On the Incredible Importance of Keeping a Notebook By the Bed

As predicted, the fall semester fell like a tidal wave and I’m dog paddling as fast as I can. The good news is dissertation data collection is going great. My participants are wonderful and I can already tell that they are giving me solid gold as far as data goes. The other good news is that I now have a son, one of the coolest kids I’ve ever met (no bias here!). Ok, I’ll admit that his night-time needs are a bit challenging, and I could use a bit more sleep (notice I’m using my diplomatic tone here, and not going into too much detail about the torture of sleep deprivation).

But speaking of waking in the middle of the night, I had a frustrating experience I want to warn other dissertators against. A couple nights ago I was nursing Coleman around 4am. As we sat in the dark I thought about one of the dissertation interviews I had completed the day before, and as I was reflecting on what my participant told me, I had an idea about how I could approach my analysis. If you’ve ever had an intellectual or creative epiphany, you know what this feels like. It was like a sudden serenity, and all the mush in my brain suddenly was organized into clear, gleaming categories. It’s so obvious, so perfect, that all I could do is laugh. I was thrilled. I thought, Should I write this down? Then, Nah, my hands are full and this is such a great and obvious idea, I’ll surely remember it in the morning.

Next morning it was gone.

I remember the wonderful feeling of the idea dawning on me. But the idea itself is as lost as all those precious hours of sleep. Friends, keep a notepad– or if you’re nursing an infant, a voice-activated audio recorder!– by the bed.


The Tenuous Tenure of Teacher Tenure


Finding this blog post by Nicholas Meier about teacher tenure got me thinking, and got me Googling. What is it about teacher tenure that makes people spit nails? The more I read, the more it seems like most people don’t actually know what teacher tenure is. In fact it seems to be a concept whose semantics work against it. Say the word “tenure” and hackles rise. It’s true for me, I know. As a grad student who has been wandering in and out of institutions of higher ed for the last 16 years, the mental image “tenure” evokes for me is usually of the postsecondary kind: the stodgy old professor in tweed who teaches from lecture notes scrawled on a legal pad circa 1984 and who conducts research on any topic that strikes his fancy (if he conducts research at all), irrespective of whether it contributes to any meaningful body of research, because nobody can tell him otherwise.

I’m not sure if this professor actually exists– probably he does, somewhere– but I’ve never actually met him (yes, it’s definitely a “him” in my mind’s eye). But my complete lack of corroborating experience doesn’t prevent my admittedly prejudicial image from popping up whenever I envision the tenured professoriate. I’d guess that most people have their own mental connotations when they think of a “tenured professor” or a “tenured teacher.” Based on what I’m reading, I’m starting to wonder if these knee-jerk mental associations, are making a scapegoat of tenure in the K-12 system. (Tenure in higher ed is a whole other kettle of fish with its own set of issues. Maybe I’ll tackle it another day.)

As Meier’s post points out, teacher tenure is not actually a lifetime guarantee of employment. In fact, in California (where teacher tenure laws were recently struck down as unconstitutional), all teachers must undergo a probationary status during which they can be fired for any reason before they reach permanent status. Throughout their permanent status, or “tenure,” teachers must legally be routinely evaluated, and their status does not preclude them from being fired. If they are evaluated and judged incompetent they are, yes, entitled to due process. That is, they get to know why they’re being fired and they get a hearing from an impartial body. But that doesn’t mean they get to keep their jobs.

So are not enough incompetent teachers actually fired? Do administrators and districts find it too cumbersome and expensive to fire a teacher? Yes, maybe. It looks like in 2010 the L.A. Unified School District spent $3.5 million trying to fire 7 incompetent teachers. But if academic freedom and professional autonomy are important (as one example, it looks like policy makers and other non-educators are trying to get into science classrooms), it seems important to have protections in place for teachers who might be politically, religiously, or personally targeted.

And teachers have long been vulnerable targets. I can’t think of another profession about which lay people have such strong opinions. Someone who is close to me (a liberal to the core!) is incredulous at how much a public school teacher can make: a teacher in New York city with a Master’s degree and 22 years of experience makes $100,000 a year, for example. Nevermind the fact that this person is an engineer, a profession that earns an average of $100,000 a year, to say nothing of those with 20 years of experience. Also nevermind the fact that you don’t hear of anyone going around complaining about how much engineers make. These opinions about teacher income are not unusual, and are pretty representative of the national sentiment that teachers are less than competent and need plenty of external management.

Back to teacher tenure, it seems that as employees at public institutions teachers are entitled to due process, especially if everyone and their mother has an opinion about what a teacher should be doing and how she should be doing it. And if incompetent teachers aren’t actually getting dismissed, it seems we need a better understanding of why that is. I suspect these sensationalist stories in the media about un-fireable teachers showing up drunk to class aren’t quite representative.

