Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Thinking about what Michelle said about class blogs and "debate"

 I once taught a class where there wasn't a "class blog," and each student had his/her own blog (as in this class). But the blogs were all resident within the classroom-- I can't explain it, but you know what I mean. There was a tab for "Blogs," and you clicked on that and there was a page with the thumbnail of each blog. I found there was a lot less contentiousness and a lot more friendliness because-- this is odd-- the students kind of respected each other's "ownership." It was like if you go to Aunt Mary's house, you don't argue with her, where if you were at a restaurant and she said the only true sign of womanhood was childrearing or whatever, you might take issue with it. So if you went to Sarah's blog, you might comment, but you wouldn't object to what she said because, after all, it was her blog.

I don't know if that was good or bad, this "ownership" and courtesy. I've had an editing blog for years, and I have to admit that while I loved getting questions and comments, there was one commenter who constantly disagreed with me. (I mean, the subject of most of the blog posts was "punctuation," but she still managed to disagree about commas. <G>) I think I was a lot more annoyed at her because it was MY blog. (And, to be fair to me, she was generally just WRONG and was pretty obviously disagreeing because she didn't like someone else being an "expert".) I kept wanting to say to her, "Why don't you start your own damn editing blog, and there you can say that introductory elements don't need commas, huh?"

Some Web 2.0 media is "social," but some is still "private ownership." And I bet that dictates to some degree the level of formality or something. Like email is "private" and "mine," which is why we get annoyed with spam-- what is this junk in MY inbox, where we wouldn't worry too much about ads on the Yahoo page, say. 

Something to take into consideration. Do we want to encourage "ownership" as an "investment" so we assign "private" Web 2.0 devices? Or do we want more to encourage collaboration, so everything is "joint?"

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

links and apps I might need

My classmates and the instructors have been so good at posting and suggesting useful stuff, and what happens when I no longer has access to the class? Will I lose them? Best to list them here, and always have them:

Thanks to everyone for the aid!l This will be messy as I'm just copying all the links.  And I'm putting the actual post early in the semester so it's not blocking the front page:
Links and comments from class

Monday, July 29, 2013

New Topic!

I keep changing topics for the best practices assignment. I have been thinking that I'd like to explore how my two workplaces (a writing center and a community college) could improve their online pedagogy, and going back and forth between the one and the other as a topic.

But you know, it's frustrating enough to have to deal with the problems every day when working. The idea of having to think even more about how they could be improved and finding support and showing how the newer theories could create a better learning experience... well, I get stopped each time realizing, "They don't want to know. They don't care." It's just too frustrating. The entrenchment of the administration in "what we've always done" is so utter that a piledriver and a backhoe wouldn't move them, and when I've proposed even slight changes to the one (the other is too big a bureaucracy to allow any more than sneakily changing my own classroom-- it's not like anyone notices or cares), there has been a swift negative response, usually in public and always with exasperation and annoyance, you know, like thinking about how we can better fulfill our mission to help students is some form of rebellion against the monarchy.

So... I bagged those topics. Bad enough for the blood pressure having to deal with the response that comes even when I feebly suggest that one material we are ordered to use (I don't actually use it-- passive aggressive R us) still bears the old logo with the old program name we're never supposed to use. I mean, really, if switching out an old logo is too much shock and awe for them, I can just imagine the response if I start getting into negative and racially and gender loaded language.

Anyway, decided on a new topic. One of those felicitous things. Serendipity. My husband went to a meeting at a library devoted to the works of the most famous author from our town (Vonnegut) and told the director that I taught online. She called and asked me to lunch because they were thinking of offering courses in Vonnegut (face to face) and suddenly she thought maybe there should be an online class too. So I talked to her about the issues involved (she wanted the course I guess to be hosted also by universities in their network), the whole Tycho/Blackboard/Oncourse/D2L platform problem and how I didn't know much, but maybe do it all in HTML because that works everywhere with minor tweaking. I also talked about something I actually know a bit about thanks to this class-- MOOCs (or "SOOCs" really in this case)-- and the creation of a "static" information-based ("lecture") class with a lot of other media (links to film, photos, etc.), just to get started, and then maybe later (because they don't yet have money for instructors) a few interactive online courses with discussion forums and assignments.

So I think I'll do that-- kind of design a MOOC/SOOC that would be appropriate to this situation. And that way I will feel positive and future-oriented instead of bitter and frustrated. I was reading Keith Devlin's blog about his MOOC, and the commenters were so incisive. I keep coming back to Gagne's suggestion always to establish objectives for a course, and I think above all, the objectives of the course that would become a MOOC would be different. I was talking to a friend who is taking the Sloan certification, and we kept coming back to that, the need to start with objectives-- not the format of the course, but the objectives, and let the objectives determine what format is best.

It has been a really bad week on the work front-- love the work, but the office politics are impossible. Impossible. I don't know that I can work well in a system that doesn't value working well.
But then again, this week I had that lunch, and there's this nice person from the Vonnegut library who doesn't just regard me as "that staffer who makes too much trouble," but someone who knows just a little bit about how to teach online.

Can I stick this job out? I mean, the paying one. I love the work. I love the students and their gritty yet idealistic attitude. I love the professors and their openness. But the program... I don't know. I don't know. I don't know.
When you live in dysfunction, dysfunction becomes the norm, and that's what's happened. If I had any sense, I'd bag it-- don't really need the job, can get something else with someone who thinks I might have something to contribute rather than this crew who seem to resent anyone actually doing a good job. Shows them up, I guess.

