Tag Archives: Writing Spaces

Oh no. I really did that, didn’t I?

I have being doing some things in my blog that might bother the web savvy. I’ll get to the details soon, but number one is that I don’t really care if anybody reads this. It’s for me. It’s my place to think and write when I need to get writing handled and get it out of my head and in a place that I can’t take back. It’s too easy as a writer to do a lot of writing and never share it for a variety of reasons. My issue is that I have to get the thinking out of my head, and I never did a really super fantastic good job of that before this blog. I tend to let ideas grow, but sometimes I will let them fester when I don’t do anything with them. (Such an ugly word but one that exactly explains what ideas do when they are left to rot in a mind. Okay, in my mind.)

Because the audience is me, I also haven’t done anything to promote the site, share with others, tell anyone it exists, get it on Reddit or Digg, or follow other blogs and get into the blogosphere (a relatively new word to my vocabulary) by developing relationships with other bloggers. You’ll notice my blogroll totals one other web site–it’s not even a blog. For now, I’m okay with that. But if I want to change my blogging experience, I know how. Here’s why…

I’m a participant in the ongoing creation and life of a really great open educational resource, Writing Spaces. And the folks at Writing Spaces are just about to bring to the world a terrific style guide on writing for the web. It was started by Charlie Lowe and Michael Day as a collaborative project for the Computers & Writing conference… well, it was part of an unconference associated with that conference. A writing sprint is really what it was, like a code sprint where open source software programmers/coders get together to make a bunch of code everyone needs. (Like I even knew what that meant before this unconference, but it sounds like it could be fun.)

So this sprint happened: a lot of writing professors and teachers and designers and web gurus and writers got together to write this guide over a few weeks. I dipped into it occasionally to see how the writing was going because I didn’t have much to say on the topic. I write like a writer for print, not a writer for the web. I write long blog posts (1200-2000+ words); I have all my links open into new windows (I really like that as a web user); I don’t mess around with code (or I didn’t until I read the guide–more on this later); I don’t tweak my own site much (though I took time off from being here in April and just now changed the template and included my art in the header–inspired by the guide). In truth, I do a lot of un-savvy things for a writer on the web. (Perhaps this makes me charming rather than annoying. Wouldn’t that be great? I can dream.)

The editors, Matt Barton, Jim Kalmbach, and Charlie Lowe, have done a really great job of managing to bring together a lot of writing by a lot of people: 16 people wrote this work. In not a lot of time. They had general categories they developed, then they all pitched in and wrote what they knew, what worked for them, what they taught their students, what they consulted with clients about, what was right and good. They live in Florida, Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, California, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota and more. Some were at the conference in Ann Arbor, MI, but some couldn’t make it. Regardless, the writing mostly happened before the actual conference; the editing (a lot of work–and getting it all pretty for the web site must have taken hours) and copy editing (not so hard because the editors did so much) came after the conference. Very cool thing. I’ve been part of the commons, but not in something like this before.

At the first C&W conference I attended last year at Purdue, I decided I wanted to become more hip to the world of the web, so I committed to being open even before I was truly open and decided I’d let myself learn about all things online in any ways I could. I even graduated from a faculty development program at my school in teaching online last year (how on earth did I work that into my schedule?). But I just didn’t work much on understanding how words and space worked on the web. As I read through the finished text to copy edit, I did three things: 1) prayed to the web gods that I didn’t make any mistakes that would make my colleagues look bad; 2) desperately hoped that I would not do something awful to the code (because I don’t have many code skills… yet); and 3) marveled at everything I was learning. I took about twice as long to copy edit as I normally would have because I kept reading and getting distracted by links to sites I would browse around in and end up reading for awhile!

When this thing gets published later this week, I’ll put the link in here (on the word “here,” actually). But until then, let me say this: WOW! I know the difference between HTML and CSS. I created a web page and fooled around with CSS, too. I re-learned about content strategy and did these things: read a blog post by Steve Krause; played with an online color tool; thought deeply about how I wanted to use the guide in my summer WAC (writing across the curriculum) class; realized the web was more than the Encyclopedia of Arda and the few places I visit regularly. And I also learned these things: that I shouldn’t have my links open into new windows; that my posts should be shorter; that animated GIFs are no longer cool (thank goodness I never dreamed of doing that); that I should really get into Twitter (obviously, I could practice concision–something I really don’t do much of or very well); that one of the contributors likes Star Trek (“Damnit Jim” in a section title); that I should embed video in my site rather than link to it; that I should be kind to my readers with appropriate design; that I can do a lot more on the web and in this blog than I imagined.

Will I change my troubling ways because of this work? Not everything, not all at once, but I’m stunned to find that this post will be very close to 1,200 words, on the shortish side for me. I still made all my links open to new windows. (Perhaps that makes me a lovely but determined writer in transition rather than an obnoxious, stubborn Luddite. Okay, I’ll never do it in any other place than this blog. Fine.)

And to think, up until a few days ago, I was happy to write somewhere that was more accountable than my own desktop or a paper journal. I never have a pen when I need one anyway.

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Filed under Open Educational Resources, Open Everything, Open All the Time

The open WPA: Dancing around in open land

WPA is not an acronym for Works Progress Administration (later the Work Projects Administration)–which some folks have suggested when I casually mention, at fancy dress-up cocktail parties, that I’m a WPA. WPA means Writing Program Administrator. But I can understand the confusion. WPAs often do a lot of progressive work (and projects from now until the 12th of forever), things that mean forward movement, going places, building programs, and such.

Though FDR’s WPA is an fairly old entity that was part of the New Deal, I’m okay with the comparison. The work the WPA did was needed and good (millions of Americans found work through that agency for eight years from 1935-1943), and benefited, I’m sure, my own antecedents. So. I’m not at all offended by anyone thinking I might be affiliated with such an important movement/agency/group/organization, though I do usually end up explaining what my WPAness means. Sometimes I just say I’m a writer. It’s easier than saying I’m a WPA and a lot less stressful than saying I’m an English teacher (so many people look aghast, and breathlessly say, as they back away from me, that they were awful in English: “Oh, look there’s Sam and Lena, I really must go say hello, excuse me, won’t you?” To Sam and Lena: “Ugh, Elizabeth teaches English–stay away–or least don’t say something stupid.”). Saying I’m an English professor is worse, and a Victorian literature professor, why, that’s even more catastrophic, I’m sad to say. The Victorians were sort of judge-y.

