Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Academic Suicide

Posted: Mar 12, 2014 16:03;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 06:03

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The so-called “college paper” has been a debated topic practically since its initial inception. A recent class statement brought the debate to the forefront of my mind. Professor O’Donnell stated, in a tone of bemusement, that his students tend to perform better on the blog assignments than on their actual papers. It does seem odd that a discrepancy exists between two writing exercises. However, the answer formed almost immediately within my thoughts and has expanded through the discussion of prescriptive rules versus descriptive. The reason students are so terrible at writing the “college paper” boils down to differences between prescriptive rules and descriptive rules. With that I commit myself to academic suicide by breaking the general guidelines and prescriptive rules of academic writing and adhering only to grammatical prescriptive rules and a more formal dialect to explain the phenomenon of why students are incapable of writing the traditional North American college paper.

In terms of grammar, students are already limited in the way that they can communicate their ideas in a paper by having to adopt a more prescriptive based, formal dialect. I am NOT arguing that students can get by in the world, and more specifically their university career, without an academic and more formal dialect. Just like the young student with only a formal, prescriptive dialect who is beaten up on the schoolyard for not having a more descriptive based dialect that allows him or her to fit in (Wallace 51), the university student will be figuratively beaten up in the classroom if they do not possess a formal, more prescriptive based dialect. It is necessary for university students (and anyone who wants to be successful in the English-speaking world) to adopt a second (or third or fourth) dialect that allows them to fit into their surroundings. There are various situations in which prescriptive rules should be relied on more heavily than descriptive rules and vice versa.

Professors, however, ignorant of the fact that students are already restricted by a dialect that may not be second nature, impede the ability for students to effectively communicate their ideas further by creating their own set of stylistic prescriptive rules. In the Humanities (and Sciences) it is a major faux pas to use first person pronouns. The only time ‘I’ may be acceptable in a paper is when it is used to clarify the student’s argument from a secondary source. ‘Helpful’ topic ideas only serve as an agent of restriction, tightening the figurative noose around students’ ideas. There are few things more disheartening in the post-secondary experience than completing an essay that has veered so far from the original topic that it almost seems pointless to hand it in. Whether well-written or not, whether ideas have been communicated appropriately and interestingly in an academic dialogue does not matter to professors who set guidelines. The paper that succeeds in communicating ideas may receive a lower grade if it does not meet the guidelines. Professors need to realize that the more prescriptive rules they place on their papers, the worse students’ papers will be. The more rules, the more confining the box that students need to fit their ideas into. This is why students perform so much better on blogs. A blog has no rules aside from one: it must be “within shouting distance of the course” (O’Donnell). Students are therefore free to express themselves and communicate the ideas that they find interesting in compelling and captivating ways. After reading several blogs, despite the lack of rules, it becomes evident that there is a second, unwritten rule that comes naturally to almost all university students: they use a more prescriptive based, formal dialect than what their typical descriptive dialect would permit.

Another guideline or prescriptive rule set out by professors is the limitation of secondary sources to scholarly articles. Although it is understandable that the use of websites like ‘Wikipedia’ should be maintained to a minimum, it is another guideline that prevents the development of strong, relevant ideas that support the argument. With social media permeating our everyday lives, professors need to accept changing times. Why should a student be restricted from using blog posts of highly educated people in respectable positions? Why does a professor’s journal article garner more merit than a post on their blog site? It shouldn’t; and even one of the ‘scholarly articles’ cited for this paper (Steven Pinker’s “Grammar Puss”) can be found in a blog. Clearly this prescriptive rule of how research material for papers ought to be gathered is about as outdated as the grammatical prescriptive rules that, as Steven Pinker points out, are based on Latin and 18th-Century fads (20).

The problem, however, is the fact that prescriptive rules are extremely difficult to abolish. They have become so engrained into our minds that we don’t challenge them. This fear of driving change is also perpetuated by “the worry that readers will think [the author] is ignorant of the rules” (Pinker 20). As a result we limit our thoughts and ideas and force them into tiny, prescriptive boxes. We avoid engaging in a dangerous game of Russian Roulette with our grades by playing it safe and coughing up redundant, highly repetitive, excruciatingly painful to read, and bluntly put, shit. The failure of the college paper is not due to the students, as Rebecca Shuman so strongly states in her blog post “The End of the College Essay”, but that of the professors who are not willing to wake up to the 21st Century and rethink their own set of restrictive, prescriptive rules.

I personally used to love writing. I enjoyed it. I didn’t even mind writing essays. And I wrote good ones. Over 50% of my class failed the first essay in my English 1900 course. I received a grade over 90% and embarrassingly had to tell the girl beside me who had received an abysmal 4% that I had done very well and leave it at that. Somewhere along the way, however, something changed. Professors implemented more guidelines and maybe even my own standards rose. Whatever the cause, the outcome is the same, I no longer feel capable of writing essays. How can I when students are repeatedly informed that they do not know how to write essays and are incapable of producing good ones? I am now so replete with anxiety concerning whether or not my essay will be long enough (or too long), if it will sound academic enough, and whether it will actually relate to the topic, that I have become immobilized. I do half-assed, last minute essay writing to avoid the stress of completing something that I may be simultaneously proud and doubtful of because it is well-written but does not fit into a professor’s prescriptive rules. I would rather accept a lower grade on something that I slapped together the night before it was due than have hard work torn apart by a “SNOOT” professor (Wallace “Tense Present”).

