(Unintended) Research Discoveries

The winter break brought a particularly heavy period of work on my dissertation, “Drop Dead: Municipal Crisis and the Geographies of Performance in New York City, 1972-1982,” so I thought I’d share some of the fun of the process– and maybe you’ll share your own errant discoveries back. My topic is centered in the world of 1970s theater and performance, which means I’m well-positioned here in New York to visit landmark archival research centers, like the NYPL Performing Arts Library and the Schomburg Center. I’ve  consumed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches outside of them all, as I researched the crannies of performance in New York City during one of the largest fiscal crises on record. Then there’s the added benefit (distraction?) of tools like YouTube to add layers of multimedia to my searches. That’s a lot of information, tucked into desktop files and overflowing drawers. But some of the fruits of the process are truly random and not at all destined for inclusion in the final draft. Here are some recent noteworthy and unintended discoveries:

1) This music:

I love people who put their records on YouTube– it’s a treasure to hear the crackle of the needle, to think of the devotion that prompted this person to record and upload their LP collection. And to discover something out of print, too– I boast an electric typewriter, but no record player, and New York is rapidly losing its record stores. Type “Novella Nelson” into Spotify, and nothing will come up. But thanks to some fan in Austria, this isn’t the case on YouTube. Here’s another one:

I hadn’t previously been aware of Novella Nelson’s acting career, but I came across her work in downtown theatre during the 1970s in a 1973 Black World/Negro Digest article that described Nelson as a tireless advocate for black playwrights, even bullying the (brilliant!) bully of the Public Theater, Joseph Papp, into presenting a series of one-act plays by seven black playwrights. Is that story true? Who knows. It may not make the cut of the dissertation chapter, but her music certainly will.

2) In 1969, the New York State Council on the Arts collaborated with Columbia’s Medical School to present 150 children from disadvantaged neighborhoods with an “inside look at the medical profession.” How? By demonstrating the removal of an appendix from a dog, which the elementary school students– shocked!– watched “up close” as five medical school trainees described their surgical process in an old auditorium. The photos look like a Diane Arbus rendering of a reality TV medical drama, and I would post them here if my copy didn’t have “restricted” stamped all over it.

3) The travesty to New York-area studies that is our Municipal Archives. Maybe some altruistic billionaire will step forward, anxious to have his name attached to an ambitious undertaking like the overhaul of our municipal library? A billionaire interested in both his legacy as a public steward, the archiving and maintenance of urban history, and the ethics of public information? Let’s give the history of the city a better vault.


4) Head shots were both different and not-so-different forty years ago.

Headshot: Julie Bovasso

Headshot: Julie Bovasso

5) But the dismal street-crossing etiquette of New Yorkers was not.



On the list of taboo subjects that just aren’t fun to talk about on a blog frequented by graduate students, the academic job market ranks fairly high. Numbers of fellows at the Institute are enduring a full fall season of cover letters, CVs, and statements of purpose/less, so a diversion is in order. (Or have you already ruled out diversions? Get back to work!)

This diversion is in some ways about this process of communicating ourselves as academics, and being thrust into the position of answering the question we ask student presenters all the time: why should we care? Why does our work matter, and to whom? What kinds of scholarly and pedagogical identities have we shaped, and how do we communicate those via the standard (or not so standard) methods?  Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to learn about the multiple engagements of many fellows, activities that fall outside of their dissertation projects but are tethered enough to their fields to transcend the title of “passion projects.” They have have sustained these commitments throughout their doctoral careers– from curating to independent publishing to activism. Figuring out where these projects fall in the spectrum of our scholarly lives can be challenging.

And yet, in Theatre, to operate on multiple levels of engagement is not necessarily viewed with suspicion. There’s a great demand for scholars who can offer departments practical theatre experience alongside a publication record. I was recently in a conference working session on graduate education in my field, and participants commented on the increasing numbers of job postings that require not just theatre generalists, but “totalists.” These positions call for scholars with publishing credits who have also made waves in the world of professional theatre; directing in major houses, preferably with some form of union membership– and a few ads even ask for experience in grant-writing and working in the capacity as artistic director of theatres.

While this is on the one hand a stressful state of affairs for job seekers and departments alike, it also represents an interesting moment for doctoral students who have forged ahead with outside projects throughout the years. What we at times feared might be hobbies and diversions may in fact be desirable– but we must also master how and when to communicate these experiences.

This spring and summer, outside of teaching an incredibly rewarding section of College NOW’s Introduction to Communication Studies with another fellow from the Institute, I was on a steady track of dissertation writing, waking up early to write, forging ahead to meet chapter deadlines, visiting multiple archives, conducting interviews. By the time July burned to a close, I was thoroughly fried and looking for a creative outlet. I found it in AmericanMD, a narrative web series about healthcare, which I wrote and co-produced.  AmericanMD falls into this general category of adventures that land outside of my scholarship and yet remain related to the challenges and commitments of my field– in this case, it’s the methods and possibilities of dramatic writing in new narrative formats and the use of new technologies to tell stories.  I had long been curious about the wide world of web series– relatively inexpensive, it’s a burgeoning form that seems at once over-used and under-interrogated. There’s a lot more to say about the relationship between new playwriting and new writing for the web, but what was most relevant to my work as a Communication Fellow were the foundational questions about visualizing structure, communicating across media, audience, and struggles between content and form.

