Notes on Writing Across the Curriculum at BLSCI

This piece serves as a reflection and elaboration of my current work as a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Fellow at BLSCI. I would say that the WAC principle of scaffolding assignments in the classroom—that is, breaking work into smaller, skills-specific exercises that link together as a meaningful whole—holds true for developing and rethinking curricula. During this academic year, I navigated the various (and exciting) pedagogical initiatives at BLSCI by identifying a small set of questions to think about across different contexts and learning communities (i.e., faculty members as a group, one-on-one development with a professor over a semester, one-on-one sessions with students, in-class workshops). Specifically, my inquiries and energies were directed towards experimenting with ways to get CUNY undergraduates to simultaneously synthesize course content while exercising a skill that develops and sustains their individual, intellectual interests. This is an extension of what I try to do with students who work with me: students simultaneously rehearse the skills of the discipline and (ideally) gain familiarity with practices that would encourage them to continue producing knowledge that’s meaningful to them, beyond the space and time of a class. What follows, I hope, is a contribution to the ongoing conversations that my BLSCI colleagues have maintained—conversations that inspire me to actively integrate into my own work the value of syncing the uniqueness of one’s voice with a personal commitment to a learning community.

 1. FACULTY DEVELOPMENT

I helped facilitate the “Why the Research Block?” Faculty Roundtable in October 2013. Professor Louise Klusek and Professor Stephen Francoeur led an informative discussion on how to teach undergraduates the structure of and the various approaches to academic research. They illustrated the importance of stressing to undergraduates that academic research is an exercise of multiple skills over a period of time. For example: strategically identifying keywords, locating the proper databases, evaluating the quality of sources, and synthesizing those sources are all constitutive of the research process. The roundtable discussion left me with this question: how do we get students to creatively, critically engage the source materials of their chosen discipline, whether that may be a passage in a novel or a set of numerical data? This inquiry became the motivation behind my pitch for the “Writing About Numbers” Faculty Roundtable.

The “Writing About Numbers” Faculty Roundtable, which I co-ran with Professor Bill Ferns about a month ago, is informed by my experience as a student and instructor at CUNY. I developed variations of teaching a tripartite structure to critical thinking. The three parts include: a claim, evidence to support the claim, a narration of how the selected evidence relates to the claim (the analysis). This is a version of my own approach to research writing and it is an approach that I learned from reading Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations before I started my doctoral studies.

I developed “Writing About Numbers” from my experience in teaching content-heavy courses while modeling for students techniques of argumentation. During class, I frequently ask students to engage directly with the course content, the evidence if you will, and then we build claims together based on an assessment of the evidence (i.e., its textures, effects, and utilities). The evidence and methodology varies from discipline to discipline, but there is an obvious overlap between the disciplines: a shared value of teaching our chosen discipline’s techniques of synthesis and critical thinking. My sense that writing and mathematical reasoning as mutually reinforcing skills comes out of this notion and Toby Fulwiler’s observation that: “Writing and arithmetic provide general tools for manipulating and expressing ideas and information.” The citation for this source and the outline of my presentation can be found here.

Working and co-presenting with Professor Ferns has been generative, especially in opening up a conversation about how instructors can guide students in clearly narrating and effectively visualizing data through communicative models (i.e., graphs, maps, charts).

 2. FACULTY SUPPORT

I provide support and collaborate with faculty in developing writing assignments for their courses. In the fall, I helped a Great Works instructor in preparing students for their term papers. I gave an in-class workshop on how to draft for papers on literature.

I’m currently working with David Gruber, who is a professor of Biology and Environmental Science, and we’re collaborating on scaffolding a few assignments that relate to symbiosis and microbes for his upper-level course “Microbial Ecology.” Two weeks ago, to prepare students for their final research project, I gave an in-class workshop where students and I discussed the structure of scientific prose. Professor Gruber had assigned a chapter from Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters. Microbe Hunters is a stylishly-written, narrative-driven popular press book and I walked students through a conversation about how de Kruif’s style is reflective of his research content. We talked about writing to different audiences. We also discussed how to strategically position, and reposition, the topic of a research paper in order to develop ideas. George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan’s “The Science of Scientific Writing” was instrumental in my framing of the workshop.

3. STUDENT SUPPORT

Throughout this academic year, I meet with students for one-on-one sessions.  For an hour, I work with a student on an assignment from their Great Works course. These sessions are incredibly instructive in getting me to think about my own pedagogy. Because I frequently work with faculty at Baruch, these sessions serve as a reminder that each student’s learning process is characterized by a different set of particularities and struggles.

These sessions give me a sense of what works (and what doesn’t work) when creating an assignment or essay prompt (specifically in how questions or prompts are framed). Additionally, last semester, when I joined BLSCI Director Suzanne Epstein for a grading session of student writings in aggregate, it was useful to think about my sessions with individual students in connection to Baruch’s English Department’s rubric and standards.