The reason students are incapable of writing college papers is not because of some kind of innate inability nor is it because students do not possess an academic dialect. The students are not to blame for their poor attempts at the “college paper”; it is the professors who need to realize the defeating, restricting effects of their prescriptive rules who are to blame. Just like the machine that is capable of duplicating human language in Pinker’s “Grammar Puss”, students are given a number of prescriptive rules to follow and just like the machine, we sit there, immobilized, unable to communicate our ideas (19). Prescriptive rules should be relied on more heavily when it comes to the college paper and academic writing, but without descriptive rules students, like the machine, don’t know how to say what they want to say. Perhaps if allowed to break the rules, students could actually write the infamous “college paper”.

Works Consulted

O’Donnell, Dan. English 2810. 8 Jan. 2014
Pinker, Steven. “GRAMMAR PUSS. (Cover Story).” New Republic 210.5 (1994): 19-26. Business Source Complete. Web. 14 Jan. 2014.
Schuman, Rebecca. “The End of the College Essay.” Web log post. Slate. 13 Dec. 2013. Web. 16 Jan. 2014
Wallace, David Foster. “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage.” Harper’s Magazine 04 2001: 39-58. ProQuest. Web. 14 Jan. 2014

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Class 2.0: Digital technology & digital rhetorics in the undergraduate classroom.

Posted: Feb 08, 2014 16:02;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03

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I just posted the slides for my lecture to the Department yesterday: Class 2.0: Digital technology & digital rhetorics in the undergraduate classroom.

Abstract: This lecture discusses some preliminary results from an ongoing research project on the use of digital technology and digital rhetorics in the undergraduate classroom. The goal of the project is to explore how these technologies and rhetorics can address common problems in the literature classroom: weak composition skills, lack of engagement, poor preparation. Initial, at this point still largely anecdotal, results suggest that the committed integration Web 2.0 technologies and rhetorics in the classroom can greatly improve outcomes in this area.

The lecture discusses how these techniques are used and some of the results we have seen.

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Using blogs in class

Posted: Dec 15, 2013 15:12;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03

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I’ve used blogs in most of my classes for the last seven or eight years. I find them to be a superb teaching tool, both as a way of teaching students to research, think, and write about the subjects they are studying and as a means of modulating my instruction to match a given class’s strengths and weaknesses.

I’ve been told by some colleagues that they’ve found it difficult to integrate blogs into their classes effectively. They’ve find it difficult to get decent participation, find the blogs to be not very informative, and wish that their students would engage with each other’s work more deeply.

I’ve not had any of these problems (well, perhaps the participation rate has been weaker that I might wish in one or two classes). On the whole, I find that students participate regularly in the assignment, that they are enthusiastic about it and understand its relevance to their learning, and are willing to engage with each other’s work. And, at their best, my students’ blogs contain some of their very best writing—in some cases far better than they hand in other contexts.

I believe that some of this success comes from the way I handle blogs in my classes. And, since I haven’t come across anybody who does exactly what I do, I thought I would explain my technique here so that others can use it.

1) Allow lots of freedom

Students in my classes are told that the blogs are a part of their contribution to the development of the community that is our class. For this reason, they are given no set topic, minimum length, or specific model or rubric they have to follow. They are told that the point of the blog is to participate in an ongoing discussion about the class material and that appropriate blogs make a good faith effort to be part of that conversation.

This means, for example, that a good blog could be an essay or a reflection on something that came up in the previous class, or it could be the draft of an essay. It could be a detailed discussion of some event in a given work or theme or question that ties several works in the class together, or it could be a link to a YouTube video.

As in real life, the important thing about blogging in my classes is that it is a way supporting the development of the community, and anything that does that is acceptable.

2) Mark pass/fail

If you don’t mandate any specific length or topic, then it becomes very hard to grade blogs on anything but a pass-fail basis. Is a link to a very relevant YouTube video more or less “excellent” (and hence deserving of an A) than an interesting discussion of the pros and cons of some point raised by a student in the previous day’s class?

For this reason, I grade blogs as pass-fail. If you post your blog on time, it looks like it was done in good faith, and it seems more-or-less relevant, you get a 1; if it isn’t all of these things, you get a 0.

Initially, this actually scares students: how will they know if I will consider a blog to made in good faith or more-or-less relevant before they submit? My answer to them is that they can’t. And so, as a result, I won’t give something a 0 (except for late postings) without prior warning.

What this means in practice is that I promise students that I will warn them if it begins to look like their blogs are not meeting the minimum standard for getting a grade and will only start taking marks away if there is no change in their behaviour after we have discussed that warning and what they can do to improve things. In actual practice, I have never, in the seven or eight years I have been doing this, had to warn a single student that their work was consistently off topic or failed to show that they made a reasonable effort.

