Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Persuasive Writing

One of my colleagues, in a workshop for new graduate student teachers, suggested an in class exercise that I'd never heard of. Get your students to draw a picture of their ideal reader, he said, then get them to draw a speech bubble on that reader: ask them what the reader is saying to them about their writing.

Students have so much trouble imagining a real writer, particularly in an academic context where producing an essay often feels like a performance in showing the teacher you read the right number of books and journal articles, and hit the right word count, and used X number of transition words, and underlined your thesis statement. This exercise concretizes the idea of a real reader, and asks students, as well, to think about what they want that reader to come away with after.

I tried it with my first years. They're writing a short research paper, a persuasive essay where they have to craft an argument for a particular interpretation of one aspect of our contemporary digital lives--I've got papers for and against online dating, social media, video game aesthetics, normative sexism and racism online, and more. So far they've written a proposal that briefly described their topic and articulated a provisional thesis they were interested in arguing. Then they produced annotated bibliographies of primary and secondary sources. Then they wrote a draft of the introductory paragraph of the paper. This week they'll do a draft editing workshop on a first draft of the full paper. Next week they hand it in.

At the very first, though, when I handed out the Research Paper assignment, I had them do this exercise with the reader and the speech bubble.

The results astonished me. In among the hilariously poorly-drawn stick figure renditions of readers (most of them imagined me as the reader; only one imagined PacMan) and the comic descriptions of writing awards bestowed, most students imagined two kinds of feedback. First, a strong majority asked for substantive feedback on both mechanics and structure. Second, and this was surprising, nearly half of them imagined me saying something along the lines of this:

"I never thought of that before, but you've convinced me!"

My students were actually focused on persuading me. On generating new, surprising knowledge. Somehow they've actually got the idea that their writing matters, generally, and that it matters to me, particularly, and that they can use their words to meaningfully interact with culture, ideas, and interpretation.

I'm floored.

Right now I'm just so grateful to get this little sign that somehow, somewhere, this group of students has had some kind of little spark lit. I'm grateful my colleague taught me this exercise. Yesterday I graded 35 quizzes and 36 intro paragraphs and got to work on 20 SSHRC Departmental Appraisal Letters and assorted other ranking tasks. This was just the reminder I need that there is a purpose beyond just a rank or a grade or a credential. That my teaching, sometimes, matters and makes a difference. That my students can surprise me, that they're trying and they care.

Have you had any nice surprises lately? Something to help us get through these last few weeks of term?

Honestly, my students this term are the BEST

Monday, November 17, 2014

What is it going to take?

A few weeks ago I had one of those rare experiences: I went to a conference in my area of study where I knew loads of people and each time there was a concurrent panel scheduled I was torn between the two panels. The conference was Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, and it was part of Brock University’s annual Two Days of Canada conference series now run by the inimitable Gregory Betts. There were panels reigmaining the avant-garde in Canada, reframing what and how we might envision the work of the avant-garde, and the ways in which the often-narrow category of the avant-garde can be productively re-read through history. There were creative performances, invigorating roundtables—the most epic of which boasted six speakers on the topics of dub poetry and Indigenous avant-gardes and lasted nearly three hours—and Lee Maracle (Lee Maracle!!) gave a stunning hour-long plenary talk entitled “Two Days of Canada, 53, 785 days of colonialism” using no speaking notes. The conference was followed by a day-long symposium on the generous and innovative writer bpNichol (you know, concrete poet, sound poet, and a key person behind the childhood-shaping show Fraggle Rock). The atmosphere was warm, the presentations were thoughtful and thought-provoking, and there was dancing. Readers, even the food was good.

My experience of this conference was really positive. I had excellent conversations and learned much. My thinking was challenged. So the title of this post, and indeed the thinking that follows, is an attempt to provoke generative discussion that honours the work that was possible because of this conference. My intent—indeed, my aim—is not to nag, but to think through what is and is not possible in the current conference model, no matter how innovative and generative it may be.

