What’s the Use of the Academic Paper?: Blogiversary Post #9

I’m still asking myself this question – “Is the academic paper the best way for students to demonstrate their learning?” – three years after publishing the original version of this post.  In the interim, I’ve listened to the audiobook of Now You See It (discussed below), and I’m still not sure whether I’m onside with Davidson’s perspective.  It seems to me that the academic paper has got to go, but something just as rigorous needs to take its place.  Do you have thoughts on this?

When this post first appeared, it was chosen as a WordPress “Freshly Pressed” feature and received 178 very interesting comments.

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Is the academic paper the best way for students to demonstrate their learning?  Will learning to write papers help students develop the skills they will need later in their lives?

In Now You See It, Cathy N. Davidson asks “whether the form of learning and knowledge-making we are instilling in our children is useful to their future.”  Davidson examines the roots of our contemporary education culture and suggests that we need to look back to pre-Industrial-Revolution models and forward to the murky future.  As Virginia Heffernan explains, in her review of Davidson’s book (“Education Needs a Digital-Age Upgrade“) in the New York Times:

The contemporary American classroom, with its grades and deference to the clock, is an inheritance from the late 19th century. During that period of titanic change, machines suddenly needed to run on time. Individual workers needed to willingly perform discrete operations as opposed to whole jobs. The industrial-era classroom, as a training ground for future factory workers, was retooled to teach tasks, obedience, hierarchy and schedules.  That curriculum represented a dramatic departure from earlier approaches to education. In “Now You See It,” Ms. Davidson cites the elite Socratic system of questions and answers, the agrarian method of problem-solving and the apprenticeship program of imitating a master. It’s possible that any of these educational approaches would be more appropriate to the digital era than the one we have now.

This is old news – education needs to be skills-based, collaborative, constructivist, blabla.  However, Heffernan focuses particularly on Davidson’s discussion of the academic paper.  After reading insightful, well-written student blogs and then being appalled by the quality of the same students’ research papers, Davidson began to wonder whether it was the form, not the students, that was at fault.  After some research, Davidson concludes that, in Heffernan’s words,

Even academically reticent students publish work prolifically, subject it to critique and improve it on the Internet. This goes for everything from political commentary to still photography to satirical videos — all the stuff that parents and teachers habitually read as “distraction.”

I’m not, at first glance, convinced by this argument – we’ve all read the “work” published every day on the Internet, and in many cases its “prolificness” is one of its many problems.  That said, I have students keep blogs in some of my courses, and I love them – you can SEE the learning happening as students wrestle with course topics and literature and relate them to their own experiences.  I don’t do blogs in every course because a) I’m required to have them write a certain number of papers, and it can all get to be a bit too much for me, and b) the majority of my students have not received the time-consuming training in digital communication that Davidson says they need.  However, if more space were made in the curriculum for online forms of writing, and we could limit the number of formal papers and make them an outgrowth of the online work, we might be on our way to something resembling “authentic learning tasks.”

I’ve been saying for a while that the research paper is going the way of the dinosaurs, and that we need to develop viable academic approaches to the blog and other online forms so that students can learn to write things that people actually read.  (The fact that no one reads academic papers isn’t a new phenomenon, of course, but now we have an alternative that gives researchers a real potential audience.)

What is the place of the formal academic paper in the future of education?  Should it continue to look the way it does now, or is it time to ask students to do something new?

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Tomorrow: my all-time #1 most shared post, on succeeding through failing.

Image by kristja

Essay Structure: The Cake Analogy: Blogiversary Post #5

Here’s a nice little post with a link about using a “layer cake” analogy to explain essay writing to students.  I’ve never actually used this analogy, but apparently a bunch of other people have, because the original post got a LOT of shares.  So if your students aren’t getting how to put an essay together, this might be something to try.  You also might want to check the comments on the original, wherein readers share their own favourite tips for teaching essay structure.

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This week, I am working on essay structure with my post-intro students.  After 22 years of teaching essay structure in various forms, I am, as you can imagine, sick of it.  But then I came across this little analogy: how to bake your essay like a cake!  It’s cute.  It’s tasty.  There are things here they might actually remember.

This got me thinking.  A lot of you out there must have analogies that you use over and over in your classroom, because they work.  Or maybe a teacher gave you an analogy years ago that you’ve never forgotten.  Could you please share some of them here?  That way, the rest of us can learn, steal, or just admire your ingenuity and  that of the teachers you’ve known.

