What a Teaching Writing Online course can do

Any way I look at it, teaching writing online is more work for faculty than teaching in the face-to-face classroom. It is also more work for students, but this post will be looking at it from the faculty side and counting the costs, most of them personal and paid for by faculty rather than the university. The 2003 Article by Kristine L. Blair and Elizabeth A. Monske in Computers and Composition, “Cui Bono?: Revisiting the Promises and Perials of Online Learning” accurately detailed those costs for that time, but that was thirteen years ago and there is more tech, more options, and potentially more expectations for what can be done in OWI (online writing instruction). It isn’t enough to be as good as a face-to-face classroom anymore. Now we need to do all that, reduce classroom costs for the university, and increase enrollment, all while making education more convenient for students.

One trend that Blair and Monske hoped would stop was the choice of the least prepared and the the least-powerful for online writing instruction. Given that it is harder and takes some individualized pedagogical choices, it only makes sense to have experienced faculty be the ones who teach online. However, grad students are paid less than full time faculty–much less. As a result, second and even some first year MA grad students commonly get the honor and the challenge of teaching writing online, the reasoning usually being something along the lines of, he/she is such a good writer/poet. fiction writer, literary scholar that she/he will do a great job. Often they end up doing a pretty good job, especially if they get faculty mentoring along the way. The dedication that such students bring to their own writing and in the case of second years, what they know or intuit about the face-to-face classroom combine to create a writing teacher ready to overcome obstacles and do a superior job. What this steep learning curve means for their personal life and their own course load is another matter. Monske, Elif Guler, Chris Harris, and I held a roundtable at the 2015 CCCC in Tampa about solutions for this. No one in that room believed that universities will listen to the ethical argument and stop placing inexperienced grad students as primary instructors in online classes. The best solution we could agree on is what my university has done, institute a Teaching Writing Online class. The second part of the roundtable recommendation was to require the course for grad students slated to teach writing online, but that has not happened. To be truthful, it never may. However, I have hope for it happening informally, in the same way the grads chosen to teach basic writing have credit for Theory of Basic Writing.  Since that is offered every spring, it is only reasonable to choose GAs who have taken the course over ones who have not. However, Teaching Writing Online is only offered every other spring (odd-numbered years) and is an elective for the MA Writing rather than a required course for the Rhet/Comp track. That means fewer GAs available with course credit and the continued use of GAs without coursework in OWI.  Chances are that every single one of our MA students who go on to teach will be teaching online at least part of the time. They need the class. Also, not only composition classes teach writing online. Creative writing and secondary dual credit courses are other venues.

So, what can a course in teaching writing online do? here are a few things:

  • Familiarize future teachers with a variety of LMS. These change. If you learn the needed functions rather than the needed steps for a specific software, you will never become outdated.
  • Emphasize building in redundancy and different channels of communication. Triangulate. If a student missed the announcement on the site, they might read the email instead. If they miss the email, they may view the video reminder.
  • Learn the Discussion Board from the faculty viewpoint, i.e., using open-ended prompts.
  • Learn other uses for blogs besides a diary-like personal space.
  • An essential view of the online classroom as much more than a container for files.
  • A forgiving nature for students who get confused even though the instructions seem obvious to the instructor.
  • Learn ways to workshop online
  • Learn ways to conference with students online

This is a far from inclusive list. The most important though, I believe, is to see the online writing class as living, breathing space, not a warehouse for files. The most commonly used LMS, Blackboard, was created using the file cabinet paradigm, and remnants of that foundation still haunt it. Learning alternatives and enhancements can only help.

 

ENG 704: Choosing a Blog Platform

An earlier version of this post was done for an ENG 725 on “Teaching Writing Online.” I will be updating those posts to include what’s new since then and to better fit the new course.

In my ENG 704: Teaching Writing Online class this spring, one of the things they will be doing is reflective readings responses. That should be no surprise, especially in an online class where face-to-face discussion takes some mediated contortioning. I know blogs seem so old-school now, but really, I have yet to find anything better for reflection, for “the long thoughts.” Since my first blog back in 2001, I have tried many blogging platforms. some of which have vastly improved through the years. All are free. Some need server space (which does have a cost), but most do not, a real advantage for teachers who don’t want that annual expense. Fairly early on though, by 2003, I decided that the expense was worth it and bought my own domain and paid for server space. Besides listing different blog choices, I would like to examine that choice also.