I gave two presentations at this conference, and the second was on a roundtable entitled “The Feminist Future Garde of Canada.” This panel, organized by my friend and colleague Tanis MacDonald, came about last year in the midst of the David Gilmour debacle. Remember him? And then, though we couldn’t necessarily have predicted it, our panel presented in the weeks following the public revelation of Jian Ghomeshi’s long history of abusive behavior and the less publicized but equally important revelation of abuses of mentorship relationships in CanLit circles. As my friend and CWILA critic-in-residence Shannon Webb-Campbell kept saying, everywhere a trigger.

Five women spoke—Tanis, a.rawlings, Carmen Derkesn, Shannon Maguire, and myself. The room was full of people, and the room was also full of what Sara Ahmed might call sweaty concepts. For Ahmed, a “sweaty concept” implies that “conceptual work is understood as different from describing a situation.” She explains:

I am thinking here of a situation as a situation that comes to demand a response, a situation is often announced as what we have (“we have a situation here”) as well as what we are in. Concepts in my view tend to be reified as what scholars somehow come up with (the concept as rather like an apple that hits you on the head, sparking revelation from a position of exteriority) as something we use to explain by bringing it in. For me, concepts are ways of understanding worlds that are in the worlds we are in. (Feminist Killjoy)

In other words, sweaty concepts make us physically feel the thinking we are doing, and the colliding experiences that people are living.

On this panel there were frank first-person narratives of experiences of violence, of gender-based harassment and abuse, and of the quotidian aggressions that happen in a colonial, patriarchal, and yes, capitalist society that are easily dismissible by some as non-sense, and lived by others—those outside the circle of the same—as constant abrasion. I couldn’t look away as my co-panelists spoke. I had goose bumps. I started to sweat. My heart raced. I blushed. And during the discussion it was clear that to one degree or another most people in the room were also having visceral listening experiences.

So what, then, is my problem? It is this: outside of that room of sweaty thinking there was no collective sustained discussion of gender-based violence. Certainly, some of it happened in the breaks, in the hallways, and over meals, and certainly that matters. Certainly, this lack of sustained discussion is in part due to the nature of all conferences—even the very good ones, as this one most definitely was. There is a schedule, people have prepared. The panel ends and things move forward. That is how it is, and I understand. But the lack of sustained discussion—especially amongst a group of people who, to one degree or another—are in the same small circles of people working, caring, and thinking about the past, present, and future of Canadian literary culture worries me. What will it take to keep these discussions in the foreground?

Social media is exhausting, and I will admit I am relieved for a reprieve from the constant flood of Ghomeshi-news the various platforms I use. And yet.

And yet, there is constant evidence of gender-based violence. And there is constant evidence of the ways in which it is ignored, erased, or swept under the rug. Take for example, Rehtaeh Parsons, whose name I can say because I am not a journalist. Take, for example, her father’s redacted victim statement. Or, for another example (which Lee Maracle dealt with in a holistic manner in her talk on the legacies of colonial violence) take the fact that while Tanya Tagaq performed alongside a scroll of names of more than 1,200 missing and murdered Aboriginal women she was taken to task for wearing seal fur.

Rape culture, gender-based violence, racially-based violence, and discrimination happen. Constantly. Are the events I flag here “equal”? No. They are events on a spectrum. My question is this: what is it going to take to talk about these issues in a sustained way, long after the two-week shelf life of being viral on the Internet? What?

If you’re in the Halifax area on November 25th please consider joining us at Safe Harbour which is a community gathering to talk about these issues. It is free and open to the public.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Staying Afloat: In Praise of Micro-Breaks

The relative quiet on Hook and Eye is a good measure for where we are in the term, no? Drowning in marking? Lecture prep never-ending? Class discussion reminds you of Sisyphus? Hey, we're all in the same boat more or less, I assume. This week was not especially kind to me--but what week 10 in the term can ever be? First, my cat was sick over the weekend. I don't mean to make comparisons, but, at least, when the kids are sick, they can tell you what hurts. Cats just go and hide, and stop eating, and you know something's awry. Plus, when I was going to get him, trying to coax him out, and tempt him with what I know to be irresistible cuisine to him, he would just give me these wide-pupiled stares that just made me more desperate. I almost took him to the vet emergency on Sunday night, but settled instead to giving him water with a syringe to make sure he didn't dehydrate. Then, during the night, he came in my bed, and I knew he was doing better. And that was before the week even started.

