Archive for the ‘Social Media’ Category

Essays on Writing (2009)

Essays on Writing (2009)

When my students and I read Wendy Leibowitz’s article “Technology Transforms Writing and the Teaching of Writing,” I found myself drawn less to the details about blogs, word processing, and email that dominate the article and more to a single observation about composing longhand: “I encourage students not to write their first drafts on a computer, so they might actually think before putting words on the page” (Bernard qtd. in Leibowitz). That sentence led me to reflect on the continuing role of old-school writing in my own classes. Although my students use new technology (posting blog entries and submitting papers to the university’s Learning Management System, or LMS), they frequently put pen to paper as well. I have persisted in requiring them to write longhand as a way of cultivating focus and depth in their prose. But is writing by hand still relevant in the digital age? That question—one that’s frequently raised now in response to the new Common Core Standards—prompted me to explore the science of handwriting and to consider what new technologies teachers are using with, or in place of, the old.

The bibliography that follows consists of Leibowitz’s article, which spearheaded my research, and two additional articles: one that examines the role of handwriting in cognitive development and a second that investigates how blogs have become a fixture in many college courses, in some cases replacing the traditional term paper. Together, the three articles create a strong case for preserving the tactile custom of putting pen to paper while embracing the new technologies that will inspire the best writing.

Whether these annotations (all drafted by hand) will serve as preliminary writing for an essay of my own, I cannot say. Either way, the insights I have gained through this research will inform the choices I make as my teaching—itself, a work in progress—continues to evolve.

Annotated Bibliography

Leibowitz, Wendy. “Technology Transforms Writing and the Teaching of Writing.” Essays on Writing. Ed. Lizbeth A. Bryant and Heather M. Clark. Boston: Longman, 2009. 137-142. Print.

In “Technology Transforms Writing and the Teaching of Writing,” Wendy Leibowitz reports that writing in the digital age presents both “perils and possibilities” for students (138). Her conversations with professors reveal that their attitudes and approaches vary considerably. While some require students to use digital technology throughout the writing process, others advocate limiting screen time, correlating online reading and writing with diminished critical thinking and writing skills. Whether they adhere to April Bernard’s view of Web writing as “adjunct to traditional forms” (140), or to  Robert Coover’s belief that it’s a “fundamental element of literacy” (141), professors find themselves rethinking the tactile experience of putting pen to paper and seeking effective strategies for using the newest technologies to improve writing instruction.

Leibowitz’s interviews with eleven professors do not constitute comprehensive research, but her article presents an informative overview of the variety of ways professors teach writing in the digital age. Though she writes for academics—specifically readers of The Chronicle of Higher Education—her straightforward prose speaks to a general audience as well. Readers who encounter her article now, more than a decade after its initial publication, may wonder how the professors she interviewed have since adapted their teaching to address the prevalence of social media and texting in students’ lives.

In addition to publishing articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Leibowitz, an attorney turned journalist, has written on technology and the law for The National Law Review and The American Lawyer.

Keim, Brandon. “The Science of Handwriting.” Scientific American Mind 24.4 (2013): 54-59. Academic Search Complete. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.

In “The Science of Handwriting,” Keim Brandon explores how his belief in the benefits of writing longhand finds scientific support in recent studies. Keim recounts a five-year research project conducted by Virginia Beringer, an educational psychologist at the University of Washington, that demonstrated second, third, and fourth graders’ ability to write more rapidly and express more ideas when they composed by hand. Along with Beringer’s study, Keim outlines brain-imaging research conducted by Karin James, a cognitive neuroscientist of the University of Indiana, Bloomington, revealing that learning cursive activates multiple areas of the brain that remain dormant when we type.

Writing for readers of Scientific American Mind, Keim addresses a general audience of readers interested in psychology and neuroscience. His reporting of Beringer’s and James’ studies points to the critical role of handwriting in cognitive development, a subject of particular concern to many parents and educators as the Common Core Standards Initiative—which deemphasizes handwriting in favor of keyboarding—has prompted a national conversation about the future of cursive in the classroom.

