Tag Archives: student writing

Tense about helping verbs

I’m tense about helping verbs. It’s come to my attention that there are quite a few of these things and not everyone seems to agree about how many there are. Really? Fifteen or twenty-three or thirteen, and are these all the same modal auxiliaries? WHAT? Sweet Baby Jesus, help me. This is not a precise business, this thing they call the English language. What will I do? I’m stunned by my lack of understanding. Okay, not really. I knew I didn’t know anything about helping verbs, and it made me tense. Got a handbook, though, and some URLS to a few killer pages by grammar gurus.

We all use these words: rough, dough, slough, cough, yet the /ough/ sounds makes no sense whatsoever: rough /uh/; dough /o/ (that would be a long “o” sound); slough /oo/; and cough /ah/.  How does one explain that? Give me a pictographic language any day to figure out. English is crazy. “I before E except after C, or when sounded like A as in neighbor or weigh.”  What? You’re kidding, right?

Helping verbs–sounds so cozy, doesn’t it? Like these are better words than any others because they are helpers. They are the charity of the English language, making up somehow the gaps in need by “helping” us out when we need them most.

Here are some that seem to be prominent: am, as, are, was, were, been, be, can, has, shall, will, do, does, did, have, should, may, might, being, would, must, could, had. Helping verb specialists group these together in bunches sometimes. Egads. Each distinct grouping seems to have something special to help with, too. It’s not just about being helpful, it’s also about being specifically helpful, like the difference between a middle reliever and a closer in baseball. Maybe. I say if you can throw the knuckleball, you belong in the game anywhere.

I can’t teach verbs. I’m not even sure I ever say the word verb very often in classes. I teach thinking and acquisition of communication strategies through writing. I teach that one needs to read so much good writing and learn to recognize bad writing that one can produce what is good when needed. We talk about details and  work deep in text, but I don’t call anything a participle or a conjunction. Damn. Am I a traditionalist? Using models of good writing to teach writing? No, I’m not. I love Hemingway and Faulkner. And Dickens and Woolf. But I wouldn’t teach these authors to help people learn to write… not only. I teach them in literature classes and sometimes allude to the fact that prolific and famous authors can teach us a lot about writing: their writing processes, their work ethics, their struggles, their fears, and their ego-trips. Learn to write by doing what they do–nah–it’s too hard for freshman comp.

And now we know I can’t teach helping verbs… does knowing what a helping verb is mean one has “helping verb knowledge” or does that knowledge help me know about knowing language rather than writing in a language? How do I separate language from writing? Can I? Should I? I must.

I remember, not at all fondly, learning French (after having tanked in Latin, Greek, Russian, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese) and thinking: I’m not learning anything about writing in French. I’m only learning about how the French language is put together and about the various kinds of words and how all parts of speech fit together. I had to have it for graduate school, and it was lovely to listen to my teacher (from Belgium–he frequently got angry at us and ranted in French–it was as pretty as chocolate). But learning the parts of French was about acquiring content of language, not language for speaking or thinking. I was early on frustrated because I was only thinking in building blocks: the legos of language.

I wanted to read and think and write and couldn’t do it very well in French (I think I couldn’t do much beyond read at the 5th grade level). I’m not sure I cared about speaking… that would have meant I’d have to think on my feet and really do some fancy work linguistically. NOT what I wanted. I wanted to read and then learn to think.

I learned 500 verbs, and conjugated a ton of them. I remember manger: to eat. I couldn’t conjugate a French verb now to save my life. Shoot, I couldn’t conjugate an English verb. I had to look up what a helping verb was because I couldn’t remember. I do not write along in English and think, aha, here is the perfect spot for a helping verb. Now, I see it’s time to switch tense. I’m going into pluperfect subjunctive now… check me out! Didn’t I just use a helping verb? YIPPEEE. I’m righteous.

Do you even know what a pluperfect subjunctive is? I thought so. I had to look this up, too. Subjunctive has to do with a verb mood. VERBS HAVE MOODS? This certainly explains a lot about why I am so gushy and overwrought as a writer. My verbs are moody.

What do I do with this as a writing teacher? I can’t explain what I do as a writer, let alone how the language works. I KNEW it. I should have gone to A&P school. (Airframe & Powerplant… yes, that’s right, I was just moody, wasn’t I? It’s tangible work and that has its appeal. I mean, you make the helicopter run or you don’t.)

