Monday, March 23, 2015

Why I Started Grading First Drafts and Why I Stopped

When I first began teaching English composition, I had little context from which to judge student papers, and not much in the way of pedagogical theory to guide me. Fresh from my M.A. in creative writing, I was hired as an adjunct and went into teaching with little experience grading papers.

Ironically, I think I was better at it then. At the time, I viewed writing as creation from within. None of the pedagogical concerns that now swirl around my head as a doctoral student had tainted my writerly mind. I was clear of any worries about the economics of grading. I didn’t grade first drafts back then. I focused solely on teaching students how to bring their thoughts to the page. I thought it more important that they concentrate on editing their work than on writing to a grade.

In those days, I viewed student essays as a product of their perception of the world; a writing assignment was merely a way of bringing their ideas into focus. Once the student’s message in a paper became clear, I went to work on format, structure, and writing to an audience. That’s when grades came into play. The students responded to that approach. My conversations with them focused on writing technique. All seemed fine. Seemed? Nay, it was.

Time passed. I sat on committees, listened in on department meetings. And I found myself increasingly swayed by both students and faculty members who balked at the ungraded draft. They viewed it as a practice without a purpose. Why, they questioned, should a student write something without getting a grade in return? No one takes an ungraded draft seriously, they argued. In order to be taken seriously as a professor, I decided I needed to start evaluating and assigning grades to student drafts.

The final nail in the ungraded-draft’s coffin came when I went back to graduate school to seek a doctorate. There I studied pedagogy, heard lectures on its importance, and searched for my own. What was I supposed to do with those pedagogical strategies if not use them to analyze and grade student writing? So the creative writer in me faded a bit and I became what I thought I should be: an academic.

One of my grad-school professors warned me that doctoral work destroys your writing. I had scoffed at the time, but after a year of dissertation-writing and work-shopping, I see what he meant. All the criticism, the sense of constant analysis from others, and the invasion of several audiences in my head united to massacre whatever marginal writing ability I had. Instead of worrying about the message in my writing, I found myself worried more about the form and rules of scholarly writing. I wrote to imaginary hypercritical audiences. The teacher had become the student. Or a moron. Probably both.

Likewise, when I graded students’ first drafts, I found myself writing more on the weaker papers, as I felt I “owed” it to my students to give them more feedback in order to justify their low grades, the ‘minimum wage’ they earned. I wrote less on the better papers, and that was equally unfair, as if the higher ‘pay’ meant they had received reward enough and needed less feedback. Either way, it was all about the grade. And my students of course only responded to the grade, wanting to know why they got it and how they could improve it. I spent more and more time justifying grades than discussing writing or writing strategies.

One night not long ago, while grading papers, I imagined what my younger self would think of my approach now. Suddenly both the student and inexperienced professor in me wanted to light up RateMyProfessors with criticism.

That’s when the full-circle revelation came to me. I had started out treating writing and student papers as sacred -- whether it was a five-page short story or a three-page personal narrative, written either by an eager English major or a student who had only grudgingly signed up for my course.

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7 Things You Should Know about Visual Literacy

1 What is it?
Over the past half century, many of our encounters with information have shifted from the printed page to the screen. Screen-based information offers so many more options—images and video, with their elements of color, shape, dynamic filters, and composition—that the concept of visual literacy has become important. Visual literacy is the ability to recognize and critically appreciate meaning in visual content and to use visual elements to create effective communication. It is not restricted to such fields as film, design, statistics, and the visual arts but is a vital skill for any student in higher education. In educational and vocational environments, students and other communicators are building infographics, videos, and interactive maps that require them to identify patterns and meaning in data, choose viable questions to consider, determine what to present in graphics, and select from an array of tools and services to construct a final product.

2 How does it work?
Visualizations often provide better ways to tell a story or understand data. A map, for example, shows the borders of a city or country more precisely than a detailed verbal or textual explanation. A chart can offer a simple-to-grasp story of a company’s financial growth or decline. As faculty and students employ more visuals in teaching and learning, visual literacy has become part of courses across the curriculum.

