Making Sense of the Transition to College

Big Fish Little Pond

“Big Fish Little Pond”

Making Sense of the Transition to College

Perhaps not surprisingly, it really matters what we ask students to write. As instructors, and support staff, one way we can help students with the transition to college is to encourage or even demand that students respond to specific prompts that focus their writing and subsequent thoughts on their transition experiences. A rough comparison of FRO 1000 and the SEEK Freshman Seminar blogs shows how different prompts supported students in different sense making processes. As Toby Fulwiler points out in a foundational WAC text, “writing makes thoughts visible and concrete and allows us to interact with and modify them”  (1983). It is this process of making thoughts visible and interacting with them that sense making happens.

As instructors we can use writing prompts to direct students to work through specific thoughts and challenges like the transition to college. For example, the Freshman Seminar directed students to interact with the following prompt:

Create a two-minute video, an eight-image slideshow, or a ten song musical playlist that represents who you think you are to your classmates. Embed your creation in a blog post and then write a post of no more than 500 words that explains how what you’ve created speaks to who you are.

The prompt encouraged students to reflect on the self, and the student responses – again not surprisingly – did just that. They worked through questions like “who am I” and “how do these songs or slides represent me”.

The first few sentences from one post convey a sentiment that a number of students’ communicated:

When initially given this assignment, I thought creating a blog post about myself would be easy. Though I was not necessarily happy about it, I thought it would not be a problem because, generally speaking, I like to believe that I have a decent grasp of who I am as an individual. However, as I sat down to select pictures and craft my slide show, I realized just how difficult it is to effectively convey who I am as an individual in only eight images.

In this excerpt the student articulated the struggles and the process of making sense that many of her peers engaged in as they composed written and pictorial representations of themselves. After the above introduction the student wrote about moving from Florida to New Jersey and “the impact this change had” on her life. Her final paragraph included a quote from Vonnegut and her explanation of the purpose of the quote:

I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” I included this because it accurately describes how I aspire to live my life — taking risks and engaging in new experiences, in order to continue to flourish as an individual.

The first FRO 1000 prompted students to look inward and make sense of their self and then present a narrative about themselves outward in concrete and visible text on their FRO 1000 blogs. It created an exercise of literally constructing a representation of self in Baruch’s digital space.

In contrast the prompt that the SEEK Freshman responded to directed them to reflect on the relationships they were developing in their first weeks at Baruch:

I invite you to tell a story about your first week of the fall semester at Baruch College.             Research has shown that during the first semester students often worry about whether or not professors and other students at their college will accept them, and how eventually students become comfortable there and find a family of people with whom they are close and feel they belong. Please describe how you have experienced your first week of the fall semester at Baruch College…

The prompt was adapted from a Walton and Cohen (2011) article published in Science that showed how writing about the transition to college helped freshman make the transition to college and subsequently improve their graduation rates and overall GPAs. In this excerpt from his first post Almightybrou (a pseudonym) reflected on his experience meeting new people at Baruch:

After we went to the library, we were just standing in the lobby with other people in our             class and we were all just having light conversations about our common interest, such as sports and intended majors. This was the case in most of our classes since the main concentration of all the professors was to have us do ice breakers. This helped us get familiar with each other and made conversations that much more easier. For me it was both an interesting and exciting week for me. Even though it has been such a short amount of time, i feel that it will only get better as we get used to the people we are around.

Almightybrou used this post to make sense of his relationships with the other students in his cohort. Writing about this experience was an opportunity for Almightybrou to interact with and make the experience visible and concrete.

A quick comparison of the FRO 1000 and the SEEK freshman posts provides a window into how different prompts direct students to write and subsequently make sense of themselves and their college context in distinct ways. The FRO 1000 prompt asked what – “represents who you think you are to your classmates” – directing students to make sense of their self. While the SEEK prompt directed students to think about their relationships with others and in light these relationships asked the students to reflect on how have they experienced their first week at Baruch? The differences in the prompts and subsequent student responses call attention to the ways that writing functions as a critical tool for making sense of the transition to college.