So--- Vonnegut is so cool anyway. No one outside the Midwest will understand how INDIANA he is-- that fatalism mixed with kind of a nutty optimism. That love of creating new words. Yes, that's Indiana! And that vista-- the sense of place-- the knowing that capturing a place in words means keeping it forever (and he's writing about Dresden before the bombing, and it lives forever-- "I thought it was the Emerald City of Oz. The only other city I'd seen was Indianapolis." (That's my town, and it's no Emerald City, though it's summer now, and very green. :)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Consistency post from discussions

Yes, intellectual freedom is an issue here. First, in my experience, many online courses (especially intro courses) are taught by adjuncts who don't have intellectual freedom-- the term-to-term "contract," the lack of access to materials and technology, the actual discouragement of learning more or getting another degree or going to conferences (all of which could make this teacher too expensive <G>). Often they are presented with a completely designed course and no alterations are allowed. This is a sad reality. A friend of mine said, "I think my department would like my only interaction with students to be grading their assignments... they want me to be a grading robot."
That's the extreme (but quite common) of "consistency," and probably no professor with tenure and a bit of power would allow that. Power does come into the equation, I think... and in the ever-growing conflict between faculty and administration, "consistency" is a powerful weapon for the administration, as it's so much cheaper and more standardizable and more assessible. 
But avoiding that extreme of the "robot could teach this", I can see a list of where consistency would be really useful. Burgess, Barth, & Mercereau (2008) discuss the  usefulness of a "template" with consistent design elements: "Student satisfaction results from a logical, consistent course design that allows them to focus on course content and interact with their instructor."
1. Logo or banner that reassures the student that this is indeed the right class/school. That familiarity is important for making the student comfortable, and the "branding" I think can subtly increase the value of this course or material by linking it to the greater collection of good stuff that is the university or department.
2. Consistency of material placement, so that students know where to find the assignments and where to find the grades and where to find the lectures. Why have students without much time waste their classroom time searching for that elusive Lecture 4?
3. Consistency of interaction possibilities. A student who knows there's always a conference set up for questions will be more likely to ask a question.
4. Modes of delivery-- I don't like "multimedia for multimedia's sake," but if the instructor/designer knows there is the opportunity and expectation of something beyond text, he/she is more likely to start looking for ways to incorporate that or aspects of knowledge that would be better conveyed by some multimedia.
5. With text-- still and probably always a primary "delivery mode"-- a consistent standard font will train students to expect something different when a different font or color are used. The consistency can set up the mental equation that "different=important" which can help students focus on new material or better grasp complex material.
I keep seeing in the design lit "consistency of length," but I find that actually can restrict not just the length but the depth.  This isn't a bumper sticker or tweet, it's the analysis of a complicated problem, or of a poem, and can serve as a model of how to analyze, read closely, think deeply, determine cause and effect, etc. This is not the place to require consistency, I think, though encouragement can be made to present material more cogently, maybe. But the point is to present complex material more clearly, not simplify the material so it can be presented consistently. So while I can see the advantage of breaking up complicated material into smaller parts, I think it really would interfere on a number of levels to have some requirement that, say, I have three paragraphs and 12 lines to teach thesis statements.
I  have found it quite helpful though to require (of myself) a sort of consistent "mood" approach-- that is, affirmative and positive. That has really informed several aspects of creation of course material, from design (starting with easy first and progressing to more difficult, so that the student "succeeds" early on), to language, always positive (not "Avoid these bad things," but rather "try these good things"), and especially to the encouragement of experimentation-- helping the student feel free to try things and not feel like a failure if some attempts don't turn out to be effective. I'd like to work in collaboration to this, like suggesting that other students chip in with suggestions for revision of this or other ways of experimenting. I'm not sure this is "consistency," but I do want that consistent tone of encouragement and experimentation. That feels like a way of empowering the student to try things out.
I guess I like "consistency" when it adds to the student's immediate sense of familiarity and ability-- "I can do this." Inconsistency in all aspects can lead to that "overwhelm," where the student starts out feeling powerless. Consistency in certain aspects in contrast can overcome the overwhelm, and help students start out feeling capable. But I think maybe the deeper they get into the course, the more we should let complexity and individuation be important, as they'll now be feeling more able to understand.
Burgess, V.,  Barth, K., Mersereau, C. (2008). Quality Online Instruction – A Template for Consistent and Effective Online Course Design. Retrieved from

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Cooperation vs. competition

I was just up in Canada, in Stratford, at the truly great world treasure Shakespeare Festival. It's sort of easy to claim this for our own, first because it's within driving distance and the accents sound like us and Ontario looks almost exactly like Ohio.

But it's in Canada, you know? A different country! Their money has colors (and not just green)! They pronounce the "U" in "house" as a separate sound!

So we went to dinner with a couple there. They'd both lived in the US, so of course we asked if they noticed any differences. "A thousand subtle ones," one said, and gave a few examples. And the one big one-- Americans are competitive. REALLY competitive. Not "we won the gold medal in hockey the last Olympics" competitive (the Canadians are pretty competitive that way :), but the constant assessment-- am I better than he is? Is she dissing me? What's my place in this hierarchy? Who do I have to step on to get higher? <G>

Of course, being a competitive American, I snapped, "That might be exactly why we made it to the moon first, and you-- oh. Right. Canada doesn't have a space program, does it?" (Okay, that was low!)

