with content specific to various social science issues and disciplines? I also would like to know if anyone has any thoughts if there are existing blogs where people are writing on social science issues, that might be appropriate sites for students to comment on the readings we are doing? Am I asking someone else to run a blog for my class? :-)