Is the difficulty associated with teacher dismissal the fault of a policy that assures due process? What if we start asking questions of other stakeholders? How are quality teachers being trained in the first place? Who is leading them? As Meier claims, “The fact that poor teachers are not let go is completely a lack of principals and supervisors doing their job. Often the reason they don’t is their own lack of training and support and that they are often feeling overwhelmed themselves by an impossible job. In this area some principals work in elementary schools of up to 900 students with no assistant principal due to cutbacks.”

Whatever the problem, and as with all educational issues in this huge and diverse country, it is complicated and diffuse. But that doesn’t stop “reformers” (who, as usual, are not themselves educators) from initiating a legal blitzkrieg against tenure. This will definitely be something to watch out for. Something I’ll be wondering: when due process, one of the few attractive qualities of the teaching profession, gets taken away, who will be willing to go into this career?

The Art of Class Discussion

I teach a really cool class at UMD. But for the same reasons that it’s cool, it’s also very difficult to teach. In the course I ask students to reflect on and discuss identity roles that society has conferred upon us: gender, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, physical ability. These roles are deeply ingrained, which makes it difficult for us to acknowledge what we think and know about them; and they implicate issues of power, which makes it very awkward to discuss them with others. Add to that the fact that the class is big (30 students) and incredibly diverse. It’s a gen. ed. course, so the students run the gamut in terms of year, major, ethnicity, geographical origin. And because humans are homophiles (i.e., “birds of a feather flock together”), it seems it would just be easier for my students never to utter a peep.

But this course, and to some extent all courses, not only thrives on but depends on as many perspectives as possible. I had to expand my repertoire as an “expert” facilitator, so I consulted the only place I could think of  where lots of other experts congregate: Facebook! I put a call out for suggestions on “how to ignite great discussion.” I got so many replies, I want to put some of the good ones here so I won’t forget them. Please add any other ideas you have in the comments!

  • One cool idea is to enlist technology. One Facebook friend (FBF) suggested Poll Everywhere, which lets you take a poll that students can respond to on either a laptop or a phone. This looks neat because you can either do a quantitative/multiple choice poll, or you can ask for responses to open-ended questions too.
  • Forced choice. This is where each corner of the room represents a choice– let’s say, one corner is Strongly Agree, another corner is Agree, the third is Disagree, and the last is Strongly Disagree. The teacher (or someone) poses a question and students have to get up and travel to the corner that represents their response. Then the facilitator can call on people to ask why they picked that corner.
  • Write discussion questions on giant Post-Its and post them on the walls around the room. Have small groups travel around the room, discussing the question and jotting new bullet points on each Post-It as they discuss it.
  • Assign small groups to “teach” a reading each week.
  • Collectively establish norms or “ground rules” for discussion. I asked my students at the beginning of the semester to submit one idea for this list and I synthesized them all; we came up with a pretty good list, which I’ll post below. Re-visiting the list throughout the semester is always a good idea.
  • Do a low-tech poll by asking an opinion question and have students demonstrate their response by using their fingers as a Likert scale: 1 finger for strongly disagree, 5 for strongly agree.
  • Ask students to do some writing before discussion. Gets the brain juices flowing.
  • Organize students into small groups, and ask each person to write a question on a notecard. Each person takes turns asking the group to answer the question; if there is consensus on the answer, it is written on the back of the card. Once all the questions have been answered, the small groups exchange stacks of notecards. The next group goes through the stack of questions, trying to resolve them WITHOUT looking at the answers on the back. (I got this great idea here.) 
  • After assigning students to facilitate discussion, ensure that you, the authority figure, remain as quiet as you can. Maybe sit in the back of the room, or quietly take notes on the chalkboard. The more you interject, the more students defer, and the quieter they will become. As my FBF eloquently said, “The trick to fostering discussion in that class, for me, every semester, was to quiet my own voice.” (This one is hard for me– the more animated a discussion becomes, the more I want to join in!)
  • Pass out poster paper to small groups or plain printer paper to individuals and ask them to do an artistic rendering of a reading or concept. Encourage the use of symbols and stick figures so no one is intimidated by the pressure to make something perfect. Hang up the pieces around the room and do a “gallery walk,” where the group walks around freely, looking at pieces, conversing with their neighbors about their interpretations and impressions of the pictures.
  • Loosen things up by saying something about yourself, even if (especially if?) it is self-deprecating or silly.
  • “Never say what a student can say.” If only I knew the magic recipe for this!


Discussion Ground Rules:

Here are the ground rules developed by my students this semester. I thought about writing the list myself, but then figured they would be more likely to follow them if they were invested. We do have to re-visit them occasionally, but it’s a much better list than I could have come up with on my own!

