What is a Freshman Seminar?

The Freshman Seminar here at Baruch has long been a mystery to me.  Although I’ve been a Freshman Learning Community leader twice, this has never afforded me much insight into the required but not credit-bearing class, taught by mostly non-faculty, that first-year students attend to learn about Things Freshmen Need To Know.  Entering college is a profound transition for many first-year students at Baruch, including those fresh from their senior prom and Regents exams, those who spent the last decade running their own small business, those whose educational experiences up to this point have been outside of the U.S., and everyone in between.  This semester I’m working on developing a communication-related enrichment workshop to be offered in conjunction with the Freshman Seminar program, which afforded me more knowledge about the program.  Taking a closer look at its structure piqued my interest in the larger freshman seminar movement around the country.

I wondered, what is a freshman seminar, and what is its purpose? What forms does it take at different kinds of colleges and universities? Who does it really well? A bit of research led me to this observation: the form that a freshman seminar program takes at a particular school can communicate a great deal about how the school views its primary institutional function.

The first thing I noticed was that while many universities use the term “freshman seminar,” they use it to designate quite different things. There are two main forms that the seminar takes (and yes, this is a generalization that surely overlooks much diversity).  At most “elite” (ranked as highly selective) private colleges whose websites I skimmed, the freshman seminar refers to a series of very small, highly focused courses designed and taught by faculty according to their specialized research interests. These courses are discussion based and often writing intensive, functioning as an opportunity for first-year students to experience the intimate and rigorous setting of an upper-level seminar at the start of their college career.  A few examples are the programs at Harvard, Princeton, and Bard.

At many other schools—trending in the direction of public and less “elite” institutions, although there are exceptions to this—the freshman seminar is a non-academic program for first-semester students that orients them to the institution’s resources, helps them navigate new challenges of college life, and integrates them into the larger social body of the school. Here are a few examples, from SUNY Stony Brook and New Jersey Institute of Technology.  The brief description of the Freshman Seminar at Baruch has more in common with this second group than with the first.

At first glance the two models may seem entirely different, but I think they attempt to do similar work from different angles. Both models share central aims of integration into a community. In the academic seminar model, the student is integrated into an intellectual community by developing a close working relationship with a professor and a small group of students bound by an interest in a particular set of questions or themes. In this model students often choose or even apply to particular seminars. This kind of seminar is meant to introduce freshmen to the intellectual work of college learning, in relation to a community of thinkers. In the orientation model, the student is integrated into a social community united by the process of managing new challenges and making use of the resources presented by the college institution. The emphasis is at least partially on professionalization and career planning.

Doug Brent’s article Reinventing WAC (Again): The First-Year Seminar and Academic Literacy draws a chronology in which the orientation model (what he calls the non-credit bearing “transition” model) preceded the newer “academic content seminar” model. He argues that such academic freshman seminar models resonate particularly with WAC (Writing Across the Curriculum) pedagogy, because they affirm the idea that learning how to learn, like learning how to write, happens when learners are deeply engaged in discipline-specific inquiry, not prior to the inquiry or in a vacuum where learning is considered in theory.

If the pattern I detect is accurate, why does the orientation model persist more often at public and less elite colleges, while the most elite colleges have adopted the academic model?  Can an academic content freshman seminar also sufficiently cover the kinds of skills that are covered in a not-for-credit orientation model seminar (and perhaps even do so better than the orientation model can)? What do these different models communicate to freshmen about their primary role as students?

Citation:

Brent, Doug. “Reinventing WAC (Again): The First-Year Seminar and Academic Literacy.” College Composition and Communication, 57, no. 2 (Dec. 2005): 253-76.

Swamp Problems

But how will you look for something when you don’t in the least know what it is? How on earth are you going to set up something you don’t know as the object of your search? To put it another way, even if you come right up against it, how will you know that what you have found is the thing you didn’t know?