4. BLOG WRITING (AS PROCESS, PEDAGOGY, AND SCHOLARSHIP)

I’ll write more about this in my final post for this semester, but for now I just want to note that participating in the ongoing conversations at BLSCI has pushed me to think more broadly about public humanities, the various genres of scholarly labor, and the technologies that shape those forms of scholarly labor. In particular, I’ve been thinking through Tressie McMillan Cottom’s blog and Brooklyn College’s Professor Corey Robins’ piece on Aljazeera.

Speak to Learn: faculty speak their mind in video on oral communication

The classroom is abuzz with students jotting down notes and eagerly inserting themselves into a fast-paced full-class discussion.  Observant comments from every member of the class forward the conversation towards a collective higher understanding of the topic at hand.

This is my go-to vision of ideal classroom discussion.  But as I have immersed myself in conversations about communication across the curriculum here at the Schwartz Communication Institute, I have come to realize that A) this vision is sometimes hard to achieve, and B) it is only one of many models for meaningful oral communication in the classroom.

Why do we urge students to speak in class?  What does success look like when they do so?  What unique roles does oral communication play in the many diverse disciplines that Baruch students study?  These questions are at the center of two projects I’ve been working on this year at BLSCI.

The first is a short video that speaks to the role of spoken communication across the disciplines.  I interviewed three professors here at Baruch: Mathematics professor Peter Gregory, Business Management professor Ed Kurpis, and English professor Cheryl Smith.  I asked them about the role of spoken communication in their disciplines and in their classrooms.  While their responses reflect the particular demands of their disciplines, they all highlight the centrality of speaking to developing ideas and mastering knowledge in the classroom, and to communicating authentically and effectively in the outside world.  See what they have to say here:

The second project is a faculty development workshop that I am leading later this week (Thursday, February 27, 12:45-2:15pm) with Law professor Valerie Watnick.  We’ll be covering a wide variety of strategies for facilitating meaningful, focused and lively discussion in the classroom.  You can find details about this workshop, and all BLSCI workshops and roundtables, here.

Writing Assignments and the Business Curriculum: A Laboratory of Ideas Gets Underway at Zicklin

This semester, as a postdoctoral fellow at the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute, I have begun working with the Zicklin School of Business on the development of its Writing Initiative, which aims to strengthen students’ writing and critical thinking skills across the undergraduate business disciplines. Part of this collective effort is driven by the realization that, in an increasingly competitive labor market, our students need to become proficient writers, whether their major is Finance or Marketing. In her recent piece for CNBC, business journalist Kelley Holland notes that “many employers complain that they can’t find qualified candidates.” One reason, they cite, is “candidates’ inability …to write clearly.” Whether it is a one-page office memorandum, a three-page executive summary, a business proposal, or a letter to investors, a piece of writing needs to state its main points and do so in lucid, persuasive language. To this end, the Initiative also focuses on genre and audience.

Although writing assignments are already an integral part of many courses at Zicklin, the need to meet the demands of an increasingly competitive and complex job market means that we have to refine, and in some instances rethink, current writing projects. A foray into this Initiative was an intensive workshop last spring in which Zicklin faculty from various disciplines met with staff from the Schwartz Communication Institute. They discussed objectives, shared concerns such as how to structure, implement and grade writing projects, and drafted assignments. All of these elements are part of our “laboratory,” as we begin putting ideas into practice and immerse ourselves in this joint venture. In supporting faculty efforts to make writing an important feature of their courses, I also am addressing an understandable concern: how to include writing assignments in courses that focus on financial analysis or operations management. Where can one create room for writing assignments in courses that are already filled with lectures and projects specifically related to Accounting or Management topics? Discovering how writing is elemental to a business course’s learning outcomes begins to address some of these concerns.

Of course, in order for any writing assignment to be effective, it must be clearly linked to overall course objectives and worded so that students understand precisely what is expected of them—and why. Clearly expressed prompts are essential to both students’ comprehension of an assignment’s details, and their understanding of how the assignment relates to the material being studied in a given course. Thus, part of my effort in assignment (re)design is to help faculty formulate clear descriptions of assignments within the context of learning goals and course content. We are also developing grading rubrics for these assignments—rubrics that not only offer a framework for grading a project, but also provide a springboard towards assessment for a given assignment and course. I call upon my background as a Writing-across-the-Curriculum and Communication Fellow, and my experience teaching English composition and literature, when I sit down with faculty to design and pilot assignments, give in-class presentations, work one-on-one with students in reviewing their drafts, and plan faculty roundtables that will support these initiatives. One of our long-term goals is to draw business faculty together in an ongoing, shared praxis.

The Writing Initiative is also guided by the desire to ask business students to think of themselves as writers, as well as accountants, managers, or entrepreneurs. The Writing Center and the Student Academic Consulting Center are partners in this Initiative. Their one-on-one and group tutorials provide invaluable support for all students at Baruch, and they offer sessions tailored for ESL and nonnative learners. Through this Initiative, we want students to see proficient writing as essential to their professional lives and their broader roles as critical thinkers and engaged citizens. Thus, we are working to incorporate not only well-developed writing assignments into business courses, but also a culture of writing into the curriculum at Zicklin. In other words, the goal of helping Zicklin’s students produce strong writing for school and workplace is connected with the belief that writing is essential to their lives as thoughtful leaders and productive members of their communities.