Now I’ve acknowledged that I really can’t remember a thing about how my own language is put together and only remember one French verb which I cannot conjugate and might have best been an A&P mechanic. And I feel like sometimes I am not a teacher of writing. What do I do?

As a writer, I think I keep doing what I’ve been doing: read a lot of really interesting writing across genres, compelling stuff that rivets me, find blogs that I think are witty, read science fiction whenever I can, read Victorian novels and poetry, read magazines like Smithsonian and National Geographic (and listen to heavy metal–that helps me write). And dream on. Or at least let my brain mess around with words in a variety of ways and formats online and off, in print and invisible, so that I can talk about how writing gets crafted. So MY writing might help me be a better writing teacher or teacher of anything with writing (which is everything I do).

Writing is built. Sometimes, it’s sloppy and people write like they talk and we all know that’s bad, very bad, way bad, burn in the afterlife bad. So those folks who do that need to do more reading–reading like a writer. Hello. How do we think people ever learned to write before now, before the giant freshman comp machine got started in the 19th century? By blowing ink on cave walls? Divine intervention and inspiration? By reading and talking about that reading and investigating that reading. Doh! Reading like writers. There’s an essay I’ve read a few times in Writing Spaces (Volume 2), “How to Read Like a Writer” by Mike Bunn. Try it on for size. It helps me think about how I can be a writing teacher without being able to say what a helping verb is. If there are such things as “helping” essays, then this is one, and Writing Spaces has a load of them.

While I’m tense about helping verbs and nearly everything else that makes up the English language, and I’m apparently woefully ignorant about helping verbs at least, there are a few things I know are right:

1) learning how a language operates is content;

2) learning how to write in a language is hard work and comes long after 1) and sometimes after you’ve forgotten 1);

3) learning to be a writer in a language is about learning how to think in that language; and

4) learning to write with ease in a language, having fun, playing with tone, and phrasing, fooling around with words, is about reading in that language and then finding a groove for what sounds good at a given time for a given audience in a given genre… and being able to do that as a writer, editor, reader of your own writing.

That’s art, not craft, and art is what happens after content is mastered, after craft is mastered, and art is way damn hard. Worth it, yes, but hard. Writing students should learn that. So.

What makes me think freshman, 18-19 year old students right out of high school, or nontraditional students out of college for 5-10+ years, have the content of language all figured out so that I can teach them about higher order critical thinking and advanced writing strategies? I would be wrong if I thought students were all set in content of language knowledge. I need to teach that, including, (oh help me) helping verbs, as I teach the thinking stuff… think first, own your knowledge, write, edit, publish. Repeat.

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Administration: ministration + ad

Done right, ministration + ad can be a good thing. For instance, managing anything is about ministering to the thing’s needs–a program, department, firm, group, teachers, students–whatever/whoever. And marketing is just part of that–every management job must advertise its point–or at the least, managers must relate their worth to those they work for and with. Ministration + ad. Or as Henry Laurence Gantt, A.B., M.E. (1861-1919) said in 1915, “Under autocratic rule the man in authority is a master; under democratic rule he is a servant” (Industrial Leadership 19).

(Benito Mussolini may have made the trains run on time, but he went too far with the “Il Duce” thing–and he was rising to power at the time Gantt was talking/writing–not autocratic power, but it was coming, coming, coming.)

Gantt’s assessment of what’s up with leadership is best understood, then, in its context: right at the start of WWI and the rise of global war, fascism, and flu (well, that would come in time)–just to name a few urgencies of the early 20th century. He purposely equates great industrial leadership to military leadership and explicitly links the adage “you can catch more flies with honey” to important changes in leadership and industry.  (That’s a lot to just throw out there in an opening–but please come along for the ride, we’ll get it all “managed” as we go–sort of. I should make a chart of this post.)