  • Discussion should be on a topic that is interesting/controversial/relevant to the contributors.
  • Be a good listener. Show you are listening with your body language.
  • It places an unfair burden on others if people don’t participate, or if your participation isn’t genuine.
  • It is collegial to disagree with your classmates, but not to disrespect them. Having different viewpoints is healthy.
  • Contribute to an atmosphere where people feel comfortable, and will not feel judged.
  • Making controversial statements is good; if nothing is arguable, then we have nowhere to go.
  • Seek others’ opinions before launching into a counterargument.
  • Come to class prepared; discussion suffers for everyone if you don’t do the readings.
  • Speak from your own experience; avoid generalizations.
  • Avoid being sarcastic or passive. If someone says something troubling, be very honest about why it troubles you.
  • Do not interrupt or use offensive terms.
  • Teacher should facilitate to help draw out those who are quiet.
  • Discussion points or guides are helpful.
  • Teacher will participate as much as students.

Again, if you have experience facilitating discussion, please add your ideas to the mix. Like most teachers, I need all the ideas I can get.

It’s Not Academic Writing’s Fault

ProfessorBecause I am conducting research on academic writing and how it is taught across disciplines, I read Nicholas Kristof’s recent column, “Professors, We Need You!”, and Joshua Rothman’s response “Why is Academic Writing So Academic?”, with great interest. Kristof’s basic premise is that academic writing has gotten so arcane, so quantitative, so liberal, and so jargon-y that it’s become virtually irrelevant in the mainstream exchange of ideas. Rothman’s reply, in a nutshell, claims that this is a structural problem and it’s not the fault of academics– indeed, in a world where there are only a fraction of tenure-track positions available for graduating PhD’s, academics work as hard as they can to get a leg up by producing just the kind of esoteric texts that Kristof is lamenting. There are links to several other contributions to the debate within the Rothman piece, and I recommend most of them too.

I probably won’t be adding much to the debate as it already exists in the multiple op-eds, blog posts, and comment feeds that have already sprung up, so I’ll try to keep my own thoughts brief:

1. Kristof bemoans anti-intellectualism in his column, saying that (often politically based) accusations of snobbery have led over the years to the marginalization of academia (as one extreme example of this, several years ago I heard a clip from a Glen Beck show where he warned his listeners against the evil and corrupting nature of the university, and suggested instead that his audience check out his own “Beck University” where one can “learn history as it really happened.” The clip has haunted me ever since like a car accident you can never un-see). But Kristof exhibits an anti-intellectualism of his own when he indicates that “specialized” = “bad.” Why should academics dumb down what they write just to assuage the egos of non-academic readers? As Matt Reed writes in his thoughtful response to Kristof, the peer review process in academic publishing serves a “quality control” function. Shouldn’t things “pass muster… [before being] shared with the masses”? To categorically call academic prose “gobbledygook” is to make the very sad error of hating what you don’t understand. The bar for academic research should not be lowered simply because most people wouldn’t take the American Education Research Journal (to offer an example from my own field) on a beach vacation with them. I myself don’t read the AERJ unless I have to… but sometimes I have to.

2. As plenty of the authors (including Kristof) already showed, many scholars work hard– in some cases way harder than they should– to get the public to acknowledge verified scientific findings. Human-caused climate change is one perfect example of this. (Can this issue still possibly be a matter of debate?) Converting research into popular articles and PBS documentaries seems to make little or no difference to the people who have simply made up their minds. Another example, again from my field, is the anti-education reform movement. Scholars like Diane Ravitch are doing plenty to bring their research to the mainstream to demonstrate that Common Core State Standards have NOT been field tested, that high-stakes testing leads to corruption and student failure, that school closures and teacher firings do NOT improve learning… and yet policy makers are carrying on their merry way with these very policies. Are academics to be blamed if they are not as persuasive as reductive politicians and talking heads?

Furthermore, it seems that when scholars publish in the mainstream, they lose their identification (and perhaps credibility) as scholars. Sometimes this is on purpose. When Anne Marie Slaughter published her wave-making article “Why Women Can’t Have It All” in the Atlantic, the piece was only tangentially related to the fact that she is a political science professor at Princeton. The meat of the article was about women in the workplace and in writing it the author relied more on her experience as a mother than on her scholarly expertise. Though the piece sparked an important conversation in the public sphere, it probably would have had no bearing on whether or not she got tenure (if she hadn’t already had it). And this is fine. Lots of scholars publish in the mainstream, either on their own research or on some other topic, and when they do they aren’t scholars in that context. They become social critics, op-ed writers, or maybe just blowhards. But what’s wrong with that? Academia is academia and the mainstream is the mainstream. I’m not sure what Kristof thinks will be gained by attempting to conflate the two. The real problem lies not with the inaccessible language of academic prose, but with the public’s occasional refusal to accept the conclusions of peer reviewed research if it doesn’t align with their political leanings.

