Socratic dialog at the Writing Center front desk

Me: We don’t have any 40 minute appointments available tomorrow, but we do have some on Wednesday.

Student: I’d rather just get it done tomorrow. Do you have like 10 minutes? It doesn’t matter how long the appointment is. My professor doesn’t care.

Me: Your professor doesn’t care?

Student: Well, I mean, I guess he cares. He wants us to have a full appointment, so I guess 40 minutes, but I guess 10 minutes is ok.

Me: Ten minutes is ok?

Student: Well, I mean, it’s going to have to do, I guess, since it’s all you have tomorrow.

Me: Ten minutes will do?

Student: Well, I’m sure my professor would rather I have a full appointment . . .

Me: Your professor would rather you have a full appointment?

Student: Yeah, because, you know, then we can get more in depth with my paper and  . . .

Me: Your professor wants you to get more in depth with your paper?

Student: Well, yeah, I mean, he wants us to improve our writing.

Me: I see. Your professor wants you to improve your writing. Would you like a 40 minute appointment on Wednesday?

Student: Yeah, that would be great. Because I really do need to improve my writing.




Defining Academic Literacy

I have reassigned time this semester to research and write a grant proposal. I’m proposing developing an academic literacy program I created with a colleague in 2008 into something bigger and better. I spent a good part of today researching how different people define “academic literacy.” It’s one of those terms—like “cultural literacy”—that is hard to pin down. People know it when they see it (like pornography) but can’t necessarily define it.

Many people use “academic literacy” as a synonym for college-level reading and writing. I think it’s more complicated than that. To read and write at a college level, I think students need to understand academic culture, at least at a basic level. They need to understand academic values, etiquette, and assumptions. Without that understanding, having the ability to read and write is like having the ability to read and write French but not understanding French culture—a person in that situation wouldn’t feel comfortable in France. I want students to feel comfortable in academia—not because all students will become academics, but because any college student who graduates with a four-year degree will need to be in academia for at least four years.

Some of the more interesting sources I came across today:

“Academic Literacy in a Wired World: Redefining Genres for College Writing Courses” by Alice L. Trupe,  which is an example of “academic literacy” as a synonym for college-level writing

“Re-Inventing the Possibilities: Academic Literacy and New Media” by Cheryl Ball & Ryan Moeller, which examines “academic literacy” as including ways of making meaning (they suggest the production of hypertexts as an avenue toward helping students develop academic literacy)

“Threshold Practices: Becoming a Student through Academic Literacies” by Lesley Gourlay, which proposes that we see “academic literacies” as a series of “threshold practices.”

“A Writer-Respondent Intervention as a Means of Developing Academic Literacy” by S. Bharuthram and S. McKenna, a report on a South African program that relies on reader response to writing (but seems to go beyond simply equating reading/writing skill with “academic literacy”)

Three more South African studies: “On Being an Insider on the Outside: New Spaces for Integrating Academic Literacies” by Cecilia Jacobs, “A Multimodal Approach to Academic ‘Literacies’: Problematising the Visual/Verbal Divide” by Arlene Arche, and “Teaching Referencing as an Introduction to Epistemological Empowerment” by Monica Hendricks and Lynn Quinn

“Repositioning Academic Literacy: Charting the Emergence of a Community of Practice” by Elizabeth Hirst, Robyn Henderson, Margaret Allan, June Bode, and Mehtap Kocatepe, an Australian study

Requesting a Letter of Recommendation

Back by popular demand . . . from my old, defunct class blog.

I am happy to write letters of recommendation for students and former students who have impressed me with their intellect, creativity, motivation, leadership, or ability to surmount challenges.

Writing a good letter of recommendation takes some time—time for reflection on the student being recommended, time for a bit of research to refresh my memory of grades earned and/or assignments submitted, time for drafting and revising—so I require at least two weeks notice for writing letters of recommendation.