But as I was working on my community of practice paper, I was noticing that these communities are usually cooperative. And it's especially striking because many of these kinds of communities (like professional networks) are actually composed of people who are kind of rivals-- Fifty attorneys in the same small city. 800 writers trying to get the attention of 6 big publishing companies. Four graduate students in the same program.

It's almost as if for the purpose of the community, they tacitly agree not to compete in this forum. That's essential, isn't it? Otherwise, can you trust? Like I've been in writing communities for a long time, and there's constant exchanges of information and wisdom. If I thought Amy Author over there was trying to undermine me to get some advantage in the marketplace, I can't trust it when she says, "Oh, Avon isn't looking for medieval novels this year." And for the community to work, we have to trust each other. Does that mean we can't compete? Or just not when we're in the "community center?"

My source for the early years of the COP I wrote about remembers that the cooperative spirit of the early year started breaking down once there was a "prize," when the "top rated" manuscripts were to be given evaluations and consideration by a big-name editor. Suddenly it wasn't a bunch of writers trying to improve and helping each other improve, but a group of competitors for the prize of editor attention. It was, in her mind, the beginning of the end (though the community still exists).

It still exists, so isn't that a success? The ones who participate now seem eager and willing-- but the emphasis seems to be more on making friends who will "vote you up" so you win the right to present to the editor.

My source has quit with some of the early members. They still keep in touch, but there's no community-- pairings, friendships, but not community.

So as I read Siemens, as he talks about connectivism and its value, I very much agree. But how does it work with American competitiveness? I have thought for years that the Millennial generation is much less competitive than my own, though I think the culture has been trying to force competition on them by making it clear that only 10% or so will be "winners" and everyone else I guess will be "losers." I love how hard the young people work to resist that, which is hard for many of them because they are such a compliant and pleasant generation and not very rebellious. They are so much more "connectivist" in the Siemen sense-- quick to form groups, eager to find consensus, skilled at cooperation. We are fortunate in this age of online that they are our students, as they are much more likely to be good at collaborating than the Gen-Xers, for sure.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Who what when

I met someone at a dinner party-- how would we go on without synchronicity? -- who worked for a company that did focus groups, and she asked me, does your department ever do student focus groups?

And I blurted out, "No-- we're scared what they'll say."

And I know that's true with my own potential final best practices subject. I'd be interested in a focus group that looked at my group's practices and materials, but I'm really pretty sure that the organization itself does not want to hear it.

Very difficult. I don't know. I like the work, I love the students. Yeah, if I had the choice, I'd do things differently. (To be honest, I DO things differently. I just kind of ignore what I'm told to do and I think is unhelpful. I do what I think will work best with the situation, not what I'm supposed to do, but seriously, if anyone was paying attention, they'd not be happy that I did what I thought was best. Which is not, actually, what I'm "supposed to do.")

Anyway. Point is.

I am thinking of doing a best practices memo for final assignment on this job, and creating a focus group of students to evaluate materials -- most of my work is direct interaction with students, but most of my time is spent creating materials customized to the specific course and assignment-- I'm hoping even if the students don't respond, they'll read the material and have those models.

But let's just say... this is not the sort of thing that is encouraged. <G>.

I do have an alternative of looking at a past job. I'd like to design the whole semester online course so that everything -- the discussion forums, the assignments-- is very purposeful, aimed at accumulating material and sources and analysis for the final project. (That is, there's an "annotated bib" assignment, but it's about the topic that the students will be addressing in the final project.) I'd probably pose this as cognitive -- about skills, but also constructivist because of the scaffolding.

That's safer. More than that, it's not so frustrating. It's hard to just keep battering against the brick wall of utter uninterest. It's frustrating to have to keep saying, "Listen. I do the work, I interact with the students. Why aren't you interested in my experience?" But I've kept saying that, and I get the big sigh of exasperation and the implication that I'm annoying and boring, going on and on about the mission of the writing center and what I've learned from my students, and how we should be doing research or at least keeping track of what we do and what results that produces.... but that's like heresy. It's insubordination.

Oh, well. I've resolved to keep my head down, do my work as best I can, and stay out of trouble. And keep my mouth shut.   (This will last a day or two.)

I think I'll do the other project. That won't, at least, get me fired if anyone is googling and locates this blog.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Plagiarism? Pshaw.

I do NOT need another Best Practices Memo topic, but the Engage discussion going on currently about plagiarism-- mostly about "how to catch it so the students can be disciplined"-- seems so wrong-headed and against all our theories! (Except maybe behaviorism -- punishing "wrong action"-- but even behaviorism doesn't just randomly punish confusion.) I think a more positive approach would be to help students learn to use sources better, and oh, by the way, also avoid plagiarism. It's really like eating rather than smoking. Smoking is just bad for you, so it's a good thing to avoid. But you can't avoid eating, like you can't avoid using sources in an academic paper. The thing is to eat RIGHT, and that you might have to be trained in (me, I'd eat wrong at every opportunity left to my own devices). Similarly, students are expected to use sources in their writing and research, and it's not enough to tell them, "Use sources. Avoid plagiarizing said sources." We have to tell them HOW. We're teachers. This is something that can be taught.

