Writing as Therapy

For the sake of variety, I had hoped that I wouldn’t start this final blog entry of the semester with a personal anecdote, as I’ve done in many of my past posts. But the reason I even considered the topic I decided to write about here is quite personal.

Over the last few months I’ve been dealing with the serious illness of someone in my immediate family. Something that has struck me in going through this experience has been the extent to which the act of communicating can be a trigger for emotional release. I’m thinking of “communicating” here fairly narrowly as being on the outgoing or receiving end of verbal or written communication. What I’m talking about is how you might be more or less holding it together, emotionally speaking, until you talk to someone about what’s going on or read the supportive words of dear friends. At least that has been my recent experience. What I haven’t tried out is the potentially therapeutic outlet that writing about difficult experiences appears to offer a lot of people.

I think there’s a general notion in our culture that for a lot of professional writers, putting pen to paper offers them a crucial emotional vent (like music for musicians, painting for visual artists, etc.—though I think most people would exclude academics and journalists from this group). I’d imagine that people who practice regular journaling might affirm that the emotional benefits of writing about one’s personal travails are in fact available to the wider public. Personally, I haven’t practiced the type of “expressive” writing that I think could yield such benefits. For the better part of ten years I’ve focused almost exclusively on the research-based writing that is standard in grad school, neglecting most other literary modes. I’ve been thinking about the therapeutic value of writing recently as I’ve come across memoirs by people who have gone through serious illness and as I started reading a friend’s blog dedicated to her own health issues. So, for this post I figured I’d do a quick web search for “writing therapy” to see what the popular wisdom of the internet has to say about it. Here’s some of what I turned up:

Psychologist James Pennebaker appears to have done important research that sought to investigate the positive effects of expressive writing. In a widely cited article published in 1997, he compared the long-term effects on a group of subjects who wrote extensively about traumatic events to a control group that wrote about “superficial” topics. According to one assessment:

If you followed the people in these studies [who wrote about personal trauma] over time, they reported fewer illnesses, they went to the doctor less often, and they suffered fewer symptoms of depression in the future. They were less likely to miss work and school, and their performance at work went up. These effects lasted for months and years after writing.

A 2008 study on cancer patients who were involved in an expressive writing program found that for a sizable percentage of them writing about their illness brought about some improvement in their quality of life. On a more anecdotal level, a search for the tag “writing therapy” on The Huffington Post brings up a number of interesting articles describing different people’s experiences with using writing as a tool to overcome some sort of difficult experience.

Since the rise of the internet age, blogs have become the preferred medium for people of all stripes to share their personal turmoil. By 2005, a Washington Post article reported that blogs combined the benefits of writing about one’s problems with the possibility of forming virtual communities. An AOL study cited in the piece indicated that “nearly half of bloggers consider it a form of therapy.” Unsurprisingly, blogs about people’s experiences with serious illness—written by themselves or by their relatives—make up a sizable portion of the blogosphere.  Early on, hospitals began featuring patient blog postings on their websites, apparently recognizing both the therapeutic value to patients but also their marketing potential. Over the last decade, there have been several efforts to scientifically explain the potential benefits of blogging.  A recent study on teenage blogging concluded:

the engagement with an online community allowed by the blog format made it more effective in relieving the writer’s social distress than a private diary would be.

*              *              *

In the process of writing several drafts of this post I wrestled with whether or not I wanted to test out some of the ideas outlined above by writing something more confessional. That didn’t feel like a risk I was ready to take yet. But in versions in which I specified up front the “illness” (cancer) and the “someone” (my mom), I was again caught off guard by the emotional power that merely typing characters into a word-processor can effect. I probably won’t start up a blog, but I may do well to practice more of the low-stakes writing us peddlers of Writing Across the Curriculum philosophy tend to preach.

