Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Fitting weblogs into a coherent writing pedagogy

(the following is part of TESOL 2008 presentation called Teaching Writing in Online and Paper Worlds; it was originally at http://cesl.siuc.edu/teachers/pd/tw2.html. Some of the links may have been compromised by the restoration and are still being worked on)

We put virtually everything we write on the web, and virtually all of it is public; most of this I require for principled reasons that I hope to lay out here. What we do can be roughly divided into fluency writing and formal academic papers; the academic papers can be further divided into essays and research writing, and quantitative writing.

My philosophy, in general, has been streamlined around several core concepts which I will elucidate quickly, and which I picked up in my teaching past, first, from Elbow (see Bush 2001-2), and second, from Marie Wilson Nelson (1991). First, students must feel safe to express themselves freely; this involves manipulation of the grading ritual so that what they write that is evaluated is separated from what they write that isn't; second, that quantity is important, so that, in the process of writing (and, in our case, publishing) quantities of work they steadily see principles in action; they find out what works and what doesn't, and they come to prefer saying interesting things to avoiding saying them, or being afraid of saying them. With respect to a writer's taking risks, which is a central theme in conversations where writing teachers gather, Elbow said the following:

Over the years, I've finally concluded that safety in writing is my highest priority. Or, at least, it's a foundation that I've got. I must make a classroom where safety happens, but due to the lack of safety in some classrooms, student writers don't take risks; they don't feel safe when they write. They are trying to follow directions. But teachers like students to take risks and to be adventuresome: I'd like to use an analogy for adventuresome and risk-taking writing. We want students to jump off a diving board at twenty feet. That's taking a risk. But if we hold a gun to somebody's head while they're standing on a twenty foot high diving board, they're actually not taking a risk. They're reducing their risk by jumping off the board in order not to be shot. The only way you can get someone to really take a risk is to build up foundations of safety. We want to get them to jump from a one foot diving board, then a five foot diving board, then gradually, until they dare, jump off a twenty foot diving board. I think safety is terribly underemphasized, and with grading, it's hard to pull it off (from Bush, 2001-2, par. 3).

Finally, the writer's confidence, ability to take risks, and knowledge that writing will be received and accepted, are far more important than the other factors that we talk about; that, having taught some forms of writing, but given students confidence and a true sense of independence, we can then trust them to find and do what they need in other environments, and can worry less, in the immediate circumstance, about "cause-effect essay" or "argument essay." The parameters of writing, along with the requirements, the length, the style, and the content, will change, but they will carry their sense of confidence and independence with them- along with their imperfect grammar, which will only get better through much practice, and diligent reading and listening, some of which, hopefully, I can provide.

Thus, as a writing teacher, I find myself increasing the amount of writing students do in order to add on ungraded, fluency-oriented, interesting writing, all of which they put on the web. I don't back off from the curriculum we have; they write all the standard essays, and publish those too. I do huge amounts of line-editing; I lower the price of bad grammar by simply not penalizing it on the fluency-related half of their writing. I watch them write often, so that I can be sure that I have an accurate picture of their true confidence and ability; I integrate publishing into the process, so that, when finished, virtually everything they have done is on display, on an electronic shelf, a testament to their hard work and their success in communicating ideas, adventurous or not.

When writing teachers consider doing what I do they generally challenge me from two different directions, the first being from the perspective of the majority of teachers in my program and elsewhere, for whom the web is a dynamic, interesting and somewhat dangerous place. These teachers often say: most of our homework would be considered boring on the web. Should we still put this boring homework on the web? If so, why?

This question I found verbalized by Raisdana (2008, par. 2), whose students actually told him that other classes'assignments on the web, that they were reading, were to them boring. My response to that is that they may or may not be telling the truth, and if it is boring, there are many possible reasons. But if students' friends are talking about their lives freely and honestly, I am pretty sure that that won't be boring to them. And if this is true, then maybe the first reason to put it on the web is so that their classmates will read it. We writers and bloggers can't always be totally honest, in public, every minute, especially given the constraints placed by a second language and second culture on our every word. But we can make interesting and honest writing, given enough choices, and people will read it with interest, though they may possibly use IM simultaneously, drift in and out of Facebook, or watch the latest YouTube while reading it.

