Making Sense of the Transition to College

Big Fish Little Pond

“Big Fish Little Pond”

Making Sense of the Transition to College

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Start by imagining everything in the universe

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

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

Logo for 2014 Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Logo for 2014 Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Amateur’s Guide to Creating Audio Projects in Audacity (captured by Camtasia) – Part I

Hello, my name is Josh and I’m an addict of public radio. I get my morning fix from the BBC. When I ride the subway, I keep my dosage steady with podcasts from the CBC. Over lunch and in the evenings, it’s news and talk from WNYC. Weekends, I binge on flagship programming from NPR and PRI.

I’ve tried to infect my students with this affliction by replacing at least one reading assignment every semester with take-home listening questions on a particularly good radio program relating to the topic we’re studying. While I don’t think I’ve attracted many converts, many students have at the very least said: “I thought it was going to be really boring… but it wasn’t.”

I think there’s plenty of pedagogical value to be harnessed from listening to public radio, but students could also benefit from creating their own audio projects modeled on public radio formats. A few years ago, I enjoyed having the opportunity to present my research for a graduate course in public anthropology in the format of a radio documentary. I’d done a bit of audio editing using the digital recording software ProTools before, but for that project I used GarageBand, which comes with every Mac and is much more user friendly.

Since I’ve mainly computed on PCs for a few years now, I figured it was time to try out Audacity, the free audio editing software for PC (and Mac) I’ve often heard about. After the workshop on Camtasia screen capture software at the BLSCI a few weeks ago, I decided to try to make a little video with some ideas about making audio projects using Audacity. You can watch it below.

DISCLAIMERS:

  1. As per the title of the video, I am a TOTAL AMATEUR at audio and video editing. I embarked on this project in the spirit of play mentioned by Suzanne at the last BLSCI meeting. I would feel vindicated if this prompted some of the experts in our midst to share some of their ideas about creating audio projects (and, ahem, what I could do better)!
  2. Yes, that’s right, there’s several shots of me surfing the web in there. Have you ever watched the linkbait videos on weather.com? Filming the internet is totally legit.

TEASER:

Features a cameo from a true expert in communications!

Speak to Learn: faculty speak their mind in video on oral communication

The classroom is abuzz with students jotting down notes and eagerly inserting themselves into a fast-paced full-class discussion.  Observant comments from every member of the class forward the conversation towards a collective higher understanding of the topic at hand.

This is my go-to vision of ideal classroom discussion.  But as I have immersed myself in conversations about communication across the curriculum here at the Schwartz Communication Institute, I have come to realize that A) this vision is sometimes hard to achieve, and B) it is only one of many models for meaningful oral communication in the classroom.

Why do we urge students to speak in class?  What does success look like when they do so?  What unique roles does oral communication play in the many diverse disciplines that Baruch students study?  These questions are at the center of two projects I’ve been working on this year at BLSCI.

The first is a short video that speaks to the role of spoken communication across the disciplines.  I interviewed three professors here at Baruch: Mathematics professor Peter Gregory, Business Management professor Ed Kurpis, and English professor Cheryl Smith.  I asked them about the role of spoken communication in their disciplines and in their classrooms.  While their responses reflect the particular demands of their disciplines, they all highlight the centrality of speaking to developing ideas and mastering knowledge in the classroom, and to communicating authentically and effectively in the outside world.  See what they have to say here:

The second project is a faculty development workshop that I am leading later this week (Thursday, February 27, 12:45-2:15pm) with Law professor Valerie Watnick.  We’ll be covering a wide variety of strategies for facilitating meaningful, focused and lively discussion in the classroom.  You can find details about this workshop, and all BLSCI workshops and roundtables, here.

Dear Students,

[In honor of 50 years of Beatlemania]

Dear Students, open up your eyes

Dear Students, see the sunny skies

The wind is low, the birds will sing

That you are part of everything

Dear Students, won’t you open up your eyes?