Brandon Keim, a freelance science journalist, has written articles for Wired and Psychology Today, as well as Scientific American Mind, and has been featured on broadcasts of National Public Radio’s Science Friday and Talk of the Nation.

Richtel, Matt. “Blogs vs. Term Papers.” Newyorktimes.com. The New York Times Co., 20 Jan. 2012. Web. 13 Nov. 2013.

In “Blogs vs. Term Papers,” Mat Richtel reports on the debate in higher education on how best to teach writing in the digital age. While some professors have followed the lead of Duke University’s Cathy Davidson, replacing the traditional term paper with shorter, more frequent blog assignments, their detractors—including Douglas B. Reeves, columnist for The American School Board Journal and William H. Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review—argue that blog writing lacks the academic rigor that fosters critical thinking. For Andrea Lunsford, professor of writing at Stanford University, pitting blogs against term papers creates a false opposition. Rather than replacing term papers with blog posts, Lunsford requires students to produce multi-modal assignments: term papers that evolve into blogs, websites, and video presentations.

Richtel’s article offers New York Times readers a glimpse of the contrasting teaching approaches adopted by writing professors who find themselves at a critical juncture, illustrating for a general audience how, as Andrea Lunsford says, professors are “trying to figure out how to preserve sustained, logical, carefully articulated arguments while engaging with the most exciting and promising new literacies.”

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Matt Richtel writes for The New York Times about technology and its impact of society and culture. His series of articles “Our Brain on Computers” (2010) explores how our constant use of digital devices affects not only our behavior but also our thought processes. His 2009 series about the dangers of distracted driving won the Pulitzer for national reporting.

 

W. W. Norton’s decision to replace its Scholar’s Prize with the Writer’s Prize reflects some recent and not-so-recent changes in undergraduate writing assignments. From 1998 to 2008, the Scholar’s Prize recognized what Norton calls “an outstanding undergraduate essay on a literary topic,” an essay of the sort that many of us who teach composition frequently wrote when we were freshman. Our own students write fewer literary analyses than we did, because many composition courses are no longer literature based. Instead, they’re interdisciplinary.

writers_prize_2013I’ve been thinking about these changes for the past few days as I’ve reread my students’ work to select something to nominate for the fourth annual Norton Writer’s Prize, a competition that invites a broad range of submissions, encompassing the variety of writing that’s now typical of composition classes: “[l]iteracy narratives, literary and other textual analyses, reports, profiles, evaluations, arguments, memoirs, proposals, mixed-genre pieces, and more: any excellent writing done for an undergraduate writing class will be considered.”

For their final major writing assignment of the school year, my students wrote ethical reasoning arguments per program requirement. But over the course of the year, they also wrote blog posts, snail mail, personal narratives, timed essay exams, cover letters, résumés, and highly imaginative scripts in which they placed themselves in conversation with the writers of some of the articles and essays they’d read. For some students, those scripts evolved into traditional research arguments. For others, the process of working with those sources revealed that their real research interest lay elsewhere.

I wish I could have nominated more than one piece of writing. For reasons of privacy, I won’t address the particulars of the one that I chose, and I won’t offer any details from the nominating letter that I wrote to accompany it. I will note, instead, how many students shone brightest when an assignment took them by surprise, asking that they write in new ways.

Last week in the midst of writing letters of recommendation, I decided to devote my next blog entry to the subject. As I tried to explain to students why they should waive their rights to read their letters, I realized that in our age of social media, many students have never stopped to consider why they should waive their rights to read what their professors and employers have written about them.

Here’s why: You’re asking someone with whom you have an excellent working relationship to vouch for your abilities. If you aren’t sure the person thinks highly enough of you to write a strong recommendation, don’t ask that person for a letter. Ask someone else.

Not waiving your rights implies not only a lack of trust–I’m asking you to write a letter, but I don’t trust that it will be good–it also indicates a degree of self-doubt. (I doubt that I’m good enough.) When selection committees and potential employers read your application, you don’t want them to question your trust in others or your confidence in yourself.

