Architecture is the new Sustainability

In a recent post for the University Press of Colorado, Jamie White Farnham and I argue that a way to move from the overused trope of sustainability in writing studies is to think more about how writing programs—their people and environments, in combination with practical considerations such as funding sources, reporting lines, research, and curriculum—are situated as part of the architecture of their institutions. While sustainability is a term that can easily be co-opted or flipped against a writing program by an administration (e.g., “This program is no longer sustainable”), when a program is built into the structure of an institution, it is much harder to dismantle. The metaphor of architecture allows writing program administrators to imagine the constituent parts of a writing program as its foundation, beams, posts, scaffolding—the institutional structures that, alongside its people, anchor a program to the ground and keep it standing. Read “Sustainability and Then Some: Writing Programs in Institutional Structure” here.


Real Research for Real Audiences

Is your campus as cool as mine?  I absolutely LOVE when departments or schools showcase student academic work – after all, that’s why we’re all here!  At IUP, we’re celebrating Research Appreciation Week, which showcases research projects by undergraduate and graduate students as well as faculty.  Now, as a newbie faculty member here, I didn’t know anything about this until about two weeks ago.  Had I known, I would have certainly incorporated it into my classes in some way.  Fortunately for me, a colleague is very involved, and she invited me to be a judge for both the undergraduate and graduate scholars forums.  I sat in on an undergraduate panel where students presented their research on art history, fine art, and autism education.  I also sat in on a graduate panel where students presented on fine art, gender studies, and history.

What a delight.  Seriously.  Not only were the panels interesting, I took away a lot about why these types of events are important and how they can help us as teachers of writing in any discipline and specifically as teachers of researched writing.

We need to go to these events, and here’s why:

1. Students need to know that faculty are supportive of their (students’) lives as academics.  Why are they doing all this work if even their teachers don’t appreciate it beyond just giving it a grade?  Students perceive many of us as interested only in our own scholarship.  This simply shouldn’t be so.  As great as I thought this event was, the turnout by faculty was abysmal.  This also simply shouldn’t be so.

2. There’s a lot to learn at these events that hs nothing to do with the actual presentation content,  including what students are writing about, how students are writing, and what types of writing are going on in other disciplines and classrooms around the university.  Personally, I’m not so interested in fine art, but I learned a lot about how students write about fine art by listening to these presentations.  It’s also not a bad place to figure out what you want and don’t want in your students’ writing – there are good and not-so-good presentations at any conference, and exposure to both is educational.

Faculty should encourage students go to these events for the same reasons.

We also need to encourage students to WRITE for these events, and here’s why:  Sure, not all of your students are going to become academics, so the need for polished presentable critical essays (supplemented by powerpoint slides) might not be necessary for them after college.  But why shouldn’t they be learning the importance of these skills as part of their college education, as part of what it means to participate in an academic environment?  It doesn’t matter what they’ll be doing after college – writing, articulating understanding, clear communication, conveying ideas, and debate are skills that will help them regardless of their career field.

If your campus doesn’t have an event like this, it should.  And if it’s just not feasible, why not create this type of forum in your classroom?  Provide opportunities for students to share their research in front of a real audience who might have real questions.  And of course, show that you have real interest.

Motivating Students Not to Fake It

Last month, my husband and I watched a CNBC ‘documentary’ called “Faking the Grade: Classroom Cheaters.” For a full hour (or was it two? – it was too long, regardless), we watched this sensationalist pseudo-journalism, complete with ominous music and images of dark alley homework exchanges and the fuzzed-out faces of youngsters gone wrong. Parents are blamed, electronics are blamed, the media is blamed – a lot of things are blamed for one major problem – apparently, cheating is an epidemic in this country (sort of like AIDS in Africa) – academia is referred to as “ground zero in the war against cheating.” Even worse, if you cheat when you’re young, it’s pretty much your destiny to cheat and lie your entire life. Look at your neighbor’s paper in fourth grade – deadbeat dad by twelfth.

The program goes on to show demonstrations of tools that can help teachers catch young cheaters red handed. A common tool is anti-plagiarism software, such as Turnitin. Teachers can submit student work (or have students do the submission) and TurnItIn will show how much of the paper is plagiarized, if any. Another tool demonstrated on the program included a pen that a teacher could place in his/her pocket; while walking around the classroom, the pen will alert the teacher if a student has a phone or electronic device currently in use. I’m not saying that students don’t cheat; but sometimes I wonder if all of these tools out there to ‘catch’ them might actually be, in part, helping to sustain the problem.

Neil Genzlinger also critiques the piece in the NYT, but his concern is more with the “lack of historical perspective” – this didn’t just start happening. As an educator, my concern is more with the messages that teachers give to students that might actually be motivating them to cheat . I’m concerned about the culture of mistrust that’s created when teachers assume students are going to cheat, and rather than try to create environments in which students want to learn rather than cheat, teachers spend their energy coming up with ways of trying to catch students in the act.