Universities might work on more coordinated definitions of "plagiarism," because this isn't quite like "armed robbery," easy to define. My sister went to a school with an "honor code," where with every assignment they had to write and sign that they had not "given nor received help" in this assignment. Well, that really doesn't work much anymore, when we expect students to brainstorm together, to ask for help in class, to visit the tutoring centers. We want them to learn to seek out and evaluate help from others, don't we? Well, then that "connectivism" shouldn't be regarded as an academic crime.

Except for the egregious cases (lifting a whole article and passing it off as your own), plagiarism is usually a matter of missing attribution and overuse of sources. Most students don't actually want to plagiarize, and on the one hand, we're stressing they need to use X number of sources, and other the other hand, "Don't use too many sources too closely." This is a teachable moment. Why is what this student did running afoul of the plagiarism rules? What could he/she have done differently to stay within the rules? Working with the student's own paper, we could be showing how this use of a source could have been done "legally," how this quote could have been better as a paraphrase, how the student's own ideas could form the topic sentences, and the sources used only as support... these are part of the writing tasks, and can be taught and learned just like any other writing task.
But I think we need to distinguish between "pure plagiarism," where there's a clear intent to pass off someone else's writing as your own, and the confused type, where the student is trying to use sources and does it badly. 20 years of teaching writing and writing center work tells me-- MOST students use sources badly at first, but they can be taught to do better.

The first thing I think is to make sure that the paper is structured around the student's ideas, rather than sources, which could mean that the student do an outline or a draft BEFORE reading much in the sources-- sketching out the issues within this topic and focusing on ideas, and only then starting the research. That's sort of heretical, but I think a student who starts with a basic sketch of "this is what I want to explore or analyze, and here are the parts" is then positioned to use sources the way they should be used-- as support for the student's points.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Multiplicity: A Novelist's Journey

Patient: Doctor, I think I'm going crazy.  Sometimes I find that I'm talking to myself inside my head.
Doctor: Now, now, I wouldn't start worrying about it until someone starts talking back.
Patient: Well.... 
Admit it.  You've got a nagging doubt about all those voices in your head.  They not only talk back to you, they argue with each other.  Sometimes you get headaches because they stomp around and slam doors.   When you read Three Faces of Eve, you realized if someone wrote about your multiple personality syndrome, it would be Three Hundred Faces.

Oh, yeah, I know.  It's different for you.  You're not crazy.  Crazy people can't tell the difference between reality and fantasy, and you can.  Right.  Consider that time your spouse came in and found you dissolved in tears at your keyboard, and you looked up and said, "I couldn't help it.  I had to kill Joey off."  Who was more real to you at that moment, your living spouse or the dead Joey?

 It's always been like this for you, hasn't it?  While your little friends were dressing their Barbies up, you'd already endowed Ken with a dark secret, a dangerous smile, and a lethal set of double entrendres.  Other kids quit "making pretend" when they started making out.  Not you.  (You even found yourself murmuring "My hero!" after your first kiss, didn't you?)  And while your college classmates were struggling to understand Othello, you were already plotting the sequel, The Redemption of  Iago.

Then adulthood arrived, and so did shame.  Like Adam and Eve, you learned to keep a fig leaf over your private parts– it's just your private parts were inside your head.  You didn't tell your soap-loving best friend about how you managed to get her favorite characters back together.  And though you confessed every last little real-life crush to your significant other, you knew better than to reveal the fictional hunks leaning insolently against the doorways to your imagination.  You knew even the people who loved you the most just wouldn't understand. In fact, they'd think you were... crazy. 
And then the miracle happened.  You met a fiction writer, or took a writing class, or joined a writing group, and as you listened, what you heard spread wonder through you. Other people had voices too.  Other people– regular people, by the looks of them, with jobs and families just like you– muttered both sides of an imaginary conversation as they drove home through rush-hour traffic.  Other people bought three baby-name books years before they had babies; they too had mental sextuplets to christen.

Do you remember that moment when you realized you weren't alone?  And you weren't crazy?  It was liberating and joyous and it transformed your life.  All you had to do about those people in your head was ... write them down.  You just had to take all those secret jottings and connect them into a plot.  You could use all your elaborate theorizing on their childhoods and call it backstory.  You could take all those crazy floorplans of their castles and call it setting. Then you could give the characters the ending they deserved, and the entire universe, at least the one behind your eyes, would be restored to order, and you could call that plotting.

Since then, you've never looked back, have you?  In the community of writers, it's 
perfectly okay to spend more time decorating your hero's home than you ever spent on your own.  Your writing friends know better than to sneak out and dial 911 when you're discussing your villain's favorite poisons.  They listen sympathetically to your complaints that even after you've killed her mother and blinded her father, your heroine still insists on being as perky as Sandra Bullock.

All this support, however, has made you forget how deeply weird it is to live inside your characters while they live inside you.
But here I am to remind you of this paradox: Making fictional humans has the simultaneous effect of making authors both more and less human themselves.Non-writers, I think, assume that we paint from life, that we get our ability to characterize from close observation of our fellow "real people."  (Only writers, by the way, will understand why I put "real people" in quotes there.  It's not like our characters aren't real people too, right?) It's true, we do our share of people-watching, although I suspect for many of us it's more a matter of blocking the motion than deciphering the emotion– "So that's how a man yanks open the door and gets out of the car in one fluid movement!" We are properly appreciative of all the subtle variations of human psychology, and if we have a pen handy, we jot our observations down.

