Helping Students Breathe

Is it too much of a jump to discuss the Eric Garner case and the skill development we do with students? Does it dishonor Garner’s violent death at the hands of the NYPD? Since the announcement of the Staten Island grand jury’s failure to indict, I’ve been balancing the busiest time of the semester with a flood of headlines, hashtags, blog entries, and protest announcements while trying to make sense of it all. This post is an attempt to articulate my pinball-like thoughts on the subjects of breath and bodies in public space.

Part 1

Ramsey Orta recorded Eric Garner’s gruesome asphyxiation death at the hands of the NYPD on Staten Island. Because of Orta’s footage, people the world over have heard the haunting desperation of Garner’s final words. “I can’t breathe” has transformed into a protest chant; #icantbreathe and #wecantbreathe are now calls for the end of police brutality and structural racism. These calls for political action invoke the imperative of breath to sustain life.

New York City’s religious leaders chanted “God Can’t Breathe” while staging a die-in at City Hall the afternoon of Monday, December 8. That night, following the example of the Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose, members of the Brooklyn Nets and LeBron James wore “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. On Tuesday, December 9th, Baruch’s Student Life hosted a Town Hall titled “Taking a Breath” to give students a forum “to discuss implications behind the Michael Brown and Eric Garner rulings.” On Thursday the 11th, the CUNY Graduate Center held a Town Hall called #WeCantBreathe, hosted by the Mentoring Future Faculty of Color Project.

From a documented instance of state-administered homicide on a city street, a new rhetorical mode has proliferated. This may sound very odd but, aside from my political commitments, it has caused me to renew my emphasis on breath awareness during rehearsals.

Part 2

At the beginning of our rehearsals, I ask students to identify one major goal for the session. Several students  identify becoming more comfortable with public speaking. They describe the panicked nervousness they feel when speaking in front of a group. How does it manifest itself? One student said she felt like the whole class “could hear and see her heart thumping in her chest.” They also self-identified fast talking, sweating, shifting weight, and fidgeting as other manifestations.

I’ve been talking to students about the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the body’s “fight-or-flight” response being provoked by the anxiety of public speaking. While the SNS is generally considered unconscious and therefore not controllable, there is scientific evidence that slow breathing can slow the heart rate and reduce blood pressure.

What is slow breathing? A dated but still-cited 2005 article in the journal Hypertension defined it as six breaths per minute. That is ten seconds per breath; a five-second inhalation followed by a five-second exhalation. I’ve taken this study as inspiration to work with students (who hopefully don’t have hypertension!) on their breathing.

We put our hands on our rib cages to feel the entire torso expand as we inhale with a “balloon belly breath” for five seconds. We then exhale for five seconds, slowly squeezing the breath out. We count. It is all very measured and controlled. There isn’t a lot of time to practice the technique during the rehearsal, but, the experience of having done it together during our session will hopefully encourage students to practice slow breathing on the subway, during class, or before a job interview as a way to decrease the physical effects of their SNS kicking in during times of acute anxiety. And these are definitely times of acute anxiety.

Joseph CN, Porta C, Casucci G. et al. “Slow breathing improves arterial baroreflex sensitivity and decreases blood pressure in essential hypertension.” Hypertension. 2005; 46(4):714-718.

Roy C. Ziegelstein, MD. “Acute Emotional Stress and Cardiac Arrhythmias.” JAMA. 2007; 298(3):324-329.

Blogging to Learn: Teaching with WordPress

Should instructors incorporate blogging into their courses? Does it have any demonstrable value for learning?

This past semester, I integrated a WordPress blog into my section of Introduction to Writing about Literature at Hunter College. The goal: give students the opportunity to write for a wider audience that includes not only myself, but also their peers in the class (I made the blog private, viewable by course members only). I feel that writing in a (semi-)public forum, as well as reading classmates’ posts, can help to improve the caliber of each student’s work. Blogging allows students to work through ideas and practice thinking about literature in the ways I expect to see in formal paper assignments. I encourage students to write in their own voice (meaning they can be casual) as long as they are expressing themselves clearly. Many of the assignments aim to motivate students by offering them the opportunity to be creative and share a part of themselves with their classmates, something that often doesn’t happen under the time constraints of our regular class period.

In this post, I reflect upon the value of course blogs by considering the ways that the blogging assignments I give draw upon the principles I have learned as a Writing Across the Curriculum Fellow at Baruch and the pedagogical practices under discussion this semester at BLSCI staff meetings.

Scaffolding and Peer Review
Early in the semester, prior to starting work on the first paper (which is a thematic analysis), I give students the following blogging assignment. First, I have them identify a major theme in what we have read of Shakespeare’s play, Measure for Measure, so far and use textual evidence to explain why it is significant. A week later, I put the students in pairs and have them comment upon their partner’s previous post and extend upon it by discussing how the theme develops as the plot thickens, or locating another instance of the theme in the play and providing analysis. This set of blogging assignments functions as scaffolding to develop the skills they will apply in peer-review workshops which we hold as part of the writing process for each paper. Because this assignment familiarizes students with how to provide feedback about another’s claim and make suggestions for extending that claim, they are better prepared to constructively engage with their partner’s draft during the first peer workshop.