The problem with our educational culture is not that students are inherently evil liars and cheaters. The problem is when teachers design their classes around ‘catching’ students and policing their activity. Here’s an example. A few years ago, I was talking to a colleague about his frustration with students and quizzes. He gave pop quizzes after every reading assignment, and students always failed. When I asked him why he doesn’t announce the quizzes to motivate the students to do the reading, he said, “Then how am I supposed to catch them not doing the reading?” I think there are some teachers out there who feel it is part of their job to show their students that they (the teacher) will always have one up on them (the students). Here’s another example:

Barbara Christe, program director of biomedical engineering technology at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, says she usually catches three or four students a year with her Web “honey pots.” She sets up phony Web pages that specifically answer questions in her homework assignments and tests with blatantly out-of-date or inaccurate information. Because they are tailored for her course material, her sites typically show up first in Google searches. It’s easy then for Christe to snag those students who took the bait and simply cut and pasted information. Instead of automatically flunking the guilty students (who are typically freshmen), in most cases she tries to use the incidents as a chance to teach how to correctly vet a source. (

Although Professor Christe uses her ‘honey pots’ as teaching moments, I have to wonder a little bit about an educator who purposely sets traps for students to fall into, a person who tempts people to do the wrong thing. Why not just teach about source evaluation at the onset?

Here are some ways to avoid scenarios in which students feel like they should/can/need/want to cheat in classes that incorporate writing assignments:

(1) I only give open-notebook announced quizzes. Why? Because what I want is for students to do the reading and take some notes. I don’t want to catch them not doing the reading. The quiz then serves to reward those who took the time to do the work and as an additional review of what they learned, instead of serving as a penal tool. They learn from the reading, from the note-taking, from taking the quiz, from reviewing the quiz. That’s four times they’ve reviewed the material, instead of one time being caught and learning nothing.

(2) My students do a lot of the writing in class. This way, they have access to me for questions. They have access to each other for consultation. They turn in brainstorming and drafts. I become familiar with their written voices. I know when something isn’t theirs, and they know I will recognize it.

(3) I craft assignments that are nearly impossible to purchase online. My assignments are situated, local, and always ask students to engage their own thinking along with sources they use; they also ask students to write to a very specific audience (and it’s almost never me). A student cannot simply turn in an encyclopedic report on a topic. In this type of assignment, it is more work for the student to figure out a way to cheat than it is to simply do their own writing.

(4) I re-write my assignments and change the requirements every semester. Yes, it’s a little bit of work for me, but it means students can’t recycle work from others. Also, it keeps the reading fresh for me.

(5) I give a lot of low stakes work – assignments that are worth 5 or 10% of the grade. This sends the message that doing poorly on one of these assignments isn’t the end of the world – the stakes aren’t so high that a student panics and plagiarizes. When I was a freshman in high school, there was a huge controversy when several seniors at my school were caught cheating on the SATs (it was on the cover of the Wall Street Journal); these seniors were all headed to ivy league universities. Putting too much pressure on students causes panic, and panic causes bad decision making. It’s easy to make your class a place where panic does not ensue by providing lots of low stakes opportunities for students to succeed and fail without too much consequence.

I’m not saying I don’t have students who cheat. I do. But it is extremely rare. Because I follow these steps above, I rarely even think about it. It doesn’t even become a conversation in the classroom. This way, my students know I’m not out to get them – I’m only there to provide them opportunities to learn.

Real Researchers in Class

This semester, I have been teaching ENGL 360: Editing and Publishing.  It’s a career-prep course intended to introduce English majors to a variety of job possibilities in the fields of editing and publishing.  Although I have some experience in this area, my profession is teaching.  So, I decided to seek out some professionals in editing and publishing and have them come to class to speak about their careers.  We heard excellent talks from Deb Klenotic, the web content and social media editor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania; Dr. Zack Stiegler, communications media professor and expert on media law at IUP; Jennifer Bails, freelance writer and editor; and Luis Fabregas, reporter for the Tribune Review, author and self-publisher of A Transplant for Katy.

My students in 360 have told me numerous times how useful they’ve found these talks from real writers and editors.  And in our last presentation, from Luis Fabregas, I was struck by something he said quite often that I thought would have been useful in my more general composition courses too – research.  He used the word research many many times.  Here was a real writer talking about the many ways in which he does research on a daily basis as a reporter, and also how he had to do research not only on the content of his new book, but on how to publish it.