My decision to go for my own domain was completely wrapped up in the concept of a visible scholarly and professional identity on the web. As a Computers and Writing specialist within the larger area of rhetoric and composition, I felt that it was not only appropriate but mandatory for me to have a web presence. I also realize this would not be everyone’s choice. The domain was very inexpensive and still is: $7.50 – $15.00 depending on who does it. in 2003, server space through a host service was the only way to go. Since then, several free blogging services have branched out to allow you to use your own domain for your web address on their service. For example, Blogger does this. That means you can have a custom URL like superteacher.net and not pay for anything else but the domain registration fee.

I had other reasons to go with a hosting service though. At the time I wanted to use Drupal, which was really a wonderful CMS for the time. It is still good, and I’ll say more about it and DrupalEd in my list. Drupal was download-only, so I went with a hosting service that would download and maintain it for me. It was a good choice since I did not enjoy dealing with database errors or other horrific glitches that seemed to happen regularly to my peers who did their own downloading and updating. The main reason I did this though was because I needed more than a blog. I used subdomains to separate out functions between my blog, my teaching space, and my CV. As you can see from the tabs here, I still do that.

Here are some current blog choices. I am limiting them to free services:

Old Standbys

These have been around for a while and include some of the best choices for those who want a blog that has potential to also be a portfolio or LMS (learning management system)

  • Blogger. If Blogger then was what it is now, I would have stayed with it for a long time. It lets you use your own domain (for the cost of domain registration) and it has good themes that you can go in and tweak if you want a different color or pattern combination. It also allows either group or single blogs. It is owned by Google now, and its move towards being an innovative blog space with interesting features began on its acquisition.
  • LiveJournal. I used this early on. The “friending” concept  began here, and the loose collaborative groups that develop this way are very interesting. I don’t think it is workable for academic space though. I used it for a study that was the basis for my dissertation.
  • WordPress. The link is for the .com site where people can sign up for their own blog space for free. The .org site has free downloads for the software in case you want it for your own domain and server space. The WordPress themes are the big draw here. There are so many, and so many functions come with them. This site is a WordPress blog that allows you to tab to other subdomains. The Moon City Press site, another site I am associated with, is also WordPress, but its theme has a nifty gallery that rotates the new books and announcements. This is a choice with plenty of customization options while still easy to use for beginners. You can make it as complicated or as simple as you want.
  • Edublogs. This uses WordPress, and it has the advantage of its own dashboard interface that  has hand-picked widget options that are particularly useful for teachers. The only negative I have is that when I used it for a class, they had serious stability problems. That was seven years ago now and It looks like those problems are long-since resolved, so I would not have any qualms recommending it now. If you are liking WordPress anyway, consider Edublogs first.
  • iWeb. Don’t use this. I’m not even sure it still exists except on ancient Apple computers that came with it.
  • Drupal. I still think of Drupal and now and then am tempted to use it again, espcially at times like now when I remember using its easy polls as classroom discussion starters. As a freestanding blog though, it is overkill and keeps its geeky street cred by being tweaky and difficult for many initial users to set up. It stopped having a free hosted option in August 2016.
  • DrupalEd. This was designed for writing classes by writing teachers. I used it at Missouri State for the composition classes when I was acting Composition Director. It is free, and it you have a school that is interested, I can get you in touch with people who can give you advice on setting it up. This is not an individual blog solution; it is meant for a school or program.
  • Tumblr. I think this could work. I have not used Tumblr because I am not really a snippet blogger; I use Pinterest for my short, mostly pictorial posts. This is a good place to collect things or pieces of text.
  • Ning. I really enjoyed using this for my classes in the brief window of opportunity when it was new and free, before they cut off everyone who was not willing to pay. It is a great blend blend of blogging, social media, tagging gone amuck, and pretty effective community building. Missouri State’s Ozark Writing Project used Ning, but moved away when it went commercial. I put Ning on the list because the fond memories still linger, but not enough that I’m willing to pay $25 a month for their entry-level plan.