The rhetorical analysis of this form is of great interest to me; how does it make an argument? How does it communicate ideas? From a dramatic structure perspective, the methods by which character is developed and themes are introduced present thorny spots for the writer. And when it comes to delivering web content and attracting views (versus hits…), audience analysis and outreach methods are of primary concern for the web series team. In that spirit, I offer episode 2 here as a diversion for us all.

AmericanMD Episode 2: The Drug Swap from AmericanMD on Vimeo.

Speaking, Acting, and Taking Your Shoes Off

Sydney, 1938 / Sam Hood (State Library of New South Wales collection)

In preparation for an upcoming CLASP (CUNY League of Active Speech Professors) symposium at Hostos Community College, I have been reflecting on this meaty topic: Theatre Practice and Communication Studies–the Intersection of Two Vital Disciplines.

Over the last few years, I have had opportunities to think about this from a number of perspectives, but when trying to compose my thoughts in a coherent form for the panel, I needed a jumping off point. I went back and looked at an article about the role of the introductory theatre course in the liberal arts curriculum, which the Institute’s Director, Mikhail Gershovich, co-wrote with theatre scholars (then Fellows) Amy Hughes and Jill Stevenson. A baseline assumption of the article is the reciprocal exchange between actor and spectator that makes theatre studies “an ideal forum in which to explore the means and methods of effective oral and written communication.”[1]  As I read, I discovered one potential source of my writer’s block; the panel topic requires elaboration on a point of intersection that has become intuitive. I have conditioned myself to take these principles for granted in my teaching and my coaching of students, as I time and again return to the basics of theatre collaboration: as the article spells out, in the classroom these basics (ideally) translate into encouraging cooperation among students, active learning, prompt feedback, time on task, high expectations, diverse talents and ways of learning. Speech and theatre arts become just two chummy pals, the cookies and milk of the liberal arts curriculum.

Even though I recognize that disciplinary battles between theatre and speech have a long and sordid history, I’ve often found the opposite to be true—that faculty boldly yell across these divisions, in an effort to get past what are really just departmental (or bureaucratic) boundaries—boundaries which are changing more slowly than our pedagogies. My charmed vantage point might have to do with the fact that I have had “communications people” expect certain strengths from me as a “theatre person,” and vice versa, and rarely confront the kind of “get out of my playground” mentality for which many academic fields are famous.

This can sometimes cause problems, too. Maybe you’ve had the same experience: when considered the “theatre person” in the room full of “communications people”– disciplinary divisions being what they are—it is assumed that you’ll be the one capable of immediately engaging students in a full body warm-up, making inflexible students flexible, convincing shy students to pop from their shell, evoking diaphragmatic breathing from the whisperers, and, at a moment’s notice, reveal a grab bag of tricks and strategies that will free them from their frozen stances. Because of these assumptions, when I began teaching Public Speaking– and before that, English as a Second Language– I occasionally felt like a fraud; I didn’t actually have in-depth training in voice or movement as an actor, beyond an inglorious stint on an improv team in college. (Many of my performance experiences were  in the realm of performance poetry, which privileged the word over any other consideration.) My academic theatre training focused on dramatic structure and playwriting, along with critical reading of texts– theatrical theory and plays– and I believed my strengths in the speech course would stem from there, through structure, research, and analysis. (When forced by curricular fiat to take acting courses, I shrank in fear of being asked to remove my shoes in the presence of other students.)

But I warmed to the challenge of being the “theatre person” among the communications people in part because I realized that their expectations reflected a true need among our students—and a potential gap in public speaking courses. The hope that a “theatre person” could more efficiently tackle these needs inspires me to believe in the best that theatre training can and should offer, within the context of a communications course. It is this inter/disciplinary “hope” that has slowly infused my speech teaching practices with “borrowings” from the theatre discipline: I now rely on my comfort watching and discussing the body and its relationship to breath, or my familiarity with the push and pull between the rehearsal process and the eventual work, and I follow my desire to push the desks aside in order to transform a classroom into a training space.

Additionally, in my experiences at the Institute– where one of my responsibilities last year was to support sections of Introduction to Theatre Arts– I met instructors who wanted to integrate communication goals into their coursework, but felt that approaching the course through dramatic literature tied their hands. They had fallen into a routine of assigning play reviews and response papers, rarely asking their students to move from a written to an oral form of communicating ideas. Usually this was “fixed” easily, since the instructor had already designed the course to encourage active learning and collaboration, allowing for numerous places of oral communication interventions. Taking it a step further, we would brainstorm where public speaking challenges might belong in this model of the theatre arts class—a discussion that frequently boiled down to assignment design.

In the context of the proposed Pathways Initiative– which would mean real changes to prioritization of Speech Communications courses within the CUNY curriculum– it is important to go beyond oral communications as something that can be “tacked on” to any discipline with ease, and to ask real questions about the actual needs of students, not disciplinary divisions. (And this post is in no way meant to be reflecting simultaneously on Pathways, although I invite thoughts on how it relates.) The CLASP panel is looking at intersections between theatre practice and speech not because intersections are all the rage, but because it is the divisions that have proven unproductive with time. For the individual instructor, the most important challenge becomes seeing beyond the intimidating gaps separating that “Other” discipline, and rather to see shared goals between the two.

[1] Amy E. Hughes, Jill Stevenson, and Mikhail Gershovich, “Community through Discourse: Reconceptualizing Introduction to Theatre,” Theatre Topics 16, No.1 (March 2006): 86.


