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Industrial Light and Magic at 35… and writing studies

As I watch a 35-year anniversary documentary about Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), I have begun thinking about the ways writing studies has changed in the same amount of time… or nearly so.

I’m thinking specifically about my life in this time, my writing, my education in literature and composition/rhetoric (better named writing studies?).  I was just called the “queen of change” on Facebook a week or so ago because I’m been listening to Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed” a lot and creating a playlist for Darwin because I’m teaching Darwin this semester (who doesn’t love Darwin and his big change?  Don’t ask.).  I embrace change because it’s poetic.  It’s life.  It’s my life.  It’s a way to live.  But change is very hard for many people.  Extremely hard.  Scary.  Still it can be incredible.

Many of the ILM folks in the documentary talk about the change that happened because of ILM’s innovations and the difficulty they encountered over the years in changing–they pushed hard to innovate and create opportunities for others to change and see the world differently.  Artists were reluctant to embrace the new computer generated art/characters/etc.  When one artist moved from the art department to the computer department, it was said she “went to the dark side of the force.” (Okay, settle in, it’s a long parenthetical: the documentary is a love letter from ILM to ILM, so I get that, but it’s not wrong–ILM has done amazing work–and do you know Edutopia?  A George Lucas-funded online resource for K-12 teachers.  I visited for years when I was designing curriculum for K-12.  I have been reading Owen Edwards for ages–a great writer/editor for Edutopia and Smithsonian–I like his work for both.  How does that happen?  A writer for Edutopia and Smithsonian?  His piece on making hot chocolate in Mexico was stirring in the Smithsonian.)

ILM changed my life as it did for many others–who hasn’t been affected in some way by Star WarsIndiana Jones and ____?  Transformers?  (Not the second Transformers.)  I still make references to these films and watch them with my son and students.  And the latest Star Trek?  It made me want to teach Star Trek and argument: race, class, gender.  And it was just what I wanted it to be: stunning.  I’m a creature of my generation and my generation is a visual one and my students loved the reading about writing, the thinking about the visual, and watching movies and episodes of Star Trek.  And my generation grew up on ILM.

(Are you still musing over the link between ILM/George Lucas/Lucas Films, Ltd. and an education online resource as great as Edutopia?  I am.  I always am.)

So in these past 35 years what sorts of changes have occurred in English?  Teaching writing in writing classes rather than teaching literature in writing classes.  Whole degrees in writing.  Master’s and PhD’s in writing.  This change is still frightening for some.  But like the ILM artists who feared CGI, but converted, or actors who feared blue/green screens, but managed to perform, so have many moved from literature to writing and many now can embrace the discipline of writing on its own.  But disciplinary change is not new.  Remember back at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century when ALL kinds of educated folk were up in arms over the ghastly change from classic Greek/Latin education in universities to a more practical education in vernacular…even, hush your mouth, studying modern literature?  It was revolutionary, roguish, daring. And women allowed in higher education, too.  Good heavens.  It wasn’t all that long ago.  Neither was allowing women to vote.  My grandmother was among the first women to vote in this country.

How hard was it for English literature professors to find validation from classics professors?  I wonder, but I wouldn’t be surprised at answers that included: hard, damn hard, impossible.

So change is hard.  And though lots of folks have moved from teaching writing about literature to teaching writing, not everyone has taken that trek.  Change theory is, perhaps, applicable here, especially as we are now, and for the last score of years, undergoing another change in thinking facilitated by the googleverse.  There are a number of theories to help us think about how change happens in communities, organizations, institutions.  Mostly the ones I know are social theorists, human performance improvement gurus, and instructional systems designer types.  But could such theories bring some peace to change within a discipline?  Sure.  Why not?  Kurt Lewin is a good place to start (that’s right, a Victorian, at least by birth); there could be worse places to start, but I like the historical, chronological, 20th-century sweeping approach to learning.

Back to the initial thinking: is writing studies/composition/rhetoric part of a big ol’ change in how the world goes round?  Like ILM is to special effects?  Sort of.  We do ask the world to see things in a different way than they have ever seen things before?  We say writing is worthy of study.  We ask people to understand it’s a field, a discipline, and they do.  Mostly.

Specifically, I think it’s the magic part that equates what we do as writing professionals in writing studies to the pros at ILM.  Hard work=magic in my experience.  ILM gurus break down the hardest possible tasks into the smallest possible pieces so that they can manage a system to create something complex and meaningful that we can all see.  We do that, too.  We demystify writing, break it down into smaller pieces so something complex and meaningful can be created… that we all can see. We ask students to pay attention to the person behind the curtain.

ILM gives us the ability to believe what we see–that is the magic they do.  We give students the ability to believe they have the skills to write or can acquire them.  It’s a kind of magic.