I as the teacher also have some say in how boring an assignment will be; if it's truly boring, it was the wrong assignment. Some assignments lend themselves to boring essays, and should be avoided. Others lend themselves to copied or bought essays; they should be avoided also. What remains? That is the pool I use to choose my prompts from.

Since well before the web came on the scene, I have been having students share their writing with others (1), starting with each other, assuming that real audience and awareness of it would help them, also incorporating the principles that sheer volume of writing was important; real communication was important; evaluating should be eliminated or delayed in many circumstances; that class work that is done in a safe environment, that allows them to talk about their lives, their interests, and their opinions, will be read with interest; and finally, that teaching writing truly must take into account that they will need writing skills in many environments and circumstances, and will have to develop a sense of flexibility and awareness of the variety of environments their writing will appear in. But good, true, well-spoken writing will hold up in most environments; if they did it themselves, it can go in the weblog archive along with everything else. The archive is a record; it will always testify that it can be done, was done, was often done well, and therefore, can be done again. And I know that they return to those archives.

The program newsletter, which, in its paper form, was read most often by students of lower levels, families of students, lab monitors and secretaries with time on their hands, and immediate friends of its writers, shifted to the weblogs several years ago (2). My idea was to have students contribute to the weblogs- then edit and develop both a paper and a web newsletter that would be more easily accessed perhaps than the weblogs, and would still be read by those who were not online in the specific vicinity of the weblogs. Higher level students were to provide interesting content, immediate, local, interesting; students coming up would read it, presumably, because it was at their level, written by their friends, and relatively free of mystifying idiom and cultural reference. Let the students decide what is interesting and what is not; let them show us how to make the newsletter more interesting, if possible, opening it up to new media, new ideas, and the possibility of comment and exchange.

In fact I am also challenged by my colleagues who are perhaps more involved in the new multiliteracy than I am. Those would ask: in what way(s) are the assignments you put on the web helping students reach out and participate in a developing sense of online collaboration and use of multimedia tools that the web is making possible? In other words, if the assignments are purely writing, and people aren't actively jumping in, commenting, starting dialogue, doesn't that make them flat and unidirectional, one-dimensional, in the present learning environment? To explain, I can say that the political nature of the so-called "changing paradigm" was brought home to me by this passage, where Dieu and Stevens (2007) quote Lessig (2006):

Contrary to traditional media like radio and television, which distribute their messages one-way from centralized static locations (from a sender to a receiver), social media are two-way, distributed, and part of a shifting internet-wide social network (peer to peer). This enables individuals to communicate their own viewpoints and negotiate meaning with many others, creating their own content and constructing their own "spaces" to network according to their own choices, not controlled by media owners. There is a shift in paradigm as we move from a passive "read-only century, totalitarian, centralizing, controlling" to the participatory 21st, a "return to read-write" (Lessig 2006)...Blogging and other social networking platforms give learners the opportunity to build a presence online through interactive spaces where they can display their different aptitudes and talents. Belonging to different networks, sustaining a large number of loose ties with individuals from diverse backgrounds and skills, reading what they have to say, reacting to it through comments or posts can all help learners develop their inter-cultural and inter-linguistic competencies. They have access to content in the target language and opportunities to acquire the critical engagement necessary to better understand their own and other people's personal, social and academic/professional contexts (paras. 3 & 4).

My first answer to this is that I wouldn't even be considering the question, if I weren't actively having students put things online. In other words, in taking a step toward the new media, I find myself in danger of losing my bearings, as if integrating students into a collaborative world of participatory, decentralized information exchange is now more important than integrating them into a traditional, midwestern, top-down, "totalitarian," etc., American university, which is probably more familiar to readers who have made it this far, and which, by the way, is still better aligned to my job description. In other words, I see myself actually bringing students back from a multimedia, multiliterate, participatory experience, so that they can read increasingly longer and more complex passages in a target language; so that, regardless of where they've been, in terms of their modes of receiving and understanding information, they can ultimately master a new, perhaps more one-dimensional mode (2).

