This is my second post in a series on the politics of knowledge. My goal with these posts is to consider a basic question of critical university studies: How do universities differ from other kinds of social organization such as government agencies, corporations, and cause-oriented nonprofits? What is the importance of higher education? What kind of constituency does it present? What does it mean to build a social institution around the transmission and discovery of knowledge? What is “knowledge” in this context and what are its politics? [Read more...]
Following my last post, I had a bit of a heated exchanged with a commenter named Ryan. What came up for me from that was a desire to more fully articulate the relationship between knowledge and politics. I attempted to do something like this back in October, but as usual I bit off more than I could chew and wrote a long and probably esoteric-sounding post. I want to try again, so in the coming weeks I will attempt a series of posts that focus on the politics of knowledge from a few different angles. I hope this will be a place to work through some of my questions, and I eagerly welcome comments and feedback.
There has been much discussion recently of how to make teachers more “accountable” through measurable data, and of how and when to involve new technologies in the classroom or even to develop internet-based courses and degrees. These are important issues but, as with so many things, public debate surrounding them is for the most part superficial and shortsighted. Instead of having a real conversation about the politics of knowledge, we are distracted by reductive ideas of accountability and shallow notions of technological advance.
A couple of weeks ago I showed a draft of my dissertation proposal to my advisor for the first time. I knew that the argument was not solid yet, but also felt that I needed feedback at this point of my writing process. So, I struggled to let go of my initial plan to hand in a polished and brilliant prospectus and met with him. After long reading and writing sessions in the library, I was happy to learn that the argument I had been building actually made sense. I also learned that I needed to create and discuss this working draft to be able to see the full complexity of the argument that is yet to emerge. There will be other drafts, I’m sure, and what seems to be an interesting research question now will keep evolving as I write. Yes, I’m naming one of the obvious WAC notions here — (re)writing is a way of making knowledge. All this reminded me of my mentor’s advice: show students your piece of writing in progress with all the arrows, crossings, and notes; they need to see how messy writing is for all thinkers, even those who have more authority in the classroom.
As I am proceeding to work on my prospectus, I see a need for multiple readers and interlocutors who, I selfishly admit, will help me dig out all the threads and connect them into a coherent whole. Another truism surely, but I think all writers including our students deserve a responsive audience. BLSI Fellows and Writing Center Consultants are happy to be that audience, but students who come to workshops and tutoring sessions are usually those who want to raise their grades or who are simply referred by their professors. What can we do to encourage strong writers and speakers to seek an active audience while they’re formulaing their ideas?
On November 30th, Cheryl Smith and I will be giving a revision workshop at the CUNY’s WAC meeting. The description of the workshop is pasted below. We were thinking about distributing a bibliography of current research on the subject. We’re just beginning to put it together and would welcome any suggestions.
Working with the Draft: Techniques for Helping Students Revise
WAC practitioners traditionally argue that the best way to use writing effectively in our teaching is to scaffold assignments, moving from low stakes (or informal) free-writing and pre-writing to more high stakes drafting and revising of essays. But once students have completed their first drafts of an essay assignment, how can we use those drafts as a teaching tool? A teacher’s careful comments can certainly guide students in their revision process, but relying on this single technique may not always help students develop as self-sufficient, powerful, and active writers. How can we help them understand the most fundamental element of writing-revision-and grow as confident and careful readers of their own and their peers’ work? The session will take participants through a variety of student-centered draft revision activities that can be used in courses across disciplines.
A lightbulb went on in my head in the last couple of weeks. In May and June I have had the opportunity to work with students in the capstone course for the Healthcare MBA that Baruch sponsors with Mt. Sinai Hospitals. They were required in groups of three to develop and submit a business plan which they would then present to “juries” playing the role of venture capitalists, bank loan officers, or hospital board of directors. It was my job to videotape a dress rehearsal with them, offer my suggestions from the perspective of communication style, and then watch the videotape with them. I have done a very similar version of this with undergraduate senior-level Business Policy students for two years. It has always seemed like a useful process to me, and I have always been convinced that it benefited the students.
However, I think I made connections between my own academic work and the work with MBA students this spring and a few things clicked into place more clearly. I don’t know how long I’ve told students, “writing is a process.” (Imagine you are hearing that mantra from an annoying professor, battered at you in a sing-song-y voice.) But I think it sunk in a little further for me. After watching 11 groups of successful medical professionals present solid Powerpoint presentations, that nonetheless still needed revision, and watching them watch themselves on video, the light went on. Prior to this they had already submitted the paper versions of their business plans, and felt well prepared. But in addition to the videotape making clear the various nervous tics they had while speaking, or that they engaged the slide screen far more than they did the audience, it also helped them see the entire scope of their presentation, how well its various parts fit together, and where they needed to change the emphasis. They could clearly see if their argument needed bolstering with evidence in some areas, or increased clarity in others.
Watching them, I realized that the only way their presentations could make it to the ‘next level’ so to speak, was by going through this final review and revision process. Not only that, for these students especially, I was truly more of a coach and facilitator than anything else. It was a combination of my experience, their experience, the videocamera, and their own critical review of themselves, that really made the process worthwhile. I wouldn’t say they didn’t need me, but it was the process and the assemblage of them, me, the camera, and the review, that was essential.