—Meno to Socrates

In the “Paradoxes and Predicaments in Learning to Design” chapter of Donald Schön’s Educating the Reflective Practitioner, a text that I will be reading and thinking about with my students in upcoming weeks, Schön evokes the perplexity that many of us confront at the beginning of learning a new skill or discourse. Feeling that we are missing some essential key, we attempt to quell our mounting anxiety by faking the external signs of competence, even as it begins to dawn on us that we are so far afield that we do not even know where to begin looking for the missing key (do not, perhaps, even know that it is a key we are seeking at all and not, rather, a steel file, or calcium carbonate, or a rose-flavored macaron). Schön focuses on the particular pedagogical situation of the architectural design studio, a locus of the design student’s “experience of mystery and confusion,” where, one student observes, “What we have here is a very Kafkaesque situation where you really don’t know where you are, and you have no basis for evaluation. You hang on the inflection of the tone of voice in your crit to discover if something is really wrong.” Hanging on the inflection, the design student (who has not yet learned to “think architecturally”) can sense – viscerally, intuitively – the discrepancy between her performance and the studio master’s expectations, even before she has the conceptual tools to name or describe the particular nature of that gap.

Schön connects the design student’s “predicament” to the paradox described by Plato’s Meno, the “general paradox attendant on the teaching and learning of any really new competence or understanding; for the student seeks to learn things whose meaning and importance she cannot grasp ahead of time.” The student knows that she is failing to see something, yet without seeing what it is she’s missing, how can she begin to look for it? Complicating the design student’s situation even further, the studio master cannot tell her what she needs to know, cannot give her in advance a description of the idea that she needs to attain. In learning to design, it seems, certain “essential ‘covert things’ … can never be explained; either the student gets them in the doing, or he does not get them at all.”

The subtle distinction between “getting it” and “not getting it” points to a kind of irreducible remainder in the practice of learning to design, something greater than the sum of the tasks that the student performs and the studio master’s input on the results of those tasks. The studio master “cannot explain these things with any hope of being understood, at least at the outset, because they can be grapsed only through the experience of actual designing.” Even the experience of actual designing is no guarantee of learning; it remains mysterious (a question of “divine dispensation,” in Plato’s terms) when and if these “covert things” will eventually take root for the student. For even if the student is “able to give a plausible verbal description of designing—to intellectualize about it—he [may] still be unable to meet the requirement that he demonstrate an understanding of designing in the doing.” The only evidence that the student has at last learned to “think architecturally” seems, finally, to issue from within, to be embodied within the student’s practice; it seems, paradoxically, not to have been transmitted from the studio master at all. This question of whether knowledge derives ultimately from the teacher or from the student returns us to another Socratic hypothesis: that “the nature of the process by which we may ‘look for what we don’t know’ … is, in its essence, a process of recollection; the learner ‘spontaneously recovers knowledge that is in him but forgotten.’”

The situation that Schön describes applies aptly to the task my students at NYU’s Polytechnic School of Engineering are now facing as they begin drafting their first essay, an entity that many (perhaps all?) of them might still perceive as one of those “covert things.” Like Schön’s studio master, I have offered guidance that may appear, for now, enigmatic, in that I cannot tell them what shape their eventual essay must take, or prescribe the process by which they will write it. I have told them that their essay must host an idea – something that, unlike a thesis, cannot be constructed according to a plan or formula in which words slide into place like the parts of an Ikea chair. I offer them no assembly manual for this thing that we call an idea; we will know it when we see it. Essentially I am asking them now to do something that I have not taught them how to do, asking them in the doing to work their way out of the perplexity I have been complicit in making.

Like the design tasks that Schön describes, the work that students in writing classes undertake requires that they formulate “the problem of [the] problem.” Rather than present our students with problem solving tasks, we ask that they themselves crreate or select or enact problems. Unlike the perfect AP English exam essay with its sleek topic sentences, the essay that I have asked my students to write may well be “unteachable” – unteachable unless, following Carl Rogers, we “[reframe] teaching in a way that gives central importance to [the teacher’s] own role as a learner.” Schön turns to the controversial remarks that Rogers delivered to a group of Harvard faculty in 1952 in order to think about the role of the teacher in light of the radical destabilization provoked by the Meno. If the student can only ever learn through doing, what does the teacher do? For Schön, Rogers’s performance of “uncertainties and convictions” before the Harvard faculty strategically “elicit[ed] self-discovery in others, first by modeling for others, as a learner, the open expression of his own deepest reflections.” Only by enacting the “paradoxical teacher who does not teach” – who invites or provokes rather than instructs – can the teacher begin to put students to work.