Image by Jonathan Fletcher

Blog Hop!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApparently a “blog hop” is a thing.  I’ve been invited to participate in this one by my friend Anita Lahey, whose fascinating blog Henrietta & Me is all about the books she’s reading and the people in them.  Anita is a poet, essayist and journalist; her poetry collection Out to Dry in Cape Breton was an indelible reading experience for me (I will never look at a clothesline the same way again), and her latest book, The Mystery Shopping Cart: Essays on Poetry and Culture, is on my to-read-as-soon-as-my-end-of-term-grading-is-done list.

I’ve chosen to answer these questions wearing my education-writer hat and not my fiction-writer hat, as education writing is what I do on this blog.

What am I working on?

My M.Ed. thesis: an investigation into tools teachers can use to encourage/nurture lifelong reading habits in college students.  As a first step, I’m working on a literature review addressing the question “Is reading for fun really all that important?” (The upshot so far: probably.) I hope to produce a thesis that is of interest to a general audience, or at least to teachers in general, and not just to post-secondary academics and researchers.

How does my work differ from other work in its genre?

In this blog, I reflect on my own teaching practice.  I do this because I believe that almost any experience will be of interest to someone else if it is examined with attention and expressed carefully.  (I guess this is one of the basic principles that drives people to write things.)  The title Classroom as Microcosm is a good indication of what I want the blog to be about: I’m writing about school, but school is a great metaphor for a lot of other stuff.  I hope my attempt to link the little world of school, and in particular MY little college-teaching world, with the greater scheme of things makes this blog unique.

Why do I write what I do?

I started writing Classroom as Microcosm because I was ready to quit my job.  My resentment of my college students and their bad behaviours, my uncertainty in my role as an authority figure, and my disillusionment with the teaching profession and the education system as a whole were making me miserable.  I was also floundering as a fiction writer.  One summer day in 2007, as I poured these troubles out to a friend over coffee, she said, “I think you need to start keeping a blog.  It will be a place to write without the isolation.  Maybe you should start blogging about teaching.”  So I did, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this blog saved my career.

I’m a less productive blogger these days in part because I have come to a much more solid and self-confident place as a teacher.  That said, there are other things I want to explore here now, so this summer, I hope to start posting more about reading, literature and the place of books – especially narratives – in our textually fragmented world.

How does my writing process work?

In my most productive years, I posted twice a week during the school semester: a new post on Monday and a reprise of a popular past post on Thursday.  These days, I post only when I’m powerfully inspired, but I’d like to return to that more diligent schedule.  I try to view writing of any kind as a professional obligation: churn it out, edit it meticulously to make it as good as you can, and then just get it out there without thinking it to death.  Blog writing is an excellent platform for this approach.  I’ve been working on a novel manuscript for thirteen years because I have become mired in self-doubt; this blog is an excellent reminder that the real goal of writing is to communicate with people.  You have to let your writing travel out into the world.  If a particular piece doesn’t speak to anyone, write the next thing.

Next week on the blog hop:

My friend and colleague Stacey DeWolfe, who, in addition to being an inspiring teacher, blogs on teaching, food, music, books, dogs, and lots of other important things.

My high school and college crony Rebecca Coleman, who knows everything there is to know about social media, but also keeps a terrific blog on things she likes to cook.

 Image by Michal Zacharzewski

Prompt #3: The Writing on Learning Exchange: Who Taught You?

mq5ICKyWelcome to the third installment of the Writing on Learning Exchange!

Thanks so much for all of  you who contributed to the last two rounds.  If you’d like to go back to Prompt #1, or to Prompt #2, please do!  If you’d like to just start fresh with this round, that’s great too.

For guidelines on participating in the Exchange, please go here.

This week’s prompt: Who have you learned from?  What did he/she teach you?

Additional thoughts to inspire you:

  • We learn from our parents, and our teachers.  But who else?  Can you think of someone outside your home or your classrooms who influenced you?
  • Of course, if a teacher or caregiver or sibling is the first person who comes to mind, feel free to go with that.  Or to write about many people!
  • Totally optional: if this person is still alive, you might want to consider sending him/her what you write.  HOWEVER: VERY IMPORTANT: do not decide whether to do this until you’ve finished writing (ie. until all danger of writer’s block has passed).

Post your responses below or elsewhere – if elsewhere, please link back to this post, and direct us to your response in the comments here.

Image by Photonut

Prompt #2: The Writing on Learning Exchange: What I Want To Learn Now

mGBNBOqWelcome to the second installment of the Writing on Learning Exchange!

Thanks so much for all of  you who contributed to the last round.  If you’d like to go back to Prompt #1, no worries; there are no deadlines!  If you’d like to just pick up the ball from here, that’s great too.  This is not homework.  It’s for you (and for us, of course, if you let us read what you write.)