I’ve just been re-reading some texts by Gantt, Industrial Leadership (1915) quoted above and Work, Wages, & Profits (1913) for a couple of reasons: 1) to remember why I love him as I need to create two Gantt charts for consulting projects I have this spring; and 2) because I’m writing a chapter about project management for freshman college writers for Writing Spaces, Vol. 3 that is due to editors on Jan. 10, 2011. Gantt charts are something I teach my freshman writers whenever I can (in fact, I teach it to anyone who is open to it because I manage my personal and professional life visually, with charts–once a VP of a publishing company I worked for called me the “Queen of Charts”–not an insult as the title was accompanied by a tiara with flashing lights which I wore in more than one meeting). I do generally avoid this much history and rambling around when I just use the chart for PM in real life–but there is something so fine about the freedom of a blog and just getting ideas out there–TBAFL (to be accountable for later).

(I first “met” Gantt years and years ago when I worked with pilots who’d been trained by various military groups [Army, Air Force, Navy]–they used something akin to Gantt charts to manage massive projects that were part of government fire-fighting contracts. I remotely dealt with aspects of this work [though occasionally visited our contract sites]–we had contracts all over the western U.S. It was occasionally a nightmare during fire season to figure out where everyone was and what was going on, but the pilots were quiet and peaceful and efficient. Everything I might expect from men of war and peace. And ideas of management rubbed off.)

So I have to acknowledge that Gantt was an industrial snob on some level, but c’mon, we’re talking 19th century, early 20th century industrial revolution here. He was a Victorian, but he was American (and a teacher for awhile–I like that)… and frankly, despite perceived stuffiness, he was a revolutionary. I especially like a series of addresses he gave to the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University as part of the Page Lecture Series in 1915, published by Yale UP (you could buy the book and have it delivered for $1 back then). The quote about autocracy vs. democracy above comes from his lecture.  He had two other books, though, that both rocked (see later on–all are available through Google Books). He is not the industrialist’s minion–not at all. He suggests that robber baron industrialism was over and that it could not happen again, if we valued a healthy economy that included efficient manner of production. Wonder what he would think about our most recent digital-intellectual-industrial revolution at the turn of this most recent century? I think he’d be deep in the weeds of web 2.o creating visual and graphic interactive designs/charts and more to change the way we work, manage, think, collaborate, progress. (I think he’d give Edward Tufte a run for his money, too.)

But wait…

Some background before I get too deep (I already got too deep, didn’t I?)…

H.L. Gantt is most famous for his invention of a graphic way of representing project management (PM), work flow, work process, and performance, called, and rightly so, the Gantt Chart.

Sample chart from *Work, Wages & Profits* (1913)

It’s commonly used in project management still (I love them and use them all the time). There have been variations over the years (PERT is one–created and honed by the U.S. Navy), but I haven’t needed to vary my PM style because Henry’s ideas still work for me (I have smaller projects now than I used to–no need to change). As an engineer, he saw the need to clarify the procedures of the work, who did what and when, and he did that–visually, so everyone could “see” what was going on at any moment. Perhaps it’s the mechanical engineering part of him that “saw” the design of project management as a schematic for how to make a “machine” more efficient. But he far from dehumanizes the worker or manager–his goal was to ensure labor was valued as human work, not mindless, soulless endeavor–indeed, the need to change how work was managed was an underpinning of his Gantt Chart. Humans should not be wasted through thoughtless management principles, but should be valued and paid appropriately with bonus structures for great performance (there are issues with this as motivational theory goes, but that’s another entry–or check out this Ted.com talk by Dan Pink).

Nice aside: if you search for Gantt much on the internet, you’ll quickly learn that his chart was used to manage the Hoover Dam project as well as Eisenhower’s massive interstate highway construction extravaganza. That’s some cred. (Lovely serendipitous moment brought to you by this aside: I’ll be standing on Hoover Dam next Monday, 12/27 with friends who will be married the next day in an Elvis-Blue-Hawaii wedding ceremony officiated by an Elvis-impersonator minister. Elvis also visited the Dam. Of course, he did.)

My ideas: management must be kind and serve the needs of the managed (without sacrificing the needs of the larger programmatic goals)–how does one do that? Talking to everyone, valuing facts and expert opinions, figuring out how to proceed, produce, and perform–and most importantly, helping others do the same. And keeping track of where everyone and everything is at–without a management team that includes more folks than those doing the work. Gantt’s ideas: 1) manage people not machines; 2) value worker prowess; 3) in all things, efficiency and accountability.