Innovative Writing Pedagogies Beyond the Humanities: Following up on a faculty development workshop

I recently had the opportunity to co-facilitate, with Professor David Gruber, a roundtable based on David’s experiences incorporating writing activities and communication-intensive practices in his natural sciences courses. He worked intensively on these assignments with another Schwartz Institute fellow, Priya Chandrasekaran. All of what follows comes directly out of the work that David and Priya did together.*

I am posting this piece to make information on Writing Beyond the Humanities available, both to those who came and to those who weren’t able to make it. Hopefully this can serve as an open educational resource, something our institute thinks about a lot, and which has been written about quite a bit on this blog, including this recent, eloquent, and thought-provoking piece by Michelle Fisher.
Our roundtable was intended to do three main things:

  1. Describe “Writing to Learn” and “Writing Across the Curriculum” practices and rationale.
  2. Give specific examples of writing to learn practices. Many of these examples were based on David and Priya’s assignments.
  3. Give the attendees an opportunity to describe their own classroom objectives and brainstorm with the rest of us on ways they might incorporate writing to learn strategies.  Our attendees were professors teaching a wide range of courses (psychology, information systems, statistics, and computer ethics to name a few) and all of them left the roundtable with strategies in mind for using writing in their classrooms to achieve their specific learning goals.

I made a PowerPoint for the presentation which covers a lot of the conceptual ideas we discussed, and I’ll embed that here:

  • Many of these writing activities work best when done frequently. Free-writing once can be strange and might not be productive. Doing it regularly, though, can be very productive. Once your students are used to it, they can really begin to use and respond to the exercise well.
  • Many of these writing activities work best when they are part of scaffolded assignments. For example: free writing at all stages of an assignments, reflections after learning about the assignment, reflections after doing a draft, writing as part of the assignment itself, and writing in response to the assignment once completed. David’s assignments are really nicely scaffolded and include writing at all stages.
  • Doing some of these writing activities in a non-humanities class can feel odd. Asking students to free write in a statistics class, for example, will seem strange at first to professor and students alike. Being clear about your goals, and being willing to go through some strangeness at first is part of the process. Students respond really well, especially when they see how much they’re improving, but as an instructor you have to be willing to take some risks.
  • Assignments like a written reflection on a difficult reading will give you insight into what’s going on with your students. It gives you an opportunity to troubleshoot in a more personal way and at your leisure, either in office hours or in a written response to your students’ writing, rather than during class time. It also gives students more self-awareness of what they are understanding and what they need to work on.
  • A lot of these writing practices ask students to display mastery of material by expressing course content in lay terms, a skill many of the professors in attendance considered one of their biggest challenges.
  • One concern is that assigning writing gives the professor more work (reading and responding to the writing). First, many of these activities can be done without your needing to read the writing. Free-writing, for example, is not collected (though it can form the basis of a class discussion, especially focused free-writing). Second, a reflection can be turned in, or it can read by a peer who might respond to their peer’s reflection. This might generate a lot of discussion, and a more satisfying class dynamic. Third, in cases where you do read their writing, it will ideally save time and effort in other areas of your teaching. For example, since they will gain understanding and mastery through the practice of writing, their work will be stronger and will ideally require less correction. Fourth, grading lab reports, for example, can be boring after a while if they’re all the same. Assigning a digital lab report that incorporates writing and creativity, though, can be a more fulfilling grading experience.

Please let me know if you have any questions about this roundtable. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

*David and Priya’s work was developed over several semesters of collaboration. The work they did together has really inspired me. Priya’s eloquent and thoughtful writing on this collaboration can be read on this website: here and here and here and here. Our roundtable was based in part on their collaboration, and so reading Priya’s posts will provide a lot of the context behind what we discussed in our roundtable. You should especially look at her post on David’s “Mutualism” lab assignment (which is one of the links above, but for ease of access, here it is again), as it goes through the whole process of doing one assignment, and includes many writing to learn components they used to teach the lab, such as free writing, reflecting, and writing/producing a digital lab report. The timeline she created is pretty rad. You can also look at the timeline here.

Team-Based Learning… and Teaching Communication Skills: Incompatible?

Last spring, while serving in my last semester as a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Brooklyn College, I attended a workshop introducing faculty to Team-Based Learning (TBL), a pedagogical approach that has been gaining steam in the academy over the last couple of decades. I had just completed my first few years of university teaching, during which I had tried—drawing on piecemeal sources and largely following my own intuition—to find alternatives to the “sage on stage” teaching model with which I was most familiar. Although I thought that I had had some successes in restructuring many components of my courses to promote a more participatory environment, I still felt frustrated by the concentration of participation among a relatively small number of students, and by the haphazard-seeming quality of some of my group activities (not to mention the outright hostility with which some students reacted to group projects).