In addition to at least two weeks notice, I will need the following from you:

  1. Any official form the organization I am recommending you to wants recommenders to complete.
  2. The name by which I should refer to you (for example, I may know you as “Susan,” but Susan may be your middle name and the program you are applying to may know you as Lorraine).
  3. The deadline by which the letter is due.
  4. The address the letter should be sent to.
  5. A copy of your personal essay (if you are applying to a college or for a scholarship). I like to be able to emphasize something you’ve said in your essay in my letter.
  6. Your resume, if you have one. I like to be able to refer to items in your resume if I can.
  7. Information, in writing, about what you plan to major in, what your career goals are, and why you are applying to the college or job or whatever that you want me to recommend you for.

Please give me all of these items at once, if possible, paperclipped together or in a manila folder or attached to the same email.

I will put your letter on MSCD letterhead in a MSCD envelope and will send it via MSCD mail (unless the college/scholarship organization wants the letter in another format), so you do not need to provide envelopes or stamps.

And finally, do let me know if you were accepted to the college or were awarded the scholarship or got the job!

What teachers want

Seth Kahn’s brilliant response to Thomas Friedman’s “Teaching for America” perfectly captures what the teachers I know want and puts the whole “merit pay” thing into perspective:

To the Editor:

I agree with Thomas L. Friedman that we need to elevate the status of teaching in our country in order to recruit quality teachers consistently.

All the talk about merit pay misses what motivates the best teachers. We — including those of us who teach at the college level — care about support for our work, some of which is pay, but also facilities, resources, equipment, reasonable class sizes and so on.

If Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, wants to recruit the best teachers, he needs to make schools better places to work. He needs to convince anti-education and antigovernment conservatives that school budgets and curriculums aren’t appropriate places to fight the culture wars.

And he needs to stop antagonizing teachers’ unions just to show that he is willing to.

Seth Kahn
West Chester, Pa., Nov. 21, 2010


Enabling Usable Student Feedback

I have several frustrations with student evaluations of instruction:

  • the questions or prompts are usually not very useful (such as, “were your assignments graded fairly?” Many student interpret this question as, “did you get the grades you wanted?”)
  • there is no opportunity to discuss the feedback with students for clarification and ideas for implementation
  • the feedback comes too late to have any affect on the teaching the students who gave feedback receive

One of the ways I’ve been able to get valuable feedback that is instantly usable and can be discussed is through Bob Broad & Jerry Savage’s midterm chat. The disadvantages of the midterm chat are that it takes up a big chunk of class time and it usually isn’t scheduled until well into the semester (hence the “midterm” in the name).

I decided to try something new this semester. I set up online surveys through SurveyMonkey for each of my classes. Each survey has just one question: “What do you want Liz to know?” I put a link on the course websites to the survey and mentioned it in class. The link allows students to remain anonymous and give me pretty instant feedback to assignments, class activities, policies, etc.

I’ve already received three pieces of feedback, and all three are useful–none of the griping I thought I might receive. All three pieces are critical in some way, but in carefully thought out and fairly sophisticated ways.

I like having a forum that allows (and even encourages) students to critique my teaching and also gives me a chance to discuss the feedback with the class and, if appropriate, make changes.

I’ll be posting later this week about some of the specific feedback I’ve received and what I’ve done with it.

Instrumentalism (imagine a circle/slash around that)

“Yet many teachers (and I suspect most) look upon their vocations as the imparting of a largely mechanical skill, important only because it serves students in getting them through school and in advancing them in their professions. [. . . ] Writing teachers are perforce given a responsibility that far exceeds this merely instrumental task.”
–James Berlin, “The Major Pedagogical Theories”

Rebirth (sounds more dramatic than “moving”)

I’m in the process of migrating my blog over here–part of rethinking my digital life. To do:

  • save entries on old blog to pdf and make them available in this blog’s archives
  • decide on topics and rotation for regular entries. Topics I’m thinking of are Writing Centers, teaching, and research.
  • keep playing with the appearance of this blog. I loved all the green on my old blog and the church sign header, but I think I need to try something new over here.

I volunteered to host the Teaching Carnival here in February, so I figure I have a month to get this blog up and running before I look really lame in public.