For guidelines on participating in the Exchange, please go here.

This week’s prompt: What do you want to learn next?

Additional thoughts to inspire you:

  • Is there something you didn’t value when you were young, and so didn’t actively pursue in school, that you would now like to learn more about or be better at?
  • Is there a skill that you want to have but that you’ve never developed?  Why haven’t you developed it?  Could you develop it now?
  • Do you have a hobby or interest that you’d like to investigate more deeply?  Or a project you want to undertake but don’t feel ready for?
  • Do you envy someone because of something he/she knows or something he/she can do?  Do you think you could turn that envy into action?

…or maybe this topic takes you in a different direction – great!  Post your responses below or elsewhere – if elsewhere, please link back to this post, and direct us to your response in the comments here.

Image by Michaela Kobyakov

Prompt #1: The Writing on Learning Exchange: Learning About School

nkuVRWeWelcome to the Writing on Learning Exchange!  Every week or two I will publish a prompt that is meant to get us thinking and writing about some aspect of our learning and/or teaching experience.  Whether you are a teacher, a learner, a parent or just a citizen who cares about the growth and development of other citizens, I hope you will find some inspiration here.

Some guidelines:

  • Respond to the prompt in whatever way you wish.  It is meant to be a springboard, not a cage.  If the question or topic makes you think about something that seems totally unrelated, follow that thought and see where it takes you.  No wrong answers.
  • You could write a post on your own blog, in which case I hope you will link back to the prompt post, and also leave a link to your response in the prompt post’s comments.  (This is a great way to find some more readers – or maybe it will be the impetus you need to finally start that blog you’ve been sitting on?)
  • You could just leave a comment responding to the prompt.
  • Or you could write about the subject privately, for your own edification – if you do that, I hope you’ll at least leave a comment saying that you wrote about it, and telling us how the writing went.
  • I hope you will have time to read and comment on some of the responses of others. However, if you just want to write a response and move on, or just use the prompt as a basis for your personal internal reflection, that is totally fine.

So here’s the first prompt: What are your first memories of going to school? 

Some details to consider (or ignore, as you see fit):

  • Where and when did you begin school?  How old were you?
  • Do you remember having any preconceptions about school before you began? Were there people around you (older siblings, older friends, adults…) who gave you information about school that shaped your impression of it before  you started?
  • What happened on your first day? What do you remember about the physical surroundings, the teachers, the other students, the activities?
  • If you don’t remember the very first days of school, do you remember any particular school experiences from your very early school years?

Just grab your first thoughts and impressions and go – don’t overthink!  And please share if you feel you can.  I look forward to hearing how this goes for you.

Thanks to Gayla Trail at You Grow Girl, whose creative writing club for gardeners, the Grow Write Guild, inspired the Writing on Learning Exchange.

Image by John Boyer

The Writing on Learning Exchange: A Project to Get us All Writing

It’s clear that I’m in over my head this semester.  I continually wish I had time to come over here to Classroom as Microcosm, ruminate at length about something going on in my classroom, and chat with all of you.  Instead, when I’m not teaching or planning or grading, I want to think about something else entirely.

Mostly, I’ve been in the basement tending my seedlings.

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Tomatoes!

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Onions!

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Poblanos!

When I read these days, I read about gardening.  My favourite gardening books are written by Gayla Trail, who also keeps the excellent gardening blog YouGrowGirl.  Last week, she introduced a new project: the Grow Write Guild, an online creative writing club for gardeners.  The guidelines for the Grow Write Guild are as follows:

Every two weeks I will post a writing prompt…You can choose to follow along and write a response that is made public on your own blog or kept completely private. Should you choose to make it public, come back to this site and share it in the comments by posting a link to the work. Even if you don’t make it public, I’d love it if you came back to share how the prompt worked out for you.

In response to Gayla’s first prompt – “What was your first plant?” - I had a lot of fun writing a meandering personal essay on garden vs. wilderness, violas vs. wild strawberries, and childhood adventuring vs. adult home ownership.  (I published this post on my homemaking blog, if you’d like to read it.)  I’ve also had a lot of fun reading and  commenting on the posts that other writer-gardeners have produced in answer to this prompt.

And then I thought, “Hey, this is a great idea.”