Faux Blogs (Proprietary Website Builders)

Wxi, Weebly, Squarespace, Google Sites, imcreator, and other similar sites: These are website builders, not blogs, and even when they have a free option, with the exception of Google Sites, they have several levels of pay tiers where most of the options occur. I left out the links on purpose. Please do not consider them for blogs, classroom LMS/CMS, or even what they say they are for– building websites. For one thing, there is actual blog software available elsewhere for free and you should use it. For another, if you need to make a website, say, for a web article you want to submit to a journal, you need to use Dreamweaver or other web authoring software. As an editor for a web journal, I sometimes get webtext submissions that use this kind of site and I have to tell them to build it themselves and resubmit. Web journals need to house all materials onsite for the sake of security and longevity. Sites like these may let you build a website, but they hold on to it–ownership is blurred. It is meant for small business owners who want an informational site and don’t know they could easily do it themselves for free using Blogger or WordPress.

New Kids on the Bloggy Block

I haven’t tried these, mainly because I am happy with Wordpress and truly need blog software that has paged tabs and complex choices that work for a CMS (content management system). Sometimes though, all you want is a place to write. That’s all. A place to write that other people can read. That’s all. There are some interesting new choices that will do that. Here are a few.

  • Svbtle. At first, I wasn’t sure about a blogging site so pretentious that it uses a “v” instead of a “u” in its name as if we were still Romans, but this site does have advantages for bloggers who just want to write and want to join a community of like-minded writers. It is so spare that it doesn’t even give a time-date stamp for entries, which for me takes it out of the realm of blog, but if you can work around that, it could work for a readings response blog.
  • Postach.io. Do you use Evernote to keep track of your ideas and projects? If you are, then this site would be worth trying. It integrates with your Evernote account and allows you to take an Evernote note and post it as a blog entry to Postach.io. If you don’t use Evernote, this is not for you.
  • Google+. I have this and I never, never considered it blogging. Upon refection, yes, it is blogging, blogging that met Facebook and had a baby kind of blogging. The core of Google+ is the circles, groups of other Google+ members that you add and place into “circles” that you define. For example, I am creating a ENG 704 circle for this class. I can then post and specify that the post only goes to people in the ENG 704 circle. Each post then has a specified audience, one defined by you. Most of my Google+ posts are for all my circles, but sometimes I post about things that not everyone will be interested in. An example would be my soccer posts. I only send those to my soccer circle. The posts for ENG 704 will be like that–they will only go out to class members. So, since I am making a Google ID a required tool for the class, you automatically have a Google_ page with a Google ID. All you have to do is access it and start posting. If you set up a ENG 704 circle, you can then let Google notify you when one of the circle posts. Easy-peasy. The down side of this and the reason why I never considered it blogging is that it can never be truly public. Unless you don’t use the circles or make all of your posts completely public, your Google+ page is not able to grow an audience in the way a traditional blog can. It also has no customization, which is one of the fun things about blogging.
  • Medium. This site is truly a community that you join. You post stories within categories and the site rates them. That is by definition a forum, not a blog. Quora added blogs a couple of years back, but it too is a forum and I don’t see it changing its focus.

The choice is yours. This is one time when free options may really be the best options. If you want to jump ahead to an article that goes into blogging more in-depth, skip ahead to one of your later readings, Why I Still Blog, from the Praxis section of Kairos 19.1.

After the conference

As it turned out, The Computers and Writing conference really did what they could to allow me to get around with my very limited mobility. The kind people at St. John Fisher College found a golf cart and ferried me from building to building, so I got to the panels and the events, but the cart had room for more, and I wonder who was there that needed it but did not speak up? Why is this not a planned feature?  What will happen at the next conference? I find that I am not a fan of being an arthritis pioneer. The Findlay campus, the next Computers and Writing site, is pretty, with nice green space, which translates into at least one good slog to get from panel to panel. I did not send in a proposal.