Administration: ministration + ad.  If you ministrate properly, the ad takes care of itself… maybe. Is goodwill the same as good intention when it comes to administration? Perhaps not, but it can’t hurt to think about the past when managing the now or the future and know that ministering a thing is wrapped in making sure everyone knows what to do, when to do it, so they can bring maximum creativity and innovation to each part of the production.

Gantt might have agreed. He was a visionary and despite almost a hundred years between his death and now–I find him relevant and inspiring: Wages, Work & Profits (1913), Industrial Leadership (1915), Organizing for Work (1919).

Students can use Gantt’s PM ideas for better handling themselves in the industry that is higher education–understanding how the administrative structure works, who does what, why, and how they fit in–in fact, how they can be productively part of the machine (as offensive as that sounds, working within the system can be important to: understanding the system and then, eventually, bringing down the system–if there’s anything I’ve learned from the Victorians, it is that mastery can and should lead to revolution and evolution). AND, key to a modern student’s survival through college, can be a Gantt Chart for writing projects or degree plans, and even post-college life management. If education is the goal, a PM chart is less necessary–still a fine idea, but if a degree is the goal, and maximum efficiency, get on board with a Gantt Chart.

I always scored high on the visual/spatial/mechanical parts of those truly horrific standardized tests which exist to pigeon-hole and track the past and which can never predict potential. I was also required in high school and in my college years to take one of those career tests: perhaps it makes total sense that the two top choices for my possible careers were railroad engineering and the clergy.

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Write like a Victorian, or write all the time

Victorian writers wrote a lot. Professional writers in the Victorian period published a lot.

They were in the midst of a technological revolution. The industrial revolution was a publishing, printing, distribution, writing revolution, too. Steam engines hurried things up considerably for printing, paper making, and moving text into new places, previously unreachable, or unreachable in a timely fashion. Speed often confers reduced cost–in this case, text became a whole lot less expensive and cheaper, too (lots of Victorian paper is falling apart now because it was so cheap then). Big groups of people previously priced out of text were able to get at it. Perhaps the changes to education requirements (by various laws through the century but only slowly enforced) helped to revolutionize writing and consuming of writing. Perhaps the cost and distribution were what really changed things. No matter how it happened, it happened–writing happened and got published and got in front of readers as never before in history.

Charles Dickens, who was NOT paid by the word, helped to change the way Victorians wrote by working/writing/publishing serially in the mid-1830s.  Almost something he stumbled upon, the serial really worked for new readers, making story available a chunk at a time through periodical or part publication. (Alexander Dumas did much the same thing in France at about the same time.  Cool, huh?) Dickens published all his novels in this way, even becoming the mentor and publisher for more writers who published serially or in parts; I’m thinking here particularly of Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell (two of my very favourites–British spelling, thank you very much).

Dickens’s letters, the ones editors have been able to recover and transcribe, include something like 12 volumes (not sure if any more are planned), but that may not include letters the editors didn’t have access to at the time of publication. For example, 35 letters were just purchased this year by the Huntington Library. The Brownings’ Correspondence (BC) currently includes at least 16 volumes that I own, plus several more, that are currently bending my bookshelves, by Wedgestone Press (the BC publishers): letters from Elizabeth Barrett Browning (EBB) and Robert Browning (RB) to EBB’s sister, Arabella, two more volumes, and a collection of RB to a mutual friend, Isa Blagden, two more volumes, and a new collection of EBB letters to Isa, one big, fat volume.  AND the projected BC collection will be 40 volumes when complete in 15-16 more years.

So just including these three Victorian authors–Dickens, EBB, and RB–that’s a lot of letters. Oh, and they wrote a lot of poetry, novels, and journalism (well of this last, Dickens the most, EBB some, RB not very much). What else did they do? Because if you wrote that much–without benefit of a writing machine, like a typewriter, word processor, computer–you’d be writing all the time.

And they were. A Victorian scholar tried to write out a few EBB letters to see how much time it would take, and it took 8 hours to hand write a few letters (I have no idea who–so this could be one of those apocryphal stories like alligators in NYC sewers, but ones that Victorianists hear–anyhow, I like it). Given the amount they wrote, they must have been writing every day.

Nothing wrong with that.