However, as crises are wont to do, this one, after passing, served as a good reminder that work is just work, even in huge quantities, and dwelling on that quantity, and its propensity to generate yet more work rather than to diminish, does nothing but increase anxiety, and take away any possibility to relax, and enjoy at least some breathing space. A turning point in my perspective, that one.

It was the switch that turned my fatigued brain around. Yes, it's a lot of work (between the marking, and the marking, and did I already mention the marking?), but whining about it will make it neither more pleasant, nor more likely to dissipate spontaneously. Instead, I can take better care of said overworked brain by consciously directing my attention elsewhere. I take micro-breaks in-between grading one paper and the next, and procrastinate consciously, creatively, and, most importantly, guiltlessly. For example, I engage in:

- Day-dreaming: Instead of going reflexively to Twitter, email, etc., in-between one paper to be graded and another, I can lift my eyes up from the computer (I grade electronically), and think about all the wonderful things that will await me when I am more time-rich (in 4 weeks, but who's counting?). Books, Gilmore Girls streaming on Netflix, 3 remaining episodes of Outlander.

- Planning for next term: I'll be honest with you: I don't hate grading (ssshhh, don't tell anyone!). I enjoy engaging with students' ideas, and I love the spark they give to my own creative process. One word, turn of phrase, or idea can sometimes provide that click that my own ideas need to settle into place.

- Thinking about what activities will fill my weekend. I never--well, almost never--work on the weekend, what with two kids needing and vocally demanding entertainment, and I find this habit to provide the best balance to keeping my brain afloat. What's going on in the city that is cheap and kid-friendly? What restaurant or cuisine will we try? What's the weather going to be like?

I know, I know: any of these activities can lead into longer breaks, and procrastination can flourish. So what? What is the worst thing that will happen if you take a break (or a nap, I won't tell anyone!), even a longer one. It means your brain needs it. It means you might just be healthier in the longer term. It might mean you will be able to do more, and more efficiently, when you come back. So, go on, take that (micro-)break!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Curiosity, doggedness, open-mindedness: a new pedagogy

I sat in my office the entire day on Tuesday, for my undergrads to drop in whenever and pick up their graded assignments.

10 of the 40 came. And you know who came? The student who got 100%. And the three who got 95%, several more in the 80s, and the couple of 70s student who are trying really hard and slowly bringing their marks up. Most of them had a draft of the next assignment with them, and asked if they could show it to me. YES.

It is ever thus, in more or less every scenario.

Those who make a little extra effort, who are a little extra keen, who make an extra appointment, who send me links related to the readings, who follow me on Twitter, or show up at department events, they do better. This is true among non-students as well. I see it in every context I circulate in: research, service, yoga, running, team sports, kids activities.

I know that "Do What You Love" has its problems, and I agree with all the critiques of that line of thinking. But "Be Interested In What You're Doing" is something of a different proposition, I think.

Curiosity, doggedness (or, "grit," I guess is what the kids are calling it these days), and open-mindedness are qualities that seem, almost invariably, to bring success. Success needn't be absolute; maybe it's relative in a lot of cases, but the process always brings better results than not, and is more rewarding, to boot. Let's move away from my students for the moment and consider an example from my own life.

As an athlete, I'm an excellent literature professor. My gifts of strength, endurance, balance,  and grace, are not naturally numerous. I can't run fast, or throw far, or jump high. And yet I wound up as captain of my high school volleyball team in my senior year. I once won MVP of my team in a softball tournament. I've been hired by my studio to teach yoga. I ran 5k yesterday, slowly, but I've managed to do it at least once every week this term. I'm not actually very good at any of these activities, but what brings me whatever measure of success I've managed to cobble together has been curiosity, doggedness, and open-mindedness: I really want to be better and I'd like to know how I could do that; I keep trying and trying and trying and trying; I am open to constructive feedback on my performance and try to change my tactics accordingly.