The goal of my research and my career is to improve the writing skills of college students. Employers complain constantly about how these skills are not up to snuff, and spend billions of dollars a year remediating recently graduated new hires. Dumbing down academic prose is not going to make students better communicators or critical thinkers. The sooner we can accept the fact deep reading and complex writing is just plain hard, the sooner we can start figuring out ways to help young people learn to do it.



The other night I was at a party and a couple second year doctoral students from my college were there. When I asked them what they were up to this coming semester they both sighed heavily. They launched into the long list of courses they were taking, research they were conducting or assisting in, teachers they were observing (one duty of grad students in education is to observe and mentor teacher interns who are undergoing certification). As I listened sympathetically, I realized that I am no longer in that boat at all. What happened? The first two years of grad school was such a whirlwind of classes (taking and teaching), meetings, and, some days, literally running from one place to another, that I don’t think I ever stopped to consider that this wasn’t a permanent state of being. There were nights when I found myself at home after a long day, scurrying to the kitchen to make dinner, and then scurrying to the bathroom to brush my teeth because I had forgotten what it was like not to rush.

A few months into my third year, I’ve finished my coursework and finished my comprehensive exams. I’m not anxious or rushed anymore, and thank god, not flat out terrified of my schedule the coming semester. I spend a lot of time in coffee shops, and when Adam comes home he can usually find me at my post, on the left end of the couch with my feet on the coffee table, tapping on my laptop. The semester starts on Tuesday, and the only thing that’s going to change in my current mellow schedule is that I have to go to campus for two hours twice a week to teach one class. Easy, right?

Yes and no. The program is designed like this on purpose. I’ve made the switch from learning mode to production mode.

Now it’s time to write. Alone.

The successful completion of three comps (“comprehensive exams,” which in my program take the form of essays– not orals or timed exams, as is often the case in other disciplines) shows me that I appear to be capable of writing long winded academic texts. But still, the next project is looming like Mt. Fuji. Or maybe I should call it Dissertation Mountain. It’s scary, but rather than inducing hyperventilation (like 500 pages of reading due tomorrow could), it makes me realize that the only way to do this is to get grounded and focus.

Over the next year and a half, the only deadlines I have to meet I’ll set myself. Maybe I’m not scared because the only way I can even conceive of this project is in smaller chunks, maybe like mountain climbers do. I’m defending the proposal in May. I’ll collect data in the fall. I’ll write in the spring. (Oh, and there’s a baby coming in July. That might cause moments of hyperventilation, but I can’t blame the university for that.) But no one’s breathing down my neck except my own conscience.

It’s a new way of being a doctoral student (I mean candidate!), but I’m glad to find myself here. I’m ready to climb.

Is It Just to Teach Social Justice?

Before grad school I used to teach writing. Aside from receiving the occasional student paper on hotly contested political issues (the importance of teaching intelligent design in science class, the im/morality of abortion, the ineffectiveness of gun control laws, and the perennial favorite, the imperative to legalize marijuana), I rarely found myself in a situation where I was actually exploring any of these issues with my class as a whole. And, as a writing teacher, I could focus on responding to my students not in terms of whether I agreed with them or not on these issues, but in terms of the rhetorical effectiveness of their arguments. For example, I could tell them that no, it’s not credible to rely on the Bible as your only source, or no, biological evolution does not mean that we are watching giraffes’ necks grow longer in one lifetime. In other words, I could pass my students off to more varied, more credible sources and trust (and hope) that they would take the time and effort to inform themselves.

Now, as a graduate student in the College of Education, I teach education courses. The missions of these courses are not as cut and dried as the composition course (or at least the composition course as I used to see it). I am teaching future English teachers, and the preparation of future teachers necessarily includes a wide array of issues that are inherently political. Some of these issues include: whether it is effective or morally appropriate to impose “Standard American English” on students; whether English teachers should introduce, via literature, “risky” subjects like sex, suicide, drugs, bullying, and racism to their students; how tracking practices move middle class white kids into courses that accelerate their learning and academic success, whereas remedial and special education courses maintain a very low bar for minorities and English Language Learners; how teachers will deal with pressures from school, district, and state to emphasize test prep at the expense of science, social studies, art, and physical education. Maybe I had been naively avoiding it, but for the first time in my teaching career I am finding that contested political and social issues are not only trickling into class discussion, but are central to the curriculum.