But just as often it's the reverse: We understand the people outside our head because we know the ones inside.  Like Walt Whitman, we contain multitudes, and all we have to do sometimes is ask, and they'll tell us who and what they are– and why.  It's all too easy to extrapolate from their revelations to the motives and values of everyone around us.  (When I was in graduate school in the English program, I took as an elective a Criminal Behavior psychology course.  Impressed with my paper on what combination of background factors produce what variety of crime, the professor asked if I were a social worker who worked with many offenders.  "No, " I replied, "I'm a writer, and I have a lot of villains.")

We need characters to fill every role, so we might take on the tolerant attitude of "it takes all kinds of people to build a world." Unfortunately, the tolerance we have for some of our characters can be disorienting when we try to apply it to their counterparts in the real world.  I can just imagine Thomas Harris's justification for bestowing connubial bliss upon Hannibal the Cannibal– "Serial murderers need a happy ending too!"  Let's just say, we might not be the best jurors for Jeffrey Dahmer's trial.

The problem is, once we construct the backstory for our characters, we realize everyone in the world has backstory too– traumas and issues and dark pasts that affect their present behavior.  So we search in their actions for some rich and complex motivation, which can make us more intuitive about other people's feelings than almost any shrink.  We know that the boy standing defiant on the playground is trying to conceal his loneliness and longing for a friend.  We know the girl looking up from her book is trying to get up her courage to approach him. That's the wonderful empathy of authors.

The problem is, while we're melting with sympathy for them, we're also plotting how, if we were in charge of this story, we'd have the school bully (hmmm... probably acting out because his father beats him, or maybe his mother's abandoned him?) taunt the boy and then the girl would rush to his defense–
In other words, we would turn those real people into characters.

It happens all the time.  We'll be watching the news, sincerely weeping sympathetic tears as some parent whose child has gone missing begs for her safe return... while idly thinking that there's something a bit off about the gestures and expression there, and wouldn't it be cool if it turned out that the parent actually murdered the child and buried her – That's sick.  (And it doesn't make us feel much better when it turns out, three days later, our fiction is actually fact.)
Or our best friend will be lamenting her mother's increasing frailty, and we'll mention our last heroine's conflict about putting her mother in a nursing home.  And we're surprised and ashamed when the friend snaps, "My mother's broken hip, alas, is real, not some subplot that's going to be wrapped up neatly by Chapter 14!"

But we do agree, don't we, that there is no reason for a husband to object to an entirely rational discourse on the allure of a  flinty-eyed tattooed Adonis ex-cop of a hero?  (And that is nothing at all like our justifiable irritation when he says, as he closes the cover of our latest release, "You know, I'd like to take your heroine straight to bed."  He's.... he's objectifying her!)

Let's face it.  Sometimes our amazing ability to bring characters to life gets a little scary.  It isn't just that our life becomes fodder for our fiction; sometimes, as we try out our characters' poses and test their value system, our life starts to imitate our fiction. It might start with the helpful query "What would my resourceful heroine do?" whenever we're confronted with a difficult decision.  But soon, we're taking self-defense classes because she's getting stalked.  Think of poor Stephen King.  He recalls the spookily cheerful driver of the van that nearly killed him as "a character out of one of my own novels." (And the driver died mysteriously, alone in his trailer-- of course it was a trailer-- a few months later... insert Twilight Zone music, please.)

There is magic in this ability of ours to imagine people so completely, but it's a dark magic too.  A wonderful empathy guides us to embody universal human issues in unique characters, who sometimes inspire our readers to realizations about their own lives.  But the obverse of writer's empathy is a sort of sociopathy that leads us to take a notebook to an aunt's funeral so we can jot down those telling details– the glint of the sun on the teak coffin, our uncle's fist closing hard around the stem of a lily and breaking it.

Only a sociopath, after all, could create people just to torture them with "conflict" and "motivation" and "poetic justice".  Only a sociopath could say, "I couldn't help it. I had to kill Joey off."  A sociopath... or a writer.

"There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer," Graham Greene remarked.  I think that is the paradox that ultimately makes us writers– the mix of warm beating love and icy determination.  But remember, the splinter pierces our heart first of all, and as long as we can feel that, experience the pain our characters experience, we will retain the humanity needed to imagine those inner voices into life, and make them become real for the "real people" who are our readers.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Stuff for Community of Practice paper?

Perry, William G., Jr. (1981).  Cognitive and ethical growth: The making of meaning. In Arthur W.
Chickering and Associates, The Modern American College. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass: 76-116.

Perry, William G., Jr. (1970), Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A
Scheme (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston); reprinted November 1998; Jossey-Bass; ISBN:
0787941182 .