These reflections are inspired in part by a professional development meeting that took place last Friday for the faculty who work as consultants for NYU’s Writing Center, where that center’s director, William Morgan, opened the morning’s conversation through another passage from Schön, in which the writer describes what he calls “the swamp of important problems and non-rigorous inquiry.” Placing Schön’s “swamp” in conversation with L. S. Vygotsky’s concept of “the zone of proximal development,” we talked about the different kinds of confusion that writing entails: the productive kind that leads, after a period of necessary struggle, to insight, and the non-productive kind, the kind where students remain “stuck” in the relative safety of rote ways of thinking rather than attempt the often frightening task of descending into the swamp. We discussed, too, the many different words that exist for the various topological obstacles that we encounter as we attempt to chart new courses (metaphorical and actual) through unknown terrains: swamp, marsh, sinkhole, quagmire, quicksand.

As writing teachers, we face yet another paradox: we find ourselves constructing these bogs and bayous (the “swampy lowland[s where] messy, confusing problems defy technical solution”) even as we also try to guide our students out of the mud and towards the clarity of expression they ultimately need.

Another source of inspiration for these remarks is Kristina’s post below. The “make it work” principle she discusses in the context of Tim Gunn’s marvelous catch phrase seems to point to another kind of engagement with the mysterious space of designing:

Within the particular situation of designers in a workroom, or students in a classroom, “make it work” signifies a practice. This practice can’t be reduced to a simple game of winners and losers. Because its objectives are not about a ranking or a grade, the practice of “making it work” is really about exercising problem-solving, resourcefulness, and experimentation.

Telling the designers on Project Runway to “make it work,” Gunn models a way that we, as teachers, can put the space of the classroom to work, emphasizing “the problem of the problem” that can only be seized through practice. Telling the designer (or the writer) to “make it work” communicates to her “that she is expected to learn, by doing, both what designing [or writing] is, and how to do it,” and that ultimately “she is the essential self-educator” (Schön). Envisioning the writing classroom (or the writing center cubicle) as a studio space – a “work-room,” more than a classroom – entails launching not only our students but also ourselves “on a process which is both fascinating and at times a little frightening,” as Rogers put it; for “[i]t seems to mean letting my experience carry me on, in a direction which appears to be forward, toward that [which] I can but dimly define, as I try to understand at least the current meaning of that experience. The sensation is that of floating with a complex stream of experience, with the fascinating possibility of trying to comprehend its ever-changing reality.” Like my students, I do not yet know where we are headed; I only know that it’s working.

1 Donald A Schön, Educating the Reflective Practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.

Applying Writing Across the Curriculum Principles in Management 3800 Courses

Riffing off Josh’s thoughts about Challenges in Writing Across the Curriculum at CUNY, I want to consider whether WAC can be meaningfully implemented even though fellows have, as Josh puts it, “wildly different experiences.” His characterization of the WAC programs at CUNY is spot-on. Over drinks this past weekend, I discussed assignments with some friends who are also beginning their fellowships and we discovered just how much they diverge across the colleges (I know, that’s some riveting bar talk). While the divergence speaks to the unique program needs at the different colleges, this inconsistency is at odds with the monolithic way WAC was presented during this summer’s orientation for new fellows. So I thought I would use this space to work through how standard WAC principles might apply to my particularly non-traditional assignment coaching Management 3800 students on the delivery of their in-class debates.

Initially, it was a bit bewildering to me to be a Writing Fellow whose work doesn’t directly relate to writing. Dare I say that I failed to see how my role coaching oral presentations could possibly have anything to do with the approaches to assignment design that I spent two days evaluating and preparing to put into action during the WAC orientation. However, having met with the professor whose courses I am supporting and gotten a sense of his thoughts about debating and what he is looking for, I now see how implementing WAC practices could help his students meet these expectations. To this end, I generated the following ideas that integrate WAC principles into aspects of the debate assignment:

WAC Principle: Scaffolding

Debating well requires various skills related to effective communication, like “the ability to subordinate ideas,” “the ability to think and speak in outline terms” and “the ability to adapt” (I am borrowing this language from a document the professor distributes to the students at the beginning of the semester). Because students must develop these related but different skills, it makes sense to scaffold, or break the larger, high-stakes assignment into a number of lower-stakes, skill-specific activities. Last week I visited the classes to introduce myself and there was a palpable fear among many of the students about the prospect of debating in front of their peers. For these students, the stakes, indeed, are high. Scaffolding the assignment to enable progressive mastery of the skills needed to debate well would likely help alleviate their anxiety and build their confidence. In coaching sessions, I then could ask students struggling with a particular aspect of communication to recall the skill-building activity from class.