To take a specific example, this semester I am teaching a course called Literature, Mass Media, and Schooling: The Formation of Group and Individual Identity. The goal of the course is to get students to start thinking about the ways that social institutions like the mainstream media and schools shape our identities. A necessary component of the course is the examination of “dominant” and “subordinate” identities. These identities are determined by such roles as gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, physical ability, age, and a hundred other things, and you probably don’t need me to tell you which aspects of each role (i.e., male/female) historically fit into which identity category (i.e., dominant/subordinate). And of course, these roles criss-cross and so each of us develops identities that are at times dominant, at times subordinate. As a white, American, well-educated woman I don’t often consciously find myself in a subordinated position, though research shows that women in my profession are still trailing men in terms of hiring, advancement, and compensation. Female (and male) faculty of color face a whole other set of obstacles (see, e.g., Ford, 2011).

So if university faculty, one of the most elite American professions, are facing varying degrees of difficulty based on social identities, how are younger people doing? It probably comes as no surprise that in K-12 schools across the country, poor brown kids don’t score as well on standardized tests, have lower GPA’s, are less likely to graduate, and less likely to go to (and graduate from) college. Isn’t it my job as a teacher educator to figure out why this is so, and what we as teachers can do about it?

Amazingly, my efforts to introduce undergraduates to the inequities that subordinate groups encounter in school and society are often met with reactions that range from glazed over passivity to angry disagreement and resentment. This week, for example, I introduced my class to the work of Claude Steele, whose research on what he calls stereotype threat has shown that women (who are equally proficient in math as their male counterparts) perform less well than men on math tests EXCEPT when they are told that the exam has been tested for gender bias. In other words, when women are told that in the past other women have performed just as well on a test as men have, then they themselves perform just as well as (in fact, a bit better than) the men on that test. In another study, Steele gave a control group of African Americans an IQ test; he gave the treatment group the same test, but to that group he didn’t call it a “test,” he called it a “puzzle.” The group that solved the “puzzle” performed much better. As Steele and other researchers hypothesize, the subordinate groups were not distracted by the social narratives that women aren’t as good at math, and that black people don’t test well. Just the tacit existence of these stereotypes causes certain groups to underperform, because the stereotypes are distracting and eat up vital mental energy. It is important to note that, depending on the context, dominant groups can be affected by stereotype threat too (watch the Steele clip I hyperlinked above for more on this). For the purposes of education, however, this research is enlightening insofar as it helps us to understand historically marginalized groups.

Thinking that Steele’s work would provide an interesting empirical explanation for achievement gaps, I was surprised by my students’ reactions. A number of them responded by quarreling with Steele’s methodology (“there’s no correlation between the scores and gender/race– he’s just making an assumption;” “there weren’t enough statistics and graphs to make his results credible;” “I’m a female engineering student and if I told my parents that I was struggling because I’m a girl, they’d tell me to just work harder, and they’d be right.”). And the remaining students? They sat there, quiet.

It’s classes like these that make me question myself and think of this report, which argues that too many college professors are pushing their social agendas onto their students. When my students are defensive and resentful that I’ve introduced them to research that questions the damaging effects of white privilege, I wonder to myself: What right do I have to talk about this? Am I doing the wrong thing? Am I pushing an unfounded ideology?

As this Stanford Daily piece shows, the NAS report presents faculty’s political identification as mutually exclusive of course quality. When teachers get political, in other words, the course quality suffers. But what if the course content is inseparable from ideology? What if recent scholarship demonstrates that in order for education to improve, ideologies must be examined, and status quo discriminatory practices must be addressed? I think that some would argue that college curriculum should consist of facts only, and should be divorced from any hint of political stance. To teach otherwise is to be a rogue, an “activist.”

Arguing against Stanley Fish’s admonition that instructors should “keep out of the classroom everything but what is specific to your discipline and its methodical search for truth” and that teachers should “save the world on [their] own time” (Bizzell, 2009, p. 181), Patricia Bizzell claims that she couldn’t do this even if she wanted to. Aside from the fact that often “course material is itself political” (p. 181) as I discussed above, the purpose of teaching is to help students to succeed in the world, and to help them make it a better place. Doing so is “especially valuable for purposes of social redress if the students come from marginalized groups” (p. 185). From the moment I first stepped into a classroom as a teacher, I felt I’d found my calling. Not because all the students in the world need to know the three rhetorical appeals and how to craft a thesis statement, but because learning how to be rhetorically effective is empowering. Students who can write and communicate have a better shot at succeeding, and at empowering others in turn through callings of their own. This might be why most professors identify as liberal– because education is at its very core about making change for the better.

If I am put at ease by these thoughts (and honestly, I’m often not), then Bizzell’s final point packs a pretty strong punch. She has “never found students to be so biddable and easily manipulated as the agitators against so-called political correctness seem to think they are” (2009, p. 186). To assume that my adult students are putty in my ideological hands does them a disservice. Following this logic, I should push them. And as uncomfortable as it can be when they push back with views that confound me, I can only suppose that our sometimes opposing values coming together in a healthy antagonism is a sign that real learning is taking place.

