Archive for May, 2013

Site Identity Politics

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

After I graduated from my undergraduate university with a degree in English with a Creative Writing emphasis, I went on to study Literature at another university. In one of my first classes, I had my professor tell our class how creative writing departments were “silly” and how all those MFA students thought they would write the “next great American novel.” I was upset about hearing this, because I knew it wasn’t true, but I was also a new graduate student and so of course I didn’t say anything. Plus, I’m from the midwest and it embarrasses us to say anything bad in front of anyone, or say anything at all, really. I think many of us know that in reality, most MFA students do not think they will write the next great american novel, but consider it wouldn’t be a bad deal if they did, though they know the realities. Also, the MFA program at this school was the department’s breadbasket.

I had come from a department where, as an undergraduate, I was shielded from these kinds of feelings. I cannot say they didn’t exist in my previous department, because they certainly did, I learned later. But as I continued my graduate career, I came in contact with frictions between literature and creative writing, composition and creative writing, and literature and rhetoric and each of these frictions are annoying and pointless. They do not help us articulate the importance of the humanities in education. They do not help us to accomplish anything but our own agendas without listening to outside perspectives.

Currently, I’m reading scholarship regarding creative writing studies, and finding that one of the big problems creative writing faces in the university is a lack of site identity. Where do you find Creative Writing in the university? The answer is you often find it in other departments. Another big problem is a lack of theory within creative writing, though I think there is theory there, just under the table, or perhaps that elephant in the room. But the truth is creative writers don’t get creative writing degrees to do research. They do it to write, and this brings a whole different attitude to what is meant by research or theory, but that is part of the problem, too. It makes it harder for us to enter that Burkean parlor, which I always picture being filled with self-important white men with cigars and this, of course, is also how I picture Burke himself. So should we create our own? If we do that, who is invited? And, perhaps most importantly, what are we talking about?

With all these frictions, and with the problematic nature of creative writing in the university which in this blog post I haven’t even touched the surface of, it leaves me wondering if English departments are outdated. In other words, should we have a Literature department and a Writing Studies department and a creative writing department and a linguistics department? I don’t know. But the truth of the matter is that if we cannot support each other, as a community, it may be something to think about.

The four week course: A “convenient” style of teaching?

Friday, May 24th, 2013

We have wrapped up the second week of the four week class, which means we are half way through, and since I have to leave early for the Computers and Writing conference, this means I am a little over half way, at least if you ignore the grading portion of my work, which I really can’t ignore.

Last night when I couldn’t sleep, I was thinking about if this style of teaching works or not, or at least how well this type of teaching works. My job is to teach a typical 17-week long semester within a four week time period. When you do this, I learned that there are some important things to consider and some important things you have to do.

  • What I teach in a week is what I teach in one class period. This stuff, you all, is rough. While I really don’t have too much trouble cutting things down and keeping what must be done to the point, I really feel as if we are losing some of the “fun” classroom work. What I normally use to teach genre (music) I really didn’t get to do. The way I use art in the classroom sometimes got shoved to the wayside so I could open time for activities that can more effectively teach the ins and outs of assignments. Even so, I think there have been some fun, more creative activities going on. And sometimes when you do these activities that are more directly related to assignments, you still get some creative, innovative responses.
  • This also goes back to first bullet point: can I really teach a 17-week semester in a 4-week time span and still get the same results? No, I am learning. Not necessarily. For example, I’ve seen struggling writers improve in a semester long writing class. Not all, but some. I’ve also seen students start to enjoy writing more in a regular semester length class, and honestly this happens more often than the aforementioned example. The problem I am noticing in this four week class is that everyone is tired. Almost every student is enrolled in another class. People are not only tired, they are exhausted. It shows in their in class work, the expressions on their faces, and it shows in their desire for extensions, which admittedly I give without requiring a reason.

Despite the negatives above, however, there are some positives I have noticed. One is that collaborative work has seemed to almost spike. Maybe it is because no one is sick of each other yet. But I think it is also because everyone is treading water here with more than one class, turning in more than one assignment a week, and these students need the peer support. In class they seem to enjoy group work. I have also noticed they help each other a lot more in this class than I have noticed in regular semester classes. These students also tend to use class time far more wisely than students in regular semester classes. They tend to stay more focused on what needs to be done and I’ve even seen some students look ahead if they complete a task early. So there is a good community going on in the classroom, which is nice to see.