Reading and writing about literature has always been, if I'm being frank, super easy for me. If I was going to teach my students the way that I best learn that material, I would dump a bunch of books on the table, and say "Go." But the majority of my students do not learn like me. Their reasons for being in my class are various, their level of intrinsic interest and aptitude as variable as you can imagine. I want them to succeed, so I find that more and more, I'm teaching curiosity, doggedness, and open-mindedness as much as I am the explicit content of the course.

I find I'm making deliberate efforts at "selling it" all the time: I'm trying to hook them, to pique their curiosity, to light whatever spark of genuine interest can for them, help them nurture that little flame so that it might be self-sustaining. I'm also crafting assignments that required sustained effort over time--like this research paper that has five stages and five milestones over five weeks. And I employ what I call my "pedagogy of provocation," where I deliberately try to push them to consider and explain and try out ideas or concepts they find difficult--in this vein, I also give substantive content-related feedback on all their assignments, which they often get to rethink and rewrite.

It's a lot easier to teach the content. I can deliver that easily enough. The emotional work involved in actually teaching each class like a sales pitch for the work is substantial and the results uncertain. And it means I become invested in the outcome, which is problematic for a number of reasons. But when I see the spark light up in someone's eyes, or that student who asked what needed to be different to get a 90 instead of an 80 have something click, or that other student who argued from anecdote and gut suddenly get discomfited when a contrary perspective begins to have an impact? Worth it. I hope they feel the way I do when I managed a run in the rain, or when I balance in a crow pose after falling over for two years. Like the act itself has become a reward, like something meaningful just happened.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Art in the time of precarity

Last week, Camilla Gibb, celebrated Canadian writer, who authored Sweetness in the Belly, The Beauty of Humanity Movement, and The Petty Details of So-and-So's Life, among other, wrote an op-ed about the lack of financial support for writers. In "The More You Writer, the Less You Make," Gibb exposes the penury writers live in, even if they attain the elusive measure of success. Writers' average incomes, Gibb points out citing the Writers' Union, is $12,000 a year. Still, she says, when you're fairly young and "do what you love," it is still a privilege. She continues:

You don’t squander that privilege. You work your ass off. And hopefully you’re rewarded for that effort. It worked for me, as it did for many writers of my generation, perhaps the last for whom it was possible to live off their writing. In Britain, writers’ incomes have fallen by 30 per cent in the past eight years, collapsing to what one Guardian headline called “abject” levels. 

I shuddered at the familiarity of this proposition. How many current PhD students still say the same things to themselves, that in spite of the abysmal academic job market, it is totally worth working your derrière off through grad school while subsisting on ramen and insecurity, because your ideas are important, and they deserve to be followed through? That gratification--or living above the poverty line and eating nourishing food--will be delayed only momentarily. That surely, the magnificence of those ideas will carry one through to the deserved and coveted position?

Trust me, I do not mean to be sarcastic in saying the above. Gibb's op-ed made me question, yet again, if we have the tools to tackle this systemic assault on arts and humanities. Training PhD students for alternative career paths, Alt-Ac and Post-Ac, would benefit everyone: the PhD graduates as well as their employers and society at large. However, are we putting a band-aid on this systemic issue that has come to devalue--literally--artistic work, while coveting creativity and innovation at every other step?

As Gibb mentions, instituting big prizes is awesome, but hardly a solution to fostering a vibrant literary culture that would actually enable most of its key participants--the writers--to subsist. See a pattern here? I could go on, but I fear a rant rearing its ugly head, and there's no reason for any friend of H&E's to be subjected to such. So, can I ask you, instead, what it is we can do collectively to advocate on behalf of the value of the arts, the humanities, and to get the word across that artists cannot live on the beauty they create alone? How can we create a sustainable system that does not entail the patronage of a nefariously-motivated or politically-driven Maecenas?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Holding your sense of humour

I just got my braces all readjusted yesterday. I had been on tray 28 of 32, but everything had to be recalibrated, and after an hour of my orthodontist yanking on my face and doing what felt like hammering, I restarted on my new tray 1 of ... 34. That was bad news. And it hurts like hell.