Keep it Concise

As part of the initiative to introduce low stakes writing assignments across the curriculum, a management accounting course has recently piloted a short writing assignment for extra credit.  It is not an easy task.  Students are told to research and write a brief discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of outsourcing in 200 words.  Have you looked at 200 words recently?  It is a shockingly small amount of text.  Early writers may not grasp how difficult it can be to get your point across when faced with a strict word limit requirement.  However, as academics, we must do this all the time.  Every time we submit a paper for publication to a journal, the journal demands an abstract which can summarize all of blood, sweat, and tears we have poured into our paper into a teeny tiny paragraph.

Though I have done this type of summary countless times for my own work, it wasn’t until I began grading the managerial accounting students’ assignments that I realized how incredibly challenging it can be to keep something concise.  Writing centers often give these six rules of thumb for concise writing:

  1. Eliminate redundant pairs.  This usually refers to two words or clauses that say the same thing, but I often find myself eliminating entire sentences.  Sometimes this occurs in the writing process when you feel the need to reiterate a point by rephrasing an entire sentence in a new and better way.  Don’t.  Eliminate that first sentence that didn’t really capture what you wanted to say.
  2. Delete unnecessary qualifiers.  These are often the “ly”s: basically, actually, probably, definitely, etc.
  3. Reduce too many awkward prepositional phrases.  There is often a clearer way to say it.  Go for active verbs and get rid of that passive voice!
  4. Delete unnecessary modifiers.  I would add please beware of misplaced modifiers.
  5. Replace a phrase with a word.  Don’t be afraid of simplicity.  E.g. is “in the event of” really better than “if”?
  6. Replace negatives with affirmatives.  At risk of sounding like a self-help book, get rid of all those clunky “do not” and “cannots”, not to mention multiple negative clauses, and express your sentence in the affirmative voice.  Turn that frown upside down!

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.

Writing Longhand?

handwriting

Society of late has been racing full steam ahead toward the ever-increasing domination of technology over our lives and over our classrooms.  Higher education is moving toward online and hybrid courses over traditional classrooms, not to mention MOOCs.  I tend to be the personality type (perhaps a bit too nostalgic?) that avoids new technologies and sticks to my old ways.  I have resisted the smart phone movement after a temporary stint with an iphone convinced me that it was turning me into a zombie.  I still make to-do lists on pen and paper, even though my computer frequently reminds me that it can display virtual post-it notes on the desktop.

But lest I get too heavy handed (I am, after all, typing away at a blog), I will narrow my focus to one particular area where I believe a return to the old fashioned, even if only occasionally, may do our brain some good:  Writing!

My obsession with writing longhand instead of typing is long ingrained as a strategy of graduate school.  I have always thought intuitively that when I write something out with a pen and paper, I tend to remember it better than if I type it.  In fact, my primary study technique for Econometrics classes was usually to recopy and synthesize my notes over and over and over again.  There is something about writing that seems to stick better than typing.  And recently I came across several studies which confirmed my longstanding beliefs.  A Wall Street Journal article from 2010 focused on the cognitive benefits of handwriting, arguing that writing by hand engages the brain in learning in a way that typing does not.  The article touts the benefits of handwriting practice for children learning new shapes and letters, for adults learning new information, and even for aging adults looking to keep their cognitive skills sharp.  University of Washington professor Virginia Berninger found that children in her study wrote better essays (writing more, better, and more complete sentences) when they wrote with a pen and paper than when they typed.  Still other studies emphasize the benefits of writing down goals, finding that people who write down their goals are more likely to accomplish them.

So why would writing by hand offer an advantage over typing?  Dr. Berninger argues that when you actually use your hand to form letters, your brain in more engaged in the writing process than simply pressing keys.  Other studies have referenced a bunch of cells at the base of the brain called the reticular activating system (RAS).  The RAS filters and processes our activities and stimuli, and gives greater attention and focus to activities we are actively engaged in.  Scientists argue that writing stimulates the RAS by bringing the physical act of writing to the forefront and forcing our brain to give the utmost attention to our writing.  Basically, writing on paper forces us to concentrate more, even without accounting for all the other distractions available on our computer screen.