Even though the conference-runners were gracious and found the cart, I felt awful about being the one who puts everyone else out. This was not planned, and people had other things to do, I’m sure, than to ferry a single gimp about. It was the equivalent of having a personal chauffeur, and I don’t think that is the way it should be. Still, I cant help but think that if this was a planned feature, there would be others who used it, maybe people who decided not to attend because getting around is so hard.

So, here is where I stand: I will not be attending any conferences until I either have surgery or they find a gel that my body doesn’t react badly to. Some days are fine, but others, like today are painful for walking from room to room in my own house. Translated to the typical college campus, having benches to “rest” on while walking between buildings is no help. It isn’t that I tire, it’s that I only have so many steps in me each day and when they’re gone, they’re gone. If I push and go over–and I have the energy to do so–I will pay for it the next day with severe pain and swelling, which is what is going on today. I had to go on campus yesterday, and the walk from parking and back on top pf what I had already done that day was too much. My Apple Watch noted (happily!) that I more than doubled my goal for the day from 160 calories burned to 360. I wondered then if I would be paying for that today, and yes, I am. Just think of what three to four days of that would do, even with a cart to remove the long stretches. I still had more than my limit within buildings, so I had to take a couple of week to get back to “normal.”

No conferences for me for a while. I know people are more than willing to help, but until that willingness translates into built-in help at the planning stage, being the exception isn’t working for me. I suspect there are others who need help too, but are silent.

Conference Fear

I really should be excited about going to Computers and Writing, and a part of me still is. It is the absolute best conference for people like me who are obsessed with rhetoric, composition studies, and all things digital. However, this time I am feeling a bit anxious because of how hard it is to fly for me. The thought of transferring at O’Hare is more than I can face, but I must face it. I will request a shuttle or wheelchair to be waiting for me, but I know how fallible the process is. I also know that because of my height, airport seating and the wheelchair itself cuts off the circulation in my legs and makes them swell, the absolute last thing I need as someone with bad knees from osteoarthritis. That is just the journey. I have other fears to face once I get to the conference.

I find myself wondering about information that is not included on the conference site, especially based on past attendance at Computers in Writing in Ann Arbor and in Raleigh. Both of those conferences were wonderful and I have good memories of each. However, each had challenges for someone with osteoarthritis, something I did not know I had at the time but now know. Back then I just thought I was a wimp. I now know all the cushion has been eaten away in both knees and they are rubbing bone on bone with some cute little bone spurs to make it even more interesting. Ann Arbor (2011) was long ago enough that walking was not a problem. By the time I went to Raleigh though (2012), it was, mainly because of the cross-campus walk that involved an outdoor tunnel with a staircase. I actually broke into tears at the sight of it, but somehow made it to the end. For a while it looked like I was going to have to stay in the banquet building and miss all the rest of the day’s sessions in order to be there for dinner and the keynote, but the organizers called around and found a shuttle bus. That was good, but it was a very high van, one where the doorframe bottom was thigh-high. We literally borrowed an ottoman from the building for me to stand on (with help so I could–I’m 5’1″) because it did not have a step stool or steps for those with limited mobility to use in order to use the van that was needed because of limited mobility. I spent a lot of that conference with my feet up taking care of the damage I did the first day.

Clearly, it is very important to know how much walking is involved and if there are unavoidable stairs. Having a van available for buildings that are not near each other is important too and something that should be publicized and already arranged, not a last minute addition because unexpectedly, someone can’t walk far. Not all disabilities involve a wheelchair. I see as I am planning my sessions schedule that there is more than one building for sessions and things like the keynotes. I can do a block (five small houses worth) without too much trouble if I take it slow and I can walk that block back if I have a few hours rest in-between. Moving from room to room in a building is okay also with the rest time the sessions will give. I wish I knew. A (scaled) campus map on the site even would help me gauge potential problems.

Unfortunately, the conference site does not address any ADA issues and it really should. On the other hand, no previous year did either, so they shouldn’t feel too bad. I wonder though, how much longer will this go on? How many times must it be shown that not all attendees will see the scenic walks between buildings as healthful exercise? I used to buy into that and now I have no knees. I emailed to find out and do expect a fairly prompt response. This is one area though that the campus-to-campus move with new organizers each time hurts the conference. It is far too easy for past lessons like this one to be forgotten in the planning only to be relearned each year at the conference itself.