Writing to Learn, Creative Writing to Learn
For one blogging assignment during our unit on poetry, I have my students write their own version of Jamaica Kincaid’s poem, “Girl.” This assignment serves to reinforce the skills of poetry analysis I impart in the classroom as we dissect texts because I ask students to reflect upon the interaction of form and content while using poetic techniques to compose their piece. The female students in the class draw upon their unique experiences of being a ‘girl’ and consider how the form of their poems might look similar to or different from that of Kincaid given the disparity in content. The male students explore what a ‘boy’ version of Kincaid’s poem would be like and whether the form and content would be altered radically due to a different gendered experience. The activity takes the WAC principle of writing to learn and applies it as creative writing to learn. While traditional writing to learn exercises are a valuable pedagogical tool for developing skills, students often aren’t motivated by them and consider the exercises to be just another prosaic chore in composition. When writing to learn becomes creative writing to learn, a surprising thing can happen: not only are learning goals met, but students demonstrate inspired thinking in and through the process.

Creating to Learn, Performances of Understanding
For an extra credit assignment, I ask my students to draw a picture, create a collage, pick or perform a song, etc. that is representative of a particular character in a novel we read together, Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. The character, a web-footed hermaphrodite, defies realist narrative conventions and takes shape through metaphor and allusion rather than literal description. With this in mind, I have my students consider how they might render this character based on lines from the text such as, “Being with her was like pressing your eye to a particularly vivid kaleidoscope.” Or, how they would depict her as a representation of a certain kind of passion. The goal is for students to transfer a skill we have been honing all semester, that is, critical engagement with figurative language in texts and apply it to a creation of their own. Essentially, I want them to execute the kind of performances of understanding, or demonstrating learning by ‘doing’ in another context, we have been discussing in recent BLSCI staff meetings. The results of this exercise are beyond anything I expected. Several students posted stunning original drawings, along with a few sentences explaining their idea. Here’s one example:


Another (a music production major) even performed a song that he wrote using descriptions of the novel’s setting as a metaphor for the character in question and for passion itself. Talk about performative learning!

Multiple Moles

In George Saunders’ 2012 short story “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” an overextended father warding off an encroaching psychotic break starts keeping a diary, addressed to the future. In one entry, he compares the Sisyphean task of parenting to a game of Whac-a-Mole:

Family life in our time sometimes seems like game of Whac-a-Mole, future reader. Future generations still have? Plastic mole emerges, you whack with hammer, he dies, falls, another emerges, you whack, kill? Sometimes seems that, as soon as one kid happy, another kid “pops up,” i.e., registers complaint, requiring parent to “whack” kid, i.e., address complaint.[1]

I am, I suspect, not the first person to feel just this way about the task of teaching first-year college students how to write, perhaps especially in the fall semester: the sense of an unceasing escalation of tasks, the breathtaking speed with which fifteen weeks evaporate, the impossibility of accounting for when and where the next mole will pop up. Within the time of any class period, too, there are these unforeseeable emergences, more questions than can ever be answered.

I have been thinking a lot about one piece of advice for how to manage such moles (perhaps less a piece of advice than a utopian ideal): Make Everything You Teach Multiply Motivated—i.e., whack more than one mole with every hammer.

Below, I sketch out how one very short text—a chapter from Walker Percy’s 1983 Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book—allowed me to address a lot of topics within the space of less than a full class period. (Click through for a pdf of the chapter—highly recommended.)

(To contextualize a bit: my students are beginning to draft essays about a text that they have been working with for about the last four weeks. The essay calls for them to assess the reliability of the primary text’s central claim against its own evidence—and to import other “secondary” texts that discuss a related idea, using those secondary texts as lenses for thinking about some implications of the primary text. My main focus for this class period was to get my students thinking about their respective primary texts in terms of the questions posed by those texts, and to consider how their secondary texts provide ways of responding to – or pushing back against – those questions.)

Here are some of the moles that the chapter allowed me to whack:

  1. It models a strong introduction.

The chapter, titled “The Fearful Self: Why the Self is So Afraid of Being Found Out,” begins:

A recent poll asked people what they feared most. A majority of respondents agreed in ranking one fear above all others, above fear of sickness, accidents, crime, war, even death. It is the fear of speaking before a group, stage fright.

