Friends, Acquaintances, Strangers,
Step right up! Step right up! Step right up!
I’m currently collecting submissions of all varieties for the March edition of Profhacker‘s Teaching Carnival. Nothing is too far afield. I know lots of people from English and Rhetoric will contribute (friends and colleagues, I’m looking at you through the digital ether right now), but please, if you are from a discipline outside of English, we especially need your contributions.
Send in a blog post. Send in an assignment. Send in an article. Anything related to teaching, or the teaching profession, is welcome. I’ll organize all of the submissions for the March edition. Please email me your submission at: nathankreuter [at] gmail [dot] com Or, you can tweet your submission at me (a weird phrase, I know): [at] lawnsports
Pass the word along. Free stuffed monkeys for all contributors. Not really though.
Image from flickr user davecobb and licensed through Creative Commons.
Tulane rhetorician T.R. Johnson writes eloquently in his book A Rhetoric of Pleasure about the importance of play in the teaching of writing. Similarly, ProfHacker contributor Nels Highberg (University of Hartford) has written about the even more literal importance of play (and a play not necessarily related to a desired teaching or scholarly outcome) for those of us in the academic ranks (Act Like a Child and Visit a Toy Store for Yourself). I couldn’t agree with T.R. and Nels more.
On a trip home to Virginia last fall I rediscovered and liberated my old Lego sets with the intention of putting them in my office. As a new tenure-track faculty member I was a little paranoid that someone seeing Legos in my office might judge me as non-serious. That’s a fault that–as much of this website attests–I could be accused of. I took the Legos in anyway, for exactly the reasons that Nels suggests. “Lock-in” is an important concept in the digital humanities right now. And just as interfaces and technologies can lock us in to certain patterns of behavior, so too can we lock-in to certain well-worn mental paths. Those paths, I think, should be disrupted from time to time, and abruptly so. Playing with Legos–no, building with Legos–is both playful but engaging enough to allow me to disengage from writing momentarily, perhaps providing me with a legitimate mental break, but in a far less distracting way than, say, checking my email or RSS reader.
***Fun Interlude: Check out this list of great achievements in Lego, as well as this one.***
I think that many of us in the humanities get locked in to only using certain regions of our brain, especially when we write. (I’m sure there’s a lot of relevant research out there on this, but since this is an informal forum, I haven’t taken the time to look it up.) Anecdotally though, I know that a couple of minutes of building weirdo spaceships with Legos can jumpstart my writing when it stalls. Or my grading when I get bogged down, for that matter.
Bringing Legos into my office is partially an effort to practice what I preach. With undergraduate writing students I’m constantly preaching that they need to experiment with different and new writing processes that work for them personally. And those processes will probably not work as well if they’re static. Sometimes you need to introduce new things to the process. That’s what I’ve been doing with Legos lately. I’m convinced that short Lego breaks, administered as necessary, relax my brain and allow me to go back to writing as a more efficient humanities machine. It doesn’t matter if I’m correct or not, because that’s how it feels. Whether I’m actually doing something good for my mind or just tricking myself into continuing to write really doesn’t matter. I expect the trick to stop working at some point. The more worn certain processes get, the less they seem to work for me.
What I’m saying is counter-intuitive: interrupting my writing with Lego “play breaks” seems to make me a more mentally efficient writer. May not work for others, but seems to work for me.
Could my perception of my improved productivity derived from Lego play breaks be simple wishful thinking on my part, essentially, The Hawthorne Effect, which my WCU colleague in the department of psychology, Hal Herzog, defines in his book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, as “temporary improvements caused by a change in routine”? (I cite Hal’s book because it’s where I–with no background in psychology–first learned of the Hawthorne effect.) It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that I’m simply Hawthorne-ing myself into slight upticks with the Lego breaks. But should I even care if I can keep finding stimuli to impel the Hawthorne Effect?
Finally, as everyone who’s ever played with Legos knows, it’s totally lame to just build from the directions. Build from the directions once, and then throw them away.
Evan Snider has a very thoughtful and thorough post over at ProfHacker that I very highly recommend for rhetoric and composition teachers, and anyone else who requires writing in their courses: “Teaching Document Design, Not Formatting Requirements.”