When you ask someone to write a letter for you, give that person a copy of your resume. As a professor, I can address my students’ work in the classroom, but I can’t refer to their extracurricular activities and awards if I don’t know what they are.

Lastly, on a practical note, make sure that you give your letter-writers the full address of the company, school, or scholarship foundation to which you are applying. Even if the letter-writer will be submitting the letter to you in a sealed envelope to include in your application–and often that’s the case–the letter-writer still needs the full address of the recipient.

Why does the letter-writer need the recipient’s address if the letter-writer isn’t going to mail the letter?

The answer is simple: The recipient’s address appears in a business letter below the date and above the salutation (Dear Dr./Professor/Mr./Ms.). If a letter-writer doesn’t follow proper form, the recipient may question his or her credibility. And you don’t want  selection committees and potential employers to question the person you’ve called upon to vouch  for you.

For more valuable advice on letters of recommendation, see Mitch Harden’s “Waiving Your Rights“–which isn’t just about waiving your rights, it offers other useful tips as well.

Sunday’s New York Times Magazine featured an essay on narration that a friend mentioned on Facebook. I didn’t see her comment initially because I don’t frequent Facebook. My husband posts there several times a day though, so he passed the news along to me. Now that I’ve read the essay, I’m ready to enter the conversation–but not on Facebook, where it seems too late. My friend’s request–“I’d love to hear more thoughts on this”–now lies buried beneath four days of links and “likes” and photos.

The essay “Once Upon a Time, There was a Person Who Said, ‘Once Upon a Time‘” reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s story “‘The Veldt” (1950), which my students and I read and studied this week. The  story’s crystal-walled virtual-reality nursery leads the Hadley children away from creativity toward passivity. When the son, Peter, admonishes his father for removing the picture painter from the nursery, George Hadley replies: ‘. . . I wanted you to learn to   paint all by yourself, son” (76).

“I don’t want to do anything but look and listen and smell,” Peter replies. “What else is there to do?” (76).

Ray Bradbury’s short story collection The Illustrated Man (1950), which includes “The Veldt.”

In “Once Upon a Time. . . ,” writer Steven Almond addresses how visual media (Bradbury’s crystal-walled virtual-reality) has changed how we conceive of storytelling. “Traditionally,” Almond writes, “stories represented an active collaboration. Listeners and readers were called upon to create the world described by the artist. Film advanced a new model of collaboration. An array of artists (screenwriters, actors, cinematographers, set designers, etc.) worked together to invent an ultra-vivid artificial world. The audience’s role became increasingly passive–to absorb and react, not to imagine. Television shrunk the wonders of film and delivered them directly to our living rooms.”

The absence of narration in “the shrunken wonders of film”–now shrunken to fit our iPhone 5 screens–isn’t simply the loss of a literary device. It’s the atrophy of an essential skill: one that enables us to make sense of the world. It’s no surprise that Almond’s creative writing students produce short stories that lack coherence. Or that many of the freshman in my classes struggle to produce essays of more than 1,500 words. If I write any more, I’ll be repeating myself, they often say, not because they can’t write more, but because they can’t imagine writing more. To do so would require the sustained attention and reflection that our digital culture leaves behind.

Posting to Facebook about the decline of narration isn’t the equivalent of driving and texting about the dangers of driving and texting. But it does underscore a consistent contradiction in our lives. As a writer and a teacher, I attempt to reconcile that incongruity with blog posts–writing that my students and I can draft and revise before our words enter the sphere Almond describes as “the simulated world through which most of us flit from one context to the next, from Facebook post to Tumblr feed to YouTube clip, from ego moment to snarky rant to carnal wormhole.”

For the past several years, I’ve explored various ways of incorporating social media into my UNIV 112, Focused Inquiry II classes, offering students the option of maintaining blogs and creating a Facebook page for the course, which students weren’t required to “like,” but were encouraged to post to as an alternative to blogging. I was still uncertain of how I would introduce social media next semester, when one of my former students, Tommy McPhail, sent me an email message, which I include below with his permission.