Challenges in Writing Across the Curriculum at CUNY

Following up on Kristina’s post about her experience as a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) fellow at Baruch this year, I thought I’d report on a meeting I attended recently that gave me a glimpse into the state of the WAC fellowship across different CUNY campuses. About a dozen current WAC fellows working at different colleges got together at the Graduate Center at the beginning of April for an unofficial information session to share our experiences with each other and with incoming fellows. The portrait that emerged from the discussion was that of a WAC program that is implemented inconsistently across campuses and of wildly different experiences for WAC fellows.

(A bit of background for those who are unfamiliar with the CUNY system: Most of the CUNY colleges have a WAC program; CUNY graduate students with five-year fellowships are assigned to work as WAC fellows at a particular college in their fifth year, following their stints as Graduate Teaching Fellows [GTFs] in their second through fourth years.)

The tasks that WAC fellows work on at different colleges vary greatly. Perhaps one of the most common things WAC fellows do is work with faculty to help them incorporate WAC principles in their classes. While fellows at many colleges represented at the session I attended undertook this type of work, at some campuses this did not happen at all. Moreover, several fellows reported that it was difficult to recruit faculty to participate in WAC programs, especially in cases where their professional development was not being remunerated, and that senior faculty sometimes expressed discomfort with being advised by inexperienced graduate student fellows. Among many other specific responsibilities, WAC fellows worked one-on-one with students at writing centers, created websites for their college’s WAC programs, edited publications for student writing, and collaborated with faculty from different departments to implement a “linked” course environment. My work at the BLSCI this year offers examples of yet other duties to which a WAC fellow might attend. It was essentially divided between: (1) working with small teams of students in Management and Society courses to help them polish the delivery of their in-class debates; and (2) exploring themes relating to WAC, communication, pedagogy, technology, etc. through my contributions to this blog.

While I don’t think that the diversity of WAC fellows’ work is inherently problematic, one of its main drawbacks, as I see it, is that fellows receive vastly different levels of immersion into the world of WAC. It appears that in well-supported programs where fellows were able to work closely with receptive faculty to revamp their syllabi according to WAC ideals, the fellows themselves came away with lots of resources for their own teaching. On the other hand, tutoring students through writing centers did not seem to give fellows the opportunity to learn deeply about WAC strategies. Personally, even though I did provide the professor whose students I was coaching on oral presentations with some WAC-inspired ideas about low-stakes writing and grading rubrics, my work at Baruch wasn’t centered specifically on WAC. I got some cheap laughs at the meeting by introducing fellows at the other campuses to the acronym that had guided most of my work at the BLSCI, which wasn’t WAC, nor WID (Writing in the Disciplines)… but CAC (see the title of this blog).

Another issue that arose at the meeting that is related to differing responsibilities for WAC fellows is that of uneven workloads. While some fellows felt that their supervisors were squeezing every possible work hour out of them, others had a large amount of idle time due to disorganization in the program at their college. Fellows at more than one campus (including at senior colleges) reported that lack of adequate compensation for the WAC coordinator positions was resulting in a high rate of turnover for this role and leading to frustratingly chaotic conditions for them.

It seemed evident from our discussion that there is a great need for a re-examination of how WAC is implemented at the different colleges and for a forum where the strengths of each program can be shared. Another important point that was raised by numerous fellows was that they felt that they would have benefited enormously from learning about WAC during their prior assignments as GTFs. An idea that I found compelling was that GTFs should get good training in WAC principles after their first year of teaching and have the opportunity to experiment with different WAC strategies during their next two years as instructors. Then, by the time they take on the WAC fellowship in their fifth year of graduate studies, fellows would have a much stronger and personally tested grounding in WAC pedagogy that would not only enhance their own teaching but also put them in a much stronger position to advise other faculty on how to implement WAC. In the past, CUNY WAC fellows had the opportunity to develop their skills more profoundly and offer continuity to their college WAC program over the course of two year appointments. Since the prospect of getting funding from CUNY for two-year WAC positions seems dim, allowing five-year fellowship recipients to engage with WAC ideals earlier in their careers could bring back some of the benefits of the two-year appointment. This change could help address the uneven exposure to WAC that fellows at different colleges receive and provide for a much stronger training than the inadequate CUNY-wide training for WAC fellows that was provided at the beginning of the year (which was also the subject of a good amount of griping at the session).