Some useful, if random, links:
Salon.com‘s Best New Graphic Novels (And in case you’ve ever mistyped it, saloon.com is a major, major disappointment, not about saloons at all. Bummer. If you want to read about saloons, go here. But be warned, the internet is still without a truly good saloon site. )
From LifeHacker, Five Ways Not to Suck at PowerPoint
And in case academia isn’t working out for you, it appears that fighting pirates remains an emerging career field, due to a Blackwater failure.
And now for the public service announcement, for those tracking important rhetoric conferences, the Eighth Triennial Conference of the Kenneth Burke Society, Kenneth Burke, Rhetoric, and Social Change, will be held in May 2011 on the campus of Clemson University.
ProfHacker recently posted: Open Thread: Advice for Personal Versus Professional Websites? I didn’t have time to post a reply at the time, but I have strong feelings on this one. Folks should read through the original ProfHacker post and replies if they’re looking for more diverse perspectives on this issue.
Foremost, I think the important thing, especially for emerging scholars, is to have a web presence that you define. No matter where it’s hosted. It’s an opportunity to present your work, from the perspective you want to. Anecdotally, I know that it helped me a lot on the job market to have a site that re-presented virtually all of my job materials except for a few items. And I think that the competency to build and maintain basic sites like this one will become less and less of a “bonus” in job candidates, and more and more of an expectation in job candidates.
I set up this off- .edu website for a variety of reasons. One was that, in the summer in between my dissertation defense and the start of my tenure-track gig, I was essentially without an institutional home. This made me consider the ramifications of being beholden to any institution for the hosting of my professional website. In short, I didn’t like the idea of it, and the prospect of building an autonomous site was exciting. I also like the idea of having a really complete set of materials housed on one site, even if some of those materials are also duplicated on other, on- .edu sites. It was also cheap, and easy. (For technical info, check out the About 3 x 3 section.)
I also think it might be more to the advantage for younger, less established academics to set up off- .edu sites, in addition to maintaining necessary web presences on their home institutions’ servers. The simple facts are that young academics always–I think–hope to stay at their jobs for a long time. But careers are more volatile than they used to be–largely because of market forces–and very few people seem to stay at the same institution for an entire career. An off- .edu website is much easier to carry around with you if you find yourself moving from one institution to a new one. Your own site also can help to “brand” you within the field, and provides a space for professional communication that’s less formal than traditional publishing venues. If your home institution will allow you to run Drupal, you might have a little more autonomy than otherwise. Here at Western, a kind soul in the Coulter Faculty Commons even designed a WCU-specific WordPress theme for our faculty to use on the WCU servers, which is badass. I love my instutition, but I know that a lot of my peers who are also junior faculty look at the current economic/budget situations around the various states and worry that they could be looking for a new job sooner than expected. So, portability might be something for some folks to consider.
I’m a big fan of autonomy. My idea was that by going off- .edu I could simply control more of the site. The look, the traffic monitoring, the nature of the content. I could make the site as quirky or straight-laced as a chose, without worrying about aligning with institutional aesthetic themes, or other institutional bounds of design. I can run the Google Analytics myself, and I have control of the design of the site, which was very important to me. So, for me the big reason to have an off- .edu site was, as much as anything, that I enjoy having a visually rich site, and having the freedom to indulge some of my extra-academic interests on the same site. Some people like to keep those lives separate, but I don’t see much point, because they aren’t very separate in practice for me. The office comes home with me, and sometimes the office is home. It’s all muddy. We don’t have the luxury of punching in and out, and this site somewhat captures that dilemma, I think.
I don’t think it’s really an either/or situation. A lot of my mentors, peers, colleagues run off- .edu websites, but in almost every case I know that they maintain on- .edu websites at their home institutions, primarily for teaching purposes, as well. Here are some examples of both:
Clay Spinuzzi, University of Texas at Austin
Jim Brown, Wayne State University
Will Burdette, University of Texas at Austin
Patricia Roberts-Miller, University of Texas at Austin
One thing to remember–and remember very damn well–if you’re using an off .edu site to run your classes, is that absolutely no FERPA protected data should go up, ever. And if you’re unsure if something is FERPA protected, you should probably just assume that it is. Keep in mind also that every educational institution will have its own legal counsel, and its own interpretations and procedures for the finer points of dealing with FERPA data. Even if you operate an off .edu site, I would recommend abiding by your home institution’s best-practices, to the letter. Though, you should realize that by running an off .edu site, you are accepting greater personal liabilities if there is ever an occasion for you to be held liable for something. In my own case, this is a non-issue for the sorts of courses I teach. I keep FERPA data as far away from myself as I can, so I don’t have to safeguard it, and because there is very little that I need to collect. If I keep student names, grades, and identifying information off the site, I figure I’m on pretty solid ground.