Instead of whining that students never write, maybe academics who say things like that should shift their/our perspective and celebrate the writing students do: online, on walls, via phone, within social media. Sure, it’s not all great, but really, do we read ALL the writing Victorians created? No. That’s a silly thing to even think. But we do value all the writing they did and are recovering everything in proper literary, rhetorical, archeological ways in order to form broader and deeper visions of that time, culture, so on and so forth.

Are my students writing all day? Yes, they are. In fact, if they think I’m not really paying attention, they try to write to each other via their phones through the whole class, or they pray that while they write on Facebook on their laptops, I believe they are taking notes. What on earth could be so important that they need to write through class? What could they possibly be writing about if it’s not directly about me and the class I’m teaching? Why is it not about me? It should be. Wait. Maybe not.

As I recall, I wrote notes nearly every day in my misspent youth. I recall now a quite famous correspondence (famous to me) I carried on with my first boyfriend for full year while I as in 7th grade. I kept boxes of those notes for years and years along with notes from friends. I often was chastised for engaging in that writing by parents, teachers, authority figures who were dismayed that I would spend time exchanging notes with a boy, with my girlfriends, through individual notes, and through sharing writing notebooks. We grooved on multi-colored pens and dotting our i’s with hearts or happy faces, writing in all lowercase or all uppercase. We played with slanting our writing this way or that, printing rather than cursive, changing directions every other line, writing in patterns on the page (circles, squares, etc.) in the middle of the page or around the borders. Turned out to be not such a bad thing for my writing life, I think, I hope, I know.

When I taught 6th grade, I encouraged note writing–and my students did the SAME thing I did–boys and girls–and it wasn’t all that long ago. Experimentation on paper types, inks, pencils, computer and handwriting combined with images…all that was happening and hip. (I was “wicked” according to one of the veteran teachers for encouraging such casual writing with no attention to spelling and grammar, but by then I viewed that sort of criticism as a hallmark of success, may I burn in Hell.) Today, I would expect note writing from young students (who desire communication to define their places in the world), and still not on the phone/computer because most K-12 schools have banned cell phones for students (at least in my part of the world, but they must sneak them in), at least during the day (after kids get home, it’s a whole ‘nother story).  Still writing to communicate and define has a place in the identification of who we are. Writing is being done right now; it just may not look like what we want it to look like in college classes, er, that is, not academic writing, but maybe our students are training themselves for something greater than we can see. I certainly value the informal in my writing classes–writing every day is the only way to go, and some of it needs to be wretched–in literature classes, too. No one who works with me gets out of writing. (I know I write some of this in reaction to colleagues who fuss about how students don’t write anymore. When did students ever only write acceptable academic college-level papers? Frankly, if I were to hang out with people who only wrote academic writing, I’d pitch myself from the roof.) Writing all the time, no matter what kind of writing, is a good thing. (Can you imagine if we applied this to reading, as some do–sigh–that in order to be good readers, we should only read great literature? Egads. I’d be nowhere as a reader without Isaac Asimov, Dick Francis, Margaret Mitchell, Robert Ludlum, and Rosemary Rogers.)

I was Victorian; my 6th graders were Victorian; and a project I’m involved with today is Victorian: Writing Spaces, an open educational resource (OER). It’s smashingly Victorian, and thankfully, work that informs my current self-identification in really fine ways (partly because it’s open and because I see it as Victorianesque). Here’s how it’s Victorian: it’s on the revolution road. It’s OER at its best. It’s free to students and teachers–to anyone (which is the open part). So many Victorians were passionate about changing how education happened and making it universally available. OER, then is something many Victorians would have loved, though many would have swooned over educating everyone and did. Is universal education a Victorian ideal? Is open access a Victorian ideal? No and no, but they worked hard at both, public libraries everywhere they could do it and finally passing the Education Act in 1870 and improving literacy rates by the end of the 19th century whether people wanted it or not. Writing Spaces, the project, and Writing Spaces, the book, levels, it equalizes, it’s freedom. Everyone gets it whether they know about it or not–there it is–already owned by everyone who can click three times. Glorious.