So it occurred to me, if you’re teaching students to write any sort of researched document, whether in a writing class or across the disciplines, bring in problem-solvers to talk about how they do things in the real world (outside of school).  I’ve often shown students my own blog, the one I wrote while doing my dissertation, and talked about how I did research for that project.  But that’s way out of the scope of what a first-year writer is thinking about, and I definitely see a lot of eyes glaze over and worried faces when I bring it up on the screen.  My own experience as a researcher isn’t interesting to them – they see it as part of my agenda to get them to do things they don’t want to do (of course, that is not my agenda, but they too often probably see it that way).

Instead, I’m thinking of people who work on smaller projects on a daily basis that require multiple avenues of research.  We all know people in a variety of fields – we should use our friends and colleagues to help our students.  I’m thinking this semester of having my friend who works in marketing come to my Comp 2 course to talk about the various ways she uses research to keep her company’s Facebook page updated with cutting-edge news.  I have another friend who works for an adoption agency, and I know that on a daily basis she uses professional research in social sciences to keep current in her field and also to help her solve problems that come up in her job.  The administrator at my son’s daycare does research on every day – in early childhood pedagogy, school administration, she interviews and meets with administrators from other schools, she does surveys of parents – this is all research.  More advanced students are also great resources – have some seniors come in and talk about the ways in which they’ve researched post-graduation opportunities (jobs, grad school, etc).  I think we’d find that they use much more than Google for these types of research (they probably go to the library for reference books, brochures, talk to friends, parents, advisors and career counselors – these are all sources for research).  Ask these students to talk about how the research skills they learned in college are helping them outside of college.

So here’s the take-away: have real researchers come to class to talk about their processes.  It’s one way to combat the ‘assignment-for-school/teacher-as-audience’ syndrome that comes along with a lot of researched writing assignments.  And, like it did for me with Luis, you never know what ideas you might get from it too.

Make Words Count, Instead of Counting Words

Yesterday was the first day of what has been dubbed #AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month) on Twitter, and it’s gotten me thinking about word counts.  I’m an avid reader of PhD2Published‘s Dr. Charlotte Frost, and I think that there are many good reasons to participate in #AcWriMo.   To participate, an academic writer makes a goal to write a certain number of words per day or for the month of November, similar to #NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) where writers pledge to write an entire novel in one month.  Some #AcWriMo writers are pledging to write by project instead of by word (so, for instance, they pledge to write a conference paper [my personal goal] or a thesis chapter by the end of the month), but many other participants have word count goals.

This probably works very well for advanced writers (many of the participants appear to be graduate students or teachers in higher ed), who may have trouble getting motivated to write, but once they get going they can really produce.  These same advanced writers most likely have fine-tuned revision processes, where they take the hundreds or thousands of words they’ve produced and edit them into polished and publishable prose.  These participants, if yesterday is any evidence of what’s to come, also have an ally in Frost who has been cheering on the academic writers through the Twitter stream.

Still, I wonder if using word counts as goals even for advanced writers is beneficial.  So I tweeted,

“Love the idea of #acwrimo but so many are measuring progress with word counts. Is there a way to make quality a goal instead of quantity?”

Frost responded,

“Sure, or measure the time you put in. We’re not anti-quality, we’re pro process! :-)”

And I think that’s the key  when approaching teaching writing to students.  #AcWriMo isn’t trying to be a model for students, and it really has nothing to do with teaching.  But it’s gotten me to think about the ways in which we approach assigning writing to our students. Often I see assignments asking students to write a certain number of words, and it always makes me cringe a bit.  The implication is that the quantity is more important than the process or the quality of the work.

Many teachers indicate length requirements for student assignments by providing word counts; my sense is that because our own writing in academia is often defined by word counts (most journals will set a word count for submissions), some teachers use that same approach with their students.  But our students, in most cases, aren’t striving to be professional academic writers.  I’ve always believed that providing a word count, or any length requirement for that matter, can send a dangerous message to students: you value quantity over quality.

I did early in my career provide page restrictions for student writing assignments; I did this because I was too inexperienced to trust my students that they would write “enough.”  But as I became more interested in Rhetorical Genre Studies, I came to realize that what matters more is that students make certain moves in their writing – that they meet the criteria of the genre and the rhetorical situation – not that they write a certain amount.

This can be a troubling concept for student writers.  When I present an assignment, the first question often is, “How long should it be?”  That is a perfect teachable moment – a great time to talk about genre and what the situation of the writing task calls for.  Depending on the assignment and the audience for the project, I ask a question back, “Well, if you were the President of the University receiving this report, how many examples would it take to persuade you?”  Or, “When you were a high school student, how much writing would you have wanted to read on a brochure?”

Since I’ve stopped providing length requirements for students, I’ve found that their work is more thorough and less redundant.  I don’t get a lot of questions like, “How do I get to the required length without repeating myself a hundred times?” or comments like, “I feel like I’m saying the same thing over and over.”  And even though some students find it unsettling, what’s more important is that the message is clear — what I value in their writing is not that they’ve reached a certain count of words.  I’m interested in how they’ve made those words count.