I’ve also come across this idea working with faculty.  Some of the best professors I have known in the CUNY system still teach by writing things out on the blackboard/whiteboard, eschewing power point slides.  They tell me that the act of writing things out on the board, while students (hopefully) do the same, engages students more than power point presentations.

So I leave this an open-ended proposal to all readers.  Do you still do any longhand writing in your life?  Maybe for to-do lists, or thank you notes?  Will you try any longhand writing in classroom activities?

Fishing in Micronesia

In his article, “How to Have a Good Idea,” Macel Kinsbourne writes about a quandary he proposes to his students. I have adapted his story to work with my students. It goes something like this. There is a fish native to shallow Micronesian waters, somewhere due east of Taiwan and the Phillipines, and north of New Guinea. For the purposes of this illustration, let’s posit the fish in reference is BigFish. BigFish feeds on LittleFish. LittleFish are another type of fish native to these Micronesian waters; they dwell in tiny craters of surface mud and primarily swarm out when it’s time to eat. BigFish feeds off LittleFish, and when in doing so, eats one LittleFish at a time. Upon just beginning supper, BigFish finds the LittleFish immediately retreating back into their homey pockets in the surface mud, out of mouth’s reach, when the evening’s nourishment has barely begun. How can BigFish satiate an appetite in the future so as to eat more than just a few LittleFish at a time?

When this conundrum is posed to a large room of individuals, it usually takes quite a bit of time before someone mentions the good solution. As Marcel Kinsbourne states, “Here is the elegant trick. When the school of little fishes appears, instead of gobbling, he swims low so that his belly rubs over the mud and blocks the escape holes. Then he can dine at leisure.” Bravo, Blackbelly Mudfish, bravo.

Kinsbourne concludes that in order to have a good idea, we must stop having a bad one. This seems like a useless maxim. However, if we inhibit obvious but ineffective attempts to develop good ideas, and dismiss them, oftentimes it permits a better solution to come to mind. That worked for BigFish, “by some mechanism of mutation and natural selection in fish antiquity” as Kinsbourne eloquently states. So, the next time a student finds himself or herself in a trying situation to be creative or develop a good idea, dismiss the first few solutions that systematically, i.e., of Systems 1 and 2, come to mind.

Strike through the obvious. Strike through the intuitive. And wait:

  1. 1. BigFish should eat faster. Eat more LittleFish before they retreat!
  2. 2. BigFish should take larger bites. Open wider and say “AHHH!” not “ahhh!”
  3. ….

Eventually, a new idea will make its way into the conscious mind, and a clever solution arises. Hence, a good idea!  However, I would argue that Professor Kinsbourne’s emphasis is slightly misplaced.  While it is important to quickly dismiss bad ideas, sometimes generating bad ideas is the best way to reach the good ideas.  It is often the lack of inhibition in the brainstorming process of cycling through many ideas, no matter how bad, that allows a student to reach a good idea.  I would argue that this is the same approach as one takes with low-stakes vs. high-stakes writing assignments.  The key to getting students to write well is often to simply get the students to write.  Creativity often comes from uninhibited attempts at writing casually, like a low stakes assignment.  It is through trail and error that we reach good ideas and creativity in writing.  While some, like Kinsbourne, may emphasize moving on from the errors, I hope to be more optimistically biased in emphasizing the trials.

Did You Do the Reading?

If you’ve taught a College Now course, you know that inevitably, teaching in a program designed to give younger students a taste of college involves explicitly targeting a set of life skills in addition to course content.  College Now is a program through which NYC public high school students can take certain CUNY courses for college credit.  After class, I find myself helping students take the plunge into dialing the number of the tech help desk to troubleshoot a computer login problem, or walking students through the various ways they can find my email address if they’ve misplaced the course syllabus.