Communicating Awareness

Krista Tippett, the sharp and empathetic host of NPR’s On Being, recently interviewed the singer and composer Meredith Monk. While Monk isn’t one of the artists included in my dissertation, she’s of the place and of the period– 1970s, downtown New York– and it feels appropriate to have her compositions as my soundscape as I churn out the pages. If you’re not familiar with her work, she’s a dynamic artist who has worked in a range of forms over the past decades, best known for recording haunting melodies encased in vocal experimentation. Here is a video of her performing “Gotham Lullaby”:

Back to the interview: there’s much to love about this wonderful exchange (listen here), which delves deeply into Monk’s philosophies and development as an interdisciplinary artist. Early on the conversation, Tippet asks Monk about her notion of the audience as a kind of congregation:

Ms. Tippett: You’ve even talked about the audience as a congregation, which is interesting.

Ms. Monk: Yeah. I mean, I feel like a dinosaur holding out: “A live performance, live performance. Not the screen, live performance,” because I think that there is something about it that’s so unique and it’s so necessary to remember again.

Ms. Tippett: I always see you also insisting that music is about waking up. I mean, I don’t know if those two things have to be in tension, but I sense that, if you had to choose between transcendence and waking up and being right there in that moment, you would choose the latter. Just saying, I mean, live performance is as direct and awake and experience one hopes as anything we do.

Ms. Monk: That’s also, again, so interesting because actually I don’t see those two things as opposites. I actually think that, when you are that present and you are that awake and the audience actually experiences themselves, you know, the deepest part of themselves, then the whole situation becomes transcendent because we’re not — the way we live our lives is not necessarily with that level of presence.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Monk: And also certainly in this society, we’re taught to actually be distracted and diverted all the time from feeling, in a sense, you could say the pain — the good pain, you know, the pain as in openheartedness and rawness of the moment, the pain as well as the pleasure, everything in one in that moment.

The idea that we’d prefer waking up in the moment to transcendence is an appealing one; most of us who have had experiences in the classroom probably recognize the hope of the live performer: we are not necessarily seeking to deliver our students to transcendence, but just a few moments of awake. More relevant to those of us who think about communicating (and teaching) with our “audience” on a daily basis, is Monk’s articulation of a phenomenon of teaching people to be distracted and diverted from the moment. Just a few days ago, I was in a yoga class where the voice of the teacher was nearly drowned out by the songs of Kanye West blaring from the apartment upstairs; we could hear Kanye’s every syllable as the music pulsed throughout the building, making our Krishna Das seem like a mild sigh in comparison. As the teacher remarked, the “distraction” was like a taunting provocation: you actually think all you need to do to focus is to show up? The external elements stand in the wings, waiting.

A yoga class is one thing, and a college campus is another. On a morning in the first week of Spring semester, 25th Street had been blocked off, and DJ tables and speakers were set up. There were balloons, free hot chocolate, and Rhianna songs playing so loudly that the police horses at the end of the block were vibrating. As the deep bass ricocheted throughout the street, I commented to an acquaintance– a security guard at the college– that it seemed like a strange reason to block the street to traffic. Winter break had just ended, and students were milling around near a food truck. Someone had set up a basketball net, even though it was about 40 degrees outside. The thud-thud of the bass continued. The security guard answered me with weary tone: “I guess they had extra money.” I guess so, I concurred. “It seems strange,” he continued, “that they would do this right after break. Shouldn’t the students be focusing?”

It was a good question. When do we teach students to be distracted? And when do we create even further obstacles to communication? Baruch students are a scattered breed; the ones I come into contact with are rushing from jobs as far away as LaGuardia airport, some are juggling childcare needs, others just haven’t yet figured out how to organize their time post-high school. One of my students works all weekend at a hair salon in Astoria (eleven-hour shifts) and has the work of six classes to contend with Tuesday through Friday. I wondered about her– when arriving on campus, what might help this student excel and make meaningful connections with those around her?

Some days, in the lobby of the Vertical Campus, club hours at Baruch literally become “club” hours. There is a cacophony of distractions– a DJ surrounded by cake-selling student groups, with the dance music turned up to blast-off. Some students might enjoy the rush of it all, but it seems to actively repel faculty and administrators, who race towards the elevators like it’s an old-school game of tag and they see base. A shy student who might want to actually talk to a peer is left to do the awkward bend-close-to-the-ear move that’s normally perfected in frat basements and rock concerts. Just last week, as I hopped off the escalators, a row of male students awaited me, stacks of flyers in their hands. I took one. A blond in a Hooters tank top holding a pitcher of beer smiled back at me from the flyer. “Come join the brothers of Alpha Phi Delta for HOOTERS: Eat, Drink, and Meet the Brothers.” The thud-thud of the bass continued; I could hear the music even from my destination on the seventh floor.

I mention these two incidences not to be a curmudgeonly grouch, but to question some of the elements shoved into the frame of our every day communication. Do we create the environment for a whole range of interactions, or do we just create innumerable moments of distraction? Many of us profess to be on the hunt for increased calm and time for breathing; how do we model this for our students? As is frequently remarked upon, communication boundaries are changing. Our students don’t see an email to a professor as being qualitatively different from a text message to a friend. Students check facebook in class, and they remain so plugged in to other things at all times that it’s hard to get a refuge. Does the university have a responsibility to teach them how to find one? The VC provides them with one big building where everything happens; they need to learn to shift the rules of propriety everywhere they go, between a mid-day club to mid-day clubbing to economics class to the weight room. While this hopefully builds great fluency and flexibility, it also might be downright dizzying.

