Archive for November, 2013

the letter of intent

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

I have been told that the grant class I teach is one of the hardest, if not the hardest, class to teach in the upper division writing curriculum. I also hear this about technical writing, but I haven’t yet taught that, though I have been trained to teach that class as well. After teaching grants, I can see why this is the case because it requires a fair amount of writing, good research, and clear communication, not just in writing, but orally since students often do have to talk with people in the community and for an interview assignment. I think people say it is a difficult class because you have so many different projects and different skill levels all while trying to teach the rich field of grant writing and research. Yes, that certainly is challenging, though I would still argue that writing in the humanities and social sciences can be just as difficult. Despite the difficulty, I think the class is doing well and students seem to be responding positively to it and I also enjoy teaching it far more than I thought I would.

The recent assignment my students completed, the proposal for unit 2, has left me thinking. As a former student of this class, I remember this assignment well and remember trying to describe what I wanted to do, even though I had not quite done it nor perhaps had, or put in, adequate time to think about it. I’m seeing some similar reactions in my students proposals. I am seeing those similar mistakes, and frankly I don’t blame them for it. Mostly I fault time management and the genre choice as I have seen students write memos and proposals for this assignments. Hence there is a little confusion.

And this got me thinking more about grant writing as my job and how when I sometimes write letters of intent, my organization does not yet completely understand the project fully enough to share any of the long-range details of the project. For example, if we were to write a letter of intent to bring yoga classes to rural areas, we may not yet have a curriculum written up, though we could probably describe what that curriculum might look like. We may not also yet know the exact cost of the project, but we could probably compose a tentative budget, which sometimes letters of intent require.

In a sense, my students are facing a similar dilemma. They know what they will do. They can envision its whole, but cannot yet see the details of that whole. They cannot yet describe, with acuity, all the pieces. Frankly, I don’t expect them to explain each part with acuity, but because some students misread the assignment as a “proposal for a proposal,” I had students try to do this since a proposal would require as much.

This got me thinking that perhaps asking them to write a letter of intent in place of the memo for the project proposal will just make more sense. It might lead to less confusion and it would also give a perfect opportunity to teach more about the letter of intent.

A letter of intent (LOI) is just what it implies: it is a professional letter, sometimes actually just referred to as a cover letter, that describes a project and gives some details regarding the organization. It also names people working on the project and gives some specifics about that project. Sometimes the funders ask for a tentative budget. Mostly I have seen funding organizations post actual forms for you to fill out as LOIs. Sometimes, I write what I refer to as a “blind” LOI (I am sure they have a more technical name) where I just send out a letter to a funder who is not familiar with my organization. In these, I may not actually describe a project, but share information about my organization and talk about how that foundation can help my organization. And, usually, I try to describe a recent project or two as well, just to give some insight. Inserting brochures with the LOI doesn’t hurt, either, even though I sometimes feel I am being annoying, or like a salesperson, but really doing this is part of my job.

So for next semester I think I’ll have my students write a letter of intent for their project proposals. My students will give me a 200-250 word description of the project, describe organizations and people working with the project, share resources they have for the project, and instead of a budget I may ask my students to write about some benefits for this project. I may include one or two other slots, but for now this is what I am thinking about. I may also set this up similar to the forms I see when I write those letter of intents in real life.

Writing a LOI for their unit 2 project will help students not only to focus on what they know already for this project, but give them some experience in how letters of intent work. While it isn’t a perfect assignment by any means, and will probably will have its own hiccups, I think it would be a useful activity for students, especially since I already have a fair amount of students who are interested in this work or already work with nonprofits. I also look forward to working on this course further and seeing how it all turns out.

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A glimpse into students’ views of research universities and writing courses

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

My title may not be indicative of the opinions of all students, but it is indicative of some interesting conversations I had with students this week during conferences. I tend to develop good rapport with my students. Even the students who tend not to be my strongest, best students, and sometimes leave with Cs or Ds, I still tend to get along with, or at least I don’t feel they hold anything against me. I also know I am probably more generous in my grading than others, though all the same I have no problem giving a fair amount of feedback to improve that paper or that draft, and perhaps this helps the positive rapport, too. I can remember very few uncomfortable conference conversations or conversations in my office with students. I also joke now and then in class, which helps students not only get to know me in some way, but makes them comfortable. I also suppose my small stature and the fact I am female help in this as well and perhaps more than I realize or wish to admit. Despite not being motherly at all, I find my students will open up to me at least a little bit.

So this week was conferences and because some people met with groups, for group projects, there were some moments that could be termed layover moments where we were waiting for others to arrive. During these times, the students in the room and I were just chatting. Some of our talk was about tacos, which was painful for me since I had been in conferences since 3:30 that afternoon and it was now a little after 6 when this conversation occurred.

But some of our conversations were also about the class. I like to check in and see how things are going. One conversation with a group delved off into how they felt the grants class was more helpful to them for their future careers than the writing in the humanities and social sciences class some of their friends were taking. As someone who teaches writing in the humanities and social sciences as well, I had heard this conversation before and was pretty prepared for what they were about to tell me.

“It just isn’t useful,” said one student, “how is a paper on literature going to help you?”

I said, yeah, it can be a tough sell, but analysis is an important skill to develop as is building arguments and literature papers do that. But students, I have learned, tend to want documents as real as possible. They don’t want abstractions. They want white papers, cover letters, memos, proposals, activity reports, and other forms of business and professional documents. They want to learn how not only to perform in these genres, but know how they can be used and manipulated. This is part of the reason why when I teach writing in the humanities and social sciences, I have learned to incorporate social media and business writing, which I explained to these students, and they nodded in agreement. I also added I didn’t like seeing students having to take two upper division writing classes if they didn’t have to as I know tuition is high and debt a student graduates with will be higher. Because I am a teacher, I also said I would do whatever I could to acknowledge their concerns. Perhaps, I added, a pedagogical brown bag for teachers of writing in the humanities and social sciences would be beneficial in confronting the concerns of students.

Some other instructors may disagree with some of my perspectives above, but using some business writing in my writing in the humanities and social sciences has worked for me pedagogically. And yes, I still teach those more “abstract” assignments that those students were upset about.

We also ended up talking about university culture, which is often dangerous. Luckily, these were brief comments, of which I had heard before, but it had been a while. I had a couple students comment on my teaching and say that if they had known my university was a research university, they would have not have come here. Those students told me they wished they had teachers who felt teaching came first, and not research. Every time I hear this, I am always a little surprised because I didn’t know anything like this as an undergraduate. I knew I went to a liberal arts college, but I didn’t quite understand the culture and context of the liberal arts university and the differences it had with a university like the one I now attend. All I ever reply to this is that I understand those concerns and primarily, I add, I am a teacher, but sometimes we have to engage in conversations we do not deem as priority in order to get by. I also added that engaging in these conversations is easier said than done sometimes. With one student I asked why he didn’t just leave. He said, I’m here now.

How true.

While conferences went well, I always find these conversations about the courses and university culture engaging from the perspectives of my students. I’m always a little impressed they know as much as they know about the university and the different courses we offer. Students are more aware of the climates and cultures that surround them more than we may sometimes think.