 

Look around round

Look around round round

Look around

The word “theatre” comes from theatron, the Greek word for “seeing place.” Actors ask audiences to look at them. As instructors, we ask students to look at the world… as it was, is, and could be. It often helps to ask students to begin by looking at themselves.

I start the semester with a letter to students that I project onto the screen and read out loud. I then ask the students to write me a letter about their understanding of contemporary theatre and any prior performance experience –including sports, debate team, dance, and singing. I also ask them to identify two learning goals for the semester.

Sometimes I feel awkward doing this classic WAC tool. Do the students think it’s hokey? A handwritten letter; what is this, a Jane Austen novel? But, I love the students’ responses so much that I keep returning to it.

This semester I am teaching a weekly three-hour night class, which means almost all of my students work full-time and this Intro to Theatre course is being squeezed into very packed lives. I started my letter with “Welcome to the Spring 2014 semester. Although you may have signed up for this class to fulfill a requirement and because it fits your busy schedule, I am convinced you will get a great deal out of our exploration of Western theatrical conventions.”

A fake letter that I wrote to myself.

A fake letter that I wrote to myself.

Perhaps it seems too self-deprecating to begin the semester assuming that most of the students have not chosen to be there. However, many of the students referred to this opening line, acknowledging that this was an accurate description of their situation and, in so doing, expressed relief that they did not have to perform enthusiasm.

At the same time, most students let me know they were hoping enthusiasm would develop throughout the semester and they were looking forward to our many class theatre outings and guest speakers. They also shared wonderful biographical details that I don’t think would have come out in the classroom. It turns out there are four competitive  ballroom dancers and former ballerinas in the class.

Also a fake. But you get the idea.

Also a fake. But you get the idea.

I was surprised by the number of students who wanted to work on their public speaking skills and even try some acting. This was very valuable information for me and I am tweaking my assignments and classroom activities to respond to these goals.

As an aside, in this digital age, it is fun to sift through a stack of (yes, sloppy) handwritten letters. –Fun because I don’t have to grade them and look for strong arguments and mastery of content. I just have to take in how the students have chosen to express themselves. I enjoy looking at the ink looped and scratched across the paper. I note who covered the page with ideas and memories and who wrote just a few sentences. The welcome letter is an ideal low-stakes / high-impact tool.

Dodging the Drafts

I just submitted the first full draft of a dissertation chapter to my adviser.  Producing it was a painful process—I missed the first deadline we set, just before Thanksgiving.  But a major reason I got my chapter in by the new deadline is the fact that I had a commitment to get a draft to my writing partner last week.  Her feedback and encouragement motivated me to get the draft in better shape and in to my adviser on time.

Letting someone read your drafts can be intimidating. I don’t recall sharing writing very often in college. I proofread my best friend’s thesis the spring of our senior year, and, although we had collaborated closely on numerous creative projects, it was the first time I had read a draft of something he had written.  I have been required to give presentations on my research-in-progress in a number of my graduate classes, but only once have I been asked to share drafts of work with classmates, in a Research and Bibliography course during my first semester of my Master’s degree at UT.

Keeping our drafts private stokes anxieties and mystifies the writing process.  It perpetuates the notion that “good” writers create perfect papers, fully-formed with very little effort while “bad” writers struggle.  It masks the truth that writing is a skill that must be practiced to improve, that even great writers grapple with organization and argumentation in early drafts, and it de-emphasizes the importance of editing and revising.

This semester I required my students to partner up and workshop drafts of their final papers.  I had one student tell me she was too embarrassed about her writing to participate in the workshop.  In my experience, I assured her, once I push past that initial nervousness, sharing drafts actually helps to relieve my anxieties about my writing, and giving feedback on others’ drafts always teaches me something I can apply to my own work.