UW Colleges Virtual Teaching & Learning Center

Cognitive DevelopmentBelenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule's Women's Ways of Knowing

It's interesting that there's often a reference to "differing viewpoints" and the need to accept and consider them (in the COI), and here the further more active process of "negotiating" them.
William Perry's model of cognitive and moral development suggests that many/most students come to college near the start of the journey, at "dualism" where they see the world of knowledge as dividing into "right or wrong" usually determined by a higher authority. (Baxter Magolda updates this to call it "absolute knowing".)
We've witnessed in first year college classes the collision between "what my parents taught me" and everyone else's "what my parents taught me", not to mention open academic thought. I had a student once who came to my very large state u (who knows why her parents decided that was the place for her) after being home-schooled by her parents. Her father was also, btw, her minister. He'd disagreed on some theological point with their previous church, and founded his own church, with a congregation consisting of his own children. Talk about absolute knowing-- she had not previously been exposed to ANY adult voices that weren't Mom and Dad, who were pretty literally speaking from a Godlike perspective. She was a nice young lady and certainly didn't argue with all the diverse viewpoints encountered in a large urban university classroom, but she was appalled. Scared. And she never did break out. All of her papers, regardless of the assignment, were some version of "how I came to Jesus with Dad's help." She dropped out before the end of the semester. But I've always thought of her as an example of someone who couldn't move beyond the dualism, for whom divergent viewpoints were a threat.
Then again, some students arrive in or quickly achieve "multiplicity"-- "everyone's got their own opinion, equally valid." This is an advance, but does it require "negotiation"? Acceptance, yes, but "negotiation" would seem to require discussion. These are the students who are quite comfortable with assignments like "literature reviews" and "annotated bibliographies" which require the neutral summary of other viewpoints. But they still need to progress to be able to evaluate, consider, choose, or even analyze. 
I teach "thesis" in classes- how to cogently express the point of your paper. And the initial posting of a student's thesis can often place him/her pretty squarely in dualism or multiplicity. The dualist will present an opinion-- "this is right." Everything is an argument paper, and the thesis is the judgment. The multiplicity dweller will generally post some statement of fact (inarguable), or a sort of consensus of opinions without further comment. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

More community of practice stuff

Harasim on COP--

(Side note: I bought the e-book of this as it was much cheaper, and THERE ARE NO PAGE NUMBERS! I didn't realize this could be a problem when I use quotes. I'll check the version on the "cloud reader" to see if that's more like a pdf with the page numbers.)

"COPs are groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this are by interacting on an ongoing basis." Wenger, 2002, p. 4-5.

From Barab, MacKinster, Scheckler (2004).
"Participation in a COP results in some outcome, whether it is an idea, a tool, drawing, online post, or simply becoming more knowledgeably skillful with respect to the practice.This process of transforming experience and the outcomes of experience into a thing is knows as reification" (p. 66).

Wenger (2002): "Knowledge lives in the human act of knowing."

Hmm. I don't think that's what really goes on in writing CoPs. It's more knowledge is created by the process of creating. That is, in my experience on the GEnie romance fiction roundtable-- still in my experience the greatest time of sharing and growing in writing knowledge-- we'd write, and then discuss the problems, issues, and solutions that arose in the writing, then as a group (or in back-and-forth) discuss why this problem might happen, where else it might happen (like in another book), and why the solution worked, or what other solutions could work. That is, we ended up building theories of fiction writing (particularly structure) based on the experience we had in creating and discussing the creations.

Harasim: "Historically, knowledge has advanced as communication technologies have improved," and uses the printing press as an example.
Printing press made possible widespread literacy.
 "as the mechanisms to meet and share ideas improved, so too did scientific knowledge."
In 1992, in a heated desire to join friends on the GEnie network, I bought a primitive modem and learned to use it. (Anyone remember ATDT? and then some number? I don't even remember what that was for.) That is, the technology came and we all had to learn how to use it-- we became computer literate or modem literate in order to participate in the community.

Can't read printed books without being literate, but there's no way to become literate without books being available-- technology actually creates the need AND the ability to fulfill that need.

Another motivation-- in a CoP, even without a competitive element, you want to put your best face on. Wear your Sunday best, as my grandmother would say. If you're in the midst of articulate, able writers, before you post that passage from your book, you're going to revise and refine based on what the community has been discussing, so that you won't be embarrassed by inadequacy in front of your new friends.
Community grows.
Members participate.
Discourse advances, sometimes very rapidly, through interaction.
Knowledge (new) results from the discourse and is recorded (in forums, the archives, etc).
Members take the new collective knowledge home and use it to create or revise their work (reify the knowledge), then come back and share the new product with others, adding more to the knowledge base.

I remember in those halcyon early days of GEnie, three of us (two of us are still close friends, united in part in mutual dislike of the third, poor thing) decided to write a "braided novel". (We all wrote in the same genre for the same publisher and editor.) The big thing was--- and this was put out as a marketing element-- we did all the brainstorming and writing online, in the GEnie roundtable, and other members would weigh in with comments and suggestions. Once I wrote what was sort of the center of the emotional plot, a big confrontation scene between a soldier and the wife who had been waiting at home. It had my signature graceful prose (if I do say so myself... that's really my big strength) and the emotionally-embedded sentences. I was over the moon with pleasure at it. And it went over well with the commenters, except one, a much more accomplished writer, said that it felt disjointed as a scene because the most threatening threat from him to her happened in the middle, so everything after that seemed an anticlimax. The other commenters agreed, and so I tried moving that part to the end of the scene. Voila, now there was an staircase of emotion, so that the greatest emotion was at the end.