There’s no one-size-fits-all picture of academic focus and rigor. And I’m not suggesting that “play” should be absent from the daily equation of student life– certainly college experience operates on multiple planes. But we also need to recognize the carelessness with which we load distractions into the sightlines of our students. And “playfulness” comes in many guises, including being focused moment to moment. As Monk explained:

Ms. Monk: …I think that sense of playfulness is the sense of being alive; that’s another aspect of being awake and the fluidity. It’s really about fluidity, about being so in the moment that you are in pinpoint focus, but at the same time, you’re completely open to what the moment has to give you or to tell you. And I think that has to do with the playfulness and people can feel that. You know, I think that that’s what you’re giving an audience is that spirit of the give and take that playfulness implies.

I can’t end on a prescription or a conclusion here– 20 minutes of enforced meditation a day in the VC?– since these questions are all open for debate, from the concern about our own inattentiveness to the distractions that we facilitate (and even in the relativity of how we each perceive different kinds of music). Maybe one path to continue thinking about this is a merging and a meshing.  If you’re interested in further collisions between Meredith Monk and club music, check out this track from “Monk Mix,” remixed and interpretations of Meredith Monk’s music by folks like DJ Spooky, Arto Lindsay, and Ghostlover:

Postscript: I was excited to see that a former colleague of mine in the public school system, writer Diana Senechal, has a new book, The Republic of Noise, that tackles this very topic. My next post will take a look at some of the ideas in her book. Find out more here.

Grace Paley Occupies Wall Street

As I read some of the recent commentaries about the politics of space, Occupy Wall Street, and Zuccotti Park– “private space gone public”– I’m continually distracted by a very different pin on the map of the city grid: The War Resister’s League National Office, at 339 Lafayette Street, affectionately known as the “Peace Pentagon.” I thought of that hulking corner building as I read a review of the book Oppose and Propose!: Lessons from Movement for a New Society by Andrew Cornell in the latest issue of WIN, the understated magazine of the War Resisters League, a pacifist organization that has been working for nonviolent change for nearly a century. The reviewer, Sachio Ko-yin, describes the consensus-building model that drew him into his first War Resisters League National Committee meeting in the 1990s:

“What impressed us most at the meeting was the complex consensus process called a spokescounsel, where power flowed from coordinated small groups to a synthesis process. Here was an organization that was resisting the war state…”

The “spokescounsel” Ko-yin describes sounds quite similar to the processes governing Occupy Wall Street. Christopher’s recent post enumerated the unique communication methods of the OWS protesters—hand signals, mic checks, labored consensus building through mediated dialogue. Ko-yin’s review reminded me that the rush to compare Wall Street occupiers with Tahrir Square dissenters sometimes obscures a grounding in a much closer and richer history– to the peace movement right here in the United States. In method, strategy, communication, and character, the whole Occupy enterprise borrows generously from the anti-war and nuclear disarmament movements.

Photo by Ed Hedemann

While many locate its direct origins with those independent culturejammers, Adbusters—very true!— the broader lineage of OWS remains aggressively pastiche. JoAnn Wypijewski’s recent ditty in The Nation draws a surprisingly fluid connection: through the more corporeal emphases of the Occupy Movement, she argues that critics itching for ‘demands’ from this movement “need only pay attention, because like the women’s health movement in the 1970s, the AIDS solidarity network that evolved from it in the ’80s, Occupy Wall Street and its spinoffs embody their demands.” Each of these examples, however, suggest activist groups that have faded with the shifting priorities of the moment. The Peace Pentagon is a powerful symbol of the workers who have kept the peace movement humming along, toiling away– and frequently getting arrested– for decades.

I was interested, then, to see the Peace Pentagon mentioned– and not– in a recent New Yorker Talk of the Town piece about Global Revolution,  a media collective that acts as “the switchboard” for the live coverage of the OWS protests across the nation. “The revolution is being streamed from a dilapidated second story office in NoHo,” the author, Andrew Marantz, explains, mentioning only the A.J. Muste Institute, a pacifist organization founded in 1974, skipping over the fact that it was the War Resisters League (WRL) that originally purchased it in 1969 and created the Institute to maintain it. The Institute leases office space to Global Revolution for a mere $400 a month. In this way, they have fanned the embers of resistance activity in this real estate mad metropolis: the Institute provides cheap space to many of the dendrite-like organizations of the OWS movement.

But the WRL itself isn’t mentioned in the article; Marantz quotes the fellow behind the live streaming, who jokes that he’s overstayed his welcome: “the building’s owners should have known this would happen when they invited us, but we have sort of occupied the space.” (I’m quite sure, sir, that they have seen it all.) Marantz– no doubt hemmed in by a word limit– makes no mention of the fact that this dilapidated building is host to any number of activist organizations, many of whom are playing a role in OWS. The video below goes a long way in explaining the significance of 339 Lafayette Street for New York City’s activist communities– with a list of concerns and passions as wide and varied as those of OWS. (A partial list of their past and present tenants can be found here– it includes the Catholic Peace Fellowship, The Grannie Peace Brigade, Peace Action, Grey Panthers, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Metropolitan Council on Housing, GI Resistance, Health Care Now. To name just a few.)