Here some thoughts on sharing drafts with writing partners:

  • Pick your partners carefully. Do you want to work with someone who is close to your topic or removed from it? Someone in your field or outside of it? Someone at the same stage as you in his or her career or someone farther along?  In general, I have preferred to work with colleagues who are in my discipline, but who are not in my current PhD program.  Now that I am at the dissertation stage, I feel it is important to work with a partner who is also writing her dissertation, so that the stakes of our work are similar.  Make sure that you trust the person you are working with, and that he or she is a good balance of critical and kind.  You don’t want someone who is going to tear your drafts apart and completely drain your motivation, but you don’t want someone who will uncritically praise your work either.
  • Know your partner’s strengths and draw on them. I have a list of friends whose feedback I solicit depending of the piece of writing and the kind of help I want and need on my draft. My former English teacher mother is an eagle-eyed grammar editor.  A friend who is a journalist as well as an academic never fails to make my prose pithier. Another, who works at a university writing center, pushes me to think about structure and organization.  A poet friend helps me to uncover more interesting connections and make more meaningful arguments in my work.  A grant-writer friend is amazing at editing drafts of cover letters.
  • Set parameters for your feedback.  Are you going to use Track Changes to line edit each other’s drafts or simply make comments on them?  Will you send each other your thoughts in writing, meet in person, or Skype to discuss them?  I find it useful to send a few questions to my partner along with my draft to guide her reading.  If I want nitty-gritty grammar feedback (for instance, on a later draft of a paper), I say that. If I want big picture comments about the strengths of my arguments or structure of my paper (as I did with this very drafty first draft of my dissertation chapter), ignoring smaller errors, I say that too.  I let her know the sections with which I am struggling, especially in a longer piece, so she can focus her attention there. I often ask her to tell me in her own words what she sees as the argument in each paragraph of my paper, which helps me to judge what changes I need to make for the next draft.  I always ask my partner what kind of feedback she wants on her draft, so that my comments are as useful as possible for her.
  • Set reasonable, frequent deadlines and stick to them. A big part of a successful writing partnership is accountability. Make deadlines for sharing your drafts and giving feedback. Take the deadlines you set seriously.  And be sure that you allow yourself enough time to thoroughly read and comment on your partner’s work.

Birth

I’ve never given birth before.  Why birth? In the past I’ve heard writing a dissertation is a lot like giving birth, but since I haven’t birthed any babies, I figured, well that was a wasted analogy on me, then again maybe not.  I’m under an extremely tight deadline to finish, with a first draft meeting in 5 weeks.  When I got the email about the posting schedule for Cacophony and saw that my name was listed under January 10th.  I muttered aloud to my iPhone: “Damn you David Parsons, Damn You! The day before my birthday, really?”  This exclamation of frustration must be said in an Elizabethan tone, I’m Jamaican and a lover of Masterpiece Theater, so really embody the vexation as I’m damning David Parsons (the post doc fellow in charge of Cacophony) and because most Jamaicans love drama.

Let’s return to the foreign birthing process that seems to mimic my dissertation writing process.  After I got the drama out of my system, I quickly shifted to my analytical brain, and thought “well, just because the post is due on the 10th doesn’t mean you have to submit it then. You have a dissertation to write, so just submit it early”.   I realized that with writing small or big projects, one has to complete them in ways that is conducive to one’s own process.  Before attending The Graduate Center’s Wellness Center’s Dissertation Completion Now workshops, I would just be stuck in the drama.  Now I’ve learned that I can experience the emotions of the drama, because I need to express my frustration, but I also need to call on the resources that will help me write, hence—the analysis.  As an anthropologist from CUNY I’ve been trained to examine the value in things, it’s the political economic vein of our department, so analysis is key.