In light of the challenges faced by WAC fellows, the Doctoral Students Council agreed to discuss the concerns presented at the informal session at one of their plenary meetings, and a DSC working group might be created to evaluate the WAC fellowship.

Start by imagining everything in the universe

I have a problem as a writer: I’d want to talk about everything at once. At a recent meeting of Schwartz Institute fellows, the editor of this blog tried to convince us to write smaller posts, pieces that don’t necessarily take on huge subjects or heady academic arguments, but instead simply muse or riff or chat for a little while about what we’re interested in as scholars, teachers, internet trolls, Beyonce fans, whatever. Keep it simple, he said.

To prove that I’ve taken this message to heart, I will share my musings on a little topic I find myself contemplating more and more these days, the cosmos. That is, all of space and time laid out on the grandest scale. Or rather, on Cosmos: A Personal Journey, the 1980 mini-series created by Carl Sagan and the recent reboot of the series currently airing on Fox, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Logo for 2014 Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Logo for 2014 Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Cosmos sets out to explain complex concepts from physics, biology, and astronomy to a popular audience, using stories, metaphors, and stunning visualizations to impart to non-scientists the wonder of the universe and the power of science. In essence, the series tells the story of the universe as revealed through developing scientific theories over human history. Taken together, we see how human life emerged as one small part of the cosmos and how human cultures learned to use the tools of science–rational thought, experimentation, careful observation, exchange of knowledge–to build ever-more sophisticated understandings of the universe in which we live.

I won’t go on here about which version of the series is better, especially as we’re only six episodes in to the new series at the time I’m writing this. (Obviously, Sagan’s original version is better, as originals tend to be.) Instead, I want to think a bit here about what Cosmos has taught me as someone who thinks about broad, invisible social and cultural systems like race, class, and disability as revealed through the tools of critical cultural theory. While I study broad theoretical concepts about social and cultural identity, I work in real-world colleges and universities, institutions that deal with practical things like grading rubrics, administrative policy documents, and student transcripts. While I like to talk about everything at once, contemplating vast invisible systems of resource distribution and social privilege, I need to be able to communicate my ideas to administrators, service providers, fellow faculty, and even students who might not share my vocabulary or my fascination with abstract, invisible systems.

I’ll give you an example of what I’m talking about here: the way Cosmos teaches us to think about time. As humans, we tend to measure time in units that make sense to us–hours, days, years. These units are helpful for organizing time in the scale we actually deal with it: how long it takes to get to Brooklyn or to write a dissertation or to live a life. The problem with communicating scientific ideas about the universe to non-experts is that the real scale of the cosmos stretches out over billions of years, a scale far beyond our comprehension in everyday terms.

Cosmos uses a visual metaphor to help us make the tricky conceptual leap from common-sense time to cosmic time: the Cosmic Calendar.

Here the entire timeframe of the universe is translated into a single calendar year. This digitally updated visualization from the 2014 Cosmos helps viewers understand twelve billion years of cosmic change by compressing it into a metaphorical single year, with the big bang occurring  on the first second of January 1st and human cultures emerging on the very last second of December 31st.

Here the entire timeframe of the universe is translated into a single calendar year. This digitally updated visualization from the 2014 Cosmos helps viewers understand thirteen billion years of cosmic change by compressing it into a metaphorical single year, with the Big Bang occurring on the first second of January 1st and human cultures emerging on the very last second of December 31st.