Kasia’s recent post discussed the concept of “flipped” classrooms, in which students get their initial dosage of “content” outside of class and then spend in-class time doing the higher-order cognitive work of applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and discussing the material. The same basic philosophy underpins TBL, although the touted benefits of highly structured teamwork are obviously a key aspect of the latter. According to the TBL literature, the worst teams typically outperform the top students in TBL classes.

There are four key design principles to TBL:

  1. Strategically formed, permanent teams: Instructors form teams of five to seven students and distribute the class’s strengths and weaknesses evenly among them. This can be achieved by administering a survey early in the course that asks about work experience, previous course work, number of credits being taken concurrently, intercultural experience, etc. Groups work together for the remainder of the course.
  2. Readiness Assurance Process: As with the “flipped” approach, students are expected to acquire the foundational knowledge for each class unit before it starts, usually through readings. Students’ preparation to engage closely with the content in subsequent activities is tested at the beginning of each unit. First, students do a short multiple-choice test individually; they then do the same test in teams with the Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique—a type of “scratch-and-win” card where students keep trying until they uncover the correct answer. Teams are then encouraged to appeal some of their wrong answers with evidence from the readings. The process concludes with a mini-lecture by the instructor to review particularly difficult concepts.
  3. Application Activities: Activities in which the course content is applied are supposed to take up the majority of class time in TBL courses. Application activities are guided by the “4 S’s” principle: they should heighten student interest by focussing on a significant problem; promote inter-team discussion by assigning all teams to the same problem; ensure comparability between team answers by requiring a specific choice; and require simultaneous reporting of answers by all teams—this can be done with voting cards, or now with numerous technological aids—as a way for both the instructor and students to gauge contrasts in student thinking and use them as starting points for discussion.
  4. Peer Evaluation: One of the most significant drawbacks to group work is that one or two better-qualified students often end up carrying the group while others get a “free ride.” While the collaborative structure of TBL application activities is supposed to eliminate the possibility for individuals to do all of the work, integrating peer evaluation into the grading scheme will also help motivate students to contribute to their team.

My main concern with TBL at this point is about how to include an emphasis on developing communication and writing skills in the course structure. The FAQ on the Team-Based Learning Collaborative site is unequivocal in its stance on group writing and presentation projects:

In many ways using “good” in relation to “writing assignments for groups” is an oxymoron.

It goes on to say that while group presentations might be somewhat beneficial to the groups doing the presenting, they don’t foster dynamic learning for the whole class the way “4-S” activities do, and are therefore, it is implied, out of step with the overall approach. I agree with TBL advocates that much of the group work we assign students is little more than individual assignments requiring minimal student coordination. But surely there is educational value in having students build “lengthy products,” something TBL philosophy proscribes. Of course, it’s not like entire departments are switching over to TBL en masse, so plenty of opportunities remain for implementing writing and communication strategies in other courses. But are substantial written assignments and oral presentations really incompatible with teamwork, as TBL guidelines would have us believe? Is the only way to include these important educational aspects in a TBL course to disrupt the conventional course design—and potentially compromise its pedagogical benefits—to make room for them? Learning about TBL made me look forward to getting back into the classroom to try it out, but working in a communication institute makes me wonder if TBL needs to be adjusted to meet broader academic goals.

Takin’ Care of Business and Working Overtime: Understanding Assignments and Content

In my role as organizer/coordinator of a series of Faculty Development Workshops for the Schwartz Institute, I’ve had many discussions with faculty about how hard it can be to find time in a content-intensive class for discussions during class time about the assignments we expect our students to complete. But it’s often the case, as our many presenters at these Faculty Development Workshops have meaningfully reminded us, that taking time to explain and discuss our assignments (whether it’s to address what kind of research we’re looking for and how to do it, or to address what makes a strong argument for a compare/contrast paper) makes a huge difference in the quality of the work we get back from our students. And furthermore, as I’ve been discovering, setting aside that time in class doesn’t have to mean putting aside content for the day, and it always means better work.So here’s my modest proposal. In order to get better student work (whatever the assignment), set aside time to discuss the assignment, but in that discussion about the assignment, find a way to incorporate the course content. Put conversely, in order to get students to achieve stronger mastery of course content, find ways to address the course content in terms of the assignments they’ll be doing with that content.
Here’s the doodle I just made to wrap my head around that proposal:
doodle
An example: In a course that requires a research paper, hold a workshop in class (perhaps with a research librarian from the Newman Library who is an expert in your course content)  in which you a.) showcase the research skills you want demonstrated in the assignment and b.) model research by actually conducting research on a topic that relates to the course content. (Professor Allison Lehr Samuels gave a great example of this in the Faculty Development Workshop she led earlier this week). So, rather than just go through the motions of showing the research skills you expect your students to demonstrate in their assignments, model research by actually doing research that is relevant to the assignment. Not only will students come away from this understanding more about how to research, they will also internalize the content from that day’s course since it was made relevant to them in terms of actual work they will be doing with it.
In my own class, Great Works of Literature, a survey of literature written from the beginning of time to around 1650, I just tested this theory out this week. I held a workshop that took an entire class period in which we went over, in great depth and in many ways, a compare/contrast paper assignment. My main objective was to have the students understand what an argument looks like for this kind of paper. If, at the end of the workshop, the students fully comprehended that an argument is not simply a statement of facts (i.e. Antigone and Medea are both female characters who do things that are out of the ordinary) but a controversial, debatable argument about those facts (i.e. and this is interesting/surprising/unexpected because…) then I would be a happy teacher.
So I did two things.