However, my point in this post is not about how hard it is to say what my professional life is or isn’t. My point is to write about how I’ve gotten to be such an open person, specifically an open writing program administrator. To be perfectly honest, it’s a thing that bleeds into my personal life in more than one way. I don’t think I could be an open person at work and then be closed at home. I had to re-think my own existence, to be slightly dramatic about it, and all that might mean in the last year. I’ve become open to new things, new ways of working, new friends, new sights, new sites, new language, new everything and open everything. Lately, since August last year actually, I’ve been engaged with what feels like very progressive projects by embracing all things open. I’ve read several books about open (with a few more to go), hefty articles (from law review journals even), light and fun articles (in some casual blogs and magazines), serious work from rhetoric and composition scholars (in academic journals in print and online and in blogs)–all about open things.

What baffles me most about this reading is that I lived parallel to the history I’m reading about now. I’m not really riveted by 20th/21st century history or events. Usually I read 19th century history/literature and that feeds my Victorian literature teaching, or I read happening-right-now works on teaching writing. The whole open thing was going on while I was an adult, and I never really learned much about it while it was happening. But I have friends now who were IN it. I had friends who were in it then, but I had no idea what they were talking about while they were talking about it. In the 1990s I was doing something very different with my life than the open advocates. Which is all to say: it was as it should be. No regrets. If I’d gotten it then, I’d be a different person than I am now–and that wouldn’t be good. I’m good just how I am. Right. Now.

But I’m deeply profoundly madly serious when I say: right now, open is the thing that will make me happy for a long time to come. I do cycle through intellectual and physical fads some (in 2009/10, I read every Michael Chabon book; I took karate classes like I was the next Bruce Lee until I had to hit people and mean it), but open is, as I explore it more, an undercurrent running with the river of my life, not against it. It’s always been there, I just never called it what it is.

I used to joke about being a scholar of liberation studies because everything I read or did with my mind was always about freedom–mine, specifically, but if I could support anyone else’s freedom, I was on board with that, too. I felt like the one thing I could do, and do well, was read, and persuade others of the wonder of reading, and that the one thing no one could ever take from me was what I learned, and that learning should always be liberatory (I mean, really, how could it be otherwise?). I was completely drawn to writers who were politically aware and somehow actively trying to change the world: Byron, Shelley, Barrett Browning, Dickens, Gaskell. In the 20th century, the one genre I was driven to read was spy fiction–all about spies who worked for governments who sought freedoms for its people. Sure, there was betrayal, but it was so scintillating and scrumptious when the good spies won (they didn’t always).

Occasionally, in the 20th century, I’d be hooked into other genres: I started reading Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent series when I was in 7th grade and finished when he finished (a great series that mirrors a lot of political change from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s). I cared about the way politics worked and how freedoms mattered to a people and how a people might give a lot to ensure freedom for all, risking life and limb in battles here and over there. (“Over There” is a song my grandmother, Blanche Kennedy, used to sing to me when I was little–she used to also sing, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”; I think my early interest in geography is explained by my grandfather’s involvement in WWI, his globe with little x’s on each country he’d been in, and my grandmother’s singing to me the songs of the Great War). My life was surrounded by the political. Home life was infused by the political; voting was one of the biggest events of each year; every man in my family, and some women, served in a branch of the military until my generation.

And OER is political. I want to extricate myself from political things these days, mostly, but this isn’t one I can ignore. The underlying freedom from cost to students and other teachers inherent in OER means something to those in poverty. Education is liberation. Free textbooks (online) or books published inexpensively to meet local needs (OER can often be remixed and reused to suit a particular educational situation)–this enables education. I’m a WPA at a school where poverty is an issue. Alabama is not the wealthiest state–we’re 42nd for income per capita. We’re ranked 9th for the number of folks living below the poverty level (below the poverty level–didn’t find anything about everyone living around and just above the poverty level). It makes sense that the condition of not having enough food, adequate shelter or clothing would have an impact on one’s education. When text could be provided to schools for less than the current outrageous spending for textbooks–what could that savings be spent on: computers, wi-fi, printers? It’s naive for me to think that a savings in one area of education would automatically beget largesse in another, but I have hope. Always hope. Being involved in open and working on OER (editing, writing, advocating) is, for me, nothing short of my duty as an educator and a citizen of the world.

That sounds high and mighty, doesn’t it? Well, it is. It’s a high and mighty thing.

Recently, I was on a panel about OER at the Computers & Writing conference. One colleague, Craig Hulst, talked about whether we had an ethical obligation to create OER when we could and when it was right (when it’s right was the focus of Charlie Lowe’s talk, my other colleague on the panel)–all of us are involved with Writing Spaces, an open educational resource. The answer to Craig’s question–did we or didn’t we?–was “Yes, we did. We are ethically bound to share our knowledge.” Of course, I believe this. I have said before, here and just about anytime anyone asks me about being open: if you attain ninja rank and you do not teach and share what you know, you risk losing your ninja membership card. Or you could burn in hell.

The right path is clear, isn’t it? (Or was I just over-the-top again? Ah well. If you’re not living on the edge, how can you see the view?) If I’m going to be a WPA, and I’m going to be for some time to come, I hope, then I need to be an open WPA. Or I could lose my ninja card. That would totally suck.

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Filed under Open Everything, Open All the Time, Reading & 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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Filed under Reading & Writing

Word by word, composing myself

I write about 3-4,000 words a week. At least. Some weeks, more than that. How do I do it? Word by word.

And I don’t watch much television.

Most of the time, I don’t worry too much about what I’m saying. I just find the most intriguing thing rolling around in my brain, a puzzle that’s killing me, an idea I can’t tease out by thinking alone, the thing I’m compelled to write about, the irresistible factor that I must understand that is pushing me forward, or what I’m fussing about and… just splat it out on the keyboard: bleh. There it is. Not lovely. Not organized. But it’s out.

Most of the time, this writing is highly unreadable and deeply unattractive. Still. It’s there, and sometimes I can pick from it for other work I need for my life: teaching, essays, smarty-pants-work scenarios (where I need to be the smarty-pants). It’s worth doing even if I never use any of it. The fact that it exists is proof that I’m alive, and furthermore, it’s proof that I’m willing to keep changing (unless I say the same boring thing over and over and over and over and over again). I have a focus of a kind: I love writing and this blog is about me writing and being a writer and making writing happen, but I try to let change infuse who I am and allow me to grow in new and unexpected ways–though growth is uncomfortable sometimes (just like ugly first-draft writing). Writing just flat out makes me grow, damnitall. And then I’m in the middle of changing before I know it. I have a friend who says, “When you’re through changing, you’re through.” Right on, sister. I’d like to be far from through, thank you very much.