I’ve been around 3 women shortly after they gave birth.  The first was my oldest sister, who almost died giving birth to my nephew, the horrible first draft college essay writer, who just got accepted into his 1st choice college.  Follow the firsts, there’s a pattern.  His birth was via C-section and I was at the hospital when he was born and I remember visiting my sister a week later, and she literally dropped 60lbs.  You wouldn’t have known she was pregnant.  She lost so much water weight she literally lost a 4th grader.  My best friend said that because she had walked so much during her pregnancy, that after several pushes, her first daughter plopped out.  My older sister had an epidural with her first daughter, and had a natural birth with her second, recalled telling the nurse, that it couldn’t be too late for an epidural because she had a VERY low tolerance for pain.  Painful as it was she had a 1st and last natural birth.  My 3rd godchild’s mother describes her labor as “a reenactment of the exorcist” picture projectile vomit with limited head spinning.  Another good friend of mine who gave birth recently said, “it was really transformative” it changes you.  She had her partner, 2 doulas, and a birthing assistant.

While this dissertation has put me through changes, I’ve been fortunate to not have an exorcist moment although there are many days that writing feels soul wrenching.  So I guess, like birth this dissertation is transformative.  After complaining about how hard it is to write my dissertation, My best friend told me that although she’s never written a dissertation, that it MUST be like birth.  She said “there’s a time when you’re pushing and pushing and feel like you cannot push anymore or else you’re gonna die, and the nurse says ‘just 1 more’ and you feel like you’ve got nothing left, but somehow you do, you pull that strength from somewhere, and next thing you know the baby’s here.”  Well, I feel like I’m pushing and pushing and pushing and I’m calling on every ounce of strength within me to finish writing this dissertation.  Even though, I have a flair for drama, yes I really do feel like I’m gonna die, because this is taking some warrior-goddess-slave insurrection-Herculean strength to push this thing out.  Some days like today I haven’t written much, but on other days I’m writing a lot.  My advisor told me that I “have to live eat, drink, sleep the diss until it’s done.”   I do that now, waking up with my own labor pains, frantically reaching for my iPhone to write in my notes section, sometimes for an hour or more.  At 3 am when you’re flowing it’s kind of exciting writing and hoping that this burst of creativity or analysis is going to produce a healthy, pretty baby (dissertation).

While parenting can be great at times, the reality is that being a parent is a huge sacrifice and it’s hard.  I’ve decided to start sacrificing from now so my baby can be healthy, declining holiday parties, and even my own tradition of a New Year’s Day brunch-come-dinner for 30 that I usually host and do most of the cooking for.  I realized that I can’t be present at every holiday event and be with my baby.  I told my family: “don’t ask me to bake anything, because we won’t be celebrating over cake next spring, if I don’t get this dissertation out.”  Earlier today I had a huge panic attack because I did an honest assessment and realized I will miss a deadline for submitting two chapters.   As my panic attack continued I remembered that I had to write this post, then I had a revelation.  I recognized that non-dissertation writing actually relaxes me to write my dissertation, more than any episode of Downton Abbey, or Poirot.  For me, that’s saying a lot.  I will not attempt to look at last season’s True Blood, Luther, Game of Thrones or Sherlock until it is DONE.  Scandal will be my only guilty pleasure.  Tonight, as I sat and watched HGTV and The Sing Off I was thinking about my dissertation the entire time, and which interviews I needed to include next.  There’s a book titled Eat, Pray, Love, my autobiography right now is “Eat, Drink, Sleep, Diss.”

A dear friend and colleague currently doing fieldwork in South Africa sent me a wonderful detailed outline to help me finish.  I appreciated the structure to help me think about my process of writing, even though it is not how I generally write.  His was neat and orderly, with page numbers and page limits for each section.  I’m more of a butcher paper on the wall kinda gal.  I need some disorganization and mild chaos to function, like amidst the excitement of the baby crowning, a labor and delivery nurse hunting for another blanket because the mother may have chills after birth.

Oh, I forgot about the damn placenta and afterbirth.  I think as long as they get all of it out, I’ll refer to those as the minor revisions, if any after the defense.  The hard part will have already been done.  I look forward to dropping that 4th grader that I’ve been carrying around these past 8 years. My late mother always said that “labor and delivery was a forgetful experience, because any woman who remembered her labor would never go back again, yet they do.”   I will most likely go through this again when I publish, begin new research, and hopefully I will appreciate those labor pains I’m experiencing now because I will have passed through it before.  I’m now more relaxed and not quite ready for sleep. I still haven’t birthed my BABY, but this preemie of a blog post will suffice.  I will most likely spend no more than an hour editing it, and unfortunately will not include some cool picture of an ultrasound, it will just be text and your imagination will have to do the rest.  I must focus my energies.  Thank You David Parsons, this post rotation has me in the mood to work tonight towards another birth—my dissertation.