Change is hard; no one wants to do it; but when it’s done right, it’s magic; with open educational resources becoming a bigger player on the college scene, the magic is spreading.  Are we wizards?  Writing Spaces…like magic.  Maybe we are a little bit wizardly.  But we are definitely the people behind the curtain, too, showing students how they can make their own magic happen.

And may I say: what a fine documentary.  What a lovely way to spend an hour.  What a nice moment of joy and inspiration.  What a grand connection between special effects and writing.  Lucky me.  Watch whenever you can as often as you can.  I liked it so much I forgot Tom Cruise was the narrator.

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Goosebumps and textbooks…

I do love my job. Almost all the time, but sometimes, I can say I LOVE my job. This last weekend, I LOVED my job. I spent a good amount of time around a lot of writing instructors who teach basic writing (one of the loves of my life that never seems to get old). Most were unhappy with textbooks in general. They did their own instructional thing with students, creating work that moved and transformed their students from struggling with sentences to composing essays. (This will come up again…)

We talked a lot about the future of textbook publishing and found that while we all loved books, we all believed to some extent, that the future would be full of e-books, many of them free and easily obtained by students on various e-devices from phones to readers to pads to _______. We also discussed the fact that we knew what worked with our students and it often wasn’t or couldn’t be put into one book.  If  we used a book, we never used all of it, and if we only used 30-60% of a $75 book, why were we using it again? Some of us are forced to use books by a program that dictates book use (I’m in one of those, and I’m the dictator–long story–won’t always be that, but it is now); some of us have to use books by certain publishers because that’s the campus system; some of us get to teach with our own materials. And there was not one among our group that wasn’t willing to give away every bit of their stuff.  Not one.

Point one: I would like to be textbook free. I’d love to have a handbook to teach from and with and some readings online that students could get and read anytime on anything. Oh wait. I already have that: Writing Spaces. But for such a move, I need to not be accountable for 40 other teachers and what they do. I need to know that everyone, no matter what they are doing, are moving toward common outcomes. I don’t know that yet. So I’m trying to staunch the flow of blood, congeal what we do, (and I say that deliberately though it sounds really raw) at the site of a wound left by the past. One day I want no textbooks and no handbooks. I want to be among student writers who can, like ninjas, move from their own text to many books and back, with me or without me, f2f or otherwise. And I’m not alone.

Point two: no teacher I’ve ever met, who really loves to teach, is selfish. A lot of scholars are, however, reluctant to share. There is a lot riding on tenure and promotion: all one’s life, it may seem (or may be). So making a model of how one can share and get T&P credit for it is important. Charlie Lowe and Pavel Zemliansky, editors of Writing Spaces, are making this model all the way live. A peer-reviewed collection of essays on writing, on the practice of writing, on the theories of writing… wait for it… for students. Why did all these teachers create materials for their own students? Because it matters. Why does a book like Writing Spaces exist? Because it does the same thing–it matters. It has the potential to re-create everything about a writing class–just like an individual teacher can.

Point 3: Lucky me. I get to be a small part of this. It feeds the part of me that was desperate to skip college and join the Peace Corps. It feeds the part of me who was a basic writer in college with no hope of graduating because I never learned anything about writing in school (though I read a lot–that ultimately was my salvation–and the writing center at Boise State Univ.). It feeds the part of me who is now a writing program administrator who is also the only tenure-track comp/rhet professor and the department Victorianist and often spread thin like too little butter over a huge piece of toast (no need to raise your eyebrows, I know it’s a crazy job)–because I want writing to be the subject of the writing classes at my university, in the writing program I’m supposed to be directing. Writing is a worthy subject, not just writing to learn or learning to write, but learning about writing. THIS project fixes what was wrong for me: lack of access to materials about writing written by writing instructors for writing students… and free. (The Subject is Writing (4th ed.) by Wendy Bishop and James Strickland is nice, but it’s not free.)

Point 4: I take back the handbook thing. I want no heavy, thin-paged, over-tabbed, overpriced books of any kind in my classroom. I want writing happening all the time with access to texts as needed, however needed, when needed and in various forms: audio, video, plain ol’ unburnished text. I won’t ever be anti-physical-book because I’m in love with books, but teaching with them–not necessary.