Most of the time, I just let the writing happen. Most of the time. And even though I do write a lot, sometimes I have to throw things away: e.g., a blog post I started that was about visioneering. I just couldn’t make it work out; I guess it wasn’t meant to be. I love Disneyland, grew up not far from it, visited 1,000+ times, and it says it’s the happiest place on Earth on the sign out front, but the connections I was trying to make between Disney’s imagineers and the visioneers of open educational resources, like Writing Spaces, wasn’t working. The good fight was not staying good. In between the time I started writing that post, and when I had to kill it, I watched RiP!: A Remix Manifesto, learned about the Mouse Liberation Front, and I got tainted, or turned left, or fine-tuned. (Watch this film and learn why the Victorians are everywhere, by the way. And when you do watch this, as you should, be sure to check out the MLF founder, Dan O’Neill, because, ripped from the Wikipedia page for Air Pirates is this possibly life-altering quote from O’Neill for those of us who consistently do stupid things: “‘Doing something stupid once,’ he said, ‘is just plain stupid. Doing something stupid twice is a philosophy.'” Ah. I knew I liked him right away.) I couldn’t keep writing the imagineers/visioneers story–it had to go. I still think Writing Spaces is visioneering done right, but Walt Disney can’t be part of that conversation.

Writing a lot, then, does not mean I’m good at it. It just means I do it a lot. Or doing it more than once might mean I have a philosophy. (I write; therefore, I am. Is that it?) And heaven knows, not all of my writing appears here or is fit to appear here. In fact, most of it doesn’t and isn’t. It’s hard to commit to writing for the public. I worry about typos and heinous errors in syntax and mistakes in fact and graceless moments when I might reveal too much about myself. Sometimes, I write just for me (hard for you to imagine that, isn’t it?) and then come to this space to think in a more accountable way because it is a public location. Still it’s a good place to work out the next level of some idea or thing I’m thinking about–or to compose myself–this is a place that forces me to be true to a writing effort.

Some of my writing is slow and wobbly; I can certainly go to the place where my text is sprinkled with meandering thought bubbles of nuance, similar to the thinking of Harvey Korman’s character in Blazing Saddles (1974), Hedley Lamarr, who utters, in an epiphanic moment: “My mind is a-glow with whirling transient nodes of thought, careening through a cosmic vapor of invention.” “Ditto” says his evil henchperson, Taggart (played with glee by Slim Pickens). I am sometimes my own Taggart, too. Ditto, I have told myself after I’ve written something I really like. Why not be my own supporter when I need to? Writers can be so hard on themselves. We should stop that and let the words out and see what happens. Sometimes I write a really fine sentence or paragraph. I need to remember that. Once I had a boss give me a little hug about the waist and tell me, “Sugar, that’s the best damn memo I’ve ever read about sexual harassment and why it’s so wrong.” I live for the ironic. It was a damn good memo.

Despite my willingness to be my own cheerleader in writing, it’s still really hard work. It’s grunt work as much as it is: “Wow, I have something really important to say and this really marvelous way to say it… I’ll just sit down at the computer and the words will simply flow.” Inspiration can come to me but only occasionally. It’s not something I can rely on. Years ago, I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994) and still think it’s one of the best books ever written about getting over the fear of writing and about how it’s vital to just get the writing done, stick-a-fork-in-it-done. If you want to write, own this book. It’s worth having. The title comes from a report on a bunch of birds her brother had to do for school and put off until the last minute. (I’m only vaguely recalling here… be warned.) Their father tells him he must do the work; her brother asks how he will ever get the work done in time; the father replies, “bird by bird.” Bird by bird. That’s the only way.

And she’s funny. Writing advice from someone who’s funny: it’s priceless. Pay whatever it costs to own the book. (Or get see an excerpt on “shitty” first drafts from the WAC Clearinghouse.)

In as much as I can choose inspiration, I have been inspired by that as a writer and as a human: Lamott’s “shitty” first draft concept. I can indeed eat the whole elephant, but I can only eat it one bite at a time. So I write word by word. And sometimes it’s awful. I suppose one way I think is in phrases or clauses and string them together in sentences and sort of arrange those into paragraphs and occasionally link a few paragraphs together with transitions, and hope it all makes sense somehow, but mostly it all comes out in a big whoosh, word by word, stumbling and chaotic, occasionally airy and light. But usually I have to revise to the point that the writing becomes something new again, something fresh, something liquid that moves smoothly (I hope so) on the page or screen and peacefully into the eyes and hearts of readers.

My process is mainly about getting it out, down, away from myself, because any additional thinking I engage in might just muck up the works and keep the ideas in my head where they do no one any good, including me. In this way, writing also works as a way to “compose” or calm my wild, uncharted heart. (“Wild” because I am willing to let “free” rule my very being–it’s not always about being free, though, because free costs a lot sometimes. “Uncharted” because I do believe the world is made for those not cursed with self-awareness, and I am NOT one of them, but I can dream, and I can try to not focus too much on the inward. Ha. Like that’s going to happen to someone who writes a blog about writing and process and myth and the Victorians and Star Wars and open… and baseball. If you hadn’t noticed the Bull Durham (1988) reference, I bring your attention to it now: Annie Savoy about Ebby Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh and his gift of being not cursed with self-awareness.)

Focusing then, on the inward, I say, with no irony at all: “writing is definitely an emotional business for me.” Even when I write dry as dust administrative memos or reports–I’m very passionate about how they sound and what to include in just this way or that way to be firm or forgiving or to wheedle or to be just precisely grateful enough for the moment. Hard stuff, man, hard stuff, no matter how or when you write or for what audience. It’s just like Red Smith said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” At least he didn’t say artery, though I admit, my writing is arterial in so many ways: bleh. There it is: bloody chaos on the page.