Preferred Gender Pronouns

Two years ago I joined a musical project whose meetings begin with participants sharing their names and preferred gender pronouns (PGPs). PGPs are terms like “she/her,” “he/him,” “they/their,” and “ze/hir”—gender identifiers many people don’t spend much time thinking about. One of the ideas behind having people introduce their PGPs is to create as inclusive and welcoming a space as possible for all members of the group, and especially for transgender and genderqueer folks—those who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth and which much of society expects and sometimes forces them to embrace.   Activist and Seattle University law Professor Dean Spade has argued that the frequent use of pronouns associated with trans people’s birth genders, birth names, and surgical statuses is a manifestation of transphobia. (On the other hand, cisgender people—those who present as and identify with the gender they were assigned at birth—usually have the privilege of being referred to by the gender pronouns with which they identify.) The members of the group I’m involved with try to avoid making assumptions about other people’s gender identities and ensure respect for all by allowing each person to name their preferred, rather than assumed or assigned, pronouns.

If making space for PGP introductions can be a tool for fighting transphobia, how can such practices—and the ideas upon which they are based—be brought to the attention of students and faculty in higher education? What would it look like for students in small classes to share their PGPs at the beginning of the semester? (Well, actually, it might look like this.) Just last week a number of newspapers picked up on an Associated Press report about PGP usage on American college campuses. The version published in The Sacramento Bee (“Redefining gender: ‘Preferred’ pronouns gain traction at US colleges”) opens with a profile of a PGP go-around at meetings for an LGBT group at Mills College. Despite the fact that only women are admitted as undergraduates at Mills, many of the group’s members prefer to be identified by gender-neutral pronouns like third-person singular “they” and “ze.” Besides for the role that PGP awareness can play in complicating gender binaries, as we see in the Mills case, the article makes clear that the issue of pronouns ties in to other fronts on which transphobia and cis-centrism can be fought at universities:

At the University of Vermont, students who elect to change their names and/or pronouns on class rosters now can choose from she, he and ze, as well as the option of being referred to by only their names. Hampshire College in Massachusetts advertises its inclusiveness by listing the gender pronouns of its tour guides on the school’s web site. And intake forms at the University of California, Berkeley’s student health center include spaces for male, female or other.

But here at CUNY, a friend who has taken several courses on gender and sexuality at the Graduate Center (GC) told me that instructors in those seminars have never asked students if they wished to state their PGPs. As far I know a Doctoral Student’s Council (DSC) proposal to provide gender-neutral bathrooms at the GC—an effort intended to reduce discrimination of gender non-conforming and transgender students, faculty, and staff—has been sidelined. (The DSC resolution for this proposal does state that other CUNY colleges have created gender-neutral bathrooms and mentions relevant policies at other universities.)

Of course, the issue of pronoun usage is also central to student writing. This is a can of worms worthy of a separate entry, so I’ll just say here that it seems like writing support programs and faculty should be thinking about it systematically. As described in the above-mentioned AP article and is evident from other online forums, many professors are grappling with how to deal with the growing presence of gender-neutral pronoun “neologisms” in student papers, but they seem to be dealing with them in mostly ad-hoc ways. Furthermore, comments responding to web postings about this issue (as well as articles about PGP usage in journalistic writing) betray a fair amount of cis privilege. Clearly, deeper discussions about “trans-anxieties”—the kind of discussions driven by queer and critical pedagogies that have been advocated for over a decade—are still needed throughout the academy.

Some Resources (most already linked to above)

Team-Based Learning… and Teaching Communication Skills: Incompatible?