So it occurred to me that this might be a fun thing to do here on CaM; to share writings in response to specific prompts around teaching and learning.  This would be a way to get juices flowing and to reflect more personally on why certain issues are important to us, whether we are teachers, learners, parents or just citizens who care about the growth and development of other citizens.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

  • Every week or two between now and the end of May, I will publish a question or set of questions, about teaching and learning, meant to inspire a personal response.  (“What was your first plant?” is the sort of question I’m thinking of, although the questions will clearly be less planty.)
  • You could write a post on your own blog, in which case I hope you will link back to the prompt post, and also leave a link to your response in the prompt post’s comments.  (This is a great way to find some more readers – or maybe it will be the impetus you need to finally start that blog you’ve been sitting on?)
  • You could just leave a comment responding to the prompt.
  • Or you could write about the subject privately, for your own edification – if you do that, I hope you’ll at least leave a comment saying that you wrote about it, and telling us how the writing went.
  • I hope you will do your best to read and comment on the responses of others – this has been one of the most enjoyable parts of the exercise for me.  However, if you just want to write a response and move on, or just use the prompt as a basis for your personal internal reflection, that is totally fine.

I’ve been racking my brains trying to come up with a clever name for such an undertaking (“Grow Write Guild” is awesome, but I don’t want to be too derivative.)  I’ve been muddling around with words like “fellowship,” “tutelage,” “league” and “microcosm.”  For now, I’m going with “The Writing on Learning Exchange.”  If anyone has any better ideas…

Let me know what you think of this project, either by leaving a comment below or contacting me directly.  If even a few people show an interest, I will post up a prompt later this week.

What’s That When It’s At Home?

DSC_0742Dear Readers:

I will be back in a few weeks with my yearly “Best Books” and “Top Posts” lists, but otherwise, Classroom as Microcosm will be on hiatus from now until the end of January.  I hope you’ll consider, in the interim, subscribing to my personal/homestyle/living blog, What’s That When It’s At Home?

This new blog is in its infancy.  I originally took a stab at it as a Tumblr blog, but Tumblr is not working out so well for me, so I’ve migrated it back here to WordPress.  My plan is to post a few times a week over the winter in order to get things up and running, and to launch it fully next spring.

The blog will treat subjects related to being at home – cooking, cleaning, home improvement, taking care of plants and pets, etc. – as well as reading, television, knitting, exercising and other things I love to do in and around my house.

The driving question of the blog is similar to that of Classroom as Microcosm: what does it mean to be committed?  At what point can one safely say one is ready to commit?  Classroom as Microcosm has explored my commitment to my job; WTWIAH will explore my journey, over the next few years, toward committing or not committing to my house, and to home ownership in general.

You will find a brief resume of the blog’s intention here.

So please come by and subscribe!  And in the meantime, have a great holiday, and stay tuned here for seasonal updates and a return to twice-a-week posting when the new semester begins.

Willing to Read and Write: Reprise

Last week, this post – first published in September of last year – spiked in my blog stats.  It seemed a whole pile of people were reading it, but I couldn’t figure out who or why, although the search term “effort” had a corresponding spike.  Maybe now, at midterm, teachers and students are being hard hit by the reality of the reading and writing demands of college.  Or maybe it’s bots.  Regardless, I like this post, and am still asking myself these questions: is college the best place for students who find reading and writing a chore?  Is it a place where they can learn to love these activities, or at least see their value?

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Yesterday, I told my college students that they need to read the next 150 pages of the novel we are studying, Life of Pi, over the next seven days.  This is not news – they got a reading schedule on the first day of class, and were told to read ahead.  Nevertheless, there was a collective gasp and more than a little laughter.  A few moments later, during a close reading exercise, I asked them to talk about a passage with a group and come up with a point that they might focus on “if you had to write a couple hundred words about this piece.”  Around the room, students looked at each other with horrified amusement.  A couple hundred words?  About this?  What does she think we are, writing machines?  There were quiet snorts and groans, subtly and not-so-subtly rolled eyes.

It’s early in the semester, and I still have reserves of patience that I won’t have in a few weeks’ time.  By October, I may break down and say something like:

“If you’re not sure you can read one hundred fifty pages of clear, simple prose in a week, or if you’re not sure you can write two hundred words about a two-page passage, that’s ok.  It’s not a problem if you don’t know how to do it – you can learn.  However, if you don’t want to learn how to do these things – if you don’t want to practice and get feedback and meet that challenge, and if you resent me for asking you to – then college is not the place for you.”

The previous class, I’d asked students to interview each other about their reading habits, and write a paragraph about their partners’ reading lives.  A predictable number of students said that they don’t like to read, never read for enjoyment, and last read a novel in the ninth grade, because it was required.  (The number was predictable to me, that is – anyone who doesn’t teach college might be astonished by the number of college students who have absolutely no interest in reading.)