That was a true Community of Practice-- we "practiced" as a group.
Must stress with paper-- writing communities are interesting to study because the "product" is part of the discourse, an occasion for the discourse, not just a reification of the knowledge but a part of the process of getting to the knowledge. And it's all immediate. It's not like, say, the bar association continuing legal ed (also a cop purpose) where the knowledge in the seminars is carried out and used outside the community later in a case-- in a writing community, the discourse leads immediately to the writing passage which is shared and then becomes another part of the process of knowledge-creation.

"Schools of thought and practice are based on shared texts."  (Harasim paraphrasing Brown and Duguid 2000).
... "note the importance of text and documentes in generating new schools of thought and practice... the history of the internet as extending a long tradition of communities forming around documents: textual communities.

Harasim: "The term "cop" has evolved from an emphasis on apprenticeship within an organization to that of members sharing a common profession or type of work beyond an institutional affiliation... hared profession or work but not shared workplace... informal...voluntary. ... Members typical share: a comon language or set of terms related to their profession, practice, or interst;, a substantive common focus; common training or experience; acommon way of working or doing things; a common set of tools or technologies SEE IF IN AUTHONOMY THEY'RE ALL USING SCRIVENER OR SOME OTHER WRITING TOOL; a common tacit understanding of the topic."

\... there is generally a high level of cohesion and intentionality, if the group is to survive."

Authonomy-- apprenticeship program? With Jenny and Ellie both, as soon as they got published, they moved on. (Community had changed, but so did they-- didn't need it anymore?) Contrast with Lynn C's group, where they were "friends" and success didn't lead to an exit.

Monday, July 15, 2013


I have a host of teaching weaknesses! But now I'm going to think of what I do well. I'm actually a good analyst, so my best teaching I think is done in writing. That is, I'm a better textbook writer than I am a classroom teacher. What I'm really good at is analyzing how a piece of writing works and how to make that happen in your own writing. So oddly enough, I'm best at a great distance (writing articles about writing, keeping the edittorrent blog about editing), or working very directly one-on-one with a writer. The f2F classroom has never been my metier, especially college classrooms where discussion is to be encouraged. I'm more a lecturer type (because I want to share all that analysis!) than a discussion-facilitator.

Anyway, I've sort of kept teaching until I happened into the two (opposing) situations I'm good at-- giving lectures about writing and plotting to large groups, and tutoring students directly in a writing center. (Also I do coaching of fiction writing on an ad hoc basis, and teach text-based email-list classes on various fiction-writing subjects, during which I always give way, way too much information and analysis, which annoys many students and delights (the best) some others. Also these classes are a way I create gobs of material that I use later to write books and booklets about these writing topics.)

So anyway, tonight I decided my greatest strength was not the analytical ability, or my enthusiasm about the rather arcane topics I teach. Rather it's... acceptance.

I was having dinner with my son, a newly commissioned military officer kicking his heels for a couple months before his next training assignment. He is, like so many of his generation, a serious gamer, but he's always been his mother's son and more fascinated by the stories than by the technology. We talk a lot about how this new medium allows for a different type of story, one with multiple protagonists, for example, where they don't all have to be brought together somehow in the end-- they can have separate experiences as the player will be able to "be" that person for the nonce.  He'd told me a few months ago about a post-apocalyptic story he had in his head, and tonight I mentioned that it seemed more suited to a videogame than to a novel for various reasons that made sense at the time-- his story is a road story, which is hardly unknown in fiction but would be more interesting in a game; he had a strong idea of the ending (endings are essential in fiction, I think... if there's no ending, there might be episodes but no story) but alternate paths to that-- again, a "game" advantage that would of necessity be trimmed in a novel.

Point is, I accepted it-- the story, the particular medium (gaming), and above all the acceptability of creating stories as a viable way to spend your time... and also the entire possibility that he could write this and it could be good. That I think is strangely enough my greatest strength. I exude, "You aren't insane. It's perfectly normal that you are preoccupied with these stories and these people who don't really exist. That's not crazy. It's cool."

I have actually been doing that much of my life. I sold my first novel when I was 22 (trust me, that was the very height of my brilliant career-- nothing like hitting your peak early to chasten you for life :), and so all along I've had credibility-- I'm just a normal person, and yet I write novels and have had some small success at it. There's nothing particularly exceptional or insane about me, so really, if I'm okay with it, if I think you've got as much chance as I do, then you can stop having that secret shame, you know, who the heck am I to think I can write a book?

That's my great gift. By accepting this as acceptable, I tell writers they're not crazy to write. I like to think that's really a good thing. :)

That doesn't of course mean that everyone I deal with is a good writer or will probably succeed. But I actually think almost anyone who wants to write probably can learn to write in some way. There are those who are already good at storytelling but might not be good at mechanics (these are the ones most likely to become pretty good fiction writers-- you can always hire an editor, and what you can't hire-- an imagination-- they already have). And there are those who are meticulous at mechanics but have little imagination (journalists are often this way), and might best apply their talents to something other than fiction, maybe-- but there's a huge world of genres and modes to choose from.

I've learned that if I read someone's story or outline and think, never in a million years, I better keep that to myself, first so as not to shut down their enthusiasm, but also because you can't really predict what combination of idea, hard work, and connections might cause a story to end up getting published or produced.