Yet, in the conventional objective scientific view, man is an organism among other organisms and a man should therefore not be terrified to be surrounded by his own kind, other like organisms who are not merely not hostile but by the very nature of the occasion well disposed, and to open his mouth and speak in a language he has learned from his fellowmen. A wolf howling alone in a wolfpack doesn’t get stage fright.[2]

Two principles of introductions that my students recognized and were able to name were Percy’s engagement with his reader, and his setting up of a problem or question by “turning back against” a received way of thinking (i.e., It is reasonable to have stage fright, since it is the most common fear –> Is it reasonable to have stage fright?).

  1. It demystifies what we mean by “essay.”

Because my students are working on essays, I liked this chapter for the way it literalizes some of the essential moves of essayistic writing: after the two-paragraph introduction, Percy goes on to write a multiple-choice question and answers, and two thought experiments. These formats, which Percy borrows from the self-help genre he satirizes in Lost in the Cosmos, perform a kind of strategic oversimplification of the process of writing an essay: you begin with a question, and you test out many possible responses; or, you experiment with following your digressive thoughts in order to see where they eventually lead you.

Take a look at what he does with the multiple-choice question format/genre:

Question: What is so frightening to so many people about speaking to an audience?

(a) Is it because the ever-present chance of making a fool of oneself before one person is multiplied by the number of listeners, so that an audience of 50 persons is 50 times more terrifying than one? Is an audience of 50 million a million times more terrifying than 50?

(b) Is it because, since one person, friend or stranger, is often difficult to deal with, 50 people are 50 times more difficult?

(e) Is it because you know that what you present to the world is a persona, a mask, that it is a very fragile disguise, that God alone knows what is underneath since you clearly do not, perhaps nothing less than the self itself, and that if the persona fails, what is revealed is unspeakable (literally, because you can’t speak it), like what was revealed when the Phantom of the Opera had his mask ripped off, a no-face, a vacancy, a hole which is much worse than the ugliest face—so frightening, in fact, that you remember, as a child, crawling under the seat in the movie?

Only by going through the process of “testing” multiple answers to his initial question is Percy able to arrive, in option (e), at what seems to be his central idea. (I also admire the way the multiple-choice format implies that its answers are always somehow congruent, whereas Percy reveals in his answers the essentially incongruous “turn” his thinking has taken.)

  1. It lends itself well to imitation.

Before showing them this chapter, I had asked my students to write out a question that they were still reckoning with in the primary text they are writing their own essays about. After we read Percy’s chapter aloud as a class, I asked them to write out several multiple choice answers to the initial question they had written down, and to retain the question form in their mutliple choice answers—in other words, to use Percy’s form as a springboard for thinking further about their own questions and ideas.

  1. It demonstrates the work that a good title accomplishes.

The title of the chapter (“The Fearful Self: Why the Self is so Afraid of Being Found Out”) seems straightforward enough for a chapter that is, ostensibly, about the fear of public speaking. Yet, by the time we reach the middle of the chapter (see multiple choice response “e” above), it becomes clear that the title in fact refers to the idea that Percy is developing implicitly: that when we speak before an audience, we are less afraid of others, and more afraid of our own selves.

  1. It enacts thinking as play.

The chapter continues,

Thought Experiment: If you are a shy person, which of the following situations is the most terrifying to you? Which is the least terrifying?

In the first, you are a mid-echelon executive in the sales division of a large company in which you are both successful and well liked. You are scheduled to deliver a speech at the annual banquet, an honor. You have months to prepare.

In the second, you are the character Richard Hannay in Hitchcock’s The Thirty-nine Steps. Pursued down a street by his enemies, he ducks into a doorway which happens to be a stage door and finds himself on a stage at a political rally where he is mistaken for the guest speaker and introduced. He has not the faintest idea what he is supposed to talk about.

In the third, the world’s population has been destroyed by nuclear wars. Only you have survived. The earth is invaded by extraterrestrial beings. They capture you and haul you up before a large tribunal and make it known to you that you must give an account of yourself, what you are dong here, why you should be spared, etc.

Explain your choice.

This section again reinforces a principle of essayistic writing: that the reader needs to think with you, to follow a train of thought. It also demonstrates a principle that could be transported to other kinds of academic writing: that effective argument need not be, necessarily, pugilistic; it can also be playful.

  1. It introduced the term “thought experiment” into our shared discourse.
  1. It foreshadowed a theme that will, undoubtedly, become prominent in an upcoming class, when I ask my students to read parts of their finished essays aloud in front of their classmates.

Of course, I could list an equal number of things that this text did not accomplish for our class, moles that went by the wayside. (Percy’s screwball humor, sadly, did not resonate with everyone.) But the text did, at least, for this particular moment in the semester, alleviate some of the pressure of trying to Do Everything, and I fully intend to keep asking my students, ad nauseum, to think beyond answers (a) and (b); to remind them that, until they’ve arrived all the way at answer (e), there is further work to be done.

[1] George Saunders, “The Semplica-Girl Diaires.” The New Yorker. October 15, 2012.

[2] Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1983.

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?


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.


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:


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.