It’s not hard getting words down for me, or getting words out; the hardest part is having the discipline to clean it up and make it pretty. I like pretty. Pretty feeds my soul. It nourishes the part of me that needs visual delight to go along with powerful words and language structure. And with practice I can write first drafts sometimes that work for a singular purpose–down and dirty emails, quick notes for teaching, a swift-kick-in-the-shins reminder of work that needs doing. These can be artful moments, too, even without revision. Art for art’s sake; I’m okay with that. Writing for writing’s sake, too. Learning for learning’s sake. I’m down with all the sakes. Even Pete’s. But it needs to mean something, too. A good crafting of prose can be as cleansing for the writer’s soul as sweeping out the cob webs by brain dumping. Revision gets at meaning in deeper ways, richer ways, fancy ball gown for the Academy Awards ways, and winning the Oscar for best original screen play ways.

Some idea must matter and be apparent when it’s over, for a clear message to be conveyed, short or long piece. But composing myself word by word is calming no matter the purpose, the audience, the genre, the length. I feel better for having done some clarity work. Yet, no matter what, I feel horror after it leaves me and goes into someone’s possession to be judged. Despite the stunning dress for the red carpet and the awards show business that I try to bring to a text in the revision process, I still feel naked sometimes. Ick. I want to be adored and told by the editor that despite the lone typo on page 14, “Your text is the best text ever–moved me and transported all our staff to the next realm of divinity toward nirvana, we had to share with accounting, now the CFO is mad in love with you, every one in the world will want to read this work, just as it is, because (we worship you five times a day) this is perfection.” You see how sick writers get in the head when the sweeping out of gunk doesn’t happen. It’s not really just like that; though, I must confess a weakness for CFOs at nonprofit companies, bean counters who care–hard to beat that.

This reaction might come from the damage of having a bad reader more than once. For instance, having a valued friend read what I thought was a masterpiece say: “I liked it, but you have a comma error on page 3.” Nothing else. Or the time I had a boyfriend read a short story that I dreamed was truly fantastic: “I liked it expect for the cussing. That’s not very ladylike.” Crap.

Even now, after years of writing for a variety of people and diverse audiences, friends and foes, employees and supervisors, family and lovers, I cringe a little bit over how, You, Gentle Reader (please be gentle), might find this text: 1) you see this post as almost self-indulgent crap (Bull Durham reference again); 2) you think I’ve been helpful because you suffer from writing fears and have just read Anne Lamott’s “shitty” first drafts and feel oh so much better about writing; 3) you love this post, love the blog, wish I’d write more often.

No matter what the reality is, I’m going with 3).

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Taking it personally: baseball and writing

Right this minute I’m taking baseball and writing personally.

Once again Jim Bouton comes to me, as if in a dream–unexpectedly and precisely–to put words into my head that I suspect will never leave me alone until I write about them. I mentioned in an earlier post about the “gripping” end to Ball Four (1970) that 20+ years after reading it, still resonates with my heart, still shakes my soul, still sits in my mind and defines how obsession works for me.

I just finished reading his follow-up tome, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally (1971). It appeared before me one day, and I was there, and it was there, so I read it. I started it last week while I was eating dinner and kept at it a bit at a time until today when I decided I needed to get through the final half. The pages are vintage 1970s–big print, lots of yellowing where the white space used to be, some old font I adore, ratty dust jacket all falling to pieces–and a giant black and white picture of Bouton on the back cover looking terribly handsome and very like the ham he confesses to be.

Bouton’s lyrically, deliciously, funny stories are alive to me again… and I recall how important Ball Four was to me at a critical point in my life. He/it was a “one.” You know what I mean–one of those moments, one of those influences, one of those turnings-down-a-path that colors the rest of your life. Reading his book, being open to the revolution of it, being willing to be guided by a passion greater than mine at the exact moment I needed that… well, it is truly a grand call to adventure that I answered and how. I read Ball Four for the first time when I was re-reading Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces (1948) a second or third time (and a lot of Samuel Beckett, too–what does that say about me?). Surely this can be no coincidence; surely the gods in Campbell’s book were looking out for me on that day in Chavez Ravine when a friend said, as we deliriously, happily, gleefully (always) watched the Dodgers, ate Farmer John hot dogs, and had a beer: “You like baseball so much, you really need to read Ball Four. I’ll lend you my copy when we get home.” And he did. Myth and baseball crashed at home plate. Baseball scored. Path defined. Path taken. Master’s thesis on baseball written… because my director asked to be my director when I said I was really doing a lot of thinking about baseball. He said, “I grew up going to Ebbets Field; I love the Dodgers; you should really do your thesis on baseball/rhetoric/mythology/sociolinguistics.” Or something like that. So I did. The director of my master’s thesis then showed me a doctoral program to go to, and forced me to apply (really, gave me the application, a pen, and said to get busy while he went to get us coffee), and the mything of my life went on and on. He was a “one,” too.

Even now I can tell you how every “one” in my life has helped me fulfill some aspect of my hero’s journey (I use the term hero to apply to my life only in the sense that I am on a long ol’ journey that periodically, and oddly, seems to follow the form of the true hero’s journey–not sure how it happens–is it because I always see what I’m looking for?). Lots of “ones” have inspired me, and not just Jim Bouton in baseball. I would include Gary Carter who hit for the cycle, at 37 years old, one night when I was at Jack Murphy Stadium watching him catch and hit like he was fifteen years younger–I would definitely include him as a “one.” He was beautiful, and 37 seemed so ancient and wise to me then; I was stunned by his performance and wondered, post-Ball Four, if this was the last time I might see him do that, if he was at the end of his career, if he would find that baseball had gripped him rather than the other way around. (He was just 37–can you imagine?)

Shoot, I can’t tell you much of anything about Gary Carter. I have no idea where he played or how long or the kind of career he ended up having (though I recall he was a great player–I’m sure he’s a Wikipedia entry–I hope he’s in the Hall of Fame). But I remember that night, sitting on the first base side, and him wheeling around to third for a triple… he was all kinds of lovely. I was so happy, I jumped up and down, and hugged my friend, and we yelled, “GARY GARY GARY.”  Who did he even play for in that game? I so don’t care. It was edifying to watch his hero’s journey and know that was what I was witnessing. If it was toward the end of his baseball journey, then it was a special moment; if not, it was still a special moment–who gets to do that in such a celestial sphere, surrounded by the most athletically talented in the world at their chosen sport? Not many. Playing major league baseball is breathing rarefied air indeed.