(Un-hyperlinked) Works Cited

Bizzell, P. (2009). Opinion: Composition Studies Saves the World! College English, 72(2), 174–187.

Ford, K. A. (2011). Race, Gender, and Bodily (Mis)Recognitions: Women of Color Faculty Experiences with White Students in the College Classroom. The Journal of Higher Education, 82(4), 444–478. doi:10.1353/jhe.2011.0026

Dodos, Dinosaurs, and Cover Letters


You know when you are thinking of buying a new car– a Honda Civic, say– and then you start to see Honda Civics everywhere? The same is happening with my new and growing interest in digital rhetoric; everywhere I look I see examples of the Internet giving new life to old genres. Even the word “Internet” is starting to sound archaic, as if the web were somehow a foreign place, separate from real life. Because actually, increasingly, we’re building our lives online. I’m not even teaching any “online classes” this semester, and yet that’s still where I do the majority of my work. It’s where my bosses communicate with me, and where my students do most of their homework (and though I do require readings out of old fashioned books, you can guess where they ordered those old paper bricks in the first place. Unless of course they bought or rented the e-version).

But before our work even begins, professional first impressions happen– think of it as the bum-sniffing between employers and those aspiring to employment. Even this courtship has gone digital, and some recent articles have come out sounding the death knell of the tools we have traditionally used: the cover letter and resume. After attributing the genre of the CV to Leonardo da Vinci and conducting some semi-interesting historical document analysis that dates the cover letter back to the mid-1950’s, this Atlantic article claims that many companies barely look at applicants’ cover letters anymore. Companies would rather see prospective employees’ actual work rather than some blandly written reference to it. And like I mentioned above, our work is now available to all through the click of a mouse. With a URL and a password, anyone can see how and what I teach. Companies can (and will) go right to the horse’s mouth to check out how computer folks write code and how PR folks write Tweets; to consult artists’ portfolios and writers’ publications. Not only do we lay our personal selves bare online (though, thankfully, most smart people have curbed their penchants for posting drunk/naked/idiotic photos on Facebook), but we construct our professions there too.

This Fast Company piece waves goodbye to the resume, saying that a spiffed up LinkedIn profile is far more important to an organization that starts poking around for new talent. Of course, as soon as I read the article I went to my own LinkedIn page to do some housekeeping. When I got there, what did I find? One of the last visitors to my (embarrassingly out-of-date) page was the HR person from a company I interviewed with when I was looking for a summer job. Needless to say I got my latest accomplishments up there tout de suite.

As usual, my timing could have been better. One of the requirements of the Professional Writing Program (PWP– the department where I now teach) is to assign students a cover letter and resume. The thinking is that, before learning the genres of their respective workplaces, students must gain access to these jobs in the first place. One single day after my students turned in their rough drafts, I discover from the articles linked above that these documents are quickly becoming endangered species. About half of my students had never written a resume before; it occurs to me now that their very first resume may end up also being their last. I think I might have served them better if I asked them to set up LinkedIn accounts.

I’m thinking about putting together a digital rhetoric course for PWP. Digitizing the cover letter/resume along with wider discussions about our online professional personnae will certainly be a part of the curriculum. What else should I include? Teachers and writers: what does it mean to write for digital spaces? Employers and professionals: what do students need to know about communicating and producing work online?

On Writing, Blogging, and Community

For the first time since I lived in Oregon (can 2 years have passed since then?) I’ll be teaching writing again this fall. Teaching writing is my passion, my field of research, what brought me back to grad school in the first place. But I admit I have some trepidation. For one, as any writing teacher knows, teaching a writing class (or any class with lots of writing assigned) means grading a ton of papers. We’re talking 20 students times 6 papers each, not to mention homework assignments and the fact that I’m also teaching a second course in the College of Education. Oh and did I mention that the class starts at 8am? But the biggest worry I think is failing at something I love. Teaching education courses feels a bit more like earning my keep as I work my way through grad school. Teaching writing is, well, who I am. Faltering at that can be pretty difficult.

But remaining in contact with my fellow English Ed. students and fellow teachers from the University of Maryland Writing Project (a wing of the National Writing Project) has bolstered my inspiration so much. For that, I’m surprised to say, I have to thank the world of blogging. Who would have thought that that this e-medium would keep me in such community with my fellow writers, teachers, and writing teachers? Isn’t community supposed to involve a comfy living room with cups of tea and long conversations? Or at LEAST a classroom with uncomfortable chairs? As it happens though, my living room is still involved, except that my only other companion is my laptop.