And although I generally teach the course the same way I do with undergrads, I do end up bulking up my systems of accountability and scaffolding of assignments.  I require students to do a little more to respond to weekly readings, break larger assignments down into smaller steps, etc.  These little changes have me thinking about how these kinds of accountability systems can be perceived as micromanaging or even condescending, but how if done effectively, they can vastly strengthen learning experiences in many educational contexts.

I’ve noticed I’m quick to assume that the idyllic Midwestern liberal arts college experience I had, in which most of my courses followed the model of “read something and come in and talk about it,” is the educational ideal.  And while I took many wonderful classes, some course titles come to mind from which I remember literally nothing.  As a teacher, I’m often mock (sort of) horrified when friends—people I view as successful, smart adults—dismissively reference all of the assigned readings they didn’t do in college.  But then I remember those long-forgotten books for classes outside my own major that I acquired but rarely opened.  What was in them?

In my last semester of graduate school coursework, I took a class outside of my discipline that turned out to have a tiny student enrollment.  I felt out of my element and awkwardly in the spotlight.  Rather than having to post a discussion question or the equivalent in response to each week’s reading, we were assigned to hand in a more thorough weekly summary/response in writing.  This was more accountability than I was used to in graduate school, and it was uncomfortable at first.  But oh how I read, wrote, spoke, and ultimately… remembered.  The same goes for knowledge I acquired while studying for recent comprehensive exams.  These structures of accountability unquestionably compelled me to learn more efficiently and effectively than I often have.

Although being a student (especially a graduate student) means being responsible for one’s own learning, teacher-imposed structures for recording and responding to course content have a huge impact on what kind of learning takes place.  Systems of holding students accountable for learning come in an infinite array of forms. They are obviously not only for College Now students.  This is hardly a new or unusual idea, but it’s an important one—one that I wish even some of my own teachers had chosen to take more seriously.

Multimedia and Blogging in the Classroom Strategies

While I was preparing for a Multimedia and Blogging workshop, I came up with a list of strategies that professors can use to incorporate multimedia and blogging in the classroom:

1. Scaffolding:  Professors can use blog assignments to build up students’ skills in preparation for more formal assignments. As a form of low-stakes writing, blog entries can make students’ thought processes and inner debates more apparent.

2. Modeling:  When professors give students a blog or multimedia assignment, it is very helpful to model a successful example of the assignment, perhaps from a past semester.

3. Give Students Roles: Rather than treating blog comments as a free-for-all, why not give students specific roles? For instance, students could be asked to be Peer Reviewers of other students’ posts, or one student could be asked to post a Summary of topics that most often came up over a week’s worth of posts.

4. Set Expectations:  When professors give students an untraditional assignment, the expectations for fulfilling that assignment should be even clearer than those for a traditional assignment. Be clear concerning the style, tone, and format that you expect. Also, including a grading rubric can be helpful.

5. Awareness of Student Population: Professors should plan for the learning curve that they can expect from their students regarding the technologies involved in course assignments. Some students may need some individual assistance, and it would be wise not to overburden students with too many platforms in one semester. That being said, Baruch’s student population is quite tech savvy overall.

6. Learning Goals, Learning Goals, Learning Goals:  Learning goals come first, and the technology follows. Blogging and multimedia assignments must be driven by and fully integrated into the course’s purpose.

7. Use Media Repositories:  The U.S. Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and other institutions offer free and well-documented repositories of media. Working collaboratively as a class with a set group of primary sources can give students invaluable experience.

8. Ask Students to Critique and Curate Sources: An annotated bibliography can turn into a media-rich online annotated bibliography. Before students write their research papers, have them post an annotated bibliography online. If the annotated bibliography can contain popular as well as scholarly sources, then it might present a good opportunity for students to enunciate the differences between a wide variety of sources.

9. Work in a Lab Setting: Setting one or two classes aside for lab work can help you to work with students and give them feedback in real time.