So who is just like the Victorians? We are. We are just like Victorians–driven by the need to communicate–with so many possibilities for doing it (and just as confused, conflicted, and conscious about where we find ourselves). If Victorians had this kind of technology, such as the kind I’m using right now in this blog, you know they’d be all over it. They totally got the self-awareness thing we have going on now. And 100 years from now, folks will be ooohing and aaahing over the writing we have done in this way. Think what scholars in the future might be able to understand from Facebook as it exists right now, the web right now? It’s not inconceivable, but it approaches that. Or think what a scholar in the future might be able to learn from a cache of notes written by an 8th grade boy and a 7th grade girl covering an academic year in which they mostly talked about how crazy they were about each other, but which often dipped into historical events, pop culture, family, school, friends, and more.

Isn’t this the stuff that dreams are made of, that many of us scholars yearn for–knowledge of others and other times and what that means to our understanding of who we are? Isn’t that why we study, no matter what we study? Isn’t this our raison dêtre? (And why we studied French translation but never learned to speak French?) Isn’t this why we teach?

My answer is: yes, that’s exactly why I’m teaching and spend a lot of time thinking and writing. I want to keep learning, to keep getting there. It’s the journey. So, I write like a Victorian–all the time. Some of it’s awful; some of it might matter to my friends, students, colleagues right now; some of it might be good; some of it might give a future reader something to ponder or analyze or recover or chuckle over. But I write and partly to figure out how I connect with ideas and others. When I think about my writing and the writing of my students, I think we are very like the Victorians. God save Queen Victoria… and OER.

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SuperComposition Person and Ed.

A few colleagues and I have begun creating cartoon characters to support and brand our composition program (they were adjuncts, now full-time employees–and two more coming on board soon).  We started with SuperComposition Person (SCP) and ninja sidekick editor, Ed.–no name, just Ed. which is short for editor.  Not sure Ed. ever speaks, but I really like him–takes down comma errors with grace, precision, and lighting speed.  SCP speaks–in fact, SCP is a writing professor by day, hero of composition all other times.

It all began when we decided we needed some unusual thing to do in a training–so we asked teachers to name a super power they’d like to have in the writing classroom. That was a fun discussion. The next day, a colleague and I cooked up the guts of SCP and Ed.; the week after, another colleague who happened to be an artist, created this first iteration (second image below). During a portfolio reading, we kicked it up a notch and got enthusiastic approval from colleagues in biology and history.

Eventually we added in a few more characters as time and talent allowed, pulling from resources as diverse as small children and parents related to this blogster, students, more teachers, friends, faculty, staff, local artists, high school students.

For our big celebration, AUM Writes!, on Oct. 20 this year, The National Day on Writing, we created buttons with some of the characters and got the help of our senior graphic artist on campus to create a t-shirt that we ran out of in record time.  Next year, we hope to have much more art work completed and put a Pantheon of Composition Heroes on a t-shirt to celebrate who we are and what we write (first image below).

Meanwhile back at the ranch, I’m working on a short film to introduce more characters to our community–I might be able to get that handled in the next week or so. We want more artists involved because we can’t do all the drawing; we want more writers working on the back stories of heroes and villains already created; we want visionaries who will help us turn this into a graphic novel. So we need to talk about it and ask for involvement.

But until all that happens, I plunge forward in the very best super hero-like fashion I can to work on projects I believe are important. I have been inspired by this work with colleagues and students and family and friends to not let go of it, to not let it rest too long… Writing here makes me accountable for commitment, I think. If I say it here, can it get out of doing it? Nope.

AND I have also begun giving writing advice to anyone I think needs it, swooping in during meetings and trainings when colleagues from across the disciplines display frustration over why students can’t write: “TA-DA…’tis I, your writing colleague come to save the day.”  Normally, I don’t like to talk in public much in this way, but lately, no problem.  I’m all about broadcasting open educational resources and how one can employ such to teach and help students learn. At the very least, I explain with much patience and sincere love, you should visit Writing Spaces to see what’s there that might help you and your students talk about writing together as you sort through their experience, your expectations, desired outcomes, and as you both craft a writing experience that could end up doing several things: 1) help you assess student learning; 2) help students learn more about writing; 3) give students more experience writing with expert guidance. There it is. Use it.

I felt very heroic yesterday when I was able to tell sociology, political science, and theater professors: “Here, check this out. It’s for you and your students. It already belongs to you.”

Ninja, right? Sure felt like it.

AUM Writes! 2nd Annual National Day of Writing Celebration

AUM knows how to celebrate writing.