Here we see over thirteen billion years of cosmic development represented as a single calendar year, beginning with the Big Bang on the first second of January 1st and ending (sort of . . . ) with our current moment, the final mili-second of December 31st. In between, we see all 13.2 billion years of cosmic history broken up into months, each representing a bit more than a billion years, allowing us to visually represent events like the formation of the Milky Way galaxy (around “May 15th”) or the development of the first living organisms on Earth (“September 21st”) within their proper historical scale.

Visual metaphors work especially well for chronological information. While time is clearly abstract and invisible, most of us have been well trained to use visual tools comprehend it, tools like timelines, calendars, and daily chronometers (remember wrist-watches?). The Cosmic Calendar works because we recognize the tool of the monthly calendar as more or less universal — kind of like the way news anchors like to measure big physical distances in the number of football fields could fit there.

For my work thinking about colleges and universities, the time scale is much smaller, only a few hundred years.  My challenge comes when I try to think about space.

We are used to thinking about institutions of higher learning in spatial terms. If I want to talk about what Baruch college is like, for instance, I can talk about physically walking around the 14-floor Vertical Campus building, I can see it sitting there beside Lexington Avenue made out of bricks and glass, I can spot it on a map or draw a floor plan of the building.

But representing Baruch on a physical map renders invisible and abstract many of the important features that define universities as institutional systems: you can’t tell by looking at a floor plan which spaces are used by faculty, administrators, or students; you can’t acknowledge that Baruch is experienced different ways depending on your status in the institution. Since I’m interested in the experience of people with disabilities in higher education institutions specifically, these subjective conceptions of space are important to how I map institutions — space as it is experienced from person to person, depending on cultural or social identity. And here’s where I start to need visualizations like the Cosmic Calendar to explain what on earth I’m actually talking about to folks who don’t live in my personal world of theory.

I’ve taken a few stabs at making this kind of visualization. A few years ago I tried to create a map to represent the institutional forces linking me as a first-term graduate student at the CUNY Graduate Center to the geographical spaces I moved through as a teacher at LaGuargia Community College. In this diagram, made in Prezi, I tried to represent institutions as rectangular brackets, which contain both physical spaces like classrooms and offices (represented as green rectangles) and institutional forces (represented as circle frames). Forces either emanate from particular geographical spaces or link them together.

In this institutional map I made using Prezi in 2011, I attempt to represent physical institutional spaces (as rectangles and square frames) overlaid with invisible institutional systems that link them (circle frames). Here I show how the English teaching practicum system produces institutional forces linking Graduate Center to the teaching campuses. The constant here is my perspective as a first-year PhD student and first-time adjunct teacher.

In this institutional map I made using Prezi in 2011, I attempt to represent physical institutional spaces (as rectangles and square frames) overlaid with invisible institutional systems that link them (circle frames). Here I show how the English teaching practicum system produces institutional forces linking Graduate Center to the teaching campuses. The constant here is my perspective as a first-year PhD student and first-time adjunct teacher.

In this visualization, I was trying to communicate how I, as an inexperienced teacher in a PhD program, relied on a series of invisible administrative programs and policies in order to access the geographical spaces at LaGuardia (including my classrooms, where I got to deploy my authority as “instructor”). Without those programs and policies in place, my experiences of the CUNY geography would have been considerably different. I wanted a way to map the administrative programs, to show the institutions and their forces together in one visual map as I had experienced them given my peculiar status as a first-year PhD student making use of the practicum program to secure employment as an adjunct teacher.

I’ll conclude my musings on space and time with an admission that I’m still no expert at using visual metaphors to teach my audiences about complex, abstract systems–not yet. I’m still limited by my abilities with the kind of digital visualization tools that could help me get my ideas across in more dynamic and straightforward ways, for instance.

Cosmos inspires me to be ambitious in my communicative aims while also being inventive in my tools for communication. See the series for yourself at http://www.cosmosontv.com/ where you find the first six episodes streaming in full for a limited time.

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 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.

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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.

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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.