10. Build a Critical Vocabulary: In-class discussions, modeling, and the online sharing of student work and the professor’s comments can all work toward building a critical vocabulary, both in terms of disciplinary knowledge and the competent critique of various types of sources.

11. Scale Your Expectations:  Dramatically switching topics (from gender issues to environmental issues, for example), assigning many untraditional assignments on top of traditional assignments, and using many different types of technology are all sure ways to frustrate and overburden students. Sometimes less is more.

As I think about the literature and composition courses that I’ve taught, these are the major mistakes that I’ve made:

1. Expecting non English majors to understand and effectively incorporate academic articles, especially without any in-depth class discussion.

2. Assigning too many small assignments.

3. Pacing the course too quickly and/or expecting to cover an unrealistic amount of content.

4. Not including enough specific guidelines on untraditional assignments.

5. Not thoroughly pretesting technology.

Those of you reading, what is a teaching mistake that you or someone you know (without naming names) has made? It may or may not involve blogging and multimedia.

Baiting the Hook

Every other week during the semester the Institute staff meet to discuss the various projects and initiatives of the Institute, and the responsibility and concerns of the Fellows. But before those bi-weekly meetings, we Fellows — in desperate hope and ragged solidarity – also informally exchange techniques for moving our dissertations along, share strategies for carving out time to write, and commiserate over the slow growth that conjuring words often is, all whilst shoving as many free sandwiches into our faces that the boundaries of respectability allow. As Lauren, former vaunted Fellow now making her mark elsewhere, reminded us: writing is hard work and must be practiced. Amen, sister. But what if you have a problem sitting yourself down to write? Ok, forget sitting, but what if you are the sort of person who despite the best dissertational advice given, still resist engaging the writing process? And let’s be honest, every one of us has at times, been this person.

I am quite often a reluctant writer, always an anxious public speaker, and an ever unsure academic. So how then do I manage my responsibilities as a Communication Fellow and doctoral candidate? Anxiously and uncertainly for sure, but also strategically, using the tools that I have learned as both a Writing Fellow and now as a Communication Fellow. I detail here a few of the strategies that have been most useful to me in the long process of transforming my dissertation into a solid, nearly breathing, stack of words.

First, some things that haven’t helped move my writing along: panic and fear; frantic consultation of books on writing your dissertation in minutes a day; renewed, but ever-weakening, resolve; deadlines whether short or long term; contracts, bribes and ultimatums.

What has helped are those approaches (typically WAC based) that  involve manipulating the “stakes” attached to my writing – while both lowering and raising the stakes can move writing along, the trick is knowing when to use which strategy. Unsurprisingly, when my anxiety is at its highest (typically in the early stages), lowering the stakes works best. I have found that moving away from the blank screen to be a crucial part of dialing down the stakes. It is a lot easier to tell yourself, though, that the initial quality of your dreck writing doesn’t matter, than it is to actually believe it, especially when you must procedurally “save” your work somewhere in the computing environment. To help convince myself of truly lowered stakes, I often begin new chapters or sections, by writing my thoughts and notes long hand. Scribbling on a notepad, especially in pencil, offers some freedom for thoughtful exploration and eases me down winding conceptual paths that still feel private and protected.  Later transferring these notes to the screen then eases me into the revision stage (another stage of writing I tend to avoid like the plague). And apparently, I am not the only one.

Another low stakes strategy I rely on involves “speaking onto the page” as Peter Elbow advises in his latest book and recent Symposium talk. I also use this technique in the workshops I do in BPL courses to illustrate the directive role of the audience (e.g., asking students to write a letter or email to a close friend or family member). One specific exercise asks students to answer a question drawn from their assignment multiple times, but for two different audiences of their choosing (e.g., investors, shareholders, consumers, job seekers, management, their mother), and then we compare/discuss their responses. I highlight the diversity across and within those audience categories and the ways students do and don’t tailor their responses to a specific audience.