Another positive is students also seem to be more upfront and “chatty” with me than in regular semesters. Today, for example, I got into a discussion with a couple students about music. I was wearing my Red Hot Chili Peppers T-shirt, which I honestly wear more often than not, and he made a comment about how I must like the band. This got us off to talking about music from the 90s, and the Goo Goo Dolls were mentioned, which is a band I haven’t thought about in ages, but I so do remember Johnny Rzeznik’s hair, especially from the video for “Iris.” 

When it comes down to it, all these students are here for the same reason, though other different reasons apply: convenience. On the first day of class, students commented on how taking this class now would “ease up next semester” or “give them more time for more demanding classes” or “get the writing requirement out of the way.” It is just convenient. And while as I reflected on this, I begin to see a lot more positives than negatives, I still have some doubts about what students actually take from these more accelerated courses. With all the pressure millennials face to get a college degree, be successful, and really do it all, it concerns me that we as a society just feed into these desires. Oh, you want a degree in 21 months? Fantastic. I got a deal for you. While all of this in some ways is well and good for some people, quality is something we, as a society, should be thinking more about.

I do not care what you say. I am a millennial.

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

And that subject line, you may be thinking, is obviously quite millennial.

My year of birth is 1982. I am right on that cusp of being classified as a millennial, by some standards, as some list the year where the millennial generation starts as 1982 and I have even seen 1984. In my mind, we can just probably call 1980 the start year, since we are thinking generationally. And really, I think I fit with the millennial generation, even though some of my friends tell me I think very much like  Gen Xer and even act that way most of the time. Still, I feel like I think and act like a millennial, more often than not, though I do have my Xer stereotypes. And frankly, these “generational codes” are nothing but stereotypes, though let’s ignore that for the purposes of this blog post.

When I first learned of these different generations, it was probably the early 90s and I desperately wanted to be an Xer. These kids were so cool, I thought, with their hip contemporary authors like Douglas Coupland whose books I devoured and cool music like Nirvana and Alice and Chains and their real, paying-the-rent day jobs. I was in junior high. I didn’t like school and honestly didn’t like much of anything unless it was literature or music. I idolized the lives of the generation ahead of me and wanted to be like them, so I often mimicked their attitudes, their dress, and desires.

But I am a millennial, though perhaps not the classic, garden variety, and I have been thinking about this far too much lately. For instance, I ride the bus and rely on public transit like any good, true hipster in Portland, Oregon would, even though I am not living in Portland. And when on the bus, I wonder why there isn’t a place for my coffee cup so that I can send a text without spilling my coffee all over my favorite skirt, which is a thrift store purchase. I see this type of thing as not only inconveniences, but problems that need to be solved.

While the above isn’t the strongest example, it certainly gives a good indication of how we think as millennials. Technology is not only important, but almost everything, to us. Yes, we love our families, our pets, but we also have a space in our stiff little hearts for our hybrid cars, macbook pros, smartphones, ipods and bicycles. So do notice I went from families and animals and then moved back to technology without so much as needing a transition.

When I was reading Carol Bly‘s book on Beyond the Writer’s Workshop: New Ways to Write Creative Nonfiction for my comp exams coming up, I noticed the generational differences and the generation-speak between us. For example, she deeply dislikes our current (book published in 2001) “junk culture” and bemoans that there is nothing interesting within it. That it is deadening. In some respects, she has a point. Think of the Kardashians and the question of, “so, why are they famous again?” But this was also written before “Keeping up with the Kardashians” and really how could you? Still, I think there is a lot of value in our highly visual, highly technological culture. I think our culture is making us not less creative, but more creative and not dumber, but smarter. Yes, we no longer need to remember phone numbers since they are saved in our smartphones. Still, technology makes us learn how to do things better, more efficiently, and effectively. Also, we can get a lot more done in one day than we could before because of technological improvements. A story somewhat related to this, but mostly demonstrates how far we have come in terms of technology, is about how one of my former professors typed up his dissertation on a typewriter. Every time he tells this story of the hours he worked, of how he typed and retyped the whole thing plucking away with only two pointer fingers. I always stare back at him, with my cup of coffee from my Kerig or the local starbucks and ask, how?

