I have to write. It’s my job to write. It really used to be my job–I was a professional writer and editor. But now it’s my job to write as a teacher. It’s what’s right for me. If I’m teaching, I’m having students write. And I should be writing, too.
I’ve been blogging for several years. I never took any of it seriously. I never really used the medium for teaching, never for thinking, just sort of fooled around with it.
I seriously started using a blog for thinking (not so much communicating) about October 2010. I started using a blog for teaching one summer and never looked back. I recently assessed my usage in October 2011. I’ve never been so productive as a writer or a teacher.
I kept notebooks (journals) for years and years. I still have about seven that I work in on occasion. I lost a great number of them in a flood about a decade ago–perhaps a good thing! But blog writing is much faster than journal writing, and I find it extremely conducive to the sorts of interdisciplinary content I like to explore. The web allows a different kind of writing than notebooks. And frankly, I like it better.
The first blog I got serious about is this one (I mean THIS one):
Obviously, this is about me as a writer, but it includes musings on teaching, work, learning, life, love, and more. It’s a place for me to work out as a writer, to just see what I can do and make connections that I want to make between areas of interest. I used this blog to test out ideas for more scholarly works, but I also just wrote, too. I even wrote a post at the request of a friend. Why not? It’s what writers do.
I remember that I am a writer through this blog. I had been keeping notebooks for so long, and had written a dissertation and a book in the last six years (which has turned into three books–creative nonfiction), but I forgot what it was like to write and write a lot. I proposed that I might write every week, then every month, then a few times a week, then whenever I felt like it. Why put deadlines out there when I clearly had a lot of other things to do: teaching, curriculum development, program design, public relations, reading, scholarship, budget forecasting (the worst part of my job as WPA–it’s so much like looking into a crystal ball and asking a medium to tell me what’s going to happen: “Ah, I see a man in your future, a tall man with blonde hair; he’s the provost, and he wants to know how much money you will spend on adjuncts, training, and salaries nine months before you know enrollment numbers”).
I tried teaching with a blog in the Summer of 2011:
It was originally named WACAttack@AUM, but for a couple of reasons we wanted to change it. (I asked students to be in charge of naming the blog–I created it the first day of class, and they made a lot of the decisions about naming, theme, etc.) This was a writing across the curriculum class–a pedagogy course with a variety of students: juniors, seniors, grads, grads who were college teachers, grads who were high school teachers.
This was a hybrid class (we met face-2-face for four weeks, then online for four weeks, then back for two weeks and the final presentations). In the time we met f2f, I wrote a lot to model what I wanted–lots of writing, the kind of thinking I expected to see. I offered guidance, tried to alleviate panic, and show ways of getting around rough patches. But mostly what I ended up doing was showing my students that I was a writer and how I worked as a writer, and that I was a reader and how I worked as a reader. It was a remarkable experience.
Instead of using blogging as a tool for writing and communicating, I used it to teach how to enact writing, how to be a writer, how to live a writerly life. It doesn’t work for everyone because not everyone wants to write, but for those who do want to write as well as teach writing–it’s like a comp/rhet feast (and I happen to think if you teach writing, you should write what you teach–in lit, I read what I teach, right?).
In Fall 2011, I taught two classes, using blogs for both: Honors Comp 1 and Pedagogy of Basic Writing.
This blog is for the honors comp class, ENGL Comp 1 (fall 2011) and Comp 2 (spring 2012)–an unusual class. It’s the first AUM has offered that is exclusively an honors composition. Historically, honors credit was offered for contract in whatever classes students were enrolled in–they did an extra or longer project. I was lucky enough to be selected to propose the first all-honors comp course sequence and teach it over a whole year. It’s rare to teach students in a year-long sequence.
We started with an exploration of the world, then an exploration of music and Civil Rights, then in the spring we worked on mapping explorations–every kind of map: mind-maps, maps to places, maps to learning, maps of joy/hate/love/trails, maps of learning communities, maps of commons, maps for remembering/memory/memorial. We pulled threads from a variety of places and wove a marvelous tapestry of understanding about writing, learning, knowledge acquisition, openness, the commons, and creativity. And then we shared with a partner class at Oklahoma City University. The other professor, myself, and several students from both of those classes traveled to Boston to share our project with others at the National Collegiate Honors Council Conference.
Freshman. Honors. Rocks.