  1. I brought 3 carefully selected and abridged (anonymous) examples of student papers from past semesters and had the students read them, looking for the arguments. Then we went over each example as a class, with the relevant section of the paper projected on the white board so that I or another student could mark it up as we discussed. Then, we debated about whether we agreed or disagreed with that student’s argument, thereby addressing the course content (i.e. having a discussion about the texts that make up our course content) and addressing my assignment (i.e. if we can have an argument about it, then it’s an argument for the purposes of a compare/contrast paper).
  2. Then I had them break into groups and create arguments about a specific comparison: Sophocles’s Antigone, which we had read in class, and an adaptation of this play, Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, which we had just seen performed at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. This allowed them to discuss the course content (the two versions of Antigone) but within the context of the assignment (the compare/contrast paper).

I have yet to receive these papers, so we’ll see if they have stronger arguments than in past semesters, but I do want to list a few observations from that class:

  • Several students who almost never participate participated.
  • Students were able to critique each other’s work respectfully and productively after having seen anonymous papers critiqued.
  • By the end of the class, when broken up into groups to create arguments about the two versions of Antigone, I overheard several students using the language about arguments that I was trying to drive home (“statement of fact vs. debatable argument”).
  • The students had spirited, in-depth conversations about many of the texts that make up our course content, under the guise of or in service to understanding the assignment.

Oral Communication in Cross-Cultural Perspective

Make eye contact. Project your voice. Articulate clearly. Plan smooth transitions. Don’t read from notes.

For most of us connected in one way or another to teaching in higher education, these simple maxims are some of the unquestioned tenets of good public speaking. Personally, I have instructed my students to bear them closely in mind for the short presentations I typically have them do in my classes; bullet points with slight variations on the above permeate the documents we here at the Schwartz Institute distribute to students to prepare them for successful oral presentations and debates in their communication intensive classes. As someone who’s field of study (ethnomusicology) is largely premised on granting equal value to the musical systems of every culture (i.e. cultural relativism), and who believes that the disproportionate focus on the western classical tradition in our universities’ music departments is seriously problematic, I was surprised to find myself only recently reflecting on the implications of assuming the primacy of one particular style of oral communication.

Since the amazing diversity of human musical expression became evident to me only a few readings into the ethnomusicological canon, I have often found descriptions of heterogeneity in other communicative domains to be more striking. Take, for instance, the following depiction of public speaking style in the rural indigenous community of Conima, on the highland plateau of southern Peru, from Thomas Turino’s Moving Away from Silence:

A Conimeño [person from Conima] would not be comfortable on an elevated platform facing and conducting an orchestra, a classroom, or a meeting… speaking style is soft and indirect. People generally avoid eye contact during conversation, and when talking in groups, a speaker will look at the ground so as to address no one in particular and everyone at the same time.

The contrasts here to several of the postulates listed at the outset of this post are obvious. We further learn, though, that Conimeños would find foreign the very idea of a debate, which is the format that some fellows at the Institute are assigned to support.

The next example, drawn from an article by Steven Feld (“Aesthetics as Iconicity of Style”) on the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea, speaks to an aesthetics of public speech that is ostensibly fostered by the dense soundscape of their surrounding rain forest:

The Western normative concepts of individual speaker turns, floor rights, and turn-taking etiquette, notions rationalized in both speech act philosophy and conversational analysis, are absent from, and analytically irrelevant to Kaluli conversation and narration. What might be heard as regular “interruption” is not that at all, but rather the collaborative and co-creative achievement of dulugu sala, ‘lift-up-over speaking.’ […] Multiple voices hold the floor simultaneously and parties address multiple others and agendas simultaneously, without any voice continually dominating or organizing the stream of discussion.

These are merely two examples that happen to be discussed in studies that otherwise focus on music, and there are certainly thousands more in the literatures of anthropology and linguistics.

What, then, might the consequences be of our emphasis on one, culturally specific, style of public speaking in our classrooms? Are we promoting cultural homogenization? How might we reconcile an appreciation for the diversity of oral communication styles with an acknowledgement that mainstream North American academic culture has converged on a set of criteria for what makes good public speaking? I assume experts in communication have given this some thought. Peter Elbow addresses the culturally inflected character of speech and writing in his book Vernacular Eloquence, and I was interested to hear concerns about what messages we are sending ESL students when we point them to resources for accent “reduction” at a recent meeting. And yet, our materials on oral communication seem to rehash the same assumption that there is a universal mode of effective public speaking. One document we use purports to deliver “the essential elements and some tips on preparing and organizing a successful oral presentation in English or any other language.” Although it does later advise readers to keep the first language and professional field of their audience in mind when planning a presentation, the guidance provided is ultimately in line with the basic ideas mentioned above.