WAC Principle: Reflective Exercises

Related to the above, assigning metacognitive activities that ask students to reflect upon their own reasoning process could support the development of communication skills. For instance, exercises might prompt students to ask themselves why they thought it made sense to present their points in this order versus any other, or why they thought this was the most convincing evidence to present here to support an assertion versus evidence that might be held in reserve. This kind of reflective strategy can help students internalize—rather than memorize—their debates, enabling them to adapt more readily in the moment. Metacognitive reflection also emphasizes that a successful debate is “a process not just a product”—a WAC slogan that was repeatedly thrown around during those two days of orientation.

WAC Principle: Develop a Voice

Students who have a strong voice for their opinions are better able to communicate with confidence and thus convincingly engage in a debate. Using VOCAT as a tool for students to orally engage with current issues related to their coursework would help them develop a voice. Or, setting up a course blog where students express their ideas and respond to their classmates can give them a chance to exercise their voices in a lower-stakes setting which simulates the exchange of opinions in a debate.

Currently, in the Management 3800 classes with which I am working, the debate assignment is not scaffolded in the ways I describe here. While I discussed these ideas (rather gingerly) with the professor, I do not feel particularly empowered as a WAC fellow to encourage him to adapt his assignment design. My role is to support the students in meeting the oral challenges of the assignment as it stands (it seems this is the institutional precedent for how fellows are to work with Management 3800 courses). There are obvious obstacles to accommodating scaffolding in the course, including a.) the way the debates are spread out over the semester (with the first debate occurring only a month in) and b.) the likely reluctance professors would feel toward revamping their course structure.

The size of the class is also something to consider. During a past semester, the professor I am working with had a particularly small class so that students gave two debates rather than one. I asked him to reflect upon whether he saw a difference in the performance when students were debating twice and he gave a resounding yes. His exact words were, “the learning process from the first to the second debate was incredible.” But with twenty-eight regularly enrolled in the course, he can only fit each student into one debate a semester. In this light, the case for scaffolding in Management 3800 becomes even stronger.

Composition Across the Curriculum

Due to our many discussions about Communication Across the Curriculum and multimodal composing at the Schwartz Institute, I became interested in the idea of Composition Across the Curriculum. In particular, I wanted to think through the pedagogy of using writing, speech, and video in the same classroom. What is similar and what is different for students and instructors when it comes to these different technologies of expression?

Below is an interview with documentary filmmaker Sascha Just, who teaches film production and public speaking in Baruch’s Department of Communication Studies. Her short doc Ambassadors – The Native Jazz Quartet at Work has been screened at the American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs, CA, the The Queens World Film Festival, where it was nominated for best short doc, and at Woman with A Movie Camera.

sascha

1. What kind of assignments do the film production students create?

The students have four assignments. The first one is a dialogue scene. They form groups and pick a scene. We then film the scenes in class and they edit them in the library computer lab.

For the second assignment, they go out and film a chase scene. Two or three people chase each other. It’s a very fun assignment, creative, somewhat adventurous. More than anything, it teaches how to compose a shot and how to create continuity. –How to build a story. We are dealing with structure based on logic. –Basic film language. At this point, most of them could handle [the editing software] Final Cut and all scenes turned out extremely well.

The third project was a fundraiser/kickstarter video for their final project, which was a short documentary. I figured this is a business school and I want to teach them the reality of filmmaking. It’s expensive. A short fundraiser forces you to focus on the essence of your project. The final assignment was 10-minute documentaries.

2. What kinds of writing do the students do during the semester? How does the writing prepare the students for filming or help them reflect on what they created?