Last spring, while serving in my last semester as a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Brooklyn College, I attended a workshop introducing faculty to Team-Based Learning (TBL), a pedagogical approach that has been gaining steam in the academy over the last couple of decades. I had just completed my first few years of university teaching, during which I had tried—drawing on piecemeal sources and largely following my own intuition—to find alternatives to the “sage on stage” teaching model with which I was most familiar. Although I thought that I had had some successes in restructuring many components of my courses to promote a more participatory environment, I still felt frustrated by the concentration of participation among a relatively small number of students, and by the haphazard-seeming quality of some of my group activities (not to mention the outright hostility with which some students reacted to group projects).

Kasia’s recent post discussed the concept of “flipped” classrooms, in which students get their initial dosage of “content” outside of class and then spend in-class time doing the higher-order cognitive work of applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and discussing the material. The same basic philosophy underpins TBL, although the touted benefits of highly structured teamwork are obviously a key aspect of the latter. According to the TBL literature, the worst teams typically outperform the top students in TBL classes.

There are four key design principles to TBL:

  1. Strategically formed, permanent teams: Instructors form teams of five to seven students and distribute the class’s strengths and weaknesses evenly among them. This can be achieved by administering a survey early in the course that asks about work experience, previous course work, number of credits being taken concurrently, intercultural experience, etc. Groups work together for the remainder of the course.
  2. Readiness Assurance Process: As with the “flipped” approach, students are expected to acquire the foundational knowledge for each class unit before it starts, usually through readings. Students’ preparation to engage closely with the content in subsequent activities is tested at the beginning of each unit. First, students do a short multiple-choice test individually; they then do the same test in teams with the Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique—a type of “scratch-and-win” card where students keep trying until they uncover the correct answer. Teams are then encouraged to appeal some of their wrong answers with evidence from the readings. The process concludes with a mini-lecture by the instructor to review particularly difficult concepts.
  3. Application Activities: Activities in which the course content is applied are supposed to take up the majority of class time in TBL courses. Application activities are guided by the “4 S’s” principle: they should heighten student interest by focussing on a significant problem; promote inter-team discussion by assigning all teams to the same problem; ensure comparability between team answers by requiring a specific choice; and require simultaneous reporting of answers by all teams—this can be done with voting cards, or now with numerous technological aids—as a way for both the instructor and students to gauge contrasts in student thinking and use them as starting points for discussion.
  4. Peer Evaluation: One of the most significant drawbacks to group work is that one or two better-qualified students often end up carrying the group while others get a “free ride.” While the collaborative structure of TBL application activities is supposed to eliminate the possibility for individuals to do all of the work, integrating peer evaluation into the grading scheme will also help motivate students to contribute to their team.

My main concern with TBL at this point is about how to include an emphasis on developing communication and writing skills in the course structure. The FAQ on the Team-Based Learning Collaborative site is unequivocal in its stance on group writing and presentation projects:

In many ways using “good” in relation to “writing assignments for groups” is an oxymoron.

It goes on to say that while group presentations might be somewhat beneficial to the groups doing the presenting, they don’t foster dynamic learning for the whole class the way “4-S” activities do, and are therefore, it is implied, out of step with the overall approach. I agree with TBL advocates that much of the group work we assign students is little more than individual assignments requiring minimal student coordination. But surely there is educational value in having students build “lengthy products,” something TBL philosophy proscribes. Of course, it’s not like entire departments are switching over to TBL en masse, so plenty of opportunities remain for implementing writing and communication strategies in other courses. But are substantial written assignments and oral presentations really incompatible with teamwork, as TBL guidelines would have us believe? Is the only way to include these important educational aspects in a TBL course to disrupt the conventional course design—and potentially compromise its pedagogical benefits—to make room for them? Learning about TBL made me look forward to getting back into the classroom to try it out, but working in a communication institute makes me wonder if TBL needs to be adjusted to meet broader academic goals.