I don’t have any concrete answers to these questions, but let me offer a couple of half-formed and probably unoriginal thoughts:

Firstly, oral communication styles, like musical systems and language itself, are thoroughly interwoven with the cultures from which they emerge, and it is significant when societies or individuals are compelled to change their forms of communication. Turino illustrates this point vividly when he describes how Conimeños who migrated to Peru’s capital began adopting the Hispanicised speech style of the city’s European descendants, and how this development put a strain on communication, and relations more generally, between the migrants and elders back in the home district. Secondly, tied as they are to a cultural habitus, forms of public speech may be linked to forms of politics. As it happens, the non-confrontational, indirect style of communication in Conima corresponds to a generally egalitarian society in which decisions are reached by consensus, “public political and religious offices rotate equally among adult male community members, and equality of opportunity is given precedence over individual competence.” The Kaluli, too, were characterized as an egalitarian group. I would have little basis for attempting to correlate the monologic mode of formal speech and its attendant aesthetics to the hierarchical and unequal organization of capitalism, but I can’t help thinking that for all their eye contact, well-projected voices, clear diction, and savvy off-the-cuff handling of prepared speaking points, our politicians give us little in the way of truth, integrity, or effective governance.

Speaking to Learn

Like many of my colleagues in the PhD program in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, I’ve spent a lot of time in the first five years of my program teaching (and even more time learning to teach!) college writing to undergraduates. I’ve taught freshman composition at Borough of Manhattan Community and Queens Colleges, completed a writing fellowship at Medgar Evers College, and currently teach research and writing in the humanities and social sciences to juniors and seniors at York College. What was less familiar to me as a new Communication Fellow with the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute at Baruch College is the Institute’s focus on formal oral communication in the classroom. Of course, students in both my composition and literature classes spend plenty of time — at least half the period — talking to each other. Like most English teachers, I assign discussion prompts along with readings and put students into small groups to hash out these questions before responding to the whole class. Yet, I seem rather to have inherited these practices from my old teachers than to have thought about how to structure them into my syllabi and align them with my learning objectives. It occurs to me that, until this year, I’ve never tried to teach my students how to speak in class, nor made that teaching part of my syllabus.

So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to structure class discussions around a specific set of learning goals — especially how students can use what they are saying in class as pre-drafting exercises for their more formal communications. One of the core principles of Writing Across the Curriculum is the use of writing throughout the syllabus as a pedogogical tool rather than merely as an instrument to assess student learning — what’s known in WAC lingo as “writing-to-learn.” Likewise, in a truly communication-intensive course, the goal of classroom discussion and oral presentation should be more than simply to demonstrate what students have learned at the end of a reading, unit, or course. More than that, oral communication in the classroom can be — should be — an opportunity for students to practice the rhetorical moves they will use in their formal writing and public speaking. Students should be speaking not simply to demonstrate prior learning, but also to activate new learning. After all, the elements of persuasive writing we teach in the classroom — argument and evidence, audience and tone, clarity and structure — have their roots in the Classical rhetoric of oral argument. Moreover, I suspect, students already have a sense of what these things sound like, even if they don’t always know how to translate that sound into their own writing. Indeed, even before my conversion to CAC principles in the classroom, I have long suspected that much of the “jerkiness,” the lack of fluency, in students’ writing comes from their never having spoken about what they’re writing — perhaps never even having read their writing aloud, even to themselves.

With these considerations in mind, while designing the theme and choosing readings for my new Research and Writing in the Majors course at York College in Jamaica, Queens, I thought about what would not only engage students’ interest, but also provoke strong opinions and stimulate lively classroom discussions. Our theme (arrived at after some trepidation, which I will discuss later) is “Policing the City,” and the readings revolve around U. S. District Court judge Shira A. Scheindlin’s opinion in the the case of  Floyd v. City of New York – the “stop and frisk” lawsuit against the city and its police department — which was filed just two weeks before the start of classes at CUNY late this summer.

The attractions of this theme were two-fold. First, not only was the case much in the news and, therefore, already familiar in its basic facts to most of my students; many of my students are African-American and Latino youth from high-crime neighborhoods in the city and, therefore, much more likely to be the targets of stop-and-frisk policing than their cohorts at, say, NYU or Columbia, as Judge Scheindlin’s opinion explicitly finds. Second, ever since my own undergraduate years as a Human Service Advocacy major with a minor in legal studies (I worked as a client advocate in community-based HIV/AIDS service), I have come to believe that the study of legal reasoning and research is the best education in persuasive writing. I learned to write (to the extent that I can write) by drafting hypothetical legal briefs — finding applicable statutes and case law and applying them to a set of facts, always with an ear to what would make a compelling oral argument. Even today, as a second-career, PhD student in English, I still have an easier time with the difference between “probable cause” and “reasonable suspicion” than with the distinction between metaphor and metonymy.