For the chase scene, students drew storyboards to ensure that the shot order would be effective, economic, and logical. For the documentary project, they wrote a production plan: a premise of the project and description of what they were going to shoot, where and when. It helps tighten the production, schedule the shoots, plan interviews, and overall tailor production decisions to support the main idea of the film.

The students write a film analysis paper and an exam.  Both written assignments ask students to demonstrate their understanding of film language. This means on the one hand that they use the correct terminology and can communicate with other filmmakers. On the other, it means that they grasp the meanings a sequence of shots can express. For example, why does the filmmaker choose to shoot this scene with close ups? What did she try to convey?

3. Do you see any strong connections between structuring a speech and structuring a doc? –In terms of clarity of perspective, editing (knowing what to put in, take out, when and how to present information), etc.?

Doc films in particular work with reality but they are no more realistic than so-called fiction films. No matter how accurately researched, they always play with reality. The same can be said about speeches and academic papers. I guess, altogether I question the possibility of representing reality.

However, I believe in putting great effort into creating a structure built on logic. That turns out to be one of the most challenging aspects of filmmaking and public speaking. The questions of “does this scene belong here or there, why does it feel right to place this scene here and not there” preoccupy me a lot. It’s a constant negotiation between the style or aesthetics I am trying to create and the content/information I am trying to communicate. Again, the same as with speeches or academic papers.

AMBASSADORS is a very simple story without real dramatic climax, but was nonetheless difficult to structure. The musicians noticed it – I used the songs as a structure. I personally do not like to work with voice overs, but there are many great films that do (REEL INJUNS, a must see). I am trying to keep my own voice out of it as much as possible, because a) I am more interested in what the characters have to say and b) I feel that my viewpoint comes through a lot anyhow, simply because I select, interview, structure etc.

4. Any thoughts on the communication that happens between the documentarian and the subject and between instructor and student? If the same, how so? If different, in what ways?

I hadn’t thought of it before, but I think there are parallels between interviewing and q & a with students. Both require attentive and engaged listening. Waiting till the person is finished. Prompting further thoughts with short follow-up questions. Phrasing questions short and clear. Neither students nor interviewee should spend too much time trying to figure out what it is I am asking, right?

Both students and interview subjects respond much more willingly if they sense that I care. Once I cried in an interview, because what the person (an older, very unhappy Indian) told me was heartbreaking. It turned out to be one of the most meaningful and informative interviews I have ever conducted. So much for neutrality.

We never are objective anyhow, so why would I try that in such heightened situations like an interview or the classroom? It becomes dishonest.

5. Do you have any thoughts about how people’s behavior changes in front of the camera (particularly in this digital smart phone age)? –I ask this particularly in the context of Baruch where we use the technique of taping students and doing an immediate playback so they can experience their vocal and bodily delivery habits as an audience member would.

Even very confident people who believe that they forget about the camera are on some level aware of it. In my opinion, they perform for the camera. Not necessarily a problem. Without the camera, they would perform for the teacher, class, or interviewer. Performing is so often defined as negative = fake. But ultimately it means that students or interviewees pull themselves together, focus, try to make a good impression, and eliminate distracting stories or habits to the best of their ability.

Sascha Just was born and raised in Berlin, Germany and is a doctoral candidate in the CUNY Graduate Center’s Theatre Department. Her dissertation is about the cinematic representation of New Orleans performance cultures. Just’s in-process documentary film Heirs is a music-driven portrait of New Orleans composed of three artists’ journeys into the city’s past: drummer/vibraphonist Jason Marsalis, Mardi Gras Indian Chief Darryl Montana, and theater artist Lisa D’Amour. 

On teaching/thinking with Tim Gunn

I wanted to de-clutter my workspace this morning, so I started cleaning my desktop. To my delight, I found this screenshot:

makeitwork

A couple of months ago, I was reading Tim Gunn’s responses on Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything.” I first learned about Tim Gunn from watching Project Runway, a reality television series that features aspiring fashion designers who compete with one another on a variety of challenges that test their skill and creativity. Gunn serves as the show’s co-host and, more importantly and interestingly, as a mentor to the designers. Week to week, up until Project Runway was picked up by the Lifetime Channel, I looked forward to watching Tim Gunn wander around the workroom of the designers. He would walk around and attentively study each designer’s work in progress while offering some suggestions and guidance. Gunn would habitually close his remarks with encouraging words: “make it work” or “carry on.”