Not all my students complete all their blogs on time (or even at all). And some students end up completely very few or none (though most students complete most blogs). But I have yet to have a student who has participated in the exercise post anything that looked like a less-than-good-faith effort. In my experience students either participate in good faith or they don’t participate.

3) Don’t sweat the comments

A common complaint I read from facuty who use blogs in class is that it is difficult to get students to comment on each other’s blogs.

I have the same problem, if by “comment” you mean “add comments using the comment function to another student’s blog posting.” In the course of a year, indeed, I suspect I would be lucky if we get five comments from students in that sense of the word.

If by “comment” you mean “read and respond to the other students’ postings in any way,” however, then I have no problem with getting students to comment on each other’s work. Instead of writing comments at the foot of each other’s postings, my students seem to prefer to comment on their colleagues’ work in the main body of their postings. As far as I can tell, most students begin their weekly blogging by reading the positing that have gone before. Certainly they commonly attempt to situate their own opinions in the context of the other students’ work.

Since the point of blogging is to encourage students to see themselves as belonging to a community that is exploring the topic of the course together, this type of response seems to me to be, if anything, preferrable to a simple comment.

4) Use the blogs in class

I make a point of reading the blogs before I go to class and referring to them in the course of our discussion. Indeed, increasingly, I structure our in-class time around what the students have written in their weekly postiings. I try to draw my questions from things they have said and, if the discussion begins to lag, I try to move it along by raising comments or arguments made by students in their blog postings.

Occasionally I do this by showing one or more blogs on the projector in our class. But more commonly I just do it by simply mentioning what I have read. As part of this process, I usually ask the author of the posting I am referring to to identify themselves for us—and then often take the opportunity to probe the question more deeply with them

Another way that I use the blogs in class is by encouraging students to post their essays and drafts to the blogging site. This encourages them to see this work too as being less about assessment and more about contributing to the community as a whole.

The important thing here is that this approach reinforces the communal nature of our endeavour: that research, writing, and learning are a community endeavour and that what we think about things is interesting and useful—even if only as a springboard for other’s ideas.

5) Keep them behind a firewall

I find the blogs my students write to be so interesting, I wish I could share them with the wider world. But having done some surveys, I know that the students themselves tend to prefer posting behind a firewall. Since the goal of the exercise is to encourage them to speak out, I do what seems to make my students most comfortable and keep them inside the walled-off section of our Learning Management System.

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English 1900j (Fall 2012): Blogs

Posted: Sep 04, 2012 16:09;
Last Modified: Sep 04, 2012 17:09

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In this course you are expected to maintain a blog. Postings will be required from you most weeks. And every so often you are asked to review and/or comment on your blog postings and those of your class mates.

Contents

Why am I being asked to blog?

You are being asked to blog because experience shows that blogging is a good way of collecting your thoughts on a topic, keeping track of your intellectual development, discovering things you want to talk and write about, and building a community with your classmates. Blogs are helpful because they uncover trends in the interests and thoughts of the community, provide reference to interesting resources, and maintain a record of problems and solutions encountered throughout the year.

They are also useful because they encourage you to read with a computer nearby. One of the most important advantages of the internet age is the ease with which we can look things up. Blogging can be a way of intellectually profiting from and passing on things you have looked up during your reading.

What should I blog about?

What you write about in your blog is up to you. Sometimes, you may want to write about something you looked up about a book or author. Other times, you might want to discuss things you didn’t understand or difficult passages you think you can help others with. It might be about emotional responses you had to something we read; or a reflection on things discussed in class or in the hallway. Or a funny anecdote about something to do with the class. The only requirement is that most blog entries should be recognisably connected in some way to something in the current unit of our syllabus class (you’re allowed the occasional one that is not).

How am I being graded?

You are being graded on a pass-fail basis solely on whether you appear to have made a good faith effort to participate. In weeks where you write nothing or write blog entries that do not show what looks like a good faith effort to participate, you will receive a grade of 0%; blog entries that look like you made at least some good faith effort to participate in the discussion, will receive a grade of 100%.

Can I get bonus marks or redo a missed blog?

Blogs need to be done by the deadline to receive credit. Missed blogs cannot be made up. Everybody is allowed to miss one blog entry in the semester without penalty. This means, for example, that if there are eight blogs assigned in the course, you will receive 100% if you submit seven blogs on time. If you submit eight, you will receive extra credit for the extra blog.

What if I write more blogs than required?

If you right extra blogs in a given week, you will receive 1/2 bonus mark for every extra blog posting, up to a maximum of 1 extra bonus mark per week. Because these are for bonus marks, the standard by which your effort will be judged is a little higher: your entry must show real evidence of effort to receive a bonus mark.

What about comments?

You are not required to comment on blogs. If you do, this will be considered as evidence of participation.

Can I use material from my blog in my essay/unessay?

Yes. Your essay or unessays can reuse material from your blog.

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