Point 5: I’m well aware that my colleagues may only value my publishing as it appears in book form, in traditional academic journals, etc. But what I know is that I can work successfully in a range of fields and have. I have no fear. In fact, it was that which moved me back to the academy. I was told once that I was a change agent. I was being insulted, but I took it as a compliment (and a complement)–and hold that accusation dear to my heart. I may be of the 20th century, I may value work in archives and the recovery of history (and do that work with great joy), I may be a Victorianist, I may be a director of composition, I may teach a billion things and nothing at all, but I am also of the 21st century and embracing all the time all that can be. Perhaps it was Gene Roddenberry who turned me to the future or Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein… maybe even the art of Chesley Bonestell. I’m not sure and don’t care because what I know is that being deep in the history of ourselves doesn’t mean we can’t invent a future different from our past. And if I need to, I’ll go back to publishing if I need food, clothing, and shelter because I’m an editor. Words will always matter in my lifetime. And I can play with them and make them shiny. The world needs me (and I know this will sound awful), the academy needs me, but I don’t have to need the academy (I mean, I need it desperately, in an emotional way–not financially). (More clarification, as if this will help: I want to teach, so that’s why I’m where I am–my friend, Maria, says I’m a ninja editor, and being such can suck unless you educate the next generation–in fact, I think you can lose your ninja card if you don’t teach.)

Point 6: The future must be free to everyone–all books all the time all to everyone (go Google Books and copyleftists everywhere now that I know you exist.) Remember public libraries–all books all the time all to everyone? This is the same thing, but easier. And writing teachers who share and give and give and create and give some more–they all know this. And that is exactly why I got goosebumps this weekend talking about the future of textbooks. The word “textbook” itself is terribly powerful to me and scary: not just book, but text, too, and that includes the connotation of megalomaniac control-freak massive textbook publishers taking over the world. A compound word that meant one thing in the last two centuries and yet can mean another thing now and as we move along to the 22nd century.

Point 7: Writing Spaces is a new kind of textbook–it’s an text-unbook. An un-textbook. It’s not the only open educational resource around, but it’s peer-reviewed and still free, and that may make the difference for those who work on it and publish in it. It’s also supported by a good press (Parlor Press)–a good press run by good people. Writing teachers can keep on creating and giving–but now they might get institutional credit for it. I’m emailing everyone I met this weekend with the link to WS. They’ll love it and be as surprised and pleased as I was when I was introduced to this project. I scoured the web site for the strings, the catch… no strings, no catch. This book already belongs to everyone.  Welcome to this century… maybe the next one.

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Why I’m mad for free

I’m gushing over Writing Spaces, and I don’t care who knows it.  I can love a book about writing damn it.  Well, it’s a book that could be a book but doesn’t have to be a book…and this might be the most fabulous part about Writing Spaces.

At my university, we’re using Writing Spaces texts to help teach writing… in classes where writing is the subject.  Success so far.  Teachers of writing classes from FYC to basic writing to junior-level writing courses are reporting that students like what they are reading and are finding the chapters helpful in many ways.  Teachers are looking forward to the second volume coming out in December.

We have shared the WS link with our WAC/WID colleagues who are just this year undergoing training for incorporating writing into content classes across the curriculum/disciplines.  We feel that multiple essays from Vol. 1 will prove to be indispensable to our colleagues and their students.  I’m really excited to think about mathematics instruction using these essays–in our basic writing program overhaul this spring, I want to use some of these essays in conjunction with experiments in linking basic math and basic writing instruction.  These essays will also help us teach our basic writers to be teachers of basic writing to each other and younger children via video tutorials.  We hope to connect with local and international elementary-aged students through our online writing/learning portal.  The reading component will be based on long-time successful partnerships between college students and elementary students (like those of Write to Succeed’s Writing Partners program I and some grad school friends started in the late 1990s).

We are also using WS, Vol. 1 in a dual-enrollment course so high school students are reading texts intended for the college student writer.  Next semester–no publishing house text, only a handbook and WS, Vol. 1 and 2.  Students like reading about writing and reading essays written for college students.

This spring we’ll also use selected chapters to support a new series of informational/teaching sessions on college writing for our community: students and parents come to campus for AUM Writing Night.  They are escorted to different rooms: students read, think, and write with writing teachers.  Parents brainstorm how they can be effective supporters for their children who will be learning how to be college writers with more writing teachers.  Everyone gets something to write about; everyone gets a little refreshment; everyone gets to “take” home an open educational resource “textbook” they can study to truly get ready for the coming college writing years.  Based on the initial feedback from the dual classes, we suspect this will be a fantastic series.

Next summer, I’ll be using WS, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 to teach an NSF grant-supported Bridge Course (along with a handbook).  I can easily ask my students to read some chapters before actually entering the program.  I think it’s going to be spectacular.  One task: determine which pieces they will take with them to college to use, why, and name that collection of their own design.

Do you honestly think I wouldn’t use WS Vol. 1 and 2 in my grad writing across the curriculum class next summer?  I have to do it.  And my students will love it because they will take their learning and these essays from my classroom to their classrooms where they’ll teach: science, math, education, health, geology, social studies, psychology, and whatever.

Our illustrious Learning Center writing tutors are beginning to use Writing Spaces for prescriptions. Being able to recommend a reading to students to help in their research phase, or invention phase, is a powerful tool for consultation.  Happy, Happy LC.

I used to dream of a project like this.  And here it is.  Some dreams do come true.

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