At the end of I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally, Bouton talks about a former manager who suggested there are “three ways to get out of this wonderful game” [baseball]: “He said you could drink your way out, you could eat your way out, or you could f*&% your way out.” Bouton then writes, “You can also, I believe, write your way out” (219). I’m drinking the best coffee this Sunday morning, entirely enjoying the reading of this book that takes me back, not only to Bouton’s early 1970s, but to my early 1990s, and I get to this passage at the end, and I think:

Holy 8-ways-to-get-on-first-base moly.

I get that.  I’ve never had to work out how to retire from baseball, but I have had transitions that mocked my effort to understand my motivations, that grieved me greatly, that made me question what I was doing and what all around me were doing.  I’ve often thought about how to get out of something and into the next phase of my life. Not that I think the manager was right about everything. But then I think:


Yep. I have always written my way into and out of things. Not always productively, though. The manager was right in one way–there are always several ways for a body to screw up. And I’ve probably chosen questionable paths plenty of times, on purpose and not. Bouton is right, though, too. He wrote his way to another part of his journey. And writing is a mighty powerful thing to do. Bouton, who calls former players things like perspicacious (thank you, James Alan Bouton), is once more right here to clarify my thinking for me. He’s a “one” still. Much of this book is about his writing his way through the transition out of baseball, into full-blown authorial celebrity, and into broadcasting, and processing the aftermath of the huge success of Ball Four. I not-so-secretly adore him and wish Elizabeth Gilbert had been around for him to hear/read when he was in his early 30s wrestling with the changes he was undergoing and writing about in both books (she had a freakishly successful book, too–though it wasn’t about her writing her way out of baseball but out of a serious relationship funk). Her talk on Ted.com really gets at the core of what Bouton writes about: 1) showing up to do your job (in baseball or whatever) no matter what; 2) how genius occasionally comes to you (but can’t be counted upon, like the knuckleball which seems to go to its knuckleball “space” whenever it feels like it and only sometimes shows up for the game); and 3) how writing is a weird business (whether it’s a vocation or avocation or a profession–messing around with words can mess you up).  Perhaps in a perfect universe-colliding moment they will run into one another and recognize their similar geniuses (which only some times show up for work), and I will get a mental text on my mental smart phone that this happened and be full of myself for thinking it was a good thing that came true.

Baseball and writing for me then, is about showing up to do the work even when my genius won’t come out of the wall. Coming back to this blog when I think I can’t write anything of import. Going ahead into the game, going ahead with the words, with the charts, with the writing, with the thinking, with the cartoons, with the dreams, with the “play ball”–even when there’s no chance I’ll get a hit. It’s about taking what I do personally. Like this writing. It’s so personal, and yet, it’s seriously public. The minute I published one word here, it was forever cast in stone in some Library-of-Congress-time-machine-internet-capturing-conspiracy-net that keeps everything forever. It became history that I’ll never get away from, at word one. And what’s especially shocking to me is that I never would have taken this writing seriously (personally) until someone said to me: “You should really blog. Just do it–it’s a good place to work out what you’re thinking.” Good suggestion. So I did. I recognize a call to adventure when I see it now (like working as part of the team that does things with Writing Spaces, an open educational resource). It’s all part of understanding how to be a fully realized human, and recognizing the journey I’m on that gets me to a place of quiet, peace, unity, and words that sing. Sounds sort of cornball, but there it is: me taking it all personally and connecting things and ideas and finding my way to something I didn’t have before writing today. Now I have this. This piece of writing, this thinking, this moment of bliss that is being followed (“Follow your bliss”) thanks to Jim Bouton, Joseph Campbell, and a host of other co-conspirators on my journey who I guess would prefer to remain “players to be named later” or not at all. Because of them (and me), I followed my bliss. And how fine is that? Very fine.

I wish, wish, wish, just a bit of this hero’s journey vibe will rub off on my teaching so my students will know that what feels like colossal errors now are just speed bumps in their lives slowing them down, for sure, but not stoppage forever. I hope they get that. I’m a living embodiment of overcoming colossal error–in fact, I’m not even close to over that part of life–it’s just easier to forgive myself now. Is that maturity? If it is, I’m afraid it’s being wasted on me. It should be dusted on the young so they will have grander journeys, so they will change the world in better ways than I have, so they will recognize earlier in their lives the importance of their existence. Or, damnitalltohell, is that the point of the journey? That it isn’t until later on that we get what it all means and why it takes so long to get it and then, only then, we are driven to attempt to teach the young and feel everlasting-have-mercy-on-my-soul frustration when they don’t seem to listen!? Aha.

Irony of ironies.

So my words of wisdom to my young friends might be: baseball and writing, learning and the hero’s journey, mythology and baseball (Luke accepts the call to bat, Obi-Wan is the 1st-base coach, Luke is on his own for stealing or getting to second, Yoda is the 3rd-base coach, Darth Vader the pitcher, Luke is the boon-bringer as he comes home to score)–see the ball, be the ball, hit the ball, run like hell. Doesn’t it all just make the MOST sense?

I write here when I’m full to the brim and have to say what I need to say.  Does that mean what I think? Could I possibly be my own boon-bringer? If that’s the case, I’m rocking it. My writing here has led to celebration, satisfaction, loads of fun, and, what’s more, productive thinking for school, work, home, and everything/everywhere in between. Perhaps my writing is gripping me now instead of me gripping it. Is that possible?

Wouldn’t it be nice if baseball gave me all that? Maybe it just did.

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“Well… in Who-ville they say…”

One of my favorite books, ever, is How The Grinch Stole Christmas. The best part of that book is:

“Well… in Who-ville they say / That the Grinch’s small heart / Grew three sizes that day.”

Why is this the best part?  Because it means that Christmas wasn’t really stolen after all, that it could never be stolen, not really, not ever. It’s always in our hearts–it’s untouchable. It’s a feeling, not a thing. Feelings can’t be stolen. The Grinch gets that, and it changes him. AND why does that matter? It’s about redemption, resurrection, renewal. It’s moving. It’s about what I keep hoping life is really like. And I’m rarely disappointed. Sure, there is ugliness, but really, isn’t there always something remarkable, too, something that makes us gasp, or wonder, or sigh, or dream? Sydney Carton willingly being executed in place of Charles Darney in Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities… Is there a more moving moment than that one in all of literature? Not for me. It’s why I read books. It’s why I love Joseph Campbell and the power of myth. It’s why I can and do watch Star Wars over and over and over again (despite Jar Jar Binks). It’s the thing about being human that is the most amazing to me: our willingness to give to a cause greater than ourselves, our willingness to see a place where we are needed and taking that place, sometimes at a cost to ourselves or who we thought we were. It’s why I like Rhett Butler so much more than Scarlett O’Hara.