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Topic Modeling: Digital Liberal Arts Discussion Group

This week's topic centers on topic modeling as a means to uncover hidden themes and patterns in a text and lead to further close reading on new research threads. A large text is submitted to MALLET, which generates groups of words that are explored for new themes or topics. A new topic is a springboard for further close reading of the text for unexplored research threads. This process could be used to help students discover and shape their own research topics. Lunch will be provided. Please RSVP.

Read Topic Modeling: A Basic Introduction

Read Topic Modeling for Humanists: A Guided Tour

Getting Them to Talk

As anyone who has taught for more than a week will tell you, the most clever and carefully planned classroom strategy can fall flat if your students balk. Active-learning strategies necessarily depend on student participation and, thus, are particularly vulnerable to student resistance.

Most of what we mean by "participation" involves students being willing to contribute constructively to class discussions. And we've all had classes in which, for whatever reason, students just don't want to talk. So how do you minimize that occurrence and lay the groundwork for active learning?

The first step is to prioritize discussion. It's important that you let students know that discussion is integral to the course, to their learning, and to their grades. Be explicit, early on in the term, about why it's important for everyone to take part in discussions. Devote a section of your syllabus to laying out that reasoning as well. Make participation at least 10 percent of students' final grades, and hand out interim participation grades regularly to remind students of their responsibility.

You can also enshrine discussion in the regular rhythm of a class period. Begin each class with a discussion question. Do that every time—perhaps allowing a few minutes for students to write down their thoughts first—and they will get in the habit of coming to class ready to talk.

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How I Came Out of the Liberal Arts Closet

Two years ago, I accidentally outed myself when I quietly applied for a teaching job at a small liberal-arts college. I thought my secret was safe, since the search committee hadn’t yet asked for recommendation letters. But thanks to the wonders of modern technology and a glitch in the system, my references were automatically alerted when I submitted my application online. One of my mentors emailed me about it almost immediately.

It was time to come clean. No, not about being queer -- I'd gone public with that 10 years earlier -- but about my ambivalence toward the R1 track and my openness toward “going liberal arts.” You'd think my previous experience in coming out as gay would have made this new revelation easier. But I was surprised by how hard it was, and by the odd parallels between outing myself as queer and coming out as a liberal-arts professor-to-be.

Let me explain.

In both situations, I knew that hiding my true identity and desires meant safety and inclusion, but at the cost of authenticity and happiness. Just as society presumes that most of its members are heterosexual, and socializes and educates its youth accordingly, most graduate programs still presume that their students will land jobs at Research I’s and train Ph.D.’s primarily for those jobs.

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Friday, March 6, 2015

Big-Data Project on 1918 Flu Reflects Key Role of Humanists

A deadly virus arrives in America, carried by travelers from abroad. Health officials scramble to contain the threat, imposing quarantines and other strict measures even as they seek to reassure the public.

It sounds like the Ebola outbreak of 2014. But this scenario played out almost a hundred years ago, during the Spanish-influenza pandemic of 1918. Now a team of humanists and computer scientists has combined early-20th-century primary sources and 21st-century big-data analysis to better understand how America responded to the viral threat in 1918. It’s a study in the possibilities as well as the pitfalls of interdisciplinary work, and a model-in-progress for how data-driven analysis and close reading can enhance each other.

It’s also a historically minded project that speaks to the understandable contemporary obsession with fearsome diseases and how we respond to the threat they pose. That’s one reason the National Endowment for the Humanities helped support the work through its Digging Into Data grant program, administered by the agency’s Office of Digital Humanities.


The Spanish-flu project "really demonstrated how historical research in the humanities could address a very pertinent contemporary challenge in our society—namely, how public-health policies influence the spread of pandemic diseases," says Brett Bobley, director of the digital-humanities office, via email.

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