Until this past summer, I did not have a diagnosis for osteoarthritis. Friends and colleagues finally pushed me to do something rather than feel that I was somehow at fault for not being able to keep up. I now know and get gel in my knees which allows me to walk at almost the level I was at a few years ago at Raleigh. I even timed my gel injections so that my knees would be at their best for the conference.Unfortunately, I had an allergic reaction to the treatment this time and am not at my best after all. In the past I have found that the simple question, “How much walking is there? I have limited mobility due to arthritis.” invariably has the answer “That won’t be a problem. Nothing is more than a few blocks–an easy walk.” I hope that you can see that a few blocks is more than I can do, especially when it is really a half mile or so and even more importantly, when that walk is repeated and done for several days in a row. It all adds up.

Not to be a pill, but I also have to think about hearing. I have 30% hearing loss in both ears and depending on acoustics, have gone to conferences where I literally could not understand any of the speakers. It would be nice to know if any captioning is planned, for the keynotes at least. Room amplification options would be helpful. Something. I wish I had hearing aids, but they are not covered by insurance and are ridiculously expensive, especially if you need them for both ears.

I wish I didn’t have to apologize for my disabilities. They are really not my fault after all. My not being able to walk all day is not because I am a wimp or too fat (another issue) and most definitely is not something that will “get better” if I get out and walk more. I wish I had an extra $5500 or so for hearing aids, devices that my insurance and virtually all insurance companies see as cosmetic and thus don’t cover. I wish I could look forward to conferences or even travel in general again. Until some things change though, it’s going to continue being a problem. I only hope that it’s the situation that’s seen as the problem and not me.

About expectations and required composition classes

Writing I and Writing II are required as part of the gen-eds, a fairly normal thing for all universities. This universal requirement means that students who fear writing or who simply do not value writing as a part of their future must take it anyway. Enforced education is problematic and leads to resistance. I could expect a certain percentage of “problem” students who resist the course in some expected and unexpected ways, some fairly creative. Despite past experience, I choose to expect the best, most motivated students instead. They will aim for writing that connects to their interests and they will have interests. If they don’t, the class will be the place where they discover their academic interests through writing about them. It may well mean a change of majors, a small thing weighed against a lifetime of working at something they are indifferent to or actively don’t like just for the money. They may learn to like writing, be seduced by its ability to lead to new insights or to a greater understanding of self. They may not and continue to dislike it, but even then, they can gain the comfort of feeling competent at writing, an assurance that whatever writing task shows up in the future, they can analyze what is needed and succeed. This is what I expect and most of the time I get it.

Each semester the dance between expecting the best and the unexpected roadblocks play out. There are times teaching composition is a long, hard slog, and the last week of classes and finals week can lead to despair. Students that disappeared because of a heavy class and work load reappear in a panic. Students on the edge between grades begin to negotiate, give reasons why work “is not that bad” or question assessment categories such as audience. These truly are the weeks that define them, but it is also when I especially need to stay true to myself, to be the writing teacher I aspire to be. I vow to be that teacher. I must also acknowledge though that students need to bring a reasonable amount of effort to the class too and if they don’t, it is their choice. In order to stay fair to the students who did put in the time and effort, I need to play fair there too and have clear vision when assessing work.

Today is the last day of classes for my university, a good day to look back and think about my classes and the last things that need to be done. It is often a time for regrets and occasional triumphs. For example, I also teach a Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature class this semester. Its primary mode of assessment is writing, with fairly spirited discussion about the readings leading to that writing. They were engaged with the material and developed the habit of leaving the class together and continuing the conversation as they walked, settling in a spot across from the student union to talk more. This is not a required classes for anything, but it does fulfill a need for a certain number of hours of 300-level and above courses to meet the requirements for the B.A. Thank you, degree requirements. I have to ask myself, could this happen with composition? Could the academic writing approach (WID) engage students just as thoroughly as this class where students admittedly have a prior interest in the material?