But there’s another face of the WRL that I see reflected in the OWS protests: Grace Paley, the wonderful writer of short stories and active member of the War Resisters League who passed away in 2007. During my first trip to see what all the hubaloo at OWS was about, I immediately noticed the Granny Peace Brigade members there. The Grannies were wearing the sort protest-sign-smock-vests that made me think immediately of a famous image of Grace—her author photo from the back of her essay collection, Just as I Thought:

Photo by Jackie Snow

Photo by Dorothy Marder









While her exquisite stories of quotidian heart break are widely celebrated, Grace Paley was also famous—and sometimes infamous—for protesting much and writing little. Vietnam, nuclear arms, municipal stupidity: all ranked worthy among her protest causes and efforts. In 1979, Grace was fined $100 for unfurling a banner against nuclear energy during a protest on the lawn of the White House; in the 1980s, it was the Women’s Pentagon Action. As Marianne Hirsch explains in her article about Grace’s myriad contributions, Grace was a member of many activist groups that refused to be quiet about the connections they saw between racism, sexism, heterosexism, the disregard of the environment and unfettered militarism. Much of Paley’s advocacy work focused on the military budget, but this was before the disparity between rich and poor had grown to such mammoth proportions. Yet Grace even then was linking economic injustice with the plights of our urban areas: “Our cities have already been effectively bombed by the military budget,” Grace said. “Billions of dollars are put into what’s called defense, while the needs of the people are neglected.”

But back to the War Resisters League. Taking the omission from the Talk of the Town piece as a kind of provocation, I did a quick search of the New Yorker archives for mentions of the WRL, which turned up some interesting (and also brief) mentions of the organization: 2003 war protests in Times Square, demonstrations after the nuclear accident on Three Mile Island in 1979, and a 1973 article about the Vietnam cease-fire, which included an interview with David McReynolds, a field secretary for the WRL at the time.

Armed Forces Day Parade, 1979. Photo: Grace Hedemann.

McReynolds also appears in the Peace Pentagon video above. (In describing the significance of 339 Lafayette Street, he gives voice to ideas that apply easily to OWS– especially in its ability to link causes such as labor with the principles of anti-violence and an international viewpoint.) McReynolds had been working to bring the war to an end since 1961, the year of the first American casualties; the New Yorker asked him what he thought would become of the peace movement:

“…The underlying problems of an unrestrained Presidency and a huge military establishment remain. It’s true that the war in Vietnam was an outgrowth of American history and character but so is the anti-war movement. There is a great tradition in America of independence of judgment and resistance to tyranny.”


Careful What You Ask For

As a strangely apropos segue from my previous post about the potential dwindling of long-form writing assignments, I am happy to announce an upcoming event at the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute, organized by Linell and myself. We have invited Dr. Ken Nielsen to spend the afternoon with us in an interactive workshop session that attempts to tie together questions of designing writing assignments and communication-intensive pedagogy. Can we have it all? Can we have it all without running ourselves ragged?

Dr. Nielsen will be returning to his old stomping grounds for this special event; he is a proud graduate of the CUNY Graduate Center’s PhD program in Theatre, and a former Assistant Director of Writing at Queens College. He currently teaches in the Writing Program at Princeton University. We hope you can join us for an afternoon of questioning and strategy sharing.

Careful What You Ask For:  Designing Efficient Writing Assignments for Communication-Intensive Courses

Wednesday, April 13, 3-4:30pm, 137 East 25th Street, Room 323

Writing assignments are one crucial way to manage the quality of writing instruction in classes that are supposed to teach both content and communication skills. By carefully designing assignments of varying degrees of difficulty—from simple low-stakes in-class writing to the final research essay—and implementing them throughout the semester, writing becomes not simply a mode of evaluation but of learning. When we analyze writing assignments from across the curriculum it often becomes clear that the reason our students are not performing to their fullest capability is partly due to the assignments they are given. The old warning to be “careful what you ask for, because you may end up getting it,” will guide us as we discuss our own writing assignments, balancing and incorporating writing with oral communication, and using the assignments strategically to balance our own workload.

Presented by the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute and led by Dr. Ken Nielsen, Lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program, this hands-on workshop will address best practices in writing assignment design. Participants are encouraged to bring a copy of one of their writing assignments to this workshop.

Tea and refreshments will be served. Adjunct faculty will be paid at the non-teaching rate for their participation.

RSVP by email to hillary.miller [at] baruch.cuny.edu


Ken Nielsen, lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program, has taught communication-intensive theater classes at Baruch College, writing-intensive American literature and composition classes at Queens College, and is currently teaching his interdisciplinary writing seminar, “Secrets and Confessions,” at Princeton University. Nielsen was previously the Assistant Director of Writing at Queens College.

Facebook: The Third ‘R’?


How much writing did you do as a first semester undergraduate? 15 pages? 30? 22? 2?

How much should a first semester undergraduate write?

I’ve been thinking about the answer to that second question since I met with a student— I’ll call her Jane—in the midst of a routine day of individual appointments with Introduction to Theatre students. Immediately after I had made an introduction in her class in the early days of the semester, Jane emailed me seeking general feedback on her writing– she is a transfer student from another CUNY college, and is eager to take advantage of Baruch’s resources now that she’s here. Unlike the majority of students who utilize the services we offer when supporting THE1041C, Jane wasn’t panicked about a soon-to-be-due assignment, but wanted a kind of general consultation on her academic writing skills. I asked Jane to send me some samples of her written work, and she told me that so far, she only had blog assignments.