So yeah, I am a little spoiled, but aren’t you as well who may or may not be a millennial? You are reading this on a computer, right? Is it a macbook pro? Or are you reading this on an iPad or some other tablet? You got it pretty convenient, too.

One of the differences, though, between myself and the stereotypical, garden-variety millennial is our upbringing. I was not raised in some weirdly comfortable middle class family. I never had any feelings of entitlement, as people claim millennials have. The only thing I really feel entitled to is technology because, really, how else can I function and do what needs to get done? I do not know any difference since I have been online since 1995, and really that is a late start considering some of my peers. I don’t feel the world owes me anything. But I also think these are really negative aspects of being a millennial that are not true for everyone and, perhaps, may be a little overblown, despite our fancy coffee makers and technological gadgets that our parents do not completely understand (even though my mom and dad are pros at their respective iPads).

Millennials, I feel, are good problem solvers. We are efficient. We want change. We want diversity. We don’t accept answers from authority figures just because they are authority figures (think of all the times Mom said “because I said so.”). We want to make our community’s better. We may not be the original hipsters, but we are nonetheless hipsters. I think we are also highly creative individuals because we have to be. We must be creative in order to succeed at all. And this is why I value creativity so highly in my classroom. I think students will need to be able to think creatively, to think outside the box in order to succeed. Today, for example, I instructed them on cover letters. Then I had them imagine they were writing a cover letter to be on an episode of a TV show. I used two TV show examples, Glee (which I admittedly know very little about) and Mad Men (freaking love it), and they could write a cover letter geared toward the specific criteria I listed. One group even wrote a cover letter to be on an episode of the Walking Dead as a zombie, which was cool. While each cover letter had its strong points and flaws, when considering the genre, each cover letter was imaginative and creative. Students seemed to enjoy writing these, even though at first they really struggled to find those brief stories the cover letter needs. But as each group shared their cover letters, students laughed at the humor or found the cover letters engaging and interesting and creative on some level.

Earlier, I also had a couple students present on the topic of how to deal with difficult clients or customers. This is something any professional should know how to handle since you will deal with difficult people from time to time in the professional setting. I deal with difficult students from time to time, for example. And so these students presented on this topic and instead of just relaying to the audience of how someone can work with these situations, they acted out a skit between an airline worker and a unhappy flyer. During the skit, each student stated the viewpoint that individual was coming from and how the other individual should handle it. Overall, I found this not only instructive, but creative. It engaged the class. It had some humor. It wasn’t just a boring old powerpoint. Again, while this isn’t the greatest example ever, it shows creativity and thought.

While the millennial generation has its share of criticisms, such as we are money-obsessed and lazy and entitled it is important to realize the Gen Xers did, too, as did the generation before them. Everyone criticizes the present generation, but the present generation is also there to make the world better, and so I do believe millennials will, despite their stereotypical flaws.

Looking back on the first week of the four week writing course

Sunday, May 19th, 2013

Oh my gosh, you all.

So, when I first started planning this class, I was excited because now I can finally really focus on what is important to learn and emphasize those things in a four week class. I was having a blast. And I imagined most of these students would be motivated, dedicated, and maybe even a little interested.

Wow, Jessica, what beautiful fantasies you have.

For the most part, I still like the quick pace. The thing I still find strange, though not difficult, is basically teaching a week’s worth of material in one class period. But I like how this makes me focus more on what is important in the information and the activities. This also makes me grateful that I write such detailed agendas. This way, students can easily review notes from that day.

One thing I don’t like is how some students are simply taking this class because they aren’t good writers and this way they only have to “work on their writing” for four weeks. I feel frustrated by this because they could learn so much more in a regular semester long class, which I happened to tell one student. The student responded with something about his/her plan of study and wanting an “easier” fall semester. OK. But you still need to know how to write and while even a regular semester length course cannot solve every writing problem, it can force you to write more and work more on your writing for a longer period of time. But therein lies the rub, I guess.