My answer remains yes and no. Yes, they can be engaged in writing about the hot topics in their field, in building an approach to a subject that is uniquely theirs, However, not all Writing II students are passionate about their major, and preprofessional majors will always be difficult to write about on the undergraduate level. That is why that even though I stay with a WID approach in Writing II (modified WID in Writing I), the assignments are designed to give students experience in different kinds of writing that they could reasonably encounter later, either in future undergraduate courses, in graduate school (the focus of my 300-level Writing II), or in their work life post college. Postponed rewards are not always appreciated, So this day, a day of grading for me, I will celebrate what they have done and attempt in my comments to express and celebrate the progress they’ve made. Every single student has made progress, even the ones who stopped coming because of hard times and enrolled with me for a second try in the fall. That too, is a victory.

 

About DMAC

As usual, I hate how I look in photos and video, but this is a good interview video, taken at the Digital Media and Composition Institute. I wholeheartedly recommend their summer institute for any writing teacher who seeks more innovative teaching in 21st century literacies.

More LMS review

After the great Moodle breakdown last semester, I had to scramble to find something to replace it that did not require me to do the upkeep. The one-click options that remained with my host were not going to work. Canvas has changed its terms. I’m probably doing too much for an edublog to satisfy me anymore. So, with great regret I started filling my university-provided Blackboard 9.1 course sites with content. I would finally have the benefit of student familiarity with the LMS and the habit of checking it.

Now that I am all but done with course prep, I find that Wikispaces is now split into a educational build and an enterprise build. The Wikispaces Classroom is free and looks like a modest LMS. I had more than a moment of regret that I hadn’t found this sooner. In the end though, I’m not even sure I’m going to use it for the reason that I searched for it–to use for a course-long project where students build a series of wikis to hierarchically write and organize notes for the different novels, novellas, and short stories they will be reading in my science fiction class. I started with the Blackboard wiki module, but decided that if I didn’t have the patience to make it do what I want, it was highly unlikely that my students would follow through without a high level of frustration. I decided on Prezi instead, which acts like a very visual wiki with good templates. I think the way the Wikispace looks like a LMS will confuse students with all the options. I really just needed a wiki and a plain old wiki is not possible, I could one-click MediaWiki software into a new subdomain on my web space. I’ve used MediaWiki before of course, but feel that it is overkill for this. The Collaborative Notes project is more ephemeral. We will not be building for the ages here.

I won’t use Wikispaces this time unless I get a sudden burst of energy once I’ve updated the rest of the assignments. What I will do though, is save this idea and the knowledge that I set up an account for when I teach ENG 704: Teaching Writing Online. This could be a great solution for prospective online writing teachers who need more than WordPress yet less than Blackboard.

 

Meme sample 4 for Writing II

10398602_1361034887334774_1264224153922483735_nThis is a popular meme, one that I was ready to share with others on Facebook or Twitter, which is a primary measure of whether a meme works or not. This one works. For those creating their own meme for Writing II, it is not a good example of the kind of meme that takes an issue and lends insight, the kind of argumentative, issue-based meme you will be producing.

The reasons why are not that complicated and have a lot to do with a common problem in critical writing, the use of cliches. This meme is based on an extension of cliches about
“living in the moment,” of which there are several since it is such a popular idea. Carpe diem, gather yon flowers whilst thou may, cowabunga, dude, and so on. It’s been a popular idea through the ages, leading to cliched language and individual cliches, which are phrases or metaphors used so often that they lose meaning as a unit and keep it as used language. For example, the phrase “hare brained idea” has now morphed into “hair brained idea” or even “air brained idea.” All connect to a metaphor of a tiny brain , like a hare, a cousin to the rabbit would have. However, when changed to the homonym hair  or even air by those who don’t know what a hare is, the phrase dilutes and becomes even more of “just something people say,” a common description of a cliche. Good academic writing works by looking for a gap in the literature, for a stance that not everyone agrees with. Building new knowledge won’t happen with stock language.

Back to the meme. If the basis of your meme is a cliche, that means it is also shallow enough in meaning that it can’t be used to convey a complex idea. Avoid cliches like the plague. Seek the higher ground. In today’s society, we like topics to be hotter than a stove lid, to be something that is the bee’s knees. Right? Right.