In the early stages of my own work, mentally shifting the audience away from an academic discipline or department, has also helped me make conceptual headway by both reducing the mental and emotional stakes attached, and by engaging the processes and benefits, associated with unplanned speech.

On the other hand, these coaxing methods are usually only strong enough to get me out of the early writing stages, but not bridle me to the revising and editing tasks, the last 100 miles that I am walking now. Stay tuned for part two of this post in which I discuss, and solicit, more walking strategies. But for now, what are your strategies for baiting the writing hook?

FRO12: Now Much Artier

This summer Mikhail Gershovich and I re-wrote the three blog prompts required of all Baruch College students taking Freshman Seminar. The previous prompts, which we wrote a few years ago, were way too formulaic. When crafting assignments, you get what you ask for. We had asked students to tell us “this,” and they responded by writing “this.”

One of the goals of the freshman blogging initiative was to get a sense of who our students are. Instead, we were getting a sense of who our students felt we wanted them to tell us they were. Very few posts integrated media, and students responded to them as though they were a burden rather than an opportunity.

We feel these new prompts are much improved:

Post One, due by mid-September 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 no more than 500 words that explains how what you’ve created speaks to who you are.

Post Two, due by mid-October For this assignment, you must 1) post the self-reflective monologue you’ve developed in your seminar workshop AND 2) embed a self-portrait, which can be a photograph, an image, a cartoon, a drawing, or some other depiction of how you see yourself.

Post Three, due by early December Create or find a photograph or some other image (a meme, an animated GIF, etc.) that represents in some way your experience at Baruch thus far. Embed your image in a blog post in which you reflect, in no more than 500 words, on your impressions of your first three months at Baruch. Your response should be personal and creative. If you use an image that you did not create yourself, be sure to credit the source with a name, if possible, and a URL!

We trained the Peer Mentors who run Freshman Seminar in how to guide students through producing these posts, and gave them a range of tools that students can use. We also talked to them about the “why” behind these assignments. Each creates an opportunity to talk with students about intellectual property issues, about citation, about public and private publishing (students can password-protect their posts if they want), and about the network of publishers that’s emerging on our campus. In their coursework, we ultimately want students to break down artificial boundaries between the tools and ideas they use and engage outside of their schoolwork and what happens in school. We want to give them permission to apply the skills that power their hobbies to their academic pursuits. We want them to make some art, dammit. And we want them to learn how to do all this in a way that generates both specific expertise and “generalizable knowledge.” Doing so in a low-pressure setting like Freshman Seminar is a crucial first step.

We’re already seeing the fruits of this change in the first six hundred + posts that have come in. Want to see what college freshmen at public, urban university are listening to these days, and how they write about those tastes? Want to see New York City through the eyes of 18 year-olds? Want to see our students’ facility with the moving image (only a few have used video so far, but, this is great)? Then check out the 2012 Baruch Freshman Seminar Motherblog. This space aggregates feeds from around fifty individual sections of the course powered by the work of over a thousand students. That space will be filling up with work over the next few months, and we’re excited to keep looking at, listening to, and watching what our first year students come up with.

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Originally posted on my personal blog

The Academic Crisis of Audience

When a tenure-track faculty member in English at George Mason publically remarks that “The student essay is a twitch in a void. A compressed outpouring of energy (if we’re lucky) that means nothing to no one,” we as educators get a sense that we are in trouble.

In “What’s Wrong with Writing Essays,” from the open-access Hacking the Academy, Mark Sample goes on to advocate for more public forms of writing as well as for repurposed essays–that is, assignments which involve critical thinking in the form of different, often mingled media.  Sample envisions his students not as “miniature scholars” but as “aspiring Rauschenbergs, assembling mixed media combines, all the while through their engagement with seemingly incongruous materials, developing a critical thinking practice about the process and the product.”