Gunn’s walk around the Project Runway workroom is an oddly manufactured situation. Here I mean that his counseling of contestants in the workroom belongs to a genre of entertainment where interests are grounded in the growth of a brand. Reality competition shows can be a bit disheartening to watch. Under the guise of promoting young talent, the corporations behind reality shows make bank without having to respond to the individuals vulnerably exposed in the workroom with their unfinished works. It’s a game of attrition, we’re told. That game’s logic manifests in various ways, but most prominently in the belief that those who lose are weak and incompetent. It takes on another scary, dangerous form when contestants rationalize their exploitation: “I’m not here to make friends.”

Enter Tim Gunn, whose lovely phrase “make it work” came out of another oddly manufactured situation: the classroom. Within the particular situation of designers in a workroom, or students in a classroom, “make it work” signifies a practice. This practice can’t be reduced to a simple game of winners and losers. Because its objectives are not about a ranking or a grade, the practice of “making it work” is really about exercising problem-solving, resourcefulness, and experimentation. Intentional or not–it’s hard to tell these days because writing often occurs in moments of haste–Gunn’s response on “Ask Me Anything” offers a model for how we can implement a “make it work” ethos in situations of learnings. Notice how, as he explains the meaning of the phrase, Gunn moves from the distinction between “I said” to “you’re” towards a “we.” He elaborates that the phrase is meant to provoke thinking through challenges rather than assigning blame or incompetency on the part of the student. The problem isn’t the student, so Gunn’s advice takes on a supportive but impersonal tone:

“Offer up a diagnosis for what’s going wrong, and a prescription for how to make it right.”

Even though overt displays of branding and commercialization infiltrated the designers’ workroom on Project Runway, and though “make it work” has been appropriated in ways to promote the show, “making it work” remains a practice that is tailored to the concerns and particular interests of individuals in the process of learning.

* * *

Even good teachers are teased by students, of course. Here’s one of my favorite scenes from an early season of Project Runway:

Also, here’s Terry Gross’ Fresh Air interview with Tim Gunn from earlier this year.

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.

Enlivening Space, Writing about Place through Digital Maps

A couple of weeks ago, I presented a paper at the annual conference of the Shakespeare Association of America (affectionately—and appropriately—hashtagged #ShakeAss14). This was one of the most rousing SAA conferences I have experienced, in great measure because it really got me thinking about the convergence of traditional and digital research methods and teaching possibilities. The seminar in which I was a participant, “Theatre and Neighborhood in Early Modern London,” had much to do with spurring me to think along these new lines, not only because of the topic, but also because several of my fellow participants are at the helm of fantastic digital projects. In the early stages of my project last Fall, I had decided that I would publish the article (that will emerge from this paper) in a digital format and then—because my project (an examination of the River Thames as an early modern neighborhood that linked London with theatres in Southwark, via a ferry crossing to an “underworld” of sorts) deals with spaces and spatial connections—I also decided that I would integrate my text with a map that peoples the Thames, locates the playhouses and related entertainment venues, and so forth. Hence my arrival in the world of navigating and creating early modern digital maps—maps that tell stories, expand upon stories, and are expanded upon by additional stories. Though I grappled with my project in the usual conference paper way (reproached it, (re)revised it, hid under furniture from it, cajoled and occasionally admired it), I also had fun working on it, not least because of its digital/interactive/play-with-me possibilities.