This blog has a particular theme. The commons, the high seas, freedom, learning, pirates, code, open, and more. Of all the ideas I have collided with in the history of my life, no idea as been more profoundly moving than that of the commons. I could not have named that even a year ago, but it was always there. What I did for this class was take the idea of piracy in an information age, look at how real pirates had been romanticized, then layered that over the notion of basic writing as a place for students to seize their futures. And it grew from there.
The reading list was, ahem, unconventional, to say the least, but I had to do something different. Like the WAC class I taught in the summer, I had juniors, seniors, non-English majors, grads, grads who teach college, and grads who teach middle and high school. It was the most unconventional conglomeration of folks–but the collision of ideas is phenomenal. Books we’re read included: Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Comming Transformation of Higher Education by Anya Kamenetz, Errors and Expectations by Mina Shaunessy, and Basic Writing by George Otte and Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk. We read a ton of Writing Spaces articles and Journal of Basic Writing articles, too. And, of course, students are doing a lot of reading on their own for their own projects. They are in charge of their goals and projects to a great extent. We have also watched a lot of clips from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl because writing is about a code, and sometimes, that code is more like guidelines anyway.
I try to push students to new ways of thinking about old problems, because teaching sentence diagramming does one thing really well: it helps students learn how to diagram sentences. Teaching grammar does one thing really well: it helps students learn about grammar. Teaching writing is about teaching thinking, teaching the ability to put steps together to make a dance, about not being afraid to do the dance because a step or two might be wrong. Teaching about how to teach writing is similiar to dancing and not being afraid to misstep. First, one must crush fear. So I crush my fear. Then I need to teach others to do that, too.
Do I teach people to teach writing or do I teach them about curriculum? Definitely both, but definitely more about the former than the latter. It’s the difference between learning all the steps and being Savion Glover or Gregory Hines. Sometimes, I just have to do my dance in a blog and mentor that way. It’s like teaching dance in this way: “See what I just did. What was it? Where were my arms? My feet? What did I do with my core, with my legs? How did it look? What did it make you feel or think about? Can you do that? Watch once more. Try just the arms first, then let’s try the feet, then the legs. Yes. Do it again. Again. Again. Good. Once more. Nice.”
My teaching for the last ten years is really about Lev Vygotsky–always about him: “I do. We do. You do.” That’s the simplest possible explanation of the zone of proximal development–it’s getting students from places where they can’t or don’t know how to places where they can and do know how–through a modeling/mentoring process. I never get tired of it. It’s an educational psychology theory developed by Vygotsky in the early 20th century and is taught in ed psych classes, but not so much in the comp/rhet classes I took, nor do I explicitly teach it, but I model it and suggest, through my teaching, that teachers are the writers our students should be watching.
In the spring 2012, besides teaching the next part of Honors Comp, I taught a Brit novels class called: “200 Years of Dickens.” And I blogged. So did my students. In previous classes, my students used to write about 33 responses for an average literature class, and then a smallish paper (5-6 pages), then a bigger paper (10-12 pages)–for grads, add in another small paper and turn the long paper into 18-20 pages. I know, I know, it’s a lot of writing, but if I don’t see my students thinking through writing, how do I know they are learning?
I usually ask for responses that cover a variety of options:
And so it is with online writing via a blog. Students had access to all things Dickens in ways they would have never had before–his bicentenary guaranteed that would happen. They NEEDED to be blogging their responses to connect to the many resources that exist–with easy access online. Just for one example: All the Year Round and Household Words, both periodicals he founded and nurtured into popularity, were made available online around March 2012. The world is changing and my students need to change with it–they need to interact with it and make it theirs. And they need to see me doing the same.
Students may come to my classes with a hammer, so everything looks like a nail to them, but when they leave (if they work it right), they’ll have loaded up their toolboxes with the following:
Wrenches (crescent, allen, and socket), screwdrivers (flat head and phillips), tape measure, vise grip, c-clamps, pliers (needle nose, locking, slip joint), super glue, drill and bits, level, hand saw, utility knife, carpenter’s square, tin snips, sander (or at least sandpaper), staple gun, plumb bob, stud finder, flashlight, and what they came in with: a claw hammer.
I show students my toolbox contents all semester through writing for them, at them, with them, and then watching them write (used to be on paper–now it happens in blogs). I show them how I use my tools, where I find new tools, how I figure out how to use new tools, and why that matters. I show them how to get tools for their own use and why every single one of them needs a toolbox that should be unique to fulfill their needs.
Then I send them off with heavy toolboxes knowing that they have what it takes to get the job done and the experience to do it right… as writers.
I am a writer, and everything is not a nail.