29 November 2012

Prof. Lucas,

I recently underwent a Cultural Discovery Project for my EDUS 476 class (the introductory course to being an RA at VCU). Afterwards, I wrote a blog post comprising my thoughts, and the response was incendiary. Within 24 hours, my post went viral received thousands of hits. To date, the post has received over 40,000 hits on Tumblr alone, and was one of the top posts on Reddit, in addition to being signal-boosted by various Facebook networks, Philadelphia Slutwalk, and my favorite author. I’ve received a plethora of encouragement, criticism, heartfelt praise, objection, and even a marriage proposal from a blogger in New Zealand. The very idea that my writing could reach so many people worldwide, let alone evoke such a response, has been both overwhelming and inspiring. It was only fitting that I forward this along to you. I would not have been able to accomplish something like this without you and your class. It really inspired me, particularly the social media components, to start using my blog for social advocacy purposes. Thank you so much for all that you do. I hope you enjoy the piece.

My essay and the accompanying appendix are attached for your convenience. Here is a link to my original post:

Tommy’s blog post on his Cultural Discovery Project and the overwhelming response it received attest to the value of social media as platforms on which students’ work in the classroom–in Tommy’s case, EDUS 476–can have a life outside of the classroom with an audience of thousands of readers. At last count, Tommy’s Tumblr post had prompted 46,935 notes.

Now I know how I’ll introduce social media next semester: I’ll begin with Tommy’s blog.

I planned to devote this blog entry—my first in two weeks—to the Virginia Blackboard User’s Group Conference, which I attended on Friday. But what lingers in my mind today isn’t the conference, it’s the personal narratives that my students presented in class after their draft workshop on Thursday.

To shift students’ focus away from “correcting” their classmates’ writing, I decided to devote the second half of class to Readers’ Theater. After students read and commented on their group members’ drafts, each group chose an essay to perform for the class, assigned parts, and assembled impromptu costumes and props.

To honor the students’ privacy, I won’t reveal any details about their personal narratives; I will simply say that their work left a lasting
impression on me. As readers they offered descriptive rather prescriptive comments, and as performers they gave their stories a life in the classroom that was separate and distinct from the words on the page.

FTP’s The Night of the Iguana

The idea of combining a draft workshop with Readers’ Theater stems from my renewed interest in drama and my recent experiences at  Readers’ Theater performances staged at the Firehouse, including the September 19 reading of The Night of the Iguana, part of Richmond’s Centennial Celebration of Tennessee Williams.

The power of live theater and its influence on my teaching also speaks to my experience at yesterday’s Blackboard conference. Though I use Blackboard on a daily basis—and it’s usually projected on the screen in the classroom at least once during each of my Tuesday-Thursday classes—for me it’s simply a tool: a content management system for content that’s always changing.

During yesterday’s conference sessions, many in the audience divided their attention between the large screens at the front of the room and the small screens in their hands and their laps. In the 1:15 session, I overheard a man say his iPad was attached to his thigh.

More and more I see the need for opportunities to turn away from the screen and to face each other.  Though I don’t agree with many of David Mamet’s sentiments—in particular some of his pronouncements in his latest book, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture (2011)—I do concur with his notion that people go to the theater to see that real communication between human beings is still possible.  I know for me it’s true. My own return to the theater is in part a response to our increasingly digital lives.

FTP’s Hearts on Line, August 14 and 15, 2011.

If you saw Hearts on Line last Sunday or Monday, you were face to face with characters pursuing relationships that began without face-to-face contact. I’ve been thinking about that since I saw Monday night’s performance, which I almost didn’t see.  I was one of the last people ushered to the section of folding chairs set up for the overflow crowd.

Live theater has far less cultural impact than the Internet now, yet  the staged reading of Hearts on Line played to sold-out crowds on both nights of its run at the Firehouse, August 14-15.

Playwright Rebecca Jones, Marketing Program Coordinator for VCU’s School of Business, depicts online dating with humor and insight, and the successful run of her show at the Firehouse attests to the value of black box theater as a venue for reflecting on our increasingly digital lives–if we’re willing to unplug for an evening.