Here, for example, is a blog post that I simply love. Written by Joseph McCaleb, the director of the UMdWP, this post eloquently answers the question of Why Write? (By the way, this is a question answered lovingly by many authors over the decades. Paul Auster’s version in the New Yorker is one of my all-time favorites, it’s so gorgeous. It’s not available online, but if you email me I might be able to help you find a copy… .) And while I love Joseph’s post, what I love most is what happens in the comments section. Not only do members of different writing and teaching communities– some of which exist within brick and mortar institutions, some online; some of whom I know, some I don’t– all weigh in thoughtfully, but some even entered the conversation using incredible social media technologies I had never heard of.

For example, one of the commenters annotated Joseph’s post using Diigo, an online tool that you can use to annotate any web page. Here is the annotated version. Pretty damn cool, huh? The conversation about writing among teachers and writers wanders down paths I could not have imagined when I first started teaching. What I love most about Joseph’s post and the comments that follow is that this writing does what it is supposed to do: that is, it plays. And in this venue, his readers can play right along.

Writing “for the joy of creation” (as one of my WP-mates called it) is what I learned at the Writing Project, and what blog posts like Joseph’s remind me of. It’s what I need to remember when we’re all sunk in the depths of the semester, when school is more about just getting through it (for teachers and students alike) than it is about the thrill of new knowledge.

I wonder how I will be able to communicate this to my students when they despise me for assigning a paper every other week (the department made me do it!). Are these Millenials going to be as titillated as I was by the latest online tool? I am not sure. But if I can find community in the comments section of a blog post, then my class and I should be able to rustle up some mutual trust and determination. This is what I am telling myself as the summer winds quickly down.

Ode to New Genres


The cast. Yes, it’s a book about superheroes, but no, it’s not what you think.

I was in that happy place of having finished one good book and thinking about what the next one would be last night, when I asked my neighbor/friend if I could take a look at his bookshelf. As he was recommending titles to me, his brother (who’s in town) strolled past and jokingly pulled out the graphic novel Watchmenby Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Maybe because nothing else was calling to me, I thought “What the hell,” and decided to give it a shot. I think the scales were tipped out of guilt, if anything: I teach a course called Literature for Adolescents and every time we come to the graphic novel unit I feel like somewhat of an impostor because I’ve read only the graphic novels on the syllabus, and no others (they include PersepolisAmerican Born Chinese, and Maus, by the way– all of which are awesome).

But holy cow. I had no idea that graphic novels could be like this. The art, the layering of dialogue, the fascinating and creative interplay of image and text… just, wow. I can’t put it down. (Those who know me or live near me know that I’m really loving a book when I read it while walking the dog, or strolling to the bus stop.)

So, I just wanted to give a little shout out to unusual genres. It’s so easy to get stuck in a literature rut, but last night a whim took me out of it and introduced me to one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a long time. What other interesting genres do I not know enough about?

P.S. If you’re now considering reading it, Watchmen is a violent and dark book. It’s probably not for everyone.


My favorite character so far, Dr. Manhattan

The Cursed Cursor

In the months since I’ve lasted posted, I’ve made some ok progress on this whole PhD thing. For one, my coursework is now finished, which is a pretty decent milestone. Second, no one has gently suggested that I look for another career, which is nice. I’m even submitting conference proposals, and they are getting accepted, which is even nicer. So I’m still moving forward.

Next up: comps. The exciting, glamorous appeal of comps (“comprehensive exams”) is that I’m now my own boss. I don’t have 23 articles and book chapters to read each day for class; there are no paper deadlines to give me anxiety rashes and bald patches. My schedule is serenely… open. What the heavenly prospect of this newfound freedom did not prepare me for is the fact that I now have to write three very long essays, and ain’t nobody out there giving me an F if I don’t finish them by a certain time. (Well. Someone might notice if I didn’t have anything to show for myself, say, 9 years from now, but god help me in that event.)

Lucky for me, my first comp was a breeze. I simply converted one of the papers I had written for a class and turned that in. It was probably too easy. Now I’m facing #2, and my good luck has gone cold. I JUST.CAN’T.SEEM.TO.START.THE.DAMN.THING. I have analyzed reams of data, I have pages upon pages of notes. I know what I want to say; I just cannot seem to overcome the blinking cursor syndrome. Anyone who has ever tried to write something knows what this is: the cursor blinking and blinking and blinking on a blank Word doc like Chinese water torture, and suddenly you’d rather be scouring the litter box with your own toothbrush than be taunted any longer by that hateful, laughing line.