I would like at some point to ask similar questions about writing, but they seem redundant – surely people who don’t read also don’t write?  However, “writing” has become a much more complicated phenomenon in the age of digital communication, and many would argue that our students “write” all the time, although a middle-aged fuddy-duddy like me might be reluctant to call much of the texting, messaging and Facebook posting they do “writing,” any more than I’d call a to-do list “writing.”  Maybe what I’m talking about is long-form writing: long emails in the spirit of “letters,” diary entries that go on for pages and pages, poems and stories and even stabs at novels, blog posts.

A few weeks ago, an article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading.”  In it, Alan Jacobs explains that

“‘deep attention’ reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit, a fact that has been obscured in the past half-century, especially in the United States, by the dramatic increase in the percentage of the population attending college, and by the idea (only about 150 years old) that modern literature in vernacular languages should be taught at the university level.”

Jacobs points to the American GI bill, and the influx of soldiers into American universities after WWII.  From then until now,

“far more people than ever before in human history were expected to read, understand, appreciate, and even enjoy books.”

Once, only a tiny minority of people were expected to get a post-secondary education; now almost everybody is.  However, it is still unreasonable to expect everyone to enjoy reading, even though a university education – at least a traditional one – is difficult to pursue if you don’t.

Jacobs divides people into those who love reading, those who like reading, and those who don’t.  Universities, he says, are full of

“…often really smart people for whom the prospect of several hours attending to words on pages (pages of a single text) is not attractive. For lovers of books and reading, and especially for those of us who become teachers, this fact can be painful and frustrating.”

Jacobs says this is genetic – such people are “mostly born and only a little made.”  A furor has arisen around this assertion – here’s one post that takes it on – but I think he may in part be right.  But if readers and writers are at least “a little made,” what can teachers do to help make them?

According to Jacobs, maybe nothing.

“[The] idea that many teachers hold today, that one of the purposes of education is to teach students to love reading—or at least to appreciate and enjoy whole books—is largely alien to the history of education.”

Now, I’m ok with the fact that a lot of people don’t like reading and writing.  I think they’d be better off if they did, but I also think I’d be better off if I liked playing team sports, going to parties full of strangers, and drinking wheatgrass.  And I’ve written before about the wisdom or lack thereof of pushing your children to love writing.  If it’s possible for me to help my students like reading and writing more than they do, I’d love that – and I dedicate a lot of thought and time to this end.  But if not – if many students will never like to read or write no matter what I do – I can accept this reality.

I do, however, want and expect my students to be willing to read and write.  I want and expect them to see college as an opportunity to practice these activities, and to even be open to enjoying them.  I know that teenagers are not usually “open” by any measure.  Much of their energy goes into defining themselves as “this not that” – athlete, not reader; gamer, not writer.  However, I’m irritated at the prospect of another semester of complaints about being expected to read a lot and write a lot in English class.

Are there things we can do to make our students willing, if not eager, to read and write?  We can try to give them “books that interest them,” but in an extremely diverse class of 42 students, coming up with books that will please everyone is not possible.  We can give them choices about what they’ll read and what they’ll write about, but if reading and writing are themselves the problem, even making such choices can be difficult and frustrating.  By the time they get to college, is it too late?  Do I just have to grit my teeth and say, “I know you don’t like it, but you’re in college”?  Or is it time to start asking less of them?

Jacob believes that we should ask, if not less, then at least different.

“Education is and should be primarily about intellectual navigation, about…skimming well, and reading carefully for information in order to upload content. Slow and patient reading, by contrast, properly belongs to our leisure hours.”

If this is true, then there is no place for the study of literature at college, at least not as core curriculum for readers and non-readers alike.  Can we extrapolate from this that there is no need for “deep writing” either?  That asking students to write longer pieces – which is not to say two hundred words, which they would call long, but perhaps one-thousand-word essays – is asking too much of most, that the ability to do such a thing can only “arise from within,” as Jacobs puts it, and cannot be explicitly taught to anyone?

I would argue that the skills of deep reading and deep writing can be taught to anyone.  The caveat is that students must be, not necessarily enamoured of these activities, but simply willing to engage in them.  They must open to the possibility that they may enjoy them more than they expect, but also to the possibility that they may not.  They need to be prepared to keep stabbing away at them even if they find them difficult, boring or even infuriating, in the hope that they will get better, and with the faith that they will learn something.

Is this skill – openness, or gameness, even in the face of obstacles and possible failure – something that can be taught?  Because if we can teach our students (and ourselves, for that matter) how to be willing, how to relish trying, then we will all truly be learners.

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Go to Siobhan’s Facebook page and hit “Like”!  Follow Siobhan on Twitter!  And if you’d like to know more about Siobhan’s life and thoughts outside the classroom, follow her Tumblr blog.

Image by Peter Galbraith

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