EdTechPost brought me a post NoteMesh – another student-centric note taking service. Upon first read, I thought this sort of collaborative approach to note-taking — an essential skill in my estimation — to be detrimental to learning. Maybe not. Maybe collaboration between the stronger and weaker students could result in “the rising tide lifting all boats.”
After all, an essential element of education is, in my view, the development of knowledge, skill, and experience in working on teams.
Hi all — there’s an intriguing article in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education about McKenzie Wark, a New School professor who has posted his (as yet unpublished) book manuscript online and is taking comments from the general public. He was inspired by both Wikipedia and the academic blog format.
You can check out the article here:
Book 2.0: Scholars turn monographs into digital conversations, by Jeffrey R. Young
And you can check out — and comment on! — Wark’s e-book here:
Are we about to see the line between book authorship (and editing) and blogging erased?
Have any of you tried using Writely? It’s a site where you can share the writing and editing of documents, collaboratively. Teachers are beginning to use it as a space where students can write a document together, or do peer review. It would be useful for faculty who are co-authoring, too. Registration is free and takes two minutes. You can create documents there, or upload and download them in various formats (Word and others).
Something noteworthy at the gem that is the MIT OpenCourseWare site: an undergraduate course on Economics Research and Communication. The course description indicates that “primary activities are oral presentations, the preparation of a paper, and providing constructive feedback on classmates’ research projects.”
Constructive feedback involves group peer review at several stages of the writing process. In nine of the thirteen three-hour sessions, students have to: (1) present initial ideas for a paper; (2) present research plans; (3) participate in open forums for discussing project difficulties and questions; and (4) make a presentation based on the first draft. Class discussions always follow presentations.
All these are probably nothing new to many of you. My undergraduate years, however, offered no such communication rigors in my major, no requirements that process be subject to peer scrutiny. How the economics curriculum was implemented at my university implied that economics was a solitary pursuit — you only needed to impress your professor on paper. Any other skills were not the school’s concern.
So I came to the U.S. shy, self-conscious, still somewhat in “I hope I don’t get called on in class” mode. Teaching has helped mitigate some of my reticence; I think I’ve evolved into a self-assured instructor. But addressing peers and superiors can still induce significant levels of apprehension, though I’m finally at the point where academic conferences and presenting at department seminars are inescapable duties. (I’ve hence sometimes bemoaned the deficits in my undergraduate education.) Here’s hoping that university departments are on track to turn out graduates more communication-savvy than I ever was.
A few people have already mentioned wiki, a content management system which allows all users of a given site to create or edit all content – to write collaboratively, in other words. The implications of this for teachers interested in collaborative writing have been explored in a number of fora. (Take a look at this discussion of wiki in composition classes from Kairos or Collaborate!, Stanford’s collaborative writing site.)
Wikipedia, an open source encyclopedia is probably the best known example of wiki in action. When I first learned about Wikipedia, I browsed the site for a bit and decided to give a shot to contributing to it. When I came across an article which referenced the famous song, “Fly Me to the Moon,” which did not yet have an article of its own, I figured I’d write one. I did a little Google-powered research and this is what I wrote:
Popular jazz standard written in 1954 by Bart Howard and made famous ten years later by Frank Sinatra. Originally entitled “In Other Words,” “Fly Me to the Moon” is frequently identified with Sinatra although it has also been performed by Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Johnny Mathis, Wes Montgomery, Diana Krall, Al Hirt, Groove Armada, Bobby Darin, Doris Day, Paul Anka, Shirley Bassey, Tony Bennett and many others.
My article included the links you see above plus the lyrics as well as my name and the time I created the article. Within 5 minutes, this was posted on my “Talk” page by someone named RickK:
Hi, welcome to Wikipedia! Enjoy your stay! I had to make some changes to your Fly Me To The Moon posting. We use standard capitalization here, we don’t sign our articles, and we can’t post lyrics — they’re copyrighted.
How dare he fault me on my capitalization?! — Since then, that article has undergone a number of significant revisions by a whole host of people and now looks like this. You can look at the history of the article and compare versions here.
This brings me to my point. A number of people I know are skeptical of Wikipedia because they don’t trust a source of knowledge whose content can be modified by anybody at any time — something about it just doesn’t seem right. What’s fascinating to me about wiki, though, is that it enables all users to discuss what sort of changes should or should not be made to a given article. (RickK didn’t do a whole lot of discussing before he changed my post, I’m sure, but he did offer a rationale.)
Wikipedia, then, works the way it does because it enables a large community of dedicated folks to keep a pretty close eye on what people contribute. The site, in other words, has a built-in and more or less democratic system which regulates what is or is not included in a given article. (Note, though, that this doesn’t always turn out for the best – if you look at RickK’s Talk page, you’ll see that collective knowledge making has its discontents.) All changes are tracked by the software so that anyone can see any previous version of any article. Some articles undergo hundreds and hundreds of revisions both major and minor – take a look, for example at the history of the article on Helsinki, Finland. (I’ve never been to Finland, but would love to go.)
Interesting stuff. It seems to me that wiki could be a tremendous tool for writing instruction especially in addressing revision. The question is whether it is useful in the right way. Does it, for example, help us address concerns regarding style and correctness that many folks seem to prioritize above all else in writing? If not, should we really care? That’s another matter though.