Second, I find it a natural process, as you will see in reading through what we do, that I and my classes, which include both veterans of the multitasking, multi-dimensional world, and paper-and-ink people like myself, start out by simply transposing our one-dimensional, paper-and-ink expectations over to weblog assignments; then, as we get more familiar, and feel safer, in the new environment, we begin to truly explore what we can do here. I myself find it impossible, for example, to teach with online videocams, if I haven't first got online, used them, become familiar with how to control their settings, etc. (4). My students are tolerant of my general ineptitude with such things as cell-phone cameras, as every innovation has a learning curve for everyone, and "digital immigrants" such as myself, who started out just reading books, using unidirectional information transfer, just generally have a steeper learning curve with the new media, which is easily observable in the modern world, where we see learning curves at every juncture, with every new cell phone (5).

On the weblogs, virtually everyone has a learning curve, though increasing numbers of our students have familiarity with the process before they even start uploading their assignments, and have only to learn the English words for such things as "Publish," "Edit" or "Delete." They start with creating a weblog, uploading a file, and linking to interesting things, and that alone fills the plate of some new students; writing a term's essays, linking their references, and linking an abstract to its research paper, has already left some of the newer students, not to mention the newer teachers, wondering what exactly is going on here. But keep in mind, the students, in general, are listening to each other, and invariably they haven't had a problem with it, given the cultural understanding that, we know this may be new to you; we help each other with the technical aspects; we give time for you to work out, why, for example, some link isn't working. Given the tools, we then set about publishing everything, and making it normal practice. Then, we consider our new perspective: our writing is on the web, where each post has the capability of becoming a comment garden, a cornucopia of connections; perhaps we hadn't considered what the link would look like when we finally put it there. But now we can see our writing operate in different environments. And this gives a different perspective to even flat, unidirectional writing assignments.

Even now, I can not say with certainty whether the grammar, the language of writing can be separated out from the culture and environment in which it appears. One can teach writing by saying that what happens online is separate, a different world, unrelated to the mechanics of making a sentence, a paragraph or an essay. I would say, yes, you can maintain this, but you can't continue to call yourself a communicative practitioner, when the environment your students will be using most often, for business and work as well as social networking, will require skills and knowledge that you don't approach in your class. The modern writing teacher who ignores the online world, and the skills that accompany it, is the modern equivalent of the grammar-translation teacher who maintained a strict separation between the grammar of a language, on the one hand, and the actual use of the language for communicative purposes. If we continue to teach with the old pedagogy, while the earth changes around us, we ignore the fact that the meaning of "writing" as we now know it has expanded considerably. To call ourselves communicative, we may have to learn more about what communication entails, in the "new paradigm."

1. See Leverett (1995), though you'd have to ask me for a paper version of a handout that never made it to the web. This was where I used Elbow and Nelson to describe my reasoning for the kinds of newsletter writing we did: students spoke to each other and to other similar students; students' ideas were valued, published, read and discussed among strangers, often lab assistants and secretaries with time on their hands.

2. See Leverett (2005) for a dated story of how weblogs started in our program.

3. I had an intermediate student a few terms back who started reading his classmates' blog posts; all were short; all were about topics we had talked about in class; all were linked to various sites that were manageable though increasingly longer, more academic, and more complex. This student passed the TOEFL at the end of the term, in effect jumping three levels; at one point, he said to me that the reason he'd started at the blogs was that they were right there, at his computer, while he was waiting for his friends in his native country to get on the IM.

4. The same holds for Second Life, extensive use of podcasts, and various other technology, which I don't deal with extensively here, simply because I'm not familiar enough with it to know whether, or how, it could be used in my classes. Second Life, in my mind, has special potential, because stepping out of one's daily ego and into an avatar of any kind (these used to have other names, in language classrooms; I still remember some of the ones I used in various language classrooms) has been proven beneficial to language learning, and is well known to avid practitioners of drama and role play, and followers of Suggestopedia. My own experience with Second Life is limited to collecting sources about its use in language education, and speculating about the changes it will bring to both language learning and language itself.

5. Ironically, today's teachers are the most comfortable, and the most successful, with the present educational system which has been characterized as a "read & remember" culture - one in which one is rewarded for being able to store and remember information - yet one that has been rendered virtually useless by Google and Wikipedia. By the way, I owe this crisp explanation to Matt MacCrimmon, a personal friend, though I doubt he was the first to say it that way, and it wasn't the first time I'd heard it.


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