As I think about open educational resources (OER) and how that can or should be a part of my life and to what degree, I think the connection between the Grinch and Carton and me is about how hearts, souls, lives are changed by being open to change, to giving, indeed, to forgiveness. (See how give is a part of forgive–how cool is that? How many years did it take for me to see that? A lot.)

I am smitten with the whole notion of OER and higher education. What it all means to me might be best described by the Grinch hearing the Whoville-ites singing Christmas morning though all the accoutrements of the holiday are missing. I have been locked in tight to what I saw as knowledge, the grasping ownership of knowledge, and who gets it and when, and thought that I needed to be defined that way–even though it felt like a dress that looked pretty damn good on me, but one I couldn’t sit down in. Now I’m beginning to think I understand why the whole thing appeals to me: it’s the word open. It makes my heart grow three sizes. It’s transformative. (Not that I’m small-hearted or bent on stealing Christmas or a drunken British attorney madly and sadly in love with a French girl I’ll never have.) If you looked up “open” online, you’d find a lot of possible definitions for it as an adjective–add in its verb meanings, and you’ll find even more.  Well over 80 ways to think about open. My, my.

So is open redemptive? Why not? It’s not closed, or barred, or covered. It allows passage; it’s extended or unfolded; it’s without restriction; it’s accessible and available; it’s unreserved, candid; it’s free of strictures or hazard; it’s unguarded, bounteous, generous, liberal (it can also be undecided and unsettled–isn’t that just perfect?); it’s free; it’s clear; it’s… open. After hundreds of years of higher education being a closed system–here is a chance for it to become an open system. Or parts of it can be open (not everyone needs to be wide open–in fact, there are some folks I might prefer remain enclosed–even if that sounds petty, I’ll have to just be petty). Didn’t the monks lecture to anyone interested, but those who wanted the “degree” had to pay–and got some special attention for the price being paid? What’s different about open and access and knowledge and degrees now? It’s the essence of what college was and what universities became, yes? Open strikes me as very Medieval really. (I get the trouble with such a system–it’s easy to become corrupt when your only income are students who need something and your ability to eat is contingent upon their funding or not–but the open system has its checks and balances–less like hungry monk-teachers and willing, rich noblemen buying degrees for their second sons…)

I especially like the part in which the guts of higher education becomes available to anyone who wants to learn. I taught a course on Victorian literature and science a long time ago–a continuing education class (for which I was paid $46.73 for eight classes–or maybe it was about drugs, sex, and the Victorians?). One of my students was a plumber. He took the class on a whim but fell so in love with the Brownings that he took time off from work to travel to Waco to visit the Armstrong Browning Library. I wonder if he’s thrilled with the open movement, if he’s one of the students of Khan Academy, if he wanders the cyber-halls of MIT. Wouldn’t it be great if he was, if he did? His visit to the ABL still stands out as a monumental part of my teaching history, a triumph not just for me, but for everyone who teaches, yes?

I often have thought I’d like to go back to school to finish my math degree… there’s no way I have time to do this or could even do it now–I lost some basic knowledge along the way to English professorhood. BUT if I wanted to dabble in math at some point, well, I could certainly do that now, couldn’t I? How lovely. I won’t dabble, not even stick a toe in, but I like knowing I could dive in head first at any time without reapplying to school, filling out painful financial aid forms, finding a parking place, getting to the right building, or buying a $200 textbook I’d only read halfway through.

Open also means resurrection. When all else is failing in one’s life, learning can change everything. Jude the Obscure might not be so obscure if he’d had access to higher education in the way it’s being conceived of now by the visioneers of OER. Doesn’t my heart break for him 1,000 times now, more than when I first read Hardy’s sad sad story? It does. And he’s fiction for heaven’s sake. What if my ancestors (whoever they were, I suspect there were horse thieves or cattle rustlers among them) had access to learning modules that were unbounded, unbarred, unfettered by admission standards, tuition, FAFSA, registration prerequisites, and more? Would I have been different because that culture of learning would have inhabited the very essence of my childhood? I was lucky to be raised in a library with reading as a valued activity, but without real knowledge of educational structures that were effectively closed to a majority of my family, I was all over the place. Still am. I know at least my immediate predecessors were prevented from attending college because it was never an option–farmers from North Dakota, immigrants from Germany (bummer to be German for a good part of the 20th century in America), and Irish from someplace very poor where they starved and when they did have money, they probably drank to forget their cares before they emigrated. Education was something I must have, so I was told, but decisions about what that meant were impossible for me to make… and sometimes still feel like that: anthropologist, historian, geographer, Victorianist, writer, dancer, what? The smorgasbord was too huge, so who could make those choices? Steak, or turkey, or fish, veggies, or pasta. How about 20 years of feasting, and I take a little of everything? The benefit to all that is I’ve never been hungry.

I’ve seen higher education resurrect lives, careers, souls. But one’s savvy about how to work the system is part of that resurrection–or at least it has been in my experience as one in and of the system, so far. Open means something different is possible now. MERLOT, Connexions, MIT are a few of the places one can find open educational resources–and there are so many more folks making open happen (Open University is a long time love of mine–I met folks in England a few years ago who teach for OU–it was wondrous to hear them talk about their students who lived, literally, everywhere… it’s less open than you think: you have to pay a price for admission, but admission is not based on test scores or grades or even really age). In some ways, you have to hunt for what you want in some of these open places, but I see how that could be evolving, too. (I mean, have you seen page one of MERLOT? I was sure I needed a degree of some kind in order to even begin deciphering the contents–overwhelming, to say the least.  And the crawl thing at the top… do we really need that sort of thing? Google really understands me–clean, easy, simple, doesn’t hurt me to look at it–sometimes, it’s even fun.)

So open is good. I want open. I’m dancing with open in Writing Spaces. And it’s a fine dance. It’s about writing. I love writing. I love doing it. For me, for you, for friends, for family, for colleagues, for students. It’s easy, it’s beautiful, it’s all kinds of open for me. It’s without boundary. It’s the light I need for my own photosynthesis. It’s the ultimate dance. But here’s the thing: Writing Spaces is NOT all over the place. The music is defined; it’s writing music, but the dance I do isn’t defined entirely. The content is about writing, but who doesn’t DO writing? I can’t really think about a life that wouldn’t be enhanced by writing. Mine certainly is. Even in aviation, I defined myself by writing and publishing in aviation journals. In extended education, I defined myself by writing and publishing about life-long learning. I haven’t always loved the scholarly path–I have really lived the journalist’s life, writing when and where I felt like it. And though I have fallen out of love with many things–politics, law, numbers (and even people)–I’ve never fallen out of love with writing. Never.