My daughter's teacher sent home a note indicating that Munchkin is "significantly behind in what concerns the homework assignments." Oh great. That's on me, because the homework needs to be explained and supervised and I'm the French speaker at home.

My husband fell down the porch stairs in the rain, while putting up Halloween decorations.

My class got shifted to another room for a special event, and when I put the poster on the door, I listed the wrong room number.

The indignities and injuries are piling up at the same time as the grading and the writing deadlines and SSHRC adjudication season for me. I'm grumpy. But this:

I went to yoga last night, and as we moved into a tricky and extended balance sequence, my teacher instructed us to hold our hands in this tented-fingers position. It was, she told us, so that we could hold our sense of humour, keep it close.

So there we were, on one leg, tipping forward and kicking back and rolling up into some awkward and unstable sort of floating half moon pose, trying to keep this soft tent of fingers together, gently cradling our sense of humour, delicately, in the midst of difficulty and effort and sometimes falling over.

It's hard to keep your hands like this when you are getting a foot cramp on your standing leg and your thigh is burning and your balance is super off and you're about to fall over. The tendency is to let the arms flail out for balance, or, conversely, to jam the hands together, in a hard clench. It takes real skill to go through the hard stuff and keep your fingertips softly touching, but if you can do it, your jaw unclenches. You relax a little. You remember to laugh when you fall.

At the point in the term, then end of Week 9 for me, with 40 new papers to grade every week, and a final to plan, and two more online quizzes to create, and managing the graduate program and adjudicating the SSHRC apps, and trying to not get any more notes home from grade three, well, it's hard to not clench. It's hard to hold onto my sense of humour, gently.

I'm trying colourful pens, mint tea, shared videos of adorable animals on Facebook, early bedtimes, and some self-compassion.

How are you managing to 'keep your fingers tented' at this tricky balance point in the term?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Grading Strategies (...I need 'em)

(read Erin's post from yesterday first, if you haven't already!)

It's that time of year, to invoke the old academic cliche (when is it not that time of year?). I have a stack of grading that I've barely touched: 31 4-page papers, plus 30 journals that span roughly the last month of weekly journal entries. Plus I have to teach those courses, sometimes be observed by my superiors teaching those courses (twice in the last week, including this morning, which is why this blog is late, apologies), and I'm supposed to have written two chapters of my dissertation by the end of this semester.

Oh, and the venerable holiday of Halloween happened.

 My partner and I, as "American Goths"

So yeah, that was important to make time for too (...I'm serious!). To some of you, this schedule--basically juggling two things, teaching and dissertation--may seem pretty tame. Some of you have hundreds of students, hundreds of papers to grade, you're writing three books, some of you teach at multiple institutions, some of you have families and kids and administrative responsibilities and...overall, I know I should be thankful that my schedule is relatively simplified, but to be perfectly honest,  I've never taught more than one course at a time before and so am finding managing two plus general dissertation workload quite difficult. You have my permission to scoff.

So, I think it's time to consolidate some grading tips! We haven't talked about that too much on this thing, it seems; Aime discussed clumping her papers in a 2011 post, generating a useful discussion in the comments with such strategies as recording rather than writing your comments, and giving detailed feedback only on the first page. I clump, but I can't see myself recording, and I am constantly plagued with guilt when I don't comment on every page or paragraph so I'm not really sure about that last one either. Here are some other strategies I've thought about, discussed, learned, attempted to put into practice (key word: attempted):

1. First things first, establish reasonable expectations. I have heard of first-year Composition & Rhetoric courses requiring something like 4-page papers every week. I think we can all agree that that's too much for all parties involved, engendering writing produced under exhaustion and duress, and stressed-out and overworked professors. Immersive, high-pressure learning environments work, arguably, for language acquisition, but not for writing, when the goals are more geared around precision, nuance, attention to detail, personal expression. So, teachers, if it is within your power, don't construct an unreasonable syllabus! Remember that the demands of the academy and the pervasive DWYL dictum within academia ask too much of us to justify spending every waking moment grading; we simply aren't paid enough, aren't compensated for our labor enough, to sacrifice personal or research time for written feedback to students, who generally care more about the letter grade anyway.