Isn’t this spectacular?  “Fighting writing crime… one sentence at a time” was a collaborative effort between myself and a colleague–the kind of seamless joy that happens when one of you says ___ and the next one says ____, and it becomes something that delights everyone and makes work not work at all.

Composition Cartoon Heroes

SuperComposition Person & Ed.

When we first saw this art, of course it was a pencil sketch, but it was very exciting for all of us–then our artist did THIS.  We’d done something tangible, visual, creative, and fun. To protect the guilty/innocent, I refrain from mentioning names here in this blog, besides my own, but there were many, many people who worked on this project because no one could do this (or writing program administration) alone (and have a day job–we all teach full-time and do everything else on top of that).  When I manage to write this into article form for some academic journal, so I can keep doing what I do, then I’ll list the minors, adults, and seniors who made this possible.

For now, and I’m okay with this, I’m brainstorming what’s possible in this live space, hoping the writing here that feels both private and public will help me articulate how WPAs should be envisioning writing programs as the best entrepreneurial enterprises, publicizing their work across K-12, sponsoring workshops on writing in the community, branding their programs; we need successful, and I mean wildly successful, models to look at and draw from, because we are creating products that matter more than any other: students who can think and can be productive citizens of the world.  And if we need cartoon characters to inspire and/or capture them and keep them enthralled, or even in thrall, then that’s my 5-year mission.

Second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.

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Filed under Cartoons and Composing

The National Day on Writing…

“The” National Day on Writing… as if there should only be one.  I’m always going to celebrate this day as if my life depended on it (and secretly every day of the year).  It’s a day perfectly made for me (though I’m sure Congress and the originators of the whole thing never considered my needs for a hot second).

Tomorrow is the big day.  This year I’m honored to celebrate the day with a former TCU student visiting AUM to talk about his writing, his music, how he works, and what it means to share words with the world.  My former TCU student.  (The lyrics of a song he recently wrote for the Susan G. Komen Foundation and TCU Frogs for the Cure contain the words of breast cancer survivors–that’s one way to share words.  Watch this video, all of it, and then go buy his song on iTunes.  If you don’t buy much music on iTunes, make an exception because you need to own this one song to help find a cure.)

He’s doing amazing things with music and writing.  I can’t believe I’ve got a former student who is doing such beautiful things with his life, or that I actually know what’s up with him.  Normally, I’ve got a lot of rabbit in me.  I’ve rarely lived or worked in one place for long.  I haven’t much seen my students again after I’ve taught for a term, a year, whatever.  Aunt Marianna nailed it when she said I was naturally discontent.  Not unhappy–just always yearning.  I distinctly remember her telling me when I was 15 years old, “Honey, you’ll struggle because of your natural discontent, but it’s also a gift.  Find the right use for the gift.”  (By the way, who says that to a 15-year old?)

Now I get it.

So Tim Halperin is making a difference in the world.  I’m proud of him–as if I had much to do with it–but whatever part I played for a semester, it is something that makes a difference… to me.  I often wonder if I matter.  Do my actions help anyone?  Do I say things that make people joyful?  Do I create an environment around me that gives people a chance to grow?  He says I did that.  Thank you, Tim.

He’s come to perform at my university for AUM Writes! Day.  We started a day of celebration last year, because I’m big on days that celebrate literacy. When I slaved for a publisher sometime in the mid-2000s, I celebrated International Literacy Day by begging the vice president, fellow employees, and a book distributor to find a way to give 1,400 books to a local elementary school.  We did it.  On International Literacy day that year, trucks and people rolled up to a little K-5 school outside Dallas and each student in the school got to pick out a book to keep and the rest, 750 books, were donated to the school library.  I thought that might have been one of the best moments of my life.  Only one of the best as it turns out.

Now I work for an education experience provider–a university.  We have a lot less money than publishers, but I really dig the freedom and what money we have is mostly well spent.  Would I rather have a talented musician talking to students about his writing process or a new rug?  No contest.

Talking with Tim, I realized how lucky I was as I said aloud how lucky I was.  Or perhaps, it’s just a kind of fate.  I seem to have operated my life like a boat: I point my boat in a direction I think I want to go and then hope some current will move me along where I’m supposed to go.  Occasionally someone climbs aboard and sticks an oar in the water and moves me around.  Sometimes a bigger boat crashes into me, and I really move around.  Fate got us both back into conversation–in a fashion much calmer than a mid-sea collision.