Of course, how could I not respond this way after I had discovered the Map of Early Modern London (MoEML)? Click on the link and you will see what I mean. Play with its interactive features. Where do you end up—not just on the map, but in your imagination? I’m seeing and thinking—imagining ways in which this process of making could be used in composition and literature classrooms. Of course, I am at the very early stages of learning how to make digital maps, but it’s an exciting stage because, on the one hand, I’m teaching myself how to make new stuff, and on the other hand, I’m exploring ways to make this material engaging (and hopefully illuminating) for audiences curious about the interactions between early modern playhouses and neighborhoods — and more broadly, about how people define and demarcate “space” and their relationship to it in particular cultural and historical contexts. As I continue to research and build this project, I am also thinking about writing assignments for both composition and literature courses, specifically what sorts of assignments to create around digital maps and vice-versa. For instance, an assignment might ask students to map a part of their city — perhaps their commutes from home to school to work. What do the visual points of the journey reveal about neighborhoods traveled through, or about the journey of pursuing a college degree while working full-time? How do these physical and conceptual dimensions mutually constitute one another? Or, by using digital tools to map a particular character’s comings and goings, students might enrich their understanding of that character. And if students interconnect their maps, they could produce a rich, interactive guide of the play or novel we are studying. As I work on my early modern neighborhoods project, I am making connections between digital maps and writing, particularly the ways in which digital map-making and writing shape each other, stir the imagination, and enhance our abilities to perceive, make, analyze, and share.

So You Want a Rec Letter?

There were a few things I wanted to write about for this week’s post, but I decided to settle on one: writing recommendation letters.  When I was teaching, I always told my students that while they were taking my introduction to cultural anthropology course that they needed to conduct themselves in a manner that reflected their intellectual and academic abilities so they could get the best return on their investment—their education.

I also reminded students that there will come a time when they will request a recommendation  letter from me, and that letter will not be a standard form letter comprised of a short paragraph that basically provides little to no information about the student and her academic performance.  My letters will contain at least 3 paragraphs discussing the student’s performance and the qualities that will make her  an ideal candidate for the programs she is seeking to gain admission to.

There is one caveat, I told students not to ask me for a letter if one is applying to doctoral or Masters programs because my status as an adjunct won’t really count.  The nation’s recent economic downturn sent many unemployed back to school, with many people seeking graduate degrees as a way to enhance their employment opportunities in anticipation of the rebounding job market.  With many students recognizing that their bachelor degrees are insufficient to compete in today’s economy, students are beginning to think long term and that means obtaining post-secondary degrees.  Adjunct instructors recognize the importance of undergraduate students planning for post-secondary degrees because many adjuncts are struggling to complete their doctoral degrees on minimal adjunct salaries or have completed their degrees and still earn a paltry salary.

Nationally, higher education institutions are becoming more reliant on adjuncts to teach their courses with some adjuncts having little success obtaining full-time positions once their Phd is granted. With more institutions becoming dependent on adjunct labor, there is high likelihood that undergraduates will spend more class hours with adjunct faculty than full time faculty, yet only letters by full-time faculty are considered sufficient to bolster graduate applications.  Adjuncts provide students with in-class instruction, office hours, and in some cases counseling, yet these interactions aren’t enough to support a student’s graduate application.

I receive at least 3-5 recommendation letter requests from former students each semester.  Some are for graduate programs and others are for study abroad programs, internships, and scholarship applications.  Depending on the rank of the institution/program that the student is applying I assess whether my letter will hurt or help their application.  If it is highly competitive, I politely decline and tell students to ask a full-time professor, if the program is not highly competitive, I usually say yes immediately and commence to writing.  However writing a good recommendation letter is a lot of work, and although I am not currently teaching, I still put in the time to craft and fine tune my recommendation letters for undergraduate students despite the fact that my efforts may be fruitless.  I mainly write these letters for one reason, and it’s the reason I force myself to sit at the computer no matter how much of my own work I have to complete:  I remember being an undergraduate eager to apply to African American Studies graduate school programs almost twenty years ago and asking my adjunct instructor for an African literature course to write a letter for me.  He obliged, and thankfully I was admitted into a program, I can’t remember his last name but we all called him Chiji.  

I can’t imagine that seventeen years ago Chiji’s salary as a doctoral student at a public university was better than the paltry salary I received as an adjunct, but having taught for many years as an adjunct, I have a great respect for what he did for me.  Now I can see that he might have mustered up some strength to sit before his computer to write a recommendation letter for me amidst writing his dissertation.  I haven’t gone back to my transcript to get his last name, but I do imagine it would only read-STAFF beside the course, as it still does in many online course schedules taught by adjuncts.  I don’t know if it was Chiji’s letter that helped or the letters from a full time professor, and tenured professor that helped.  All I can remember is his willingness to write a recommendation letter for me, and with that memory and energy, I write letters for my former students too.