It saves me, it redeems me, it resurrects me, it sustains me. When I need to think, I write, and when I do, my heart grows three sizes. Maybe that’s because I can write because it’s utterly who I am. Utterly. I am the words I write. If that’s not one possible definition of open, what is?

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Thinking about readability trumps football

Even a close game like The Iron Bowl couldn’t divert me (for long) from thinking about readability today (and this is a banner year for me: an alum of TCU and Boise State, and teaching in the Auburn Univ. system).  I should be more involved with college football, at least, but there it is: I seem to be only on the fringe these days. For this very moment, text is vastly more entertaining. (I have to admit, though, there are moments when a stunning fade will capture me entirely, and if a receiver catches it in his fingertips then drives into turbo, way way WAY past the defense, for a game-saving TD–that is diverting.)

Readability. Sometimes you just can’t shake something from the back burner. Today it’s front and center. Why? No idea. Fate? The timing is right? Did I read something recently that was so hard, I abandoned it (Thomas Pynchon, no doubt)? Not sure.  I do know readability is relevant to me right now because information design matters to me at this point in my life. I’m trying to work out several kinds of knowledge I possess and how to share that information to maximum effect. My current tools are inadequate. I want pretty charts; moving charts, literally and metaphorically. I want data that is beautiful, that is art, that is readable. Of course, that all leads me back to the text that I want to be part of the information design, and this all leads me to what I spend a lot of time thinking about: college writing instruction.


Do folks in college writing studies do much with readability measurement? It certainly changed textual production in the 20th century, but do we pay enough attention to it in college classes, especially in college writing classes? I don’t know, but it’s on my list of things to dig into when I feel like digging into a database, because readability matters in college, for sure to beginning college writers, and by extension, their teachers.

I certainly haven’t paid much attention to readability since I got back to teaching college writing in 2007. I have assumed three things as a college writing teacher: 1) if I have interest in a text, then I can teach it; 2) if I can convince students of the rightness of reading a text, they will do it; 3) college textbook producers know what they are doing. But I’m wrong. Here’s why: 1) just because I care, doesn’t mean anyone else will–a few will (my devoted Star Trek writing students); 2) even at my most persuasive, a text can baffle, even proficient readers; and 3) maybe college textbook producers don’t care about readability. This certainly explains my experience in micro and macro economics. I considered myself more than a proficient reader, but I couldn’t “get” it by reading the $120 book. This is something I hear from students a lot: “I read it, but I don’t get it.” And really, if you picked up a college text and tried to plow through, you might only get a portion of it or not get it at all. Some of the college texts I’ve read (I use the term “read” loosely here) are often written for a specific discourse community with specialized vocabulary and conventions that are alien to a reader’s experiences. How does a disinterested reader get over that? How does a semi-interested reader get over that?

The answer is complicated. Some students are not able to get over the disconnect between what they can read independently and what they might need serious instruction to understand–especially when a teacher assumes the text IS the instruction. Related to retention? Oh. My. Word.

Many college teachers I know complain that students “don’t read” anymore. Did they ever? Did any students ever power through the boredom of incomprehensible text? I certainly didn’t as a freshman. I read what I wanted to–some of it sophisticated, some of it fun, some of it mildly difficult, but I only read what I wanted to read, easy or hard, and never to learn how to do anything in my college classes. I was such a brat. (In my defense, I think the economics textbook was truly awful–not one bit of humor nor an engaging voice–yuck.) Furthermore, moveover, and get this: I never read a syllabus until I wrote one. I really need to think about that statement in a quiet moment.

John Trimbur writes about the ethics of boredom in his text, The Call to Write. I have used this text to teach many times, and I like this part about reading and boredom. It’s something like this: saying you’re bored with a text doesn’t necessarily mean it’s boring; you might not be ready to read the text. You might need to work harder and better in order to comprehend–multiple readings, with vocabulary instruction, group discussion, outlines, and additional reading. Ah. I wish I’d known about how to name what I said a billion times as a freshman. I’m not sure it would have changed my path much. Going to college right next to the beach was hard get past and made it nearly impossible for me to study most of the time–oh, and did I mention the bar on campus next to the pool perched on the cliff with ocean views? No carding. So there was really no hope for me back then, but understanding textual “boredom” might have helped me more appropriately teach writing to the struggling students I encountered early in my career, or rather, tried to teach. (Perhaps I have the wording all wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t be teaching them, but inviting them to learn.)

Regardless of what I call what I do in the classroom–teaching, or an invitation to learn, or modeling life-long learning–it’s often all about the penetrability of the text. Can students get into a text or can’t they? Knowing something about the text and its readability could help me. It was only in K-12 curriculum development that I learned about readability when I created and selected text for striving readers and writers. AND because I tend to connect information well after I acquire it to weave new knowledge for myself, I am only today getting around to this thinking, the connections, and these questions.

So… why wouldn’t this readability jazz help me talk about text with my students–emergent and proficient and all in between? It could give me a heads-up about how I could introduce a text, anticipate when students might need more information or context, or when I should use a text multiple times to ensure its status as a touchstone text–a mentor text. Also, because I am a writing program administrator, I have to think about professional development all the time. Could I help the composition teachers in my program if they could calculate readability levels and use this information to support teaching, high school dual enrollment, basic college classes, freshman composition, and junior-level professional writing classes?

I decided to try an experiment today during The Iron Bowl (and it’s lasted through the Oregon/Arizona game).  I took text from five chapters in an open educational resource, Writing Spaces, and ran it through several readability measures.  (Thanks to the folks who made these things online–can you imagine all this was done manually at one time? The math is gorgeous, but the labor is intense.) I tested all five chapters for three measures and then ran one of the texts through an additional measure just to check. All very casual at this point. I don’t make any claims that might be concrete, solid, or anything like “this is right” because I didn’t check my work, but has it been a fun project for Black Friday? Damn straight.