So, I decided to do what I used to urge my students to do, back when I taught writing. I’m going to write a letter (blog post) telling my reader what I plan to write about. Before I know it, the logic goes, I will just have tricked myself into writing the thing itself. Just so you don’t snap your laptop shut or wander back over to Twitter at the thought of reading someone’s academic essay (and a rough draft, at that) let me tell you about a couple self-imposed rules for this exercise: 1. I’m going to be as concise as possible. Just as it can be difficult to start writing, it can be difficult to stop. Sometimes you can convince yourself you’re being productive, but really you’re just creating a curtain of words behind which you’re hiding from what you really want to say. So, for each main idea, I plan to devote only a short paragraph. 2. I’m not including any scholarly citations or using academic jargon. It’s easy to hide behind that stuff too.

Here goes.

Main idea 1. I am very interested in teacher identity. Specifically, writing teacher identity. “Identity” is a very sexy idea in the field of education research right now (why do I have to be such a follower?), so I need to make sure that I’m not just jumping on a bandwagon here, and tossing around the faddish word without giving it the weight and meaning that it deserves. So to me, teacher identity is a conception of self and purpose that is constantly being remade and enacted in one’s interactions with students, colleagues, institution, and discourse. In other words, who you are amounts to what you do, and what you have done.

Main idea 2. Like I said, I’m interested in writing pedagogy. If a teacher is trying to teach a student how to use language, then how is she herself using language? Language is the way teachers communicate with students. Language is the main chisel we use for sculpting our teaching identity. As we sculpt ourselves linguistically, what kind of form is the student left looking at? (Case in point, imagine two different writing prompts, handed out to students by two different teachers. One says, “For every typographical error, one full letter grade will be deducted.” The other says, “Engage in a dialogue with Shakespeare/Darwin/Lao Tzu. What would you most want to ask him, and how would he respond?” Can’t you get a sense of the identities and values of each of these two teachers?)

Main idea 3. After conducting interviews with four writing teachers and combing their responses for patterns I’ve come up with what I view as three of the most important influences that shape their professional identities every day. They are:

3a. Academic biography. Each of my interviewees told me happy stories about loving to read and write as kids. Their parents couldn’t pry the books and notebooks out of their hands (this sounded familiar to me too…). Then they went to school. Their flaming love affairs with words were snuffed out by 5-paragraph essays, inverted pyramids, and red-pen wielding professors. Yet somehow, a resolve set in and they learned how to play the game of academic writing, they excelled, and they became English/writing teachers. While I’m still trying to figure out how this history plays out on a day-to-day basis in their teaching, I know that it is a big deal somehow. I’m sure Freud would approve.

3b. Being a “writer.” Research is coming out lately that says that we can’t teach our students to write unless we think of ourselves as writers. Asking your students to write something that you would never write (there’s that 5-paragraph essay again) is a farce, and a transparent one at that. Asking your students to do in-class writing while you grade papers, erase the board, or check Facebook is like lecturing your child on the merits of a healthy diet while snarfing down a Cinnabon. Students will not engage in writing that is authentic and joyful unless you show them what that looks like (because let’s face it, the blinking cursor can be ruthless!).

Problem is, I suspect that most teachers don’t think of themselves as writers. For one, most English teachers got into this gig because they fell in love with reading literature, not writing it. And two, even if the teacher does write a lot– and all professionals write a lot– they don’t view the writing that they do as “real” writing. When I asked one of my participants (a writing teacher and doctoral student in rhetoric) if he wrote, he said glumly, “Not as much as I should.” Later in the interview I discovered that at the time, he was working on his comps, editing an article that he planned to submit to a journal, and regularly contributing to a blog about his writing research. If he isn’t a writer, then who the hell is? What kinds of writing would he need to do to be a “real” writer?

3c. Professional learning and development. My opinion in a nutshell is that, as far as P.D. is concerned, K-12 teachers are way over-managed, and college teachers aren’t held accountable enough. Therefore I’m painting in very broad brushstrokes here when I say that that “professional learning” is the final main influence on teacher identity. Whether it’s from the funny and amazingly astute thing your colleague said in the hall, or from the 8-hour workshop on implementing curriculum standards that your principal made you go to, teachers are constantly learning on the job.

I met my participants in two different courses on how to teach writing, so my study focuses on the context of these courses (one of which was the National Writing Project, which I wrote about last year). So in my interviews I asked my participants to reflect on how the course affected, and affects, their teaching. But I hope to broaden this discussion by observing that influences on our professional behavior are myriad: a thought-provoking mentor, the latest pedagogical theory, a joyful poem that reminds you that, damn it, writing can be play.

Well, that’s about the sum of it. Re-reading it, it sounds somewhat naked and simple. But like I said, I had to take off the academic claptrap to see what was underneath. I think I’m far too immersed in it to know if the ideas are valuable at this point. But at least I’m writing.

And on the topic of professional learning, check out my bone pile of library books. I think they’re reproducing at night. Luckily, as you can see, I’ve got a very faithful research assistant.  Image