My immediate response to his derision of the essay form is ambivalent.  On the one hand, I agree that the traditional academic essay often feels alienated from audience and from author–it has a sense of being projected into the void.  On the other hand, I have written and read many well crafted essays which made me ecstatic, proud, even joyful.  There can be some great moments of discovery in the void.  However, thinking back on these, I wouldn’t call them authorless, audienceless, or monotonous.  Rather, they were all written by a student deeply engaged with the material, and they were directed to a caring faculty mentor.  The question that I would like to pose, then, is whether this is a real crisis, and if so, what are its parameters and pressures.

First of all, I would like to point out that we, at CUNY and nationwide, are in an atmosphere where higher education is increasingly being looked at in terms of its value in the job market.  Part of the reason for this is that, despite adjunctification, the price of higher education has risen quite dramatically while average wages have stagnated.  When students must break the bank to fund their education, the life of the mind begins to look like this:

In this environment, departments which don’t offer a high real world value struggle to stay “relevant.”  This has played out in particularly ugly ways as foreign language programs have been shut down and the graduate Fulbright-Hays program has been defunded.  However, it has also played out in rather positive ways as humanities scholars have woken up and realized that it is no longer enough to ventriloquize one another’s arguments in closed-access journals.

At the same time as higher education is being questioned from a financial standpoint, the ways in which knowledge is produced, evaluated, and disseminated have undergone revolutionary changes, at least for those highly fortunate ones who are literate and who have free access to the World Wide Web.  The question then becomes why people should bother going to school when they might design their own curriculum and test it out in life’s laboratory.  I would thus read Mark Sample’s provocation as a symptom of this rather painful moment–as a move to regain cultural relevance.

Communication across the Curriculum presents opportunities for students to master, interrogate, and modulate between different literacies and modes of communication.  Low and middle stakes writing in the form of private reflections or public blog posts give students the chance to situate themselves in relation to a number of different, often overlapping, networks.  Unfortunately, in academia and in life, not every task can be completed in the form of a Rauschenberg combine, a pastiche of different elements.

Yet, I would like to suggest that behind every polished product is a smoothed-over assemblage of seemingly disparate elements.  In a strong sense I agree with Sample.  As educators, one of the most valuable gifts that we can give students is the space to work through some of the tensions they feel between their own intellectual expression and the different communicative forms imposed upon it.  For example, I believe that if I am teaching a basic composition course, I do my students a disservice if I don’t teach them the standards of the college essay.  I also do a disservice to them if I reify the college essay, if I fail to discuss and critique some of the reasoning behind said standards.  In the end, though, I disagree with Sample’s final assertion that text, or specifically the college essay, cannot be ambiguous or woven from different elements.  By rejecting the essay Sample risks imposing his own hierarchy of modal value, his own idea of multimodal form, on student expression.  Although he is staging the conflict as a drama between forms, what is really at play is a drama of audience, the dramatic question being “Who will read my boring old essay?”  Behind that question lie insecurities about who is paying attention to scholars in the humanities.

The crisis of audience with regards to faculty publication is expressed in John Unsworth’s “The Crisis of Audience and the Open Access Solution” in the same Hacking the Academy collection.  Unsworth states that the “humanities scholar…has an imaginary audience” and offers hope that this imagined audience might materialize through open access publishing.  Our urge to publicize and “make relevant” our own work to wider audiences has been catalyzed by the demands and skepticism of students; as a result, many faculty members have begun to craft lesson plans and assignments involving analyses of popular culture and appeals to non-academic audiences.

Are public, repurposed, or popular culture assignments a solution to the ennui of academic writing?  Yes, inasmuch as they guide students in the development of their intellectual identity and in their comfort with different modes of communication.  Ideally, such assignments would help students develop their voice and situate themselves in various forms of communication so that they might forge their own purpose, their own message.  Only when that work has been done can the traditional essay form be fruitful for both faculty members and students.

One final thought:  as educators, we should strive to at least be conscious of and explicit about what pressures we are transferring onto our students, lest our own anxieties fall upon them too heavily or without explanation.