When we met, we spoke about her approach to these blog entries; it was clear that she had given them some thought, but her sentence structure was often confusing, and it took me repeated readings to fully grasp her meaning. In most of her blog entries, she was beating around the bush of her argument or main idea. This isn’t an uncommon problem; I face it all of the time in my own writing, and it is among the biggest issues that our students face.

Jane’s eagerness to write more was what was uncommon. As we talked, she peppered me with questions. How could she improve her writing? What should she be doing differently? What kinds of exercises would help her improve her writing on her own? I had never before had a student actively seeking additional written work, so I asked her about the assignments she had coming up in the semester. I discovered that Jane was not being asked to write very much at all. Out of four classes, her longest assignment was a four-page paper. After talking with her a bit more, a few questions kept popping up:

How do we negotiate the balance between boldly experimenting with new technology and maintaining certain (old) standards of rigor? This question comes out of the sheer lack of quantity (yes, not always quality, but important nonetheless) of writing that I saw this student being challenged with, thanks to word-capped Facebook and blog assignments. Often, adventurous faculty members are juggling many different assessment elements at once– course blogs, maybe a course wiki, too, and then oral presentations, low-stakes writing in class, plus quizzes and finals. Your syllabus is busting out before you’ve even gotten to factor in class participation. So it’s not hard to imagine that having students write  extended essays might be what gets lost in the shuffle.

How do we make the assignment diversity feel relevant, not random? Jane was a little self-conscious about her blog posts, confessing that she wasn’t sure of the expectations in terms of formality. But, as I gave her feedback on them, she also defended herself; these weren’t really evaluated, she explained, they were just graded on the basis of whether she had done them or not. She felt they were an after-thought, and so, that’s how she thought of them: after. (Click here for my own reflections on the challenges and triumphs of course blogging, here for a course blogger superstar story, and here for much more about the phenomenal Blogs@Baruch and profs who are using it to thrilling ends.)

Can we teach code-switching within online social networks? Jane was not assigned any papers in her Sociology course, either. The class has a Facebook wall, where they post pertinent links and have lively conversation about readings and class discussions—even the organizing logic of the course is debated on the Facebook page, which looked to me to be a healthy and vibrant online commons. Still, the Facebook page comments are either 250-300 words or 420 characters. Since Jane is likely using Facebook to communicate with her friends and contacts, too, how will this Sociology professor go about making the distinction between one mode of commenting and another?

Could Jane’s lack of high-stakes writing assignments have to do with work-avoidance on the part of her Instructors (and so what if it does)? Are Jane’s assignments—blog posts about 18th century acting techniques and Facebook comments in response to Sociology theory– examples of radical teaching, or just radical avoidance of the time-consuming task of reading through an 8-10 page (or 10-15 page) academic paper? None of her classes culminated with one of those. (In her Math class, Jane had no writing. In her Great Works class, the bulk of assignments were short—very short, 150 word assignments identifying a certain theme in the literature they were reading.) As is the norm within CUNY, half of Jane’s faculty is adjunct; adjuncts are generally only getting paid for one hour of work outside of their time in the classroom. A Facebook page can easily be monitored in one hour of work, so having students compose 420 characters at a pop could seem like a good way to minimize faculty labor while shaking up the tired old models, too. But there is a vast qualitative difference between infusing your syllabus with a diversity of learning objectives through multiple learning styles and creatively trying to avoid grading 10-page papers from 30+ students.

Are Jane’s assignments  preparing her for future employment challenges? The ability to communicate short, coherent messages is a fundamental expectation of many, many jobs. Just this year, at my “side gig,” I found myself parsing copy for a website, brochure, and even the 140 characters allotted for a web advertising button. These kinds of tasks will await Jane in every one of the fields she expressed interest in pursuing.

Still, these jobs will also expect the ability to sustain an argument (or inquiry into a topic or question)—exactly what is exercised in writing the long essay. Indeed, my friend who does just the kind of work Jane is interested in—communications for a policy organization—is called upon to write everything from one-page letters to the Mexican parliament to lengthy research reports on human rights abuses in Cuba. He is generally not the one tapped to write the blog posts or tweets for his organization, but someone else there is. So if we are giving students Facebook comments and blog posts as assignments, what kind of an evaluative standard should we use to ensure that they’re not just throw-away writings, but reach the kind of level that may one day be expected of them professionally?

I’m not advocating that we willy-nilly unleash a bevy of high-stakes writing assignments on our students, or mandate a standard number of pages of “academic writing” expected of each student. This post is appropriately full of questions, not answers. (And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Write-to-Learn strategies can and should be employed with incredible effectiveness.) And yet, it seems fairly clear that I saw something else happening in Jane’s coursework, and that something seems to be connected to a very worthy kind of experimentation on the part of her instructors. We can’t draw hard and fast conclusions from any one student’s anecdotal experience– and it is important also to mention that Jane was absolutely inspired by many of her classes and professors, and she was motivated to master their individual challenges. And yet, the question nags– what could explain this?– that an undergraduate could be writing so little? And what would you recommend to Jane?

Clear as Mud

Page A15 of the New York Times on March 7th looked suspiciously like a story from The Onion about the tangled mess that is teacher evaluation in New York City public schools. Winning the award for the most understated headline of the year, “Evaluating New York Teachers, Perhaps the Numbers Do Lie,” Michael Winerip tells the (predictably?) sad story of Stacey Isaacson, a 7th grade English and Social Studies teacher at the Lab school, described as “very dedicated,” “wonderful,” and “one of a kind,” by teachers, students, and principals alike.