I have said that I began this course with some trepidation. Like all my anxieties, this one took the form of two polar opposite fears: either my students would bristle at the presumptions of this middle-aged, white guy with his New England speech patterns, and shut down before the conversation even began; or else they would be so animated (not to say agitated) by the subject and their personal experiences with it that they would be unable to analyze and discuss the readings with equanimity. I am happy to report (albeit only 3 weeks into the term) that the sentiment of the class has tended toward the latter extreme: the push-back against personal anecdote and emotional appeal has provided many “teachable moments” already this term. To be fair, I give students the opportunity to pose an argument of their own in the second essay. But at first, I ask them to straight-jacket their opinions, and simply to analyze the Executive Summary of the judge’s Opinion in light of Jeffrey Toobin’s  New Yorker article, which provides some background to Scheindlin’s history of judicial activism. During classroom discussions, to facilitate this dispassionate analysis, I provide a template for students that is inspired by some of the templates in Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s composition text They Say, I Say, which guides students to a three-part full response:

  1. Introduce the source (either the text or the student to whom she or he is responding);
  2. Summarize or paraphrase the source’s argument; and
  3. Respond to the source with his or her own argument — either in agreement, disagreement, or something in between.

For example, when one student argues that the city’s stop-and-frisk policy has been an effective tool in fighting crime, another student might be prompted to respond:

I hear you say, based on your understanding of the city’s testimony, that the intrusion on individual liberty is a reasonable price to pay for increased security. While there is a certain ‘common sense’ truth to this argument, as Judge Scheindlin argues, this case is not about the effectiveness of the practice, but rather about its constitutionality. What’s clear from the testimony and the judge’s decision is that there is a clear violation of the the 4th Amendment, and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U. S. Constitution in the prosecution of this policy. Either of which is intolerable, even in the face of the public’s fear of increased crime rates.

While some might argue that such templates restrict students too closely to a particular rhetorical form, I have found them to be effective means for students to gain initial entry into academic discourse. Even while students are working on the nuances of their arguments, they can begin to think of their oral responses as full rhetorical structures, rather than simple “I agree” or “I disagree” responses.

It’s early in the term. In fact, I’m writing this blog post in between writing the guidelines for our first peer review, which we will be conducting tomorrow! But, based on the classroom discussions our course has generated so far, I expect to see some lively and thoughtful analysis of this judicial ruling. What I hope will come of our guided classroom discussion is that students will have a bank of analyses to draw upon as they write their own opinions of the case in their next essays. Moreover, through their readings and guided classroom discussions of ancillary texts, I want students to have learned a pattern of quote-and-respond — oral and written — that will serve them in their individual disciplines, throughout their college and professional careers.

Reflections on a Yearlong Collaboration

These are some final reflections based on my notes from my last meeting with Prof. Gruber.  To read my earlier posts about integrating communication and technology into university science teaching, click here, here, and here.

This second semester of collaboration went really well. Prof. Gruber incorporated the Digital Lab Reports into the syllabus and they were worth 10% of the grade.  We also tried a new lab – Photosynthesis – and jettisoned one from last semester that felt like too much work for the “payoff” (the level of science learning and critical thinking fostered).  It made a big and positive difference to have students know that the Digital Lab Reports were part of their core curriculum.

The second time around Prof. Gruber also included both a “draft” and a “final” presentation day into the course schedule.  This was important for two reasons: 1) it incorporated revisions (of Digital Lab Reports and oral presentations) into the schedule as a course expectation, and 2) as Prof. Gruber pointed out, it gave students a hard deadline two weeks before the final submission – you can’t really turn in a group presentation late!  As with last semester, the draft presentations were highly productive.  Students gave each other feedback (I asked for at least 3 comments or questions from the class for each DLR).  Then I gave feedback on the communication, presentation, technology, creativity, etc. aspects of the DLR and presentation and Prof. Gruber gave feedback on the accuracy and depth of the science content (as well as the other components).  As I’ve written about earlier, this provided a unique opportunity to see how students were processing and understanding the information he was teaching them and to “re-align” their thinking.

As it feels like we have the basics of a working model here, I’ve been thinking about how we might address some existing challenges, including:

  • Modifying DLRs so that instructors who are not technology-savvy feel comfortable collaborating on such projects
  • Teaching skills and framing the DLRs so that the group work is more collaborative and students who do not have experience with audio and video programs have more opportunity to experiment and take leadership roles
  • Thinking of ways to make the final presentations more “eventful,” as they do not require the same level of feedback as the draft day and are no longer “new” to the class
  • Raising the quality of the final DLRs (which were already very good)
  • Better training students to give and receive constructive critiques