Writer’s Anxiety – Admitting it is Half the Battle

In a recent Inside Higher Ed essay, Nate Kreuter discusses conquering writing anxiety.  I found this article posted on the WPA listserv and was immediately motivated to read it.  Why?  Because I have writer’s anxiety.  There, I’ve said it.  And admitting is half the battle (at least, I sure hope it is).

Kreuter discusses student anxiety, and he divides this anxiety into three types: fear of judgement, fear of success, and fear of process (I have all three).  Deanna Mascle also recently wrote about student self-doubt and “breaking the cycle of defeat” (a cycle out of which I am most certainly now attempting to break).   Mascle explains that some students “lack positive beliefs to support their positive engagement in the writing process.”

There has always been lots of talk out there of the writing teacher as counselor, therapist, coach – a number of metaphors are used in writing center theory and in composition studies in general.  But what about us – those of us teachers who serve as the counselors, therapists, coaches?  What happens when we need coaching?

Can we turn to our colleagues?  Aren’t they also struggling, therefore not mentally available to give support to others?  Or perhaps they’re flourishing in their publications and therefore aren’t exactly empathetic?  Our non-writing friends – can they truly understand what it means to feel paralyzed with fear about putting pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard (don’t you teach that stuff, they think)?  Our non-academic partners who might prefer we not write; after all, the more time I spend writing, the less time I spend with my husband (poor guy – I do feel badly!).  Who can we turn to?  I suggest our students.

I have never been nervous about publishing my creative work (mostly poems, mostly published before I began my PhD).  That type of work spills out of me in a shape that feels almost beyond my control; therefore, I take very little ownership over it even if I’ve worked on it incredibly hard.  I’ve always been praised for my creative writing, so I never had the self-doubt that Mascle discusses.

And, I was often praised for my academic work throughout graduate school, but despite that praise, I do still have a lot of anxiety about publishing my academic work.   Even now in my fourth year as a full-time professor (and my twelfth year as a teacher), I am almost relieved when I receive a rejection letter from a journal.  Good – that means no one out there, particularly these impressive scholars whom I probably cite incorrectly, will ever see this article I’ve written, and I won’t be a laughing stock in my field.  I often feel my ideas are obvious – who wouldn’t have thought of this already? – and this sometimes stops me from writing anything at all (for instance, at this moment, I am certain someone has already written about professional writing anxiety, and used the same metaphors that I have and the same anecdote I’m about to provide).

In thinking about how get over my own anxiety, I’ve realized that I have a resource right in front of me that I’ve never really thought to utilize.  I have 65 student writers whom I see three times a week.  What better models for overcoming writing anxiety than the budding writers, almost all of them brand new to college, who put their writing out there in class through very little choice of their own (at least I have a choice, right?)?

I try to follow the process I preach to them – start slowly.  Through various workshops throughout the semester, the students ease into sharing their writing with others.  They start by sharing with one peer who reads to him or herself.  Then they might read their own paper aloud.  Then their peer might read it aloud to them.  Then they exchange with a larger group who has a discussion about the paper.  They might come to my office and share with me or go to the Writing Center for some advice from a tutor. Then, perhaps some sharing in front of the whole class.

Some of these students are terrified on the first day of class when they hear we’ll be doing this.  But they understand the stakes – it’s part of their grade – and that motivates them.  And as we ease into it, they begin to understand its worth as well.  They write to me in reflections about how much they’ve learned through the process, despite how scary it might have been in the beginning.

This is a model I’ve begun to consider for myself.  My stakes are different of course (tenure and promotion), but they motivate me nonetheless.  So I’m easing into the public sphere in my field first by joining Twitter and mostly re-tweeting posts I find to be interesting.  Occasionally I tweet an original idea.  Sometimes I tweet an idea and include the name of a person or organization in my field, hoping they’ll see it and respond.  I ‘met’ Muriel Harris this way, and now we’re friends on Facebook!   Or I include a common hashtag, like #dayonwriting; I was re-tweeted by NCTE.  As my confidence has begun to build, I’ve also been posting some queries to various listservs in my field.  This is also something that I’ve been scared to do, but now that I’m responsible for a very large program at a state university, I’m motivated to ask questions to people who know the answers, even if it’s scary to admit I need some help.

More than just getting over my anxiety, I’m discovering the value in sharing my writing, just like my students have.  I learn a lot about what I want to say as I prepare it for an audience.  I learn from the audience’s reception.  And I learn from critical feedback, just as my students do.

I’m thankful to my students for allowing me to observe their own processes in negotiating writer’s anxiety.  I’m sure I’ll say this on a regular basis now that I’m blogging about teaching writing, but I say it here for the first time: I only hope they learn as much from me as I do from them.