So what the heck. Deal with the writing as it comes to you. I once worked with a young writer who had apparently never noticed that chapters have many paragraphs-- every chapter was a single unbroken paragraph, and I don't mean in the Faulknerianly magisterial stream of consciousness way-- it was more a regular passage where the writer had forgotten to hit "enter" (I had "return" there and deleted it so you wouldn't realize I learned to type on a typewriter :) and "tab" occasionally. It was sort of breathtaking, and I remember thinking direly that anyone who has so little ability to absorb the conventions of written prose had little chance. But we soldier on. I said, as affirmatively as I could, that I wanted to show him how to paragraph, and we discussed where a little idea ended and a new one began, and then when one person stopped speaking and another started, and other places where a new paragraph might be useful. He thought this was fun, and pretty soon started incorporating paragraphs into his chapter. Once he did that, I could see that the helter-skelter pace that led him to rush through was actually the sign of a powerful engine of narrative propulsion-- a kind of exciting story. And wouldn't you know it, a few years later, his first book was bought by a major publisher (he did have paragraphs by then :), because that propulsiveness was actually the sign of a natural storyteller.

Anyway, since then I haven't written anyone off. Who knows what will combine to create a great story? I know that I have great training-- I know how plots work, and how sentences work, and even so, I never pull off the great story I should be capable of, given the expertise. (A natural teacher, perhaps-- the greatest teacher bar none I've ever had teaches screenplay writing, and has taught dozens of writers who later won awards, and yet hasn't ever had a big writing success of his own. That's me too, only I'm not that good a writing teacher.)

So. When I think of my greatest strength as a writing teacher, that's it. I don't think you're crazy to want to write. I think it's awesome, or at least perfectly normal. Let's go out to lunch and talk through your plot!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Community of Practice

This paper will be about a writer's group a friend of mine belonged to. (I've been involved in fiction-writing groups for decades, so I have kind of a broad experience with the in-person kind, but not a lot with the online variety.) This writer (Jenny) and I have been friends-- actually, we met online! We were both in an online community back in the early 90s-- we were real pioneers. GEnie-- it had "roundtables" for romance writers (us), mystery writers, sf/f writers. I belonged to all of them as I wasn't sure what I'd end up writing (and what do you know, my first mystery novel, after 30 years! comes out next month, so I guess it worked). And as far as communities of practice, two of these roundtables-- Romex and SFFnet-- were by far ever the greatest discussions of popular genre fiction since, who knows, Dickens and Trollope were matching pints at the Old Cheshire on Fleet Street. Wow-- there's no record, of course, of all that incredible discussion, but I was in charge of several "topics" and remember how breathtaking it was-- mostly published authors talking very intensely about HOW they wrote, how they characterized, how they plotted.

Anyway, Jenny and I met there, but long after GEnie went the way of Lycos (so many corpses in this internet history), we stayed friends, visiting each other, emailing through major life traumas, all that. A long, long relationship. We're nothing alike-- she's a NY Jew, I'm a small town Catholic girl-- but we actually -- long before we met-- attended the same university (U of Chicago), years apart. She hated it, I loved it (it changed a lot in between).  Oddly enough. She lived in a commune, which was my dream when I was growing up in the tail end of the fun times, aka the 60s.

So... I got published very early-- my prose style has always been, if I  may say so, very graceful and always got me farther than I really deserved. So I had a Regency romance out in 1984 or so, when I was really young. And her first novel came out recently when she was 60! But she was always one of the most cogent commentators on how fiction worked, and she really just needed to wait until she found an editor that understood her work. Point is-- we were always in contact, always brainstorming plots. We had our own little community of practice. She recently sent me a compilation of all the emails we'd exchanged about the book that she eventually got published, and there, amidst all the book talk, were emails about our marriages and our kids (about the same age), and among other things, I realized that the kid I always thought of as an eternal source of worry was no worry then, and the "good kid" (as he still calls himself :) was angry at me all those years. Weird how the memory works, but can't argue with contemporaneous emails! And we were SO honest with each other, so I guess it was true, that the sweet son was really sour.And I might owe the other one an apology for remembering him as so difficult!

At some point, Jenny joined this group centered in the UK, I think (online, I mean), where she hoped to regain that Genie level of discussion. I think the group wasn't like that, but was much more interactive, focused on critiquing rather than discussion-- that is, participants post their chapters and others give helpful comments. After a couple years on this site, she sold her book, and I've always thought maybe this was a really successful group as she told me about others who sold their books after participating in this group. So I thought recently I'd write about this (as I'd have some distance -- it's not my group), but now she tells me that the group got all commercial and those who really connected and wrote well withdrew and work together but outside the group. (I don't know the details yet.) One of the problems we're seeing a lot with online groups is that they start more or less as voluntary groups with one leader or a few leaders, and then as it becomes successful, everyone thinks, "Facebook!" and there's an attempt to cash in. I don't blame them, but "monetizing" a group so often ruins it (cf. Goodreads) as the purpose of the group stops being whatever and starts being "making a profit" or "selling a service" or "attracting more members".

We'll see. I'll interview her and go there and actually join the group and check it out.

I keep running into the kind of ethical issues I never had when working on my thesis about Edgar Allan Poe (long dead guy, that is). Even blogging here about my sons (who are both grown and wonderful men, btw) feels like it could be a bit unethical. But writing about my friend and her colleagues at Authonomy-- hmm. I'm not used to that. I do write about my students sometimes, but I'm careful to disguise the situation (like changing "her" to "him") enough that I don't know they'd even realize I was writing about them. And I'm not writing about THEM but the writing/teaching/editing situation.