Tim was a great student–a terrific writer who seriously worked the process and created smooth, easy-to-read prose.  I almost always tell students that the best papers are ones that don’t trip me up as a reader.  I am first a reader who wants to know something that they think is important to say.  If I stumble because I can’t understand, then I get all wrapped up in what I assigned.  I’d much rather just read than assess.  The gap between my reading pleasure and student writing is the teaching zone when I need to assess and guide.  Sometimes I’m good at finding what a writer needs to learn in order to improve.  At least I get my own motivations now and what purpose I might serve in the world.

I don’t remember all the work Tim created, but I remember it was easy to read and thoughtful.  One of his papers, though, was really fine; a profile on a musician/minister was visually well done (lots of green and photos of performances).  He was a breeze to teach: just did everything I said, was creative, thoughtful, and on time.  He was the first student I ever taught who invited me to an outside school event–an evening of his music at a coffee house (his then-girlfriend was in another class I was teaching).  I was delighted and entertained, and thought: he’s got it.  I also thought: 1) I hope he knows he has a gift; 2) I hope he finds joy in this gift always; 3) I hope he stays off drugs, then I bought four of his CDs and headed home to move away.

Of course, I lost track.  I moved away.  But I accidentally saw him graduate last year.  I went to see a long-time friend graduate from TCU (Maria who thinks I’m a ninja), and there he was.  We connected via email/Facebook later and got to talking about how I’d like to use his videos to teach project management and writing process.  One thing led to another (as so often happens when one chooses to live one’s life as an oarless boat); I got funding to bring him to the AUM campus to share his music and writing with my community.

Reconnecting meant I got to relive some of the most pleasant memories from that year.  I had been out of teaching for a long time when I started teaching his class: 8 am MWF in Aug. 2007, the first time I’d taught since the fall semester of 2000 when I’d been pregnant and working full-time for a publisher.  Not a brilliant move altogether, but there it was.  I’d committed to the department and to an elementary school partnership as well as to two dear friends who co-taught with me in a highly experimental three-teacher scenario while providing community-service credits to two high school students.  How did we think we could do it all?  We were full of ourselves and lucky (though, I will remind you, luck don’t go looking for no stumblebums).  We managed to do it.  I remember being engaged in that class and so full from the promise of the young people around me.  And yet I was exhausted.  That was it.  I couldn’t teach one more class ever again.  I knew it.  After the final exam, I remember crying because I knew I’d lost something, but I didn’t know what.  I walked home from that last class, two blocks was all, tears just streaming and steaming.  Christmas 2000 sucked.

Wait.  What happened to the pleasant moments I promised you?  Sorry.  Here they are:

My next walk on campus, seven years later, brought me back into the classroom–Aug. 2007.  (Much better, right?  On track and no tears.)  I was once again, employed full-time by a publisher, and had agreed to teach for the English Dept. at TCU (bless them always for the good they did me for so many years).  I remember thinking, hell, I can’t actually harm the students and maybe will do some good.  At the end of Ball Four (perhaps the single most personally influential book I’ve ever read, ever, ever, ever), Jim Bouton wrote about baseball, “You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end, it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”  The thing that gripped me was teaching.  I just didn’t know it until I taught Tim’s class.  Each class I taught that day confirmed it.  I was finally in a place I was supposed to be.  From that day on, I knew I should be teaching, not publishing. (Though I haven’t exactly stopped wrangling around with publishers, it’s not the major focus of my life or employment anymore, esp. as I push back from entirely feeding at the table of corporate publishing excess and am working on a project that feels right and open because it is both of those things and more: Writing Spaces.  If I knew how to create footnotes in a blog, I’d have inserted one at the end of that last sentence speculating on whether I could legitimately mention Writing Spaces every time I created an entry in this blog no matter how I started out or what the general topic might be.  Bet on it.)

The end of that first day back in the classroom, I joined MLA so I could embark upon a traditional academic job search that fall.  And here I am celebrating The National Day on Writing for the second time, at an event that means so much to me, AUM Writes!, with my current students, colleagues, friends, and one former writing student who rocks, literally.  Fate.  Luck.  Yearning.  Or something else?  Discontent.  Who cares?

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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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