In the spring my graduate students enrolled in Visual and Digital Rhetorics and I will launch the Rural Image Cooperative [URL works, but site is not yet built], which will fill a new niche in visual rhetoric scholarship. While I haven’t crafted the mission the statement of the RIC entirely yet (primarily because I want the grad students to have a role and stake in that crafting), I did choose to purchase an off .edu URL because the site will hopefully be “pan-institutional.” My hope is that other instructors at other institutions will periodically take over the site and, along with their students, make their own contributions. In this sense of cooperation, I didn’t want the site to appear in any way proprietary by falling under the purview of my home institution’s, or any other institution’s, URL. My institution is great, but in the sense of, say, performative rhetoric, I feel its important that the site perform what I hope it will be, which is to say, not owned by any one academic institution, but cooperatively owned by all of the contributors that I hope the site will attract in the coming years. I’ll have lots more on the RIC once the spring semester rolls around, and mention all of this only to say that there are lots of legitimate reasons to go off- .edu, both for individuals’ websites, and the sites of larger academic endeavors.
The Chronicle of Higher Education recently asked, as it periodically does,”Should Colleges Do More To Teach Students About Plagiarism?” The Chronicle is a great resource, but they’re pretty good at hyping some fear too. (Note: The Chronicle’s blog, Profhacker, is awesome by the bucketful, and if you aren’t reading it daily, you should check it out. Plug it into your RSS feed.)
But I (and a lot of other rhetoric/composition folks I know) am not thrilled to witness more plagiarism hand-wringing. Like most universities, my institution requires instructors to paste a verbatim academic integrity statement into their policy statements and/or syllabi. That’s fine. Students should know about academic integrity, and practice it. And of course we should teach them the various conventions of citation–which are far broader than MLA and APA, which, honestly, are useless to many first-year rhet/comp students, even over the course of their collegiate careers. We should teach the broader conventions, and spirit, of citation.
Beyond that, I think plagiarism might be more the instructor’s responsibility than the student’s. I’m certainly not the first person to suggest this. Here’s what I mean though:
There are always students who will cheat and seek an alternate route, for whatever reason. But I think these students are extremely rare, more rare than we think. And even if they are more common than I think they are, those negative impulses that might compel some students to plagiarize are very easily short-circuited.
Write creative assignments. A well written assignment, that monkeys with the conventions of typical rhet/comp essay requirements, is virtually impossible to plagiarize, at least in part because good assignments would make plagiarism attempts so ridiculously obvious that even the boldest plagiarists would be unlikely to make an attempt at plagiarism in the first place. I have in mind the types of assignments, for example, that my graduate school colleague Jim Brown (now of Wayne State) assigned in his Anthologics rhetoric class.
Creative assignment design and re-design not only reduces the opportunity and likelihood of plagiarism, but it’s likely to keep students and instructors more engaged. In terms of self-interest, I feel that creative assignment design, which I attempt to practice, not only hijacks students’ opportunities to plagiarize, but makes grading a hell of a lot more fun for me. And creative assignments can and should be every bit as rigorous as more conventional assignments. Ideally, they can be even more rigorous, as it’s often harder to complete an assignment that doesn’t rest upon tired, well-known academic conventions.
When plagiarism cases come up, I wonder if it is at least partially my responsibility, perhaps an indication that my assignment may have invited plagiarism. Of course, there will always be students who try to take a short cut. But perhaps we should be asking, Should Colleges Do More to Teach Professors About Lousy Assignment Design? And I ask that question as an untenured assistant professor. Just something to let your brain-teeth gnaw on.
Inspiration for the title of the post from the Cracker song, Guarded by Monkeys (click for YouTube video – I didn’t want to embed it).