Some things to try next year

  • Make a rubric for students to grade/assess the Final DLRs.  This will get them actively involved the final day.  Also, it would require the class to reflect on Prof. Gruber’s feedback and think about whether the group presenting “got the science right.”  This would provide an additional means to assess the class’ understanding of scientific concepts.
  • Find a way (in a constrained schedule) to incorporate 2 DLR revisions into the syllabus (so there would be 2 drafts and 1 final).  Prof. Gruber and I agreed that 3 appears to be the magic number.  Students’ first revisions might still have mistakes/misconceptions.  Furthermore, a second chance to revise would give students additional practice with giving and receiving feedback.
  • Videotape the DLR draft presentations so students can see themselves presenting and get more feedback.
  • Prof. Gruber suggested that Fellows at the Institute could create a video lesson teaching some of the most important technical DLR skills.  A link to this video can be given to students, or instructors can show the video in class if there is a short lab one day.
  • Throughout the semester, there could be weekly “mini-lessons.” These might be free-writing exercises, videos or in person lessons on technical skills (like uploading a video onto YouTube), or time for groups to touch base and plan their DLRs.  This is a way to integrate the DLRs throughout the semester and get the class invested.   Also, this is a way that skills can be scaffolded.  For example, near the beginning of the semester there could be a mini-lesson on how to frame a video (thinking about what you want to capture) and upload it onto YouTube.  Then all students might be asked to take a one-minute video during that lab, upload their videos onto YouTube, and post the link on the class blog.  This way, by the second half of the semester when groups are creating DLRs, all students would have practiced basic skills.  It probably would not be possible for one Fellow to come to class this often, but video lessons or handouts for the instructor would help make this sustainable/reproducible.
  • On or before the first draft day, the Writing/Communication Fellow can speak a bit about giving and receiving feedback (with tips like taking notes and actively listening) and lay out specific expectations for the class (such as at least 3 comments per DLR or every student should contribute 1 comment).  At the end of the draft day(s), groups can have 10 minutes to meet and discuss where to go from there.  A brief handout can structure this discussion.  At the end of the final presentation day groups can have 10-15 minutes to meet and reflect on their experience (and perhaps give feedback to the Institute).  Again, a handout can structure this discussion.

These were the main things we spoke about in our last meeting.  I think that some of these scaffolding activities could be THE primary communication and technology intensive assignments in courses where instructors just want to get their feet wet or incorporate just a few things.  In other words, there could be various levels of collaboration between science instructors and the Institute depending on needs, time, experience, comfort, etc.

I look forward to seeing how this venture expands and evolves over the coming years.

Have a beautiful, safe, and inspiring summer!

Do Communication-Intensive Methods Improve Science Learning?

In January, I blogged about the collaboration between the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute and Professor David Gruber, who is teaching Environmental Science 1020.  Both last semester and this semester, students in Professor Gruber’s class were assigned to lab groups and each group produced a Digital Lab Report for one lab.  The assignments we created were specific to the different learning goals of the labs; however, all required students to use at least one (often more) form of media and incorporate writing and critical reflection into the process.  Each group goes through a series of collaborative and creative steps.  These include: free-writing soon after the lab is complete; brainstorming; research to pull in other relevant material; posting raw footage, audio, and pictures on the class blog; and creating a rough draft of a Digital Lab Report (which might be a video, a podcast of a radio show, a timeline, or a Prezi depending on the assignment).  Then, groups present their rough drafts to the class and receive feedback on the communication, critical thinking, and content components of their DLRs.  Students have the opportunity to revise their Digital Lab Reports over the next couple of weeks before presenting their final versions.  For a timeline of this process for last semester’s Mutualism lab, click here.

There are many obvious benefits to having students create Digital Lab Reports.   They compel students to collaborate and converse more about their lab work.  They encourage critical thinking, as students are expected to articulate reflections on their work through the various stages.  They are fun – students often use humor.  They improve students’ media and communication skills because students get feedback on these aspects of their creations as well.  But the one main question at the back of my mind when we embarked on this project was whether communication intensive pedagogy actually helps students to learn science.

After almost a year of observation, I feel confident answering yes. In class last Wednesday students presented their drafts.  Their introductions to their Digital Lab Reports and the DLRs themselves gave us a great deal of insight into how they were understanding (or not understanding) scientific concepts in ways traditional lab reports might never reveal.  This is partially because the DLRs require students to consider their audience and speak to their audience.  This means re-phrasing scientific language to make it accessible.  To do this, students must take in information, analyze it, and reformulate it in their own way.  Furthermore, the accuracy or inaccuracy of the external information and images they brought in as examples gave Professor Gruber insight into how they had remembered and interpreted the concepts he had explicated, as well as what they were considering “real world” connections.  The collaborative aspects of the DLRs means that students have to hash out these ideas and arrive at a shared understanding.  After each draft presentation, groups were asked questions and received feedback from their peers, Professor Gruber, and me.   Through the process of revising their labs, they will have to address the inaccuracies or gaps in their understanding of scientific concepts.  Their next round of presentation drafts will let us know if and how their scientific thinking has changed.

For me, this reveals that communication and technology-intensive methods are particularly beneficial for science courses and have great potential to enhance student learning.