Most of the measures have been quibbled over in the past and most have been improved upon by the originators and then collaborators–including computer programmers who made modern readability possible online and made the measurement tools all the way open (I love open). I checked for the following (in order of chronological development from the mid- to late 20th century):

  • Flesch–measures reading ease; out of 100 which is the easiest; 60-70 is excellent for a variety of readers; lower scores=harder to read.
  • Flesch-Kincaid, measures text in a similar way to Flesch, but it weights things differently to find the approximate grade-level of a text (at least this measure used to be part of the tools in MS Word).
  • Gunning Fog–years of education needed to read fluently and with comprehension–12 is a senior in high school.
  • SMOG, Simple Measure of Gobbledygook (I swear), suggests the years of education needed to comfortably read a text. (I only used this on one text.)

Go Arizona! If Oregon loses, it will benefit TCU–I’m still “watching” football as white noise at minimum.

I’m not going into detail here, but each chart (below–Figures 1-4 with some notes) can be interpreted individually, but generally, I found the below interesting points (please note that each chapter appears twice on each chart–once without extraneous text included and once with everything–so there are ten bars total):

  • Readability for the text alone is higher (or more difficult) than the text which included everything: references, discussion questions, etc. I think this is because of the shorter sentences of questions and short sentences of the references–a guess for now.
  • Readability levels are slightly higher than I’ve heard is apropos for college: 2 of 5 are in the range I would have guessed for college level; 3 were just a wee bit higher.  And this next is all my memory: I think text for struggling readers in middle school and above (including adults) should be somewhere around 4th-6th grade; high school needs to be 8th-9th grade; college is something like 10th grade and above; post-BA college is much higher.

Well. Writing Spaces appears to rock readability. Still, I coded the names of the articles/authors for now, despite the openness of Writing Spaces, partly because this is fooling around, and it’s not comprehensive; it was just something that came into my head this morning. It could be something terrific later, and I think it will be. For today, it’s glorious fooling around.

(And just to be sure there’s full disclosure: I’m an assistant editor for WS and professionally invested–personally invested, too. And I would like to note that I am doing what I vowed I would in one of the first posts here: include mention of WS in every post, but that’s not been hard at all. AND it’s important for me to make this clear, too, no one involved gets financial compensation on that project–most of what I’ve learned about the open movement isn’t about money anyway; it’s about doing what’s right with the knowledge we gain/create and openly sharing for and with all. Here’s where a kicked-up version of Word Press might have served me better: perhaps I could have added this aside in a footnote.)

The below, Figure 1, is the Flesch measure results, the oldest chronologically, of the readability measures I applied. Here 100 is the easiest to read–100 being a wordless book, I’d guess. The lower the score goes, the more difficult the text. One chapter is in the 40s, but most are in the 50s-70s range: nice.

[Figure 1]

I know the names of the articles are all over the place. For today, I’m okay with this. Hope you are, too. (And the pictures are really poor quality–sigh–that’s something I can fix later. Hope it’s all discernible for today–I mean, readable.)

The below is a collaborative improvement (perhaps) of Flesch with Kincaid, though the measurement is slightly different than Flesch. The 10th grade level is about right, so I’ve read, for college readers–might could be this is correct for beginning college readers, but still generalities get me riled up if I think about them for too long. Might could be a lot of worthwhile work is on the horizon along this vein (or has been done already–need to get into that database). “Might could be” is a Southernism I have apparently picked up and added to my writing repertoire. Wonder what impact it has on my readability?

[Figure 2]

Below, in Figure 3, the Gunning Fog measure (1950s) suggests the years of formal education needed to comprehend a text in a first reading. I am SURE my economics textbook would have measured off the chart.

[Figure 3]

So fuzzy.  BUT so interesting.

I ran one of the essays, the one with the best readability rating in each measure, through SMOG and got this result:

[Figure 4]

That’s worse than them all for fuzz, I’m afraid: the grade level is 10.25 for essay 2LWO (the first part of sophomore year in high school). The Gunning Fog is 9.7; Flesch-Kincaid is 7.1; Flesch is 70.74. All right at the point where I thought college readers might be. But there is a multiple grade difference from the SMOG to the Flesch-Kincaid. Does that matter to me?  No. I don’t think it does.

Who says that these are all right, I wonder? I’ll need to find out if anyone says one measurement system is vastly better than another. But like teaching methods/strategies–I believe nothing is a panacea. Own all the tools, try them all, and individualize whenever possible. People teach people, programs DO NOT teach people. Or put another way: people learn from people, not from programs. No pre-planned curriculum meets the needs of every student. Teachers with a lot of tools to work with and some experience can build a field of dreams. Maybe readability can be another tool for college writing teachers–at least the college writing teachers I’m responsible for helping… and me.

Another thing I need to find out: does all this mean something to college writing instruction as a field? Or is it “been there, done that”? More thinking–great. Minimum takeaway: my syllabus is getting run through a readability tool before the spring term.

For Black Friday, though, I’m mighty happy to have had a project like this to keep me inside (it’s rained all day), to make me write about something I care about (writing about writing is a good thing), to let me think about football peripherally (not a bad thing), and to show me a path I might travel along professionally, or at least investigate more deeply (this might be a yellow brick road for me–where are my ruby slippers?).

Arizona really needs to get it together. It’s not looking good. Do I care more about college football than I let on?

Full disclosure time again: I really love team sports, especially college sports, especially baseball and football, but any sports as metaphors for writing is a fine thing. Hitting in baseball is nice for teaching writing. But isn’t a blog something like a pass in football, specifically a fade? I am throwing to you, the reader, way far down the field.  You had to get all the way through most of this to see what it was all about–but you trusted me, you looked back toward me when you thought the point might arrive, and there was the point, coming to you, and here you got to the end. And if this means anything to you, you can elegantly catch it and run to score in your own way. Isn’t that what writing, thinking, knowledge management, and open is all about? I pitch, you catch. Later, you throw it back, better than before–or better still–together, we do something spectacular.

Writing is indeed like team sports. Perhaps it’s more like being a pitcher than a quarterback, but no matter the details, it’s about trust and not being alone on the field. I find great comfort in that.

Last play of the game: the readability for this post. Go out 5 and turn left to the hash mark on zebra white blue 86 hut. And there’s the catch: I’m writing so 9th graders can get it. I’m good with my general readability level being at 9th grade. Might could be it’s my ideal audience. Might could be that I’ve never really stopped being 14 years old.

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