All the same, I get where these students are coming from. For example, I am awful at math. Math is something akin to a foreign language to me, and one that isn’t Spanish, so maybe Greek or Latin. I look at Algebra and I have no idea. I read a story problem and the ideas get jumbled in my mind. I think, the train goes how fast for how long? What? When we were working on budgets in grant and proposal class, I had to take close and careful notes. I had to review them to make sure my math was right. When I calculate grades, I review my math at least 3 times to make sure I did it all right. So if this were a four week math course, yeah. I can see what these students are thinking. But, of course, that doesn’t make it any easier for anyone. As a teacher I know this. As a student who did this herself, I know this.

But most of the students in the class can take this without so much as a pit stop. They are in this four week class because they are accelerated learners themselves, which makes them quite a lot of fun to teach and to have class discussions with. Most are smart and not overbearing about it, and if you are a teacher, you completely know what I mean by that. If you are not a teacher, what I mean is that often the really, super smart kids are the ones who get a little uppity from time to time. They will point this out to peers or to you as the teacher, just to show off. They hold their intellect over you as the teacher and the entire class like a sword lunging at you and you keep bracing for it. But I haven’t noticed this yet. Everyone has been pretty cool.

So far, the class has been fun, if not incredibly busy and at times exhausting. I am at the office by eight, in the classroom by nine, but I “get done” so early. But then of course there is more lesson planning and grading and responding to emails. (Oh emails, the song that never ends.) I always just hope I remember my coffee in the morning before I leave my apartment. When time moves this fast, it really is the little things that make all the difference.

Things I learned from teaching Business and Professional Communication

Sunday, May 19th, 2013

I enjoyed teaching English 320: Business and Professional Communication more than I anticipated. For one, it was fun not to have to validate the usefulness of the class in some way. For example, when I teach Writing in the Humanities and Social Sciences, the genres of these two fields are so different. Because of this, I do have to create a discussion at the start of that course about that fact, how the class can be difficult to teach for that reason, and then explain why I chose the genres and assignments that I did, which I usually repeat at the start of each new assignment. While I still had students telling me that “they didn’t need this course” for a variety of reasons, and there were really only two students who mentioned this at one time or another  with one who loved to remind me and the class, most students saw the value and, I think, learned a few things, as did I, so here is just a brief run down.

1. Next time I will make them do professional presentations on the parts of the professional work environment, which is an idea I stole from my friend Karen. I am doing this in my four week long English 358 right now, but I think this is an incredibly useful idea for any Upper Division writing class geared toward professional writing and communication. These presentations could include things like how to conduct a business meeting to how to dress for a job interview.

2. Focusing on the marketing project during the second half of the semester wasn’t as awful as I thought it would be. When I first was learning how to teach English 320, the instructor I observed had students work on marketing throughout the semester. While it worked for him, I didn’t feel ready to jump into that and decided to teach it in the last six weeks. This worked out well. One thing I noticed, though, was some groups didn’t use their in-class group work time very wisely and so their projects kind of sucked, to put it bluntly. They had some strong areas in their planning proposals, but all together they kind of fell apart, and I think a lot of this is due to the fact that while I gave them a fair amount of group work time, the chose not to use it. I have to find ways, if possible, to make them handle this better.

3. Teaching this many different types of majors wasn’t as complicated as I thought. As long as I focused on the fact this was a class geared toward the myriad ways professionals communicate in business and on the job, and how this class wasn’t only for Business majors, things went well. I made sure to always state the reason and context for teaching what I was teaching. It seemed to work.

4. If I encounter a super resistant student on the first day, I need to shut it down immediately. Not play good listener or anything. I just need to shut that down.

5. Never, ever teach the job packet early in the semester in English 320. Just don’t do it. Make sure they understand the rhetorical situation to a T. I need to make them do the professional blog before this, because after that assignment I think more understood that. And they really did after the marketing project. So this tells me that the job packet should be taught dead last. Dead last, Jessica. Right before the portfolio, of course.

6. I need to go over the rhetorical situation more than I did. Over and over again. With English 358, I don’t need to remind them about this as much. They seem to understand it more, particularly because of the types of courses they take and the majors they have. But English 320. Oh, my. Audience, you all, audience. Context, everyone. Context.

7. While 358ers in some cases do write better, it is only because they know #6 better, or at least that is what I noticed overall.