So why, then, is poor Ms. Isaacson ranked in the 7th percentile of city teachers when it comes to student academic progress?

Because of this formula, designed to calculate a teacher’s value-added score by the Department of Education’s “accountability experts” (satirists, start your engines):

Click to view full size.

As someone who once taught for the NYC Department of Education and is also a product of it, I wasn’t really surprised that they had gotten it all wrong. I wasn’t even surprised to imagine that they would think such a formula could be an accurate method for tenure evaluation. They did, however, outdo themselves in the category of overall incoherence; not only did this tool strike me as wrong-headed, but it was also completely unintelligible. This is so unbelievably unhelpful a formula (ready-made for critique by visualization genius Edward Tufte), that no teacher could be expected to look at it and see her work (or her true challenges) reflected within it. Matrix-like in its complexity and opaque in its reasoning, it is a formula incapable of communicating what it is measuring or how a teacher might improve her practices based upon it. And from what I can tell, the variables are wonky, too.

It is not until the 16th paragraph of the article that Winerip summons the courage to try to explain the thing:

According to her “data report,” Isaacson’s students had a prior proficiency score of 3.57. “Her students were predicted to get a 3.69– based on the scores of comparable students around the city. Her students actually scored a 3.63. So Ms. Isaacson’s valued added in 3.63-3.69.” Simple enough, right? Wrong. The author– who knows he’s hit pay dirt with this one– goes on:

“These are not averages. For example, the department defines Ms. Isaacson’s 3.57 prior proficiency as ‘the average prior year proficiency rating of the students who contribute to a teacher’s value added score.”

Eh? And the calculation for her predicted score is based on 32 variables, which are plugged into a statistical model– the one that made me feel like I was, surely, reading The Onion.

Anyone reading this case study of Ms. Isaacson will naturally wonder a few things, like, “Wouldn’t it be fun to calculate what percentage of Joel Klein’s contract at Fox News Corporation represents Ms. Isaacson’s salary?” or, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to invite these statisticians to actually teach us this formula and how it works?” I frequently work on assessment at the Schwartz Institute, and it is also a built-in aspect of every course I teach. So I know that evaluating teaching and learning is a tricky thing indeed, a hall of mirrors in which you think you see the student reflected but often, you don’t.

I decided, then, to concoct my own formula, with my own variables, to evaluate the teaching that I do at Baruch in my capacity as a Fellow and an instructor of Communication Studies. What variables get in the way of student progress that cannot be accounted for after you have observed my class, read my syllabus, and tested my students for their proficiency level?

Click to view full size.

What if you really tried to articulate the variables that come into play when facing a group of students and a set of learning objectives?

Winerip explains that teachers are eligible for tenure based upon three categories: instructional practices (including observations), contribution to the school community, and student achievement (which is where the formula comes in). Now, I’ve never been much of a whiz at statistics, but maybe that’s okay. After all, if the communications people made the formulas, and the formula people made the communications, perhaps we’d all start getting somewhere?

So please—in the spirit of collaborative learning, improve upon my draft and post your own visual and/or variables in the comments section.

Friendship and the Love of Art

Marian Seldes– actor, director, teacher, and journalist– was the guest lecturer at yesterday’s Clair Mason Women of Distinction Lecture Series. “Lecture” might be the wrong word to describe the event, however; Seldes, regal in a shimmering pink and purple flowery wrap-type dress (yes, hard to explain), presided over a fairly remarkable Q&A session. She began by putting her purpose right on the lectern: she was there to discuss the importance of the arts, and her career in the performing arts as about more than rewards and prizes: “To talk of theatre as friendship and love of the art.”

As if to illustrate this theme, Seldes had a posse of theatrical grande dames with her; seated in the front row were blockbuster stage actresses Angela Lansbury and Joan Copeland. Seldes would occasionally comment on their presence; “Angela, just seeing you there…calms me.”

Fantastic Four: Lansbury, Mason, Copeland, Seldes

After opening with a monologue by playwright John Arden about the blessings of art– “business and politics I leave to the crooks”– Seldes said firmly, “this is what I believe.” With that, she was done with her talk, and announced that she would answer any questions that anyone had– otherwise, she had not much else to say. As expected, the questions flowed from every corner of the audience, allowing Seldes to transfix with stories from her rich career, recollected with ample grace and humor; from her early aspirations as a ballerina, to studying with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse (“you don’t have to be nice to teach acting, but you have to be demanding”), to her well-known roles in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women and Peter Shaffer’s Equus, to her unfulfilled dream of playing Hecuba.

When asked by an audience member which women of distinction had made an impression on her own life, she recalled the head of Theatre at the Dalton School: “Her name was Mildred Geiger, and she was very important to me,” she said simply, and left it at that. While she was critical of the high prices of theatre tickets today, Seldes shaped a most non-judgmental, gratified, and appreciative theatrical figuration– one who is equally enthusiastic as a performer as well as an audience member. She is never bored at the theatre, she maintained, not even when watching a boring performance– there is always something, or someone, interesting to look at. “I think just watching other human beings is the most interesting thing I’ve ever done.” Soon, the final question was posed, there were flowers to present, and talk of a car waiting outside; time to go.