2. Structure peer review into the writing process. Jana talked about this a little bit last year. At the very least, forcing them to write and print out a rough draft gets them thinking about and wrestling with their projects early on, and instills in them a sense of writing as a process, not an isolated event.  I've found, however, that my in-class peer reviews yield mixed results, as my students are often too nice to one another to provide useful critical feedback, or they get caught up in (important, but still) local problems such as formatting the Works Cited page rather than global issues. I always distribute a handout, but have adopted different formats;  on the one hand I don't want to set them loose on each others' papers with no guidance, but on the other I want to leave room for personal engagement and independent critical thinking. For my last essay, I had them read each other's drafts over the weekend and write neutral summaries of them; then, in class, I gave them a handout with guiding questions for their conversations. The authors were supposed to chronicle on this handout the feedback they received, but I think they got too caught up in conversations to be able to complete that fully. I want to keep experimenting with formats that keep them responsible to each other as well as sparking independent thinking.
The point is: peer review and sequenced assignments should help produce better quality work in the end, allowing for an easier grading process.

3. Make sure the assignments are carefully scaffolded so that they can be as prepared as possible to write. Relating to #2, but there are lots of things you can do besides peer review: devote time in class to having them pair up and talk through thesis statements/outlines, brainstorm research possibilities together, have them write out intro paragraphs in class and then ask for volunteers to read and discuss them. (N.b: if you're teaching Comp, you can turn this into a fun exercise in tone--pass out slips of paper that provide individual instructions for rewriting their introductions from different perspectives, eg. "Write an intro paragraph to your paper as though you are a strongly right-wing critic," "Write an intro paragraph to your paper as though you are writing the introduction to a children's book," "Write an intro paragraph to your paper as though you are writing the beginning of a manifesto," etc. Learning to approach the material from different perspectives will help them nuance and master their material, and it's always a fun exercise to have them read out their paragraphs to one another, having them guess what persona they've adopted.)

4. Maintain a routine. Set the timer, keep to it. I aim for 20 minutes per 4-page paper. Sometimes I (still) take longer than this, but having the timer go off as I'm still reading through the last page will give me added urgency to speed things up and get to the end comment as quickly as possible. I also always grade with the same blue pen, play music that peps me up, keeps me cheerful, or calms me down as necessary, and (of course) take short breaks to minimize my own crankiness.

5. Experiment with oral forms of presentation/grading. Someone in a recent Facebook discussion noted that she actually grades in concentrated one-on-one settings, which seems to me to be a little too high pressure (for both me and the student; I know I often have a hard time concentrating with someone [who has a vested interest in what I'm doing] just sitting and watching me!). But perhaps you could transform a written assignment into an oral presentation to the class. Explain to your students that this is an opportunity for them to hone their oral delivery skills, cater their arguments to a broader audience, and experiment with different kinds of electronic media, such as Prezi.

6. Skim through all the papers and stack them according to what you initially perceive as A, B, and C-worthy papers. I actually don't do this much anymore, because when I did I often couldn't help but engage with the work the first-time around, and then it ended up taking approximately twice as much time if I had to go through them all twice.

7. Quality over quantity; fewer assignments, higher stakes. I recently decided it was unreasonable of me to give written feedback on every single weekly journal entry (and my students probably weren't reading/absorbing everything either), so I adjusted my policies so that students choose one out of four or so entries to submit as a hard copy for written feedback; the others, I just skim through online, keep a log of what I anticipate their grade to be, and leave short comments, briefly observing what worked in the entry and what didn't.

Those are what I've come up with so far; now I really need to go put these suggestions into practice! Maybe I just need to continue to channel the austere, hardworking spirit of the American Gothic couple. More tips welcome!