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.

Teaching Queer Language/Queer Language Teaching

I have been teaching Italian for nearly ten years now and have never come out to my students. For some reason the words “I’m queer” never seem to come up when we are conjugating verbs or figuring out how to use direct object pronouns with the present perfect of transitive verbs. After class last week a student in my Italian 300 advanced contemporary culture class came up to me and said that he had never been in a class where the students were encouraged to play with the messiness of ideas and language, that especially in his language classes, instructors are quick to fill in the blanks with unknown vocabulary words or spell out “correct” ways of reading and interpreting. I realized that while my sexual and gender identities never necessarily make it to the blackboard, I am attempting to queer the space of the classroom and the approach to self-expression in language learning in a way that acknowledges the power of the form in order to push past it.

On the one hand the “straight” is a strict adherence to semantic and lexical structures and carries, especially among academics, a certain level of moral rectitude.

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 11.05.29 AM

The queer, on the other hand, is the messiness of the relationship between the idea and its expression, favors the investigation of possibility within word choice, neologism, structure and gender. Linguistic queerness in thus the spectrum of possible forms of expression that are produced by and through queer as a theoretical concept and not a sexual or gender identity.

While comprehension is always a goal, queer language is most interested in the speaker’s negotiation with the unstable self. From a Lacanian perspective we might say that the child had entered the social linguistic realm of the father (in his primary language) but has pushed passed this realm in search of another secondary language/father. (Does the primary language then become the mother in the triangle of self-formation? Is the symbolic world of the phallus a transsexual woman once the child seeks another phallic signifier? Or is it perhaps that the child has two daddies?) The instability of the self within this new space mirrors the instability of the prelinguistic child. There is no unity of self, there is no participation in the social order; there are ideas, their relationship to structures, and a space for play and experimentation.

This idea of play, of messy self-investigation through uncertain language must of course present itself very differently in an elementary language class where students are just learning the fundamental structures of language. The first step in any good coming out story is recognition, and language queers should be no different. Recognizing how political the gendered nature of the Italian language is (The feminine noun “casalinga” means housewife while the masculine noun “casalingo” means household product and not househusband) creates an awareness of language as a political tool and cultural construct. The errors that students make in elementary classes (“mangio tutti” = I eat everyone ≠ “mangio tutto” = I eat everything) should be discussed and “corrected” in a way that emphasizes the difference between the intention of the speaker and the meaning as perceived by the listener. What I am arguing here is that queer potential exists both in understanding the political constraints of the gendered nature of words and language use, and in refusing to participate in the rigidity of lexical correctness as long as the linguistic work that is done centers around the learner’s use and meaning.

In advanced language and culture classes (conducted entirely in the “target” language) the material is often taken from primary historical sources. At this point the basic and intermediate grammatical structures are taken for granted and most students focus on learning how to communicate their analysis of the texts being discussed. Refusing to be a walking dictionary I often encourage my students to talk through the difficult ideas using the words they have at their disposal. The discomfort is always tangible, but now, halfway through the semester, everyone allows everyone else the time and space to shape ideas and talk through linguistic possibility as they discuss their relationship with the texts.

babI have always been fascinated by the doge meme, reading a post about doge grammar I realized its connection to this queer approach to language. The creator of the doge must have a solid grasp on primary language structures and intentionally mess them up. This “messing up” is actually the creation of a new language, a language based on the relationship between the linguistic and the visual structures within the meme. The social and cultural ideas are expressed through this dynamic relationship that relies primarily on the new language created by the word/image interplay. While I do not encourage my students to match unquantifiable nouns with adjectives of quantity that specify plurality, there is something valuable in the way that the incorrect grammar structures of this meme create new meaning in a new context, something reminiscent of the work being done to understand the self’s relationship to its own self expression when both are constantly and necessarily “works in progress.”

These ideas are very much works in progress. I must confess that I am concerned about the possibility that these ideas support a queer/straight binary that is not my intention in any way. Hopefully this will be the beginning of a conversation (understood as broadly as possible) about language, pedagogy and queerness.
.