Later, I reflected on Seldes’s point of linking the individuality of actors to the plays they are in, taking the stance that the original cast is just one of the impossible-to-reproduce, ethereal aspects of the theatre. (When asked if Three Tall Women might be revived, she claimed it wouldn’t work without actress Myra Carter in one of the roles.) This insistence could make any of the younger audience members at yesterday’s talk pine for the opportunity to hop into the time machine and head for the box office circa 1967. I went home, curious for more Marian, and found a bizarre little trailer for a documentary on Seldes that somehow manages to capture just a piece of the intensity she brought to Baruch:

A Memorial: Saul Bruckner

When I heard that my high school principal Saul Bruckner had died in his Mill Basin home on May 1, I was shocked, but in an aimless sort of way. It felt huge, impossible—a massive loss and somehow a very personal one. And yet while I had a vast sense that Mr. Bruckner had influenced me deeply, I had no luck when I tried to articulate that influence to the people around me. “My high school principal died,” I told my roommate. “He was really incredible.” And then I’d trail off.

So, like legions of other Murrow alums, I’ve been spending time thinking about just what it is exactly that makes me feel like I want a bust of Mr. Bruckner in my living room. Many of us appreciate the important teacher figures from our pasts, but what of the folks who didn’t necessarily teach us long division or what the Rococo period was about? What of the learning that comes from that dispersed thing known as educational leadership?– from administrators, of all people?

The first thing to mention about Mr. Bruckner is just how old school he was, in a new school kind of way. He was a truly progressive educator who didn’t need to appropriate slang or wear a whistle in order to “connect” with young people. He rose up the ranks in the New York City school system (back when it was still a Board of Education, and not a Department) as a social studies teacher, became assistant principal at Dewey High School, and eventually opened Murrow in 1974.

Edward R. Murrow High School is known for the many progressive aspects of its structure and approach, but Mr. Bruckner himself came across as a pretty subdued, non-controversial guy. You’d imagine that a principal who allowed students freedom of choice in their academic pursuits, outlawed bells and hall sweeps and detention and sports teams, gave students the benefit of the doubt when it came to unstructured time, and fiercely defended music and arts programs might be more of a hippie crusader in moccasins than a buttoned-up older gentleman in neat tweed suit jackets. Not so.

Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

Still, those are the facts. When the Times published a short article about his memorial service, I started honing in on what I found so unique about Mr. Bruckner.  The photo that accompanied the article did it; Mr. Bruckner, with his arms folded, his red name tag jutting out from his jacket, listening intently to three students surrounding him, all of whom look like they’ve got more than one bone to pick with the guy. That was his usual posture—arms crossed, ears open, completely committed– and it wasn’t rare for Mr. Bruckner to be outnumbered. I stood in front of him this way many times, standing with my friends and shooting off at the mouth about something or other, while Mr. Bruckner stood stock-still and listened—sometimes with a bemused smile, sometimes with a look of mild judgment. Perhaps the man closed the door to his oblong office (where he also taught his 7:30am AP American History course) and privately screamed into a rattan pillow—if he did, we never caught on.

The man was consistency itself, and I’d guess that he realized just how important that was to us, to see him standing by the main entrance every morning as we entered clutching our bagels. He was an eloquent man of few words, but clear actions. Students at Murrow were allowed to lounge in the hallways during “free” periods (which weren’t called “periods” at all), but if we were obliviously sitting next to a clump of trash, Bruckner would suddenly swing around a corner to pitch it in the garbage, reminding us at once that he was boss, it was our building, and no task was too insignificant for him– or us.

Mr. Bruckner’s death crystallized for me even further when I read an article penned by one of my former English teachers at Murrow, Katherine Schulten. Ms. Schulten is now editor of The Learning Network, and she identifies five poignant lessons for educators that she took from working with Mr. Bruckner.  The final one, “Kids come first,” coupled with her description of Mr. Bruckner—kindness, intelligence, commitment and vision—packaged up exactly what I’d wanted to say all along. How remarkable to observe someone with so little (discernable) ego, a fellow who never went out of his way to strut his feathers and yet implemented such a strong vision at the same time. To be an educator who skips the bloviating and lingers on the students while constructing a school culture that follows his thoughtful concepts– and then he hangs out long enough to really see it flourish and sustain? A term that Mr. Bruckner himself taught me is the only one I can think to use: rara avis.

Ms. Schulten’s article got me thinking: as someone who routinely stands in front of clusters of young people and some days finds the crown of educator a very difficult one to wear, ignoring Mr. Bruckner’s legacy outside of its most general terms shouldn’t be an option. Sure, the life of an adjunct lecturer and Communication Fellow is very different from that of a high school principal, but that’s no excuse to disregard the challenge that his example puts forth. I heard the news about Mr. Bruckner’s passing during the crowded and frustrating end-of-semester crush, when students were filling my  inbox with frantic emails arguing about grades, contesting plagiarism charges, pleading for forgiveness. Some days it’s incredibly difficult to maintain empathy, priorities, and focus—the kind of focus, I realize, Mr. Bruckner persisted with, day in, and day out, for so many years.

Numerous Facebook groups have already popped up paying tribute to Mr. Bruckner, and an accompanying campaign to have the street outside of the school renamed in his honor would be a fitting memorial to a life’s work that thrived at the humble intersection of Avenue L and 17th Street. An equally moving tribute is represented by the many students who, like me, have been newly considering just what was in this special sauce and where  we might apply it ourselves. I’d suspect that it won’t just be about picking up that lone piece of trash in the hallways, but also about that particular blend of action and patience. Still, it